In November 1980, Barbara Tuchman, the historian and twice-winner of the Pulitzer Prize, published an essay in the New York Times Magazine entitled “The Decline of Quality.” It is still timely. She argues that, despite our improved material progress, a deterioration of standards has taken hold in craftsmanship, the arts, morals, and education, and politics. This deterioration is due to the era of the mass output. We are a culture dominated by commercialism, directed to popular consumption rather than to the taste of the most discerning. To reflect this phenomenon, she suggests a system of Q and non-Q. Q stands for quality in human achievement that has resisted mediocrity; non-Q stands for non-quality applying to mediocre intent and effort.
There is no more vivid curse against mediocrity than the sharp words in the Book of Revelation (3:16): “Because you are lukewarm, neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth.”
Tuchman defines quality in a clear and persuasive way: “Quality is the investment of the best skill and effort possible to produce the finest and most admirable result possible. Its presence or absence in some degree characterizes every man-made object, service, skilled or unskilled labor–laying bricks, painting a picture, ironing shirts, practicing medicine, shoemaking, scholarship, writing a book. You do it well or you do it half-well. Materials are sound and durable or they are sleazy; … Quality is achieving or reaching for the highest standard as against the sloppy or fraudulent. It is honesty of purpose as against catering to cheap or sensational sentiment. It does not allow compromise with the second rate … Quality can be attained without genius.”
Quality is that attribute “inherent in a given work,” and not in the eye of the beholder. Most people know the difference between what is quality and what is slipshod—between New England white-steepled churches and Howard Johnson’s orange-roofed eateries, between Fred Astaire and Johnny Carson, and between Bach and Rock. Observe the loss of quality in morals and politics, in labor and culture. Every day we experience sloppy performance in manual, clerical, and bureaucratic work. “Much of it is slow, late, inaccurate, and inefficient, either from lack of training or from lack of caring or both,” writes Tuchman.
Tuchman on Education
Tuchman concedes that America has some superb schools, public and private, but the dominant tendency is toward non-Q. “Education for the majority has deteriorated for want of demanding effort.” Put another way, we settle for less when we should be aiming for the more. Is American education is a mile wide and an inch deep?
A prevailing attitude has seeped in to both teaching and learning. Learning must be fun; students must be allowed to study what they like; therefore, courses have become elective. Even a cursory glimpse into curricula shows that they offer junk for credit. Schoolchildren are permitted to fritter away their time and not taught the discipline of studying. Homework is frivolous or absent. Today, the watchword is “Why knock yourself out?” Is this not wholesale mediocrity?
Overview of Catholic Education
Education is concerned chiefly with the training or formation of the mind, but Catholic education promises far more. The powers of the soul—memory, imagination, intellect and will—are developed in a gradual and integrated way, with a happy balance between science and the arts. Catholic school graduates are refined, well-formed and well-informed. As devout Catholics who have internalized Catholic principles, they will defend the faith, if necessary. Not just satisfied with their own professional life, they will take an active part in shaping the important issues of life, whether intellectual, social, political, literary, philosophical, or religious.
Religious and moral formation should pervade all instruction. Living the liturgical year gives a distinctly Catholic atmosphere to the classroom and to the school, one which the children will not forget. Students learn by doing and through self-expression, the ratio being about 75 to 80 percent student expression to 25 to 20 percent teacher expression. After repeating a lesson many times through daily and weekly recitation, they will have mastered that lesson. Meaningful homework will reinforce lessons learned in class.
Grammar and Language Arts
In a world of communication, the art of speaking, reading, and writing is developed through specific assignments and those that stimulate the imagination. Slang is unacceptable in formal communication—worse vulgarisms, and errors in grammar call for correction. The creative minds of children are nurtured through writing poetry, beginning with the simple structure of haiku. Memorizing poetry and its oral recitation bring rewarding experiences, So too, with public speaking through oral topics, discussion and debate, healthy competition and contests. With such variety of self-expression, children and young adults gain confidence which frees them from stage-fright later on.
If at all possible, in the early grades, children should be introduced to foreign languages, if only by learning practical phrases. This includes Latin. And they will love it! Their memories are like sponges, and through this creative activity, students and their parents come to see the value of eloquentia perfecta, the perfection of eloquence. The art of beautiful handwriting, via Palmer or Zaner-Blöser, is slowly enjoying a renaissance. Writing experts tell us that handwriting is an accurate indicator of character and temperament.
The Refining Arts
Beginning with the earliest levels of Catholic education, our students should be taught to pursue beauty in music, painting, drawing, and theatrical performance, including Shakespeare and the American theater. The arts help to educate emotions and sensitize the feelings. They are a fine preparation for studies in math, science, and language arts.
The arts have rescued children from abusive home environments. In an age that glorifies ugliness in so many forms, education in the arts is a necessity and not an option. In their early years, children must experience beauty because, once they are overwhelmed by ugliness, it is difficult to lead them out of it. The opportunity to wonder at the marvels of God’s creation belongs to children.
Today American emotions have deteriorated into chaos. Beginning with the Beatles, “the first bug in a plague of locusts,” Americans were lured into an emotional revolution. Unrepressed animalistic emotions were unleashed, and audiences were invited to participate. We went from healthy emotions, powerful and good, to MTV with its warlike, rebellious emotion of punk. Today Rap, with its rebellious, offensive, and violence-laced lyrics, screams with anti-social expression. Our students are exposed to this negative influence.
El Sistema orchestra tells another story. In 1975, the orchestra was begun in Venezuela by the economist and musician, José Antonio Abreu. He saw the orchestra as a symbol for the ideal society, and his idea has expanded across the continents. This advocacy program educates poor and at-risk children in beauty and the arts; their lives are transformed through music. Currently, Gustavo Dudamel, the face of El Sistema, conducts the Simon Bolivar symphony orchestra, composed entirely of these children. Their electrifying energy is felt by their audiences who are overwhelmed by their ability to express beauty.
Education of Taste
Children’s taste need to be educated. Within limits, the dictum, taste may not be disputed (de gustibus non disputandum est) carries validity. This is due to the many factors that form and mold our taste such as character, temperament, education, age, gender, and choice of friends, leisure and entertainment, culture and the arts.
Good taste is restrained; bad taste, excessive. What is impeccable taste? It is the art of discrimination analogous to the eye of the connoisseur, which can infallibly distinguish art from kitsch, and excellent quality from average or merely good quality.” (Hans Urs von Balthasar, The Glory of the Lord I: 481). The dictum, ‘taste may not be questioned’ has its limits. Sound taste has to do with particulars of the truth; it is not arbitrary. It knows the difference between what is sweet, bitter, sour, and salty. The art of impeccable taste is a never-ending process because it chooses the better of two goods.
Taste is an analogous word and refers to the appetite. One may speak of taste in food and in wines, taste in clothing, the arts and entertainment, taste in one’s companions. The Psalmist exhorts us to ‘taste and see how good the Lord is’ (Ps 34:8). Here taste is used in the spiritual sense wherein it participates in the act of faith.
The Catholic Teacher
Because each student is like clay in the hands of a potter, the Church needs dedicated teachers. There is nothing worse than being held captive by a teacher who is unprepared, boring, or disinterested—or all three. Many teach, but few inspire a love of learning. What a gift for a student to sit before an educator who has mastered not just the skill of teaching but the art of education!
Quality is not elitism, but fewer are opting for more quality. Every effort should be made to find the funds to support the noble endeavor of Catholic education. “The Church, as a mother, is under an obligation to provide for its children an education by virtue of which their whole lives may be inspired by the spirit of Christ. At the same time, it will offer its assistance to all peoples for the promotion of a well-balanced perfection of the human personality, for the good of society in this world and for the development of a world more worthy of man” (Vatican Council II, “Declaration on Christian Education,” no. 3).
* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.