Education at the Crossroads (75 Books LXIV)

Education at the Crossroads is a revised version of a series of lectures Jacques Maritain gave at Yale University in 1943 in which the author discusses, in four parts, “The Aims of Education,” “The Dynamics of Education,” “The Humanities and Liberal Education,” and “The Trials of Present-Day Education.” In other words, what education is, where it is now, and where it will, or at least ideally should, go.

Maritain’s idea of and approach to education is one that was probably moderate or Conservative by the standards of 1943, though by today’s standards I suppose one would call him a Paleoconservative. In any case, he’s a believer in a Liberal education (not a Progressive one, in today’s confusing terminology), and he defines the aim of education early on:

It is to guide man in the evolving dynamism through which he shapes himself as a human person – armed with knowledge, strength of judgment, and moral virtues – while at the same time conveying to him the spiritual heritage of the nation and the civilization in which he is involved, and preserving in this way the century-old achievements of generations. The utilitarian aspect of education – which enables the youth to get a job and make a living – must surely not be disregarded, for the children of man are not made for aristocratic leisure. But this practical aim is best provided by the general human capacities developed. And the ulterior specialized training which may be required must never imperial the essential aim of education.

In other words, education exists to hand down a culture, provide moral training, and essentially set him up to acquire wisdom. It is not primarily technical or vocational training, though it may aid in training for one’s eventual career and can, and probably should, provide some “practical” knowledge to that end. Unfortunately, by 1943 schools had begun losing sight of this goal, and the problem has only grown worse since then. There’s no underlying philosophy or ultimate, agreed-upon goal for what an educated college graduate should look like, so university curricula are an incoherent mess of “core classes” of history, mathematics, humanities, and other components of a Liberal education, but these have no connecting tissue between them and in effect are mostly just filler for the vocational training that most students attend university for. I noticed this problem during my own university education and wrote about it near the end of my junior year and again shortly after graduation, and Maritain drives right to the heart of this problem.

Maritain’s defense of Liberal education reminded me of  Bl. John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University, which is what I’ve generally looked to in the past as the ideal of what a university education ought to look like. One difference, however, is that Maritain’s idea is much more democratic. Cardinal Newman takes for granted that many students aren’t suited for higher education, but Maritain writes in the third part, “In a social order fitted to the common dignity of man, college education should be given to all…” He also speaks elsewhere of the importance of Liberal education for all members of a democratic society. Now, it’s certainly best to offer university education to as many citizens as possible, but frankly many, if not most, people are not suited to higher education and to force them through it anyway is a waste of resources and cruel to the student. We’ve seen what happens when we try to get as many people into university as possible, and the result is a lowering of standards and the fragmentation of the curriculum just criticised above. Now, clearly, the modern university is not at all what Maritain argues for, but it’s the predictable, near-certain outcome of pursuing universal education.

That faulty assumption aside, though, Education at the Crossroads is still worth the relatively short reading time (it’s 118 pages in my edition), though I’d recommend supplementing it with Cardinal Newman’s The Idea of a University, which is a more focused and thorough treatment of university education.

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