Sunday, July 25, 2010

Beauty for Truth's Sake: On the Re-enchantment of Education

By Stratford Caldecott, 156 pages, Brazos Press.

Caldecott critiques modern society from a Catholic perspective. He opposes the materialist, secular society that doesn't believe in God and limits life to the material world. Such a critique is nothing new in itself, but the author takes an interesting slant.

He shows how science, built on materialism (the belief that the material world is all there is) and atheism, aims to control nature. Buildings were once made of local materials such as rock and wood. Now we build with concrete and steal, both technological innovations that take material, pulverize it, then reshape it into something new. This kind of architecture is not soul-enriching like traditional architecture, which uses natural materials.

Education has been deeply affected by this fragmented, brute-force worldview, as science, the humanities, and art have broken off from each other. They no longer understand each other. The 4 basic quadrivium subjects from the medieval education system, mathematics, music, geometry, and astronomy, formed a basis on which theology and philosophy stood. In other words, not only did the medieval view see philosophy and theology as strengthening each other, but it believed neither subject was possible without a great degree of numeracy.

Traditional Catholic education aims for integration and harmony. Coldecott argues that such an educational program today would provide an alternative to the "battle of the sexes" and politically correct movements that have ripped the modern educational system – and our wider society – apart. Instead of having to act as if equality of the sexes demanded a bland sameness, we could identify how men and women complement each other. Feminist entitlement and male-bashing would be replaced by a search for harmony between the sexes.

Beauty for Truth's Sake is an effective, prophetic voice in today's landscape because Coldecott's vision is so out of tune with secularism and consumerism: "[E]ven more important than flexibility is a virtuous character and set of guiding principles that will enable us to keep track of goodness amid the moral and social chaos that surrounds us."

Beauty for Truth's Sake becomes somewhat eccentric in its discussion of the spirituality of numbers, such as the beauty of the Fibonacci sequence. Coldecott's point through these somewhat detailed chapters is that numbers, physics, and all of creation have a mystical significance. They are God's creations and have spiritual value, a value that reaches far beyond any economic potential. A Catholic sense of beauty can bring out the beauty of creation, and this could give science a spiritual vision.

Rather than becoming a pantheist (uniting God and nature and therefore potentially worshiping nature) Coldecott never loses sight of the basic truth of Christianity. Nature is good and beautiful because it is infused with the Logos, who is Christ. As many Catholic visionaries, including Saints Francis of Assisi and Thomas Aquinas knew, nature is one way that we can come to know God more deeply. God's fingerprint is on nature.

Education needs to become holistic, integrative, and harmonious again, so that science can be inspired by something much greater than money and brute force.

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