September 24, 2014

Training, information, education: treacherous labels

By Alice von Hildebrand *

Our indebtedness to Plato is great for having left us magnificent insights as to the meaning and purpose of education. A worthy son and disciple of Socrates, this great and noble Greek thinker tells us that it should aim at “creating a type of human character that heaven can approve.”  (Republic, 209) No pagan could possibly come closer to Christian teaching: to aim at being transformed in Christ. He fully deserves to be dubbed “a preparer of the way of Christ.”    

Let us compare Plato’s words with our contemporary “educational” system. I recall a remark made by one of the top notch “educators” at Hunter College: “education aims at equipping students to earn a good living,” i.e. to be successful in their career.  Whereas Plato is clearly concerned about what “we should become,” this very successful professor put the emphasis on what we should aim at accomplishing. That the two views are light years apart should be obvious.  Should “doing” have priority over “being”? Some might call the modern approach “progress.” I personally would challenge this view.

This abyss between the two should become clearer if we compare “education” with “instruction.”  To “educate” a child means to guide him (decree) patiently and lovingly to live up to his amazing dignity as a human person – i.e. In Christian terms to be made to God’s image and likeness. Whereas efficiency and productivity are achieved by information and training – an ever broader knowledge of facts – the educator has the delicate mission of forming the soul of the child.

That the modern world mistakenly believes that an ever great amount of “information” will guarantee our living in a “better” world, clearly conflicts with the teaching of great educators of the past who rightly claimed that our great concern should be the “moral” education of those confided to their care.

Let us recall Dickens’ caricaturizing a gravely mistaken approach to education. I quote:  “NOW what I want is facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant only facts and root out everything else.” (Hard Times

Clearly technical training and scholarship have conquered our institutions of learning! Where is the love of wisdom?

Man’s capacity to acquire greater technical skills and to learn more facts declines with age, and this leads to the glorification of youth and the denigration of old age. We are far from ancient wisdom teaching us to respect those whose head is crowned with white hair. (Leviticus 19:32;   Proverbs 16:31)

There comes a moment when a person’s body reminds him daily that “we are dust and in dust we shall return.” If old age is meaningless, then assisted suicide seems a humane solution: what is the sense of living if one is no longer productive and no longer enjoys many physical pleasures? It is for the good of both the elderly whose life has lost its meaning and a blessing for the younger generation freed from the burden of providing for those who are helpless. In other words: To be “socially-minded” today means to realize that the moment has come for some of us to “exit from the stage,” our role having been played out.  This was practiced in certain Eskimo tribes: an elderly person would, at a given point, leave his or tent, and retire, unprotected, in the wilderness where speedy death was guaranteed by freezing temperatures. 

This world view is based on materialism and utilitarianism - two popular “philosophies” of our “great” age of progress. It is now a wide spread belief that these views alone will enable us to move toward a “brave new world,” where man will finally succeed in conquering the universe, and ultimately become God.

My purpose here is very limited: to show how radically “information” differs from “education.” A person can master an impressive number of “facts” and yet be “uneducated,” that is totally ignorant as to the true meaning of human existence.

We should beware of “treacherous labels” which cheat people into believing that a college degree guarantees that one is Educated, while in fact, it only guarantees that the proud possessor of a B.A. has mastered a certain amount of information. But the price paid can be high: namely that the very same student who entered college believing in God, leaves it “liberated” from mediaeval legends.  On the other hand, we all know people who have no “degree” but have mastered the “art of living.”

Let us recall the wise words of Montaigne: “mieux vaut un tete bien faite que bien pleine” (better a well-made head than a full one). Wisdom should be given priority over scholarship.

Let us apply this to a highly popular subject, namely “sex education” which has conquered the classroom, and has often been enthusiastically endorsed by several Catholic bishops who “trusting” their secretaries are often totally unaware that what is being taught has nothing to do with “educating” a child. Alas, the content of the course is mostly biological “information”, and for good measure also tells the child what are the different forms of birth control, (an important protection against unwanted pregnancies) and how to shelter oneself against sexual diseases. Certain programs even offer information about different sexual perversions. But the essential is usually left out: the dignity of this sphere in which man is given the privilege of collaborating with God in the creation of a new human person. Moreover, this type of “information” is most likely to trigger the child’s curiosity and invite him to “experiment.” Every educator should be aware that both sensationalism and unhealthy curiosity are two very grave temptations which, when yielded to, can greatly harm the moral and psychological development of the child. There is indeed a noble curiosity, that is a desire to be taught key truths about human existence, but there is also a harmful curiosity which is, as mentioned, akin to sensationalism – a fast cure to boredom threatening those whose only food are “facts.”

Do such courses “educate” the child to have the proper, reverent attitude toward a sphere which is mysterious and clearly related to God? Statistics will tell you that far from offering a “cure” to classical temptations, they have proven to be a total failure: there are fewer and fewer “marriages“, more and more co-habitation (shack up for a while), an ever increasing number of single mothers, and ironically more and more “same sex marriages” – this diabolical caricature of the noble union that man and woman are called upon to realize. 

It is my firm conviction that this sphere, when “taught” without mentioning the Creator of life, is misleading and therefore dangerous.  It is of primary importance to realize that a domain in which there SEEMS to be a striking similarity between man and mammals, is precisely one in which the abyss separating person from non person, best comes to light. 
I will try to validate this thesis. Intimacy is radically foreign to animals; they totally lack the sense of “secrecy” – so crucial in human relationships. Animals do not “hide” anything because veiling is meaningless to them. Moreover, an all-important sign of human dignity is not only man’s upright posture, but also the importance of a face to face encountering with others. To adopt an animal posture for any human activity is to sin against the dignity of the person, and gives a slap in the face of God who made us to His image and likeness. How deeply meaningful that when Adam and Eve sinned, they hid themselves. A person while lying, will instinctively avoid looking at the other person’s eyes.

Napoleon is supposed to have said that the education of the child begins with the education of his mother. In fact, “sex education” should begin when the child is a toddler; he should be gently taught by the example of its parents that there are things that call for respect and, therefore should trigger in us a feeling of awe – the adequate response to a mystery. 

Reverence is, as Dietrich von Hildebrand rightly wrote “the mother of all virtues.” (The Art of Living) This queen virtue teaches us that this virtue alone is the adequate approach toward God, toward what is good, beautiful and true. It teaches us to respect our parents, the elderly, and tradition, whatever has a value. It teaches us that fear and trembling is the proper attitude when we enter a Catholic Church where Christ is physically present. “O quam metuendus est locus iste; vere non est hic aliud nisi domus Dei, et porta coeli.” It should teach us to wage war on the purely materialistic view that old age is “useless,” while in fact elderly persons call for respect because their experience and acquaintance with suffering have much to teach us. Let us recall the role played by old people in Indian tribes: when facing grave decisions, the Elders were those turned to for help and advice. Today a grammar school child is often foolishly tempted to look down upon his grandmother who sits helplessly in front of a computer, or any of the “miraculous” new gadgets which are produced daily.

When still a toddler, the child should be taught to realize that life is rich in mysteries that should be approached with respect.

Today, we should realize that living as we do in a morally decadent society, in which the word reverence is practically eliminated from sacred places, the main work of true educator is to “re-teach” reverence.  It is a fact that only in museums silence is respected and that we see the sign: “DO NOT TOUCH.” Indeed, there are “guardians” commissioned to prevent visitors from even coming close to a painting! It is heart- breaking to witness that a work of art (even a Picasso!) is shown more “respect” than to the Sacred Host received in one’s hands.

The magnificent mission of “stay at home mothers” is that they are constantly offered opportunities of “educating” their child – the treasure confided to their care. When taking a walk at spring time, she should draw her child’s attention to the beauty of a bud and at the same time, make him realize that if he plucked it, and opened it, he would kill it. Similarly to pluck an unripe pear and bite it would leave a bitter taste in one’s mouth. He then will learn that there are very many beautiful things that are, when young, beyond their reach. The parents should never miss a chance of making the child aware that there are things which can be properly be appreciated only in tempore opportuno. “For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under the heaven”. (Ecclesiastes 3:1)

In most houses there are “precious” objects: it can be a porcelain vase of great value. It is then placed in a special piece of furniture with a glass window enabling us to see the beauty, while being inaccessible to our touch. If handled carelessly, it will break, and once broken, even if artfully glued together, it has lost its value.  While the child’s attention should be drawn to its artistic beauty, he should be taught to understand that it is be too admired, and not to be played with. It is no toy.

This awareness is crucial to have the proper approach to the sexual sphere. It is something beautiful and mysterious. It is not to be played with and should not be approached until God gives His blessing to the betrotheds who having received the sacrament of matrimony can, with trembling reverence, enter into this secret chamber.

At the proper time (usually when the child start asking questions) he should be given elementary information about this domain carefully wrapped in the tissue paper of reverence and be made aware that this mysterious sphere is marked by a note of sacredness: it is a “reserved” domain which is so intimate that it calls for veiling.

What a noble mission to teach the child that to love someone is not only to be enchanted by his beauty but also to wish to be very close to him, to be united to him, to share everything with him. Love desires union with the beloved but this union is also their “secret.” This is why public discussion of very personal matters should be avoided at all cost. It has a note of exhibitionism that “bored” people enjoy because they are bored. But it inevitably scratches the “enamel” of the soul. That it is highly popular should not surprise us: in a society like ours, the longing for the joys of heaven has been substituted by the craving for “the fast food of sex.”
 To endorse such an approach will inevitably strip this mysterious sphere of its beauty and sacredness.

The veil is a beautiful symbol whose message since Vatican II has been lost. Feminists are blind to the fact that wearing a veil in Church is a sign of female dignity. There are things one does not see, not because they are not there to be perceived, but because one chooses not to see them.

How often are students taught that the sexual sphere is precisely one in which man is closest to mammals.

It should be proclaimed on roof tops that it is precisely in this sphere that the abyss separating the human person from monkey is so strikingly manifested. It should be emphatically said that the union of husband and wife differs radically from the copulation between a dog and bitch in which case there is neither self-donation nor grateful acceptance of a gift – both of which are essential to the greatness of marriage. If we were animals, we would be justified in living like them. In fact it should not surprise us that in our materialistic society many are those who “resent” the challenge put upon them to live up to their dignity to be made to God’s image and likeness. To do so implies a constant fight against the “law of gravity” which deeply affects our fallen nature. Noblesse oblige is not popular today.

God, man’s creator, has designed the human body – (male and female He made them) in such a fashion  that not only does it make it capable of realizing a unique type of union between husband and wife, but moreover, in His infinite generosity,  He has made this union to be “fruitful” by bringing a new person into existence. Here again the abyss separating man from mammals comes strikingly to be fore. The latter – in copulating – is regulated by instinct and is, as everything in the universe, under divine governance. No particular intervention of God is required.  But in the case of human procreation, something amazing takes place: something that, I fear today, is usually “forgotten or possibly purposely omitted” and yet it is something so sublime, so beautiful that it calls for additional reverence.

When the husband’s semen has fecundated the wife’s egg, in this precise moment, God himself “touches her body” and gives the tiny little fecundated egg an immortal soul made to His image and likeness. This is creation; not copulation. Neither father nor mother have anything to do with the creation of the soul. Both semen and egg are “pre given” and placed by God in the male and female body, but the soul is totally new.  This is so overwhelming that it sheds a frightful light on the horror called abortion: to murder a person that just came out of God’s hands.  It is in fact waging war on God Himself.  If abortionists realized this, would they dare perform this murderous act?  Whereas the role of the parents is required, the role of God is the crucial one: for He alone can create, bring something out of nothing. He created the world without anyone’s help. In His infinite generosity, the creation of a human person calls for the   collaboration (however modest) of two human persons.

May these few remarks challenge us to meditate on the words of Christ: scires donum Dei (John 4:10)

Alice von Hildebrand is a lecturer and an author, whose works include: The Privilege of Being a Woman (2002) and The Soul of a Lion: The Life of Dietrich von Hildebrand (2000), a biography of her late husband. She was made a Dame Grand Cross of the Equestrian Order of St. Gregory by Pope Francis in 2013.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.

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