By Anthony Esolen
Anthony Esolen, a contributing editor at Crisis, is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts. He is the author, most recently, of Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius Press, 2020).
One of the ironic things about my diploma from Princeton is that it is written in a language that almost none of the graduates understand: Latin. It confers upon me the degree of Artium baccalaureus, literally, crowned with bay leaves for knowledge of the arts. Since most college graduates write badly, if they write at all, and know very little about the literature of their own language, let alone the fine arts, it is not clear what the degree means. I wonder whether we might substitute for it a new distinction, Barbarus artium, for people who enter college with little knowledge and less love of those matters, and who leave no wiser, even supposing they have not been taught to scorn them as having come from the dark ages, that is, from before yesterday afternoon.
When the barbarian Germans poured into the Roman empire from the north, and most of the civic institutions in the West were tottering, it was the Church that saved them, the Church that preserved what she could from oblivion. She must do the same now. In some ways, the task is easier than it was then: We have not yet burned all our books or buried them in landfills (though we have gone far toward doing so). Anyone with a computer can look at art of incomparable magnificence and power just by typing a title and clicking on the link. Music is on record. But in some ways, the task is much more difficult. We are overwhelmed with what is foul or vicious or false or stupid. We have not raised up people who want great things, or who even love good literature and art. That includes people who attend Mass in Catholic churches and students in our Catholic schools.
Here I could write about the music at Mass, the song-things that are worthless as poetry, often ungrammatical, theologically dubious, and slack and slovenly in spirit. I could write about the great steaming heap of imbecility and malice left by the editors of our hymnals, when they get their hands on such traditional poems as they suffer to remain. It is not like shooting fish in a barrel. It is like putting a spear into the bloating corpse of a whale washed ashore. Or I could write about bad architecture, about churches slapped together to ensure that no sense of the sacred will awake in the secular soul; about sanctuaries that have none of the holiness of a baseball diamond; about art effaced or demolished; about liturgies without the healing balm of silence. That, too, is easy.
What is hard, rather, is to gauge how far we all have fallen, and to take measures to make ourselves a little less barbarian, which means, practically, a little more human; for God did not give us a longing for beauty that we should ignore it or dull it or glut it on garbage. That task must begin in our homes, our parishes, and our schools. Let me focus on the last one: the Catholic school.
Every time I hear of another Catholic school closing, I wince, and want to cry out, “How long must it take before we get the lesson? If children are going to get a bad education, they might as well get it for free!” The Catholic school must not be just like the public school, even with a good religion class thrown in. It must now be quite different from the public school and from most private schools, in both content and manner of instruction. We want to raise up a Christian culture in the midst of barbarity. We do not want barbarians with somewhat of a more delicate moral sensibility. That is not good enough. It is not really good at all.
How can we do that when the schools are closing? Think, my dear bishops. There are two great reproofs to the American school right in our midst, and they are notably successful: homeschooling, and what is called the “classical” movement. They share much in common. Neither is allergic to western civilization broadly speaking, or to its instantiation in America. My sense is that public charter schools, bitterly resented by the educratic establishment, are friendly toward religion, or are at least not hostile to it. Both movements seek to return to subjects no longer taught in the schools in any systematic way: grammar, especially; also, geography; and the classics, which include more than works originally written in Greek and Latin. Homeschooling parents are rightly suspicious of the innovations (abject failures all, from what I can see) in methods of instruction: “look-say” in reading, set theory in arithmetic, “research” papers for children, creative spelling, and so forth. And we would not have charter schools at all, except that some teachers find it impossible to work in the public system otherwise.
Why then have we Catholics been so slow to get in the lead here? Increase enrollment? Put the adjective “classical” in front of your name and take visible measures to make it a reality. Say that at St. Aloysius Gonzaga, grammar will be taught as a coherent system, as the logic of language, and show that you mean it by introducing young people to Latin prayers—make that start. Say that at St. Elizabeth Ann Seton, children will be given a thorough introduction to the heritage of literature in English, not scattershot, but as a subject with its history, its developments, and its masters. I do not mean that they will read a play here and a poem there, but that they will make their way through the countryside, from Beowulf and The Dream of the Rood to The Lord of the Rings and Gilead. Say that at St. John Bosco, young people will be introduced to Giotto and Donatello, to J.M.W. Turner and Rodin, to Palestrina and Puccini and Gershwin and Charlie Parker.
Do more than that. How many Catholics are ignorant of their own literary patrimony, beyond the English language? What are translations for? The Divine Comedy awaits, sure, but so do masterpieces closer to our time: The Betrothed, Kristin Lavransdatter, With Fire and Sword, Diary of a Country Priest, Vipers’ Tangle, The Portal to the Mystery of Hope.
Still more, why not show, triumphantly, that boys and girls often do better in the old-fashioned, single-sex schools than in coed schools? Why be embarrassed by what for thousands of years was the norm, and what boys and girls themselves often find most congenial? They are not for everyone; they were not for me when I was young; but you cannot argue with success, and the young people I have met from all-male schools in particular have been more mature by several years than their counterparts in ordinary schools, Catholic or otherwise. And even at coed schools, it is not impossible sometimes to separate the sexes and to win some measure of the good that the older ways promoted.
Let us face facts. Most college graduates would find it impossible to read, say, Fulton Sheen’s early book, God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy. That? Why Charles Dickens himself is daunting for them—Dickens, the author who when he visited America had a line of people two miles long waiting to enter the New York theater where he was to perform his most famous characters. Must we go along with barbarity just because it is easy? Rather, how seldom is it that the right thing to do is also by far the most profitable? Even if the Faith does not move them, even if beauty in arts and letters leaves them numb, surely some self-respect, some desire not to look like failures, might move men and women in our chanceries to cast their lots with real culture. Who knows? In all that dealing with Christian civilization, in genuine cultures, in the most human things, we may find Christ, too.