Reading About Our Wastelands with Russell Kirk


Not so much a “book report” here as it is quotations that struck me as I worked through Kirk’s chapter, “Cultivating Educational Wastelands” from his work, The Politics of Prudence

All the normal obvious things have to be said:  Kirk was writing as I was coming into education.  Things have not gotten better.  But Kirk was speaking of those things prudent, not just holding up unreal ideals.  To have something like his vision in front of us as we try to pursue what is best in education is helpful.  I offer these quotes in hopes that you will read his entire essay; it is quite worth it.

“The United States is now the great power in the world.  Nevertheless, who can praise an educational system that turns out young people marvelously ignorant — except for a very small minority — of history, geography, and foreign languages, and so unfitted to have anything to do with concerns larger that those of their own neighborhood.  Worse still, what future have a people whose schooling has enabled them, at best, to ascertain the price of everything — but the value of nothing?” p. 240

“The primary end of the higher learning, in all lands and all times, has been what John Henry Newman called the training of the intellect to form a philosophical habit of mind.” (p. 241)

“The genuine higher education is not meant, really, to ‘create jobs’ or to train technicians.  Incidentally, the higher education does tend to have such results, too; but only as by-products.  We stand in danger of forgetting, during our pursuit of the incidentals, the fundamental aims of learning.

“Why were colleges and universities established, and what remains their most valuable function?  To discipline the mind; to give men and women long views and to instill in them the virtue of prudence; to present a coherent body of ordered knowledge, in several great fields; to pursue that knowledge for its own sake; to help the rising generation to make its way toward wisdom and virtue.” (p. 243)

“The education of yesteryear was founded upon certain postulates.  One of these was that much truth is ascertainable; another, that religious truth is the source of all good; a third, that we may profit by the wisdom of our ancestors; a fourth, that the individual is foolish, but the species is wise; a fifth, that wisdom is sought for its own sake; a sixth, that for the sake of the commonwealth, schooling should quicken the moral imagination.

“These postulates have not ceased to be true; it is only that they have been forgotten in our century’s obsession with power and money, and our century’s illusion that ideology is a ready and satisfactory substitute for thought.” (p. 251)

“Renewal failing, by the conclusion of the twentieth century America may have achieved complete equality in education: everybody compulsorily schooled, and everybody equally ignorant.” (p. 252)


In continuing to write on this blog, it is my hope and prayer that we together are pursuing something more than ‘power and money,’ but rather wisdom and virtue, the Great Good.


What is Education, part 236?

I just can’t get past this basic question.  I don’t want to get past it.  Coming back to center and “base” is fundamental to maintaining a sane position in a world whirling out of control.  It is my attempt to overturn the notion that “the center cannot hold.”  And as I am back in the classroom at least part time, it is necessary to keep asking this one question over and over.  The “236” of the title is not literal, and both literally and figuratively is way too low a number.  I have asked the question perhaps thousands of times by now.


In my own thinking, here is the outline in short form:

Education is…

  1. Toward the objectives of wisdom and virtue (not to be distinguished so much as intertwined as really one objective = wisdom being shown by virtue, virtue informed by wisdom).
  2. As such then, it is the forming of proper appetites, or affections, or loves.
  3. The proper object of this love is God, found in all that is True, Good, and Beautiful.
  4. As love demands action (what the student does) as well as orientation (what his appetites lead to) I must distinguish and address what the student loves, knows, and is able to do.
  5. What a student is able to do is developed through the human “arts” (of which the Medieval educators were able to distinguish seven arts that lead to liberty, the seven liberal arts).  What the student knows is circumlocuted in the four sciences.
  6. Therefore, while I must and am always concerned about the content of what my students are learning (that is important, accurate, clear, memorable, etc.) I must also be equally (?) or even more concerned about what abilities are being enacted in their lives (are they becoming better at thinking, reading, listening, speaking, writing, etc.?).  And behind all this is the question of affection.  While they are becoming wiser and more virtuous, how is the ethos of my instruction bringing them to the right affections and then helping them order those affections rightly?
  7. And finally, how does one assess all this in any way even approaching wisdom and virtue itself?  At times it seems like all is going well until this last question is raised.  How can one human benchmark wisdom and virtue in another, or even more importantly, as I am standing in at the request of a parent who is ultimately responsible for assessing the wisdom and virtue of their child, how can I the teacher approximately assess the attainment of wisdom and virtue in my student and then communicate that to the parent in any manner that is loving, humane, and clear?  It is easier if we don’t insist upon it being “objective” or communicated through a “number.”

Whatever education is, it is not easy, quick, generalized, or for the faint of heart.

Ordering the Soul 2

Continuing with my earlier blog on a summary of why the cultivation of virtue is a central key to education, I take up here the relationship between thought and action.  Again, pardon my attempt at being very basic and elementary.

I began our tour with “Man is a rational but fallen creature” and wound up with the assertion that “Education is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue.”  I am aware that I left rather vague the connection between wisdom and virtue, choosing to focus on virtue.  This must be addressed.

  1. Virtue is man’s pursuit of godliness.  I believe you can by and large use Aristotle’s classic definition of virtue being the mean between two vices in this context.  Sin is possible through either excess or ommission.
  2. Plato’s Meno does a fine job of demonstrating that virtue is dependent upon wisdom.  One must know the truth in order to do the good.
  3. Wisdom surpasses knowledge and understanding.
  4. Wisdom is cultivated through the teaching modes of the didactic (the contemplation of models) and the dialectic (the conversation of two souls through questions).
  5. Education cannot be content to cultivate either wisdom or virtue, but must pursue both together.
  6. An excellent education will cultivate wisdom and virtue by contemplating models of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful.
  7. An excellent educator will bring his students to question their inadequate concepts of the True, the Good, and the Beautiful by his examination not only of their thoughts but their actions.

With all these blogs the author’s intent is less to be dogmatic and more to seek other’s thoughts both as to where they agree with me and where we differ.  Chime in and help this pilgrim learn.  I know of nothing more difficult than leading another soul toward Christ while dealing with my own sinful self.

Cultivating Wisdom and Virtue Physically

 In considering the role of physical exercise in schools, we have to keep our eye on goal.  We state that education is the cultivation of wisdom and virtue, and so if we are arguing for some form of physical training to be included in education, then it must come within the pale of this goal.  So how does physical training cultivate wisdom and virtue?

I will deal first with virtue, as I think its points are more obvious.

1.       Self-control is developed in physical training if it anything close to training.  Just kicking a ball around might not reach up to such a virtue, but as soon as we bring in the notion of competition, keeping track of scores, developing skills, playing as a team, etc. we are at the level of needing to control oneself for the accomplishment of the objective.  I think this is by itself a very compelling reason for having athletics in a school setting.  Self-discipline is at the heart of the Christian scholar, and sports/physical training develops this in spades.

2.       Unity is obvious in team sports, but even respect and manners (sportsmanship) should be taught and learned.  They are left behind in our dying culture, but good schools would still teach such and seek such.

3.       Courage is also quite predominant in physical activity, and definitely a needed virtue in our time.

Perhaps wisdom is less clear.  Many would use the cliché of “dumb jock” to argue against my position.  But I of course disagree with the following thoughts.

1.       At its heart, wisdom is applying what I know to what I do.  I learn the rules of a sporting activity, but then I go out on the field and attempt to practice those rules, learning as I do so how hard it is to convert theory into practice.

2.       Wit or “quick thinking” or “thinking on one’s feet” is often the sign of someone who is developing wisdom.  Sport takes speed of thought as well as action.

3.       Practicing something over and over in one’s mind and with one’s body is forming habits of thought and action that are necessary for #1-2 above.  In sport we call this practice the “fun” of drilling.  I suppose one could say that the mental stamina that is being built by running “suicides” translates into so many other parts of life as to constitute a veritable training ground for wise living.

4.       Compassion should be the clear result of Christian physical training.  The fact that every athlete must agonize on the field, fighting his body into submission, should, when coupled with Christian humility, cause empathy and compassion in fellow athletes.  The manners addressed with virtue come from a wise mind that sees reality on the field – “We are all in this world together.”

I admit to blogging on this subject because I am so deeply concerned at the bizarre oddity of living in a culture that worships the star athlete but does not seem to seek in those athletes or in themselves the wisdom and virtue that athletics historically was supposed expected to develop.  If I am not making sense, juxtapose “Sports Center” with “Chariot’s of Fire.”  Would you rather your child learned at the feet of almost any current superstar or Eric Liddell?  My choice is quite clear.  I feel a whole paper coming on in my heart and my head.  We need to think about these things and pursue them earnestly.