What it Means to be an Educated Human Being

by Deacon James H. Toner | The mark of the educated, we used to hear, is the willing acknowledgment that one knows he does not know, or, at least, knows that he does not know enough (image: Respected Woman).

We are born and live in a certain location and in a certain time. By what appears to be the caprice of geography and chronology, we are thus, in a sense, “locked into” a particular place and period. In other words, we are trees in a forest we cannot descry; consequently, gaining perspective—seeing macroscopically instead of only microscopically—is an onerous task.

To educate comes from the Latin educere, meaning to “lead out.” Wise education may lead us, as both Plato and Cardinal Newman knew so well, out of the shadows and into the sun. I write “may lead us” because one cannot be educated against his will. Arrogance or indolence, corruption or conceit—any of these, or all of these, may frustrate learning (see CCC #2038, #2526), leaving one in a mental or moral stupor, or in a kind of academic autism, prized by some because it neither issues mental challenges nor makes moral demands.

Genuine education is rooted in the kind of timeless perspective which modern society arrogantly abjures. Such education provides depth and breadth. Alexander Pope’s idea that we ought to “drink deep or taste not the Pierian spring” has much to commend it, for a little learning is, in fact, a dangerous thing: it distorts reality, and it misinforms by providing only a small sample of fact. To say, “Professor Smith came to class sober today,” while true, leads to distortion—and to defamation (because Professor Smith never comes to class inebriated). Learning by sound bite is like reading only by skimming or eating only on Thursdays.

The ideologization (forgive that noun) of education; grade inflation; the inanity of “safe spaces,” free from reasoned, if politically unpopular, moral discourse; the rather common notion that sustained lucubration—hard work!—is no longer necessary in secondary or college work, abetted by frequent lack of academic rigor; the increasingly ubiquitous belief that college is about fun and success in social life, sporting events, or spousal pursuit; and the rampant moral chaos and confusion that mark so much of contemporary “higher learning”—all lead one to fear for the Republic and, much more critically, for the salvation of souls. “My people are destroyed for lack of knowledge,” prophesied Hosea (4:6).

The mark of the educated, we used to hear, is the willing acknowledgment that one knows he does not know, or, at least, knows that he does not know enough. The madding crowd, however, will read, or hear, or watch nothing that confronts the prejudice of the day. As Fr. James Schall teaches in A Line Through the Human Heart (of course, decrying these opinions): Abortion, same-sex “marriage,” and euthanasia are our social rights. The poor are poor because the rich are rich. The earth is over-populated, and man himself is the chief threat to the wellbeing of our planet. Islam is a religion of peace. War is always immoral. Democracy is always the best form of government, and governments exist to protect the rights they munificently give us. There is no truth; sin does not exist; and there is no final divine judgment. That these chichi views may be the stuff of rank prejudice seems utterly to escape the glitterati.

We are told, moreover, that we must learn and appreciate the words of our day, which define reality for us and point to the challenges we face: democracy, diversity, equality, inclusivity, marginalization, misogyny, racism, sexism, homophobia, imperialism, colonialism, progressivism, autonomy (among others). These thirteen words are sheer cant (meaning hypocritical and sanctimonious talk); they are suggested by Anthony Esolen, who, in Out of the Ashes, says that they “are simply terms of political force and have no real meaning anymore.”

Newly minted graduates have learned, or so say a large number of commencement speakers, to “think for themselves.” Thus does academic autism parade as celebrated moral and mental autonomy. Contemporary education is emphatically modern; that such modernism is “the synthesis of all heresies” (as Pope St. Pius X put it) and may be riddled with error—e.g., “abortion is health care”—is unthinkable to many, marinated in their own sophistry (cf. James 3:13-17).

“The best that has been thought and said,” wrote Matthew Arnold, is hardly limited to what is novel. Yet anything current or contemporary must be better, or so we disdainfully think, than what is old. Such a belief, as C.S. Lewis taught us, is mere “chronological snobbery.” As long ago as 1926, Everett Dean Martin (1880-1941) wrote: “No one who is merely a creature of his own times is really educated.” He also believed that “unless education ennobles the mind, one becomes only a well-informed cad.”

If what is true, good, and beautiful depends only upon the prevailing taste in a given time or place, then everything is relative, and everything depends upon current fashion or fad. Then authority depends only upon power or privilege. Then what is sacred, or noble, or even decent results only from popularity, and might makes right. Then there is no point to or purpose in liberal education, for there is nothing to liberate us from; we are wretched, and we can separate good from evil only on the basis of the biggest guns or the most money or the greatest fame. Education thus becomes immersion only in what is thought or said or done, and never in what ought to be thought, or said, or done.

All this, of course, is exactly why G.K. Chesterton said: “the Catholic Church is the only thing which saves a man from the degrading slavery of being a child of his age.”

Dare to challenge the false education of the day—grounded in libertinism, socialism, utopianism, pantheism, inclusivity, diversity, syncretism, or pacifism—and you will be branded as xenophobic, Islamophobic, homophobic, transphobic—and probably misogynist and fascist as well.

By and large, academics are nothing if not progressive, nothing if not “truth vandals” (to use Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s term). Modern education so often teaches the shadow of ethical relativism and not the sun of truth because it subscribes to the first, the fundamental, the forever temptation of regarding the creature as Creator (Rom 1:25).

That temptation is so strong that it insinuates itself into much that we say and hear—and it even, at times, flows from the pens and the tongues of those ordained to resist it and to remind us, with St. Paul, that we must never conform ourselves to the abominations of our times but, rather, seek and do the will of God (cf. Rom 12:1-3), which we know through the Magisterium of the Church.

One wishes it were otherwise, but donning a biretta or a zucchetto is never a guarantee of wisdom (cf. Is 47:10, Jer 8:9, 1 Cor 1:19-20). At its best and wisest, however, the Church is always our Mother and our Teacher, for the Church, with Job, hears God: “To be wise, you must have reverence for the Lord. To understand, you must turn from evil” (28:28).

By Deacon James H. Toner
Deacon James H. Toner, Ph.D., is Professor Emeritus of Leadership and Ethics at the U.S. Air War College, a former U.S. Army officer, and author of Morals Under the Gun and other books. He has also taught at Notre Dame, Norwich, Auburn, the U.S. Air Force Academy, and Holy Apostles College & Seminary. He serves in the Diocese of Charlotte.