When High School students are in the process of choosing a degree and course of study, the process is often muddled in the cliché “I don’t know.” As a mentor and guest speaker, I often hear this uncertainty of decision repeated again and again in a Catholic High School setting. It is a real problem. Few of the students actually knew what they actually wanted to do with their lives. I could not blame them but rather encouraged them to set specific goals. These sentiments greatly paralleled Christopher Derrick’s concerns in, Escape from Scepticism. Christopher Derrick was a literary book critic who held an unusually high regard for Catholic educational teaching in the United States. Derrick’s thesis underscored the predicament student’s face when beginning college in Escape from Scepticism.
My experience with American High School students is similar to that of Derrick’s as expressed in his commentary, Escape from Scepticism, when he visited St. Thomas Aquinas College in California and compared it to the overall state of education in the United States and to the degree Catholic education was known, worldwide.
In the early days of the U.S. republic, a very high value was placed on the importance of education during the era of Thomas Jefferson. A plethora of subjects, for the systematic teaching of citizens, were published which included the various different sciences and forms of agricultural development were often cited as subjects to learn. A high value was placed on these subjects while metaphysics was dismissed as unimportant and, in many circles, little value was placed on economics as a subject to learn. To show what the founding fathers thought about the value of education and faith as a teaching tool in public schools, The New England Primer of 1771 remained the de facto textbook for over 100 years.
Derrick’s reflection mirrors the state of America at the end of the Vietnam War. By the time Escape from Scepticism was published and as a result of the changing political climate in the late ‘60’s, there were still many lingering questions from the Vietnam War. The U.S. Army was in complete disarray. In 1976 The United States Military Academy (USMA) in West Point was embroiled in a front-page-news cheating scandal. At that time, the USMA’s Hotel Thayer became the headquarters for media and legal counsel. Counsel was sent to defend the cadets from charges stemming from a violation of the honor code which states:
A cadet will not lie, cheat, steal, or tolerate those who do
Women would enter the United States Military Academy for the first time in 1976 and this class graduated in 1980. Sixty-two would be commissionined as 2nd Lieutenants in The United States Army that year and beginning in 1973 the Supreme Court ruled on Roe v. Wade. The Supreme Court also ruled it unconstitutional for the Academy to require mandatory Mass service for cadets. One General remarked after that decision that those cadets
would pay for it on the battlefield
1976 was tempered by the presence of Bishop Fulton Sheen at West Point who was invited to give three speeches between 1976 and 1978. Archbishop Sheen graciously gave all three and more. Sheen was asked to speak on “morality in the life of the Catholic cadet and his moral leadership as a future officer” to standing ovation.
Student protests and college library burnings were not uncommon. Derrick did not mention the draft or the fact that the capital of Vietnam, Saigon fell just two years earlier as well as the post-conciliar Vatican II sentimental naysaying still being very strongly felt. I am of the opinion, that public sentiment at that time may have had an adverse effect on the importance education. It appeared that all veterans groups vehemently cared about, was that the Vietnam veteran’s memorial wall being constructed in Washington DC was going to be “black” in color.
MTV would soon be launched and sociological consequences would result. Before his conversion, Father Donald Calloway, lived this happy-go-lucky, MTV type existence, and accordingly, epitomized this generation whom disregarded all rules and moral values. Father Calloway outlined the aforementioned in his book: No Turning back: A Witness to Divine Mercy.The younger generation was not being taught how to be their best and be it noted that Derrick’s subtitle to his book, Liberal Education as if Truth mattered puts the whole educational dilemma in perspective.
Loss of identity
Mr. Derrick displayed an uncanny insight into the exclusion of the Catholic identity for all related schools of higher learning in the United States. This was a prophetic statement. Today it has become very evident – Catholic Colleges no longer require religious education courses in order to graduate. The “illiterate rejection of Catholic scholarship” at Land O’ Lakes in 1967 set a very undesirable precedent – “as if truth mattered.” American universities are holding to a “philosophically deconstructed climate.” The beauty of a classical education should be self-evident and colleges should not have a vain desire to deconstruct an educational system that only appears vainglorious in name, and dishonors those who desire to receive an adequate college education. There lies a deception – “an enormous multiplicity of academic choices” and how that is contraposed to the world we live in.
In conclusion, the value and beauty of being educated in the liberal arts is very laudable. I believe Derrick poetically set forth a powerful sentiment:
If a man enjoyed the blessing of a good liberal education, we feel, he will not be directly qualified thereby to follow any particular profession. On the other hand, he will have been encouraged to develop himself more fully as a man. He will be well-read, informed, sensitive; he will have some appreciation of the fine arts, some understanding of the world and its history and its problems: his sympathies will be broad and his mind will be tolerant, and if there arises some question of the political kind, he will bring the discussion of this something better than mere prejudice and self-interest. He will have some skill in the difficult arts of reading and writing and thinking: he will have inner resources; he will be worth talking to.
Escape from Sceptism is available in paperback or kindle.