Has Education Lost Its Soul?
“What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?” Such are the profound words of Jesus as told by the Apostle Matthew (NIV 16:26). At least one educator in the country believes that’s precisely the problem with education today, and he’s championing that message via the small private school he founded and runs in northern Westchester County, New York.Joseph Pagnozzi, founder and president of The Montfort Academy, has been an educator for thirty-eight years. His school is a Catholic one, teaching boys and girls of the high school grades 9-12. But although students at Montfort attend masses and study theology, Professor Pagnozzi’s school is unlike most Catholic schools, not to mention most public and private schools these days, in a significant way. Their method of instruction is known as Classical Christian Education, and centers around the Trivium, a teaching methodology dating back to the ancient Greeks and Romans.
This stands in stark contrast to the design of much of today’s school system infrastructure, which moved away from the Trivium largely through the efforts of John Dewey in the 1930’s. Dewey’s imprint on American education institutions lives on through today. Pagnozzi’s convinced that’s a mistake. I sat down with him recently and had a fascinating talk. What follows are excerpts from a lengthy conversation, with all italics being Pagnozzi’s words except where noted.
We began discussing what became known as a “classical liberal” education, and the history thereof:
Two events in the history of civilization, of mankind, happened. The formation of city-states in ancient Sumer, Sumeria, Mesopotamia, that instead of being hunter-gatherers we came to be an organized structural society and that developed over generations, a culture. And the purpose of civility is, how do we get along decently with each other, for the benefits of all of us, in that community? How do we protect against those that want to take things that we worked hard for? How do we want to promote civility, good works, that keep the well-being of all of us?We spoke further about the need for writing, to document a speaker’s thoughts in a way that overcome a listener’s otherwise limited memory.
So, culture, comes about. We’re talking about 8,000 years ago. Now, the formulation of that, the challenge of how you continue that culture, how it permeates, how you send it off to other generations, is the beginning of education.
But what was its [education's] purpose? Its purpose was that so this inheritance is continued, of civil society, and all the culture that that entails. So now we have to teach the writing, but it’s not for the “writing”, per se. It’s not to teach that. It’s for the ultimate purpose that they (the learner) know what civility is. Because the outsiders were still barbarians, “at the gates”, wanting to take this over. They weren’t educated yet (and the word ‘education’ in the Romance languages means to be mannerly), they didn’t understand this, they didn’t have this. To them it was just survival of the fittest, living day to day, whatever you can get.In Western Civilization, the height of these “city states” became the empires of the ancient Greeks and Romans. However, as Pagnozzi continues,
The key to perpetuating this good stuff, was, why even bother? Why not just live day to day, why continue to educate? You educate the truth. And what is truth? Is truth in the emperor, is it in the king, is it in the tribal leaders, the head of the city state? Where is this truth, because you wouldn’t want to teach falsehoods. So the culture — the ultimate goal of the education was to perpetuate the culture, to continue the culture. But I think there’s something a priori, inherent, in human nature in that it seeks, ultimately, good, things that are good and truthful.
So Rome and Greece had it right in terms of sort of the “hard drive”, that material parts. But they were missing the ultimate purpose… what do we seek? What do we aim at? It’s not we aim at the emperor, or the material thing itself, because that wouldn’t motivate. So, what’s going to be the motivating factor?
DZ: Although it does motivate a lot of people, the purely material.
JP: Yes it does, but it ends ultimately in man’s destruction, because there’s going to be competition, and that was the point, that Greece and Rome became epicurean. They were able to provide epicurean delights, but there was something more that has to be the ultimate motivator, because the will, which is non-material, the soul which is non-material — the fact that we’re conscious now, you can’t explain where that consciousness rests, it could be the result of neurons and all that — but there’s something that had to that address that, the will, the soul. And education, if it’s going to be pure and it’s going to be effective, there has to be something that has to be infused in the learner, the young person, in terms of ultimate goodness, because that’s the inspiration.The motivation factor is inspiration. And inspiration, the spirit, is something transcendent, immaterial, and doesn’t seem to be immediately just utilitarian or pragmatic. Because discovery and creativity are results of when the aim is above the material. The aim is ultimate good. And it provides ultimate good, obviously, for the society, for that civilization, that group.
The Greeks and Romans further developed and refined the mechanics of “classical education”, the three parts of The Trivium: grammar, logic and rhetoric. But how then, did we make a jump, a “disruptive innovation” if you will, from the purely epicurean, and what did the West jump to?
For a multitude of reasons, the Greek and Roman empires collapsed. They hit, as Pagnozzi called it, “a brick wall”. He continued…There was something needed to bring this to the next step, so it “punctuated evolution” as Eldridge and Gould said, in terms of the next step. Those societies sort of matured, to their peak, and the barbarians were now coming in, taking over. They (the Greeks/Romans) couldn’t even protect what they had, or get the motivation or courage, because courage is an important factor of proper motivation towards higher ideals. And if you become just epicurean, or materialistic, and you are just motivated by the material, that ephemeral, short-lived reward, it’s not going to endure. And in a few generations, it could be absolved, or totally denuded.So the next step is Christianity. This theology focused on dignity of the human soul, and the divine nature of the soul. This defines true equality. That’s the thesis presented by Christopher Dawson. And it’s a universal thing. It’s really a universal ideal that will bring the development, or the growth, of civilization to the next stage.
So you need something to revive this. What do you revive? You revive human will, the motivation. The human soul was always there. Motivation is the reason for the soul to engage with the world, to make contact…Christianity, and its promise of everlasting life after death, therefore, provided the answer to this increasingly chaotic state, and provided the higher-order motivation for seeking good…
What is Christianity? It gives the idea that the truth is beyond us. It’s not existentialistic to each one of us, so that we become our own little gods and demi-gods. That there is one God, Creator, as even Plato and Aristole were alluding to. They were looking for that effect. Greek civilization and Roman civilization were looking for something like that, something greater. They were looking for a religious thesis, a religious theme that was pure, that was genuine, that was truth. Remember, the Greeks and Romans were trying different ideas of what God is, and it developed into a cacophony of gods.
DZ: Right, they had many gods, for all different purposes…
JP: It became so that each family had their own different god or gods. So that doesn’t work, And it’s interesting because the word ‘demonic’ means ‘away from the one’. And so these academians were fighting each other. And you can’t advance society if you have this kind of chaos, and anarchy, each man for themselves. Then we’re diverting back to the hunter-gatherers, you know, the state of nature, the survival of the fittest: Who’s the toughest, who can we take over?
If there’s something beyond us, then we do the good. Then we go and discover cures for diseases, we build better homes, better civilizations, we utilize the material goods in a better way, not just for ourselves. It has to be beyond the selfish, the selfishness. And education has to be, ultimately, the goal has to be aimed at beyond selfishness.Can addressing the needs of the soul be achieved in a society that insists on perpetually misinterpreting our Constitution’s “Establishment Clause”, such that “separation of church and state” is the rule of the day? Is a strict separation of church and state even healthy to the respective parts?
So the soul, I believe, should be the target, first, for education. And if we’re afraid or less courageous to address that there is a soul in each one of us, created in the image and likeness of God, all men are created equal because there is a soul, then we’re not going to educate properly.