Everything but Knowledge

Talk about going back to the drawing board! As a senior person trying to avoid tiresome nostalgia, I am still driven to see the chasm-like gap between the mid-20th century, with all its faults, and the present. And it happened fast. Instant communication with the rest of the globe, once a marvel, is now hand-held, including the visual dimension. That is a revolution, not necessarily negative, but a revolution nonetheless. Our modest local good music station, for example, can be summoned instantly from anywhere in the world on one’s computer. Thanks to the fine programming, everyone is invited to enter into the vast tradition of musical art which was once for the few. Compared to this reality, worries about what’s lost from live performances can seem like a quibble. Besides more people than ever are lured to the live groups by free exposure to the recorded version.

Migrants and exiles have enriched our lives by their languages and cultures. And in the attempt to be welcoming, we gain a deeper appreciation of our own language. In their seemingly instant mastery of information technology, some of our colleagues in the order leave us natives in the shade, though there is always the risk that some will end up nearly good in several languages, mastering none (having left home at an early age …) Education that is dizzyingly digital is certainly highly useful to whole swatches of population formerly left out. But (you saw this coming) the price paid is not enough knowledge of the timeless sort: Greek and Roman classics, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Keats. Each student, in his or her own good time, gets the cosmic insights that enrich life and the sense of its purpose.

Within education, massive enterprises have grown up which have only tangential ties to the knowledge dimension. In areas like “student affairs” and counseling, there is a whole vocabulary and a raft of data on helping teens and young adults to be comfortable in their personal identity. There was always counseling, such as college choice or following a vocation, with the homeroom teacher helping out, but what’s new is the scale. Very possibly, the widespread absence of the father figure from families has put this personal orientation onto the school. For many over the years, such growth as person was automatic, furthered in family, church, and school, in a blend for each individual. Next time the headline is about education’s expense, check the proportion devoted to anything but knowledge-for-its-own-sake.

It’s a topic for another day, but all this translates into the teaching of writing, at hand-held speed with nearly precise transmission. Students are less likely to relish or to revise teachers, who feel like they are clawing their way up the hill, persevere in admirable numbers but will fade. Or retire.

Brother Patrick Ellis, F.S.C. is a former president of The Catholic University of America.

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.