The Way of BeautyCatholic Education II: Quality and Non-Quality

In November 1980, Barbara Tuchman, a noted historian and twice-winner of the Pulitzer Prize, published a controversial essay in the New York Times Magazine entitled "The Decline of Quality."  Her piece commands attention for all associated in any way with the education of our youth.

Tuchman argues that, despite our improved material progress, the decline of quality permeates our culture.  Not a politically correct statement to make outright. Craftsmanship, the arts, morals, politics, and worst of all, education, have deteriorated in quality.  This is due to the era of the mass output, she contends.  

We are a culture dominated by commercialism, directed to popular consumption rather than to the taste of the most discerning.  To describe this phenomenon, Tuchman suggests a system of Q and non-Q, quality and non-quality.  Quality in human achievement resists mediocrity, taken to mean less than good.  Non-quality implies mediocrity of purpose or effort.    

What Is Quality?

The word quality may be understood in two ways.  First, the nature or essential characteristic of something.  A healthy apple shows forth its quality and its beauty. An apple turning brown lacks quality and beauty.

Second Meaning of Quality

The second meaning of quality deals with man-made efforts to express the form's excellence.  

Since the first appearance of "60 Minutes" in the 1970's, the TV magazine program has won numerous awards for its outstanding reportage.  Every Sunday night, about fourteen million viewers watch the program.  What has made "60 Minutes" such a success?  First, the form is simple, clear, and concise:  the sole and solitary ticking of a stop-watch that begins and ends the program, two or three in-depth interviews, each with commercial break.  Next, the internal structure is set-up with point-counterpoint, and narrative talk-over.  Finally, the program is highly regarded for its well-spoken journalists; truthful, unbiased journalism; its scoops, probing interviews, and popular appeal.  Through the years, the form has remained unchanged because of its high standards of excellence.  No one has as yet suggested doing otherwise.   
Other examples. We value quality of character by taking the measure of a person. Through the intuitive eye, every day we size up people because character is expressed in word and action.    

Don't we value quality time with family and friends? Quality time for rest and relaxation?  Quality in food and in clothing? Quality was an essential to the great artists, for they aspired to the highest standards. A building, a picture, a piece of music, whether sacred or profane, is said to be defective, even ugly, if it lacks quality. Gregorian Chant is a treasury of sacred music as yet unparalleled in quality.

Most of us cannot quite define the second meaning of quality, but Tuchman does so in a clear and practical way as outlined below:

"Quality is the investment of the best skill and effort possible to produce the finest and most admirable result possible.  
Its presence or absence characterizes every man-made object, service, skilled or unskilled labor–laying bricks, painting a picture, ironing shirts, practicing medicine, shoemaking, research and scholarship, writing a book. And, of course, teaching in our schools.

You do it well or you do it half-well. Materials are sound and durable, or they are sleazy.  Apply this to education.
Quality is achieving or reaching for the highest standard as against the sloppy or fraudulent.  Quality 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.  We may add: between PBS and Comedy Central, between Bach and Rock/Rap.  

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."  Why bother? Why knock yourself out?

Non-Quality Education

Tuchman concedes that America has some superb schools, public and private, but the dominant tendency in them is toward non-quality.  "Education for the majority has deteriorated for want of demanding effort."  Put another way, we settle for less when we should be aiming for more. Again, why knock yourself out?

A prevailing attitude has seeped in to both teaching and learning.  Children, it is argued, should not be corrected for fear of harming their self-esteem. Competition is bad. Learning must be fun.  Students must be allowed to study whatever they like; therefore, courses are listed as electives.  Read the curriculum, and you will see how little is required by way of substance. Children are permitted to fritter away their time instead of learning the discipline of studying.  

More in The Way of Beauty

Quality in Teaching the Catholic Faith

The Church will not have an intelligent, well-informed, and devout adult membership if we do not proclaim the beauty of the faith to our students, and to others, for that matter.  And it is beautiful:  the beauty of men and women as images of God, the beauty of prayer and a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, and through him the Father and the Holy Spirit, the beauty of our Creed and sacraments, especially Eucharist and Reconciliation, the beauty of living the liturgical year, the church's 'year of grace,' lifelong devotion to the Mother of God and St. Joseph who willingly assumed their roles in the history of our redemption.  Our children must be taught personal piety that is integrated within the Body of Christ.

"Why can't the English teach their children how to speak?"

In the musical, "My Fair Lady," there is a song that pokes fun at those whose native language is English: While the English can't teach their children how to speak, "the Scots and the Irish leave you close to tears.  There are even places where English completely disappears.  In American, they haven't used it in years!"  

The next privilege in providing a quality education to our students is to teach them good communication skills.  Developing a love for reading makes their world grow larger. The mechanics of proper speaking and writing are more essential than ever at a time when proper English is well under assault in social media. What does it mean to be well spoken?  It includes proper diction, the choice and use of grammatically-correct words and phrases in speech and writing.  Clear enunciation avoids swallowing words and garbled speech, as so many do on television news programs. Teaching quality communication skills will prove to be a gift for the future success of our students.

In the musical, "My Fair Lady," Professor Henry Higgins places marbles in the mouth of Eliza Doolittle to improve her pronunciation from unintelligible cockney to that of an English lady.  

His action recalls the fourth-century orator Demosthenes, who as a young man, suffered from a speech impediment.  It may have been a stutter or an inability to pronounce the "r" sound, or both.  He devised a series of exercises for himself to improve his speech by practicing with stones in his mouth.  This forced him to work extra hard at getting the sounds out with clear diction.  When his diction became clearer, he discarded the stones and found he was able to enunciate must more effectively than before.  He also practiced reciting speeches over the roar of the ocean waves.

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Professor Higgins prods Eliza, entreats Eliza:  "Think of what you're trying to accomplish. Think of what you're dealing with-the majesty and grandeur of the English language-the language of Shakespeare and Milton. It's the greatest possession we have.  The noblest thoughts that ever flowed through the hearts of men are contained in its extraordinary imaginative and musical mixture of sounds.  And that's what you've set out to conquer, Eliza.  And conquer you will."  

And conquer she did. Eliza Doolittle was transformed from a common flower girl with a Cockney accent into a radiant "Hungarian princess" who spoke beautifully and impressed the dignitaries at the ball.  

Hard work, a labor of love, and a new life for Eliza and for Henry.

This article is part of a series on Catholic education. To read the first part of this series, click here.

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