29 July 2009

Beauty for Truth’s Sake: On the Re-enchantment of Education, by Stratford Caldecott

In this age of technological advance and overinformation, of the steady proliferation of college degrees (for the qualified and the unqualified alike), higher education has lost something, a certain quality difficult to pinpoint. Stratford Caldecott, in his book Beauty for Truth’s Sake: On the Re-enchantment of Education, illuminates on this score:
[S]tudents come to a college education expecting nothing more than a set of paper qualifications that will enable them to earn a decent salary. The idea that they might be there to grow as human beings, to be inducted into an ancient culture, to become somehow more than they are already, is alien to them. They expect instant answers, but they have no deep questions. The great questions have not yet been woken in them. The process of education requires us to become open, receptive, curious, and humble in the face of what we do not know. The world is a fabric woven of mysteries, and a mystery is a provocation to our humanity that cannot be dissolved by googling a few more bits of information.
That is precisely the way the modern student approaches his college education—arriving to class, he expects to acquire “a few more bits of information” to add to the storehouse of data he has already gleaned along the way toward the coveted degree, the profession, the salary. And the modern professor obliges. Instead of teaching the arts and sciences as a meaningful whole, the modern mindset splinters them into separate categories made to appear in opposition to each other, so that the yearning for the divine awakened by study of the humanities—of music, philosophy, and the arts—is quashed under the thumb of the scientific hand. This is not as it should be.

Caldecott’s book is, as he confesses, a manifesto of sorts, a guide to rescuing the liberal arts from the deadening grip of postmodernism (essentially heir to the old nominalism of Roscelin and Ockham), which would rather fracture and divide than unify. Recalling the Trivium and Quadrivium of the ancients, he proposes these as inspiration. He also suggests awakening the poetic imagination with regard to science and mathematics, those two subjects of inquiry most often made (by modern man) the enemy of the divine.

But even more than this he offers a more certain way of taking back education from its postmodern captors: the liturgy.

The truly authentic man is the man united to God through prayer and worship. This union extends to his fellow man in one communion of prayer.
Catholic liturgy takes us even deeper than that. It takes us to the source of the cosmos itself, into the sacred precincts of the Holy Trinity where all things begin and end (whether they know it or not), and to the source of all artistic and scientific inspiration, of all culture…. [C]reation, through its very being, gives a kind of liturgical praise to God.
Encountering this one Source, then—and awakening the desire in students to do the same by reminding them of the divine source of all knowledge—is the key to taking back the liberal arts from their captors, and to the re-enchantment of education.

Caldecott’s book may be purchased here.