Jacques Maritain on Democratic Education

I am grateful for the thousands of public educators who work very hard on behalf of their students.  One can always hear horror stories in the news about disaffected and bored teachers, but the overwhelming majority of those I’ve met have cared deeply about their students and do their best in the classroom.

I also see some signs of hope in what seems to be a general backlash against standardized testing brewing amidst some of our best educators.  But even so, teachers in the current bureaucratic environment cannot help but be impacted by the mentality of standardization.  I know of students who received A’s on assignments for having “great facts!” though these facts gave no overall understanding to the period studied.  Another assignment I know of requires students to photograph themselves involved in a variety of environmentally beneficial activities, be it recycling, picking up litter, or not clubbing baby seals.

Decades ago Jacques Maritain prophesied this in his thoughts on democratic education.  Maritain had a long and maritain_jacquesdistinguished career as a theologian, philosopher, and social critic.  Even in the 1950’s Maritain astutely observed the shift occurring in education as it related to the rest of society.

Society’s trend toward specialization bothered Maritain, and he predicted two adverse effects this would bring to education.  Our concept of “knowledge” would be the first casualty.  He wrote,

If we are concerned with the future of civilization, we must be concerned primarily with a genuine understanding of what knowledge is: its values, its degrees, and how it can foster the inner unity of the human being.

Restricting knowledge to isolated facts loses the unity, that is, the narrative unity, of whatever we may study.  This is why we cannot reduce westward expansion to a few bullet point facts about railroads and farming.  Complete specialization in general cuts us off from part of our humanity.  We lose the essential symmetry of our personhood.  Related to this, Maritain commented on the second casualty,

If we remember that the animal is a specialist . . . an educational program that aimed only at forming specialists . . . would lead indeed to a progressive animalization of the human mind and life.

Maritain continues, observing and predicting that specialization will lead to lack of freedom, which leads to lack of moral formation.  Educational authorities will then need to undertake “educating the will,” “formation of character,” or “education of feeling” to fill the gap created by a multiplicity of cultural ills.  With this mindset schools feel the need to correct all of society’s problems, or at least the current ones.  He writes,

The state would summon education to make up for all that is lacking in the surrounding order in the matter of common inspiration, stable customs and traditions, common inherited standards, and unanimity.  It would urge education to perform an immediate political task and, in order to compensate for all the deficiencies in civil society, to turn out in a hurry the type of person fitted to meet the immediate needs of the political power.

This approach also takes freedom and inspiration away from teachers, who then assume the role of mere functionaries.  Truth needs freedom to have its full effect.  Teachers need to personalize their classroom experience in some way to give truth a living context, rather than rote formulas imposed from above and without.  This is why, Maritain argues, the ambitious plan of “educating character” in this lock-step fashion will almost surely fail.  The seeds teachers scatter will find only rocky ground.

A final quote from Maritain:

What I mean is that it is not enough to define a democratic society by its legal structure.  Another element plays also a basic part — namely, the dynamic leaven or energy that fosters political movement, and which cannot be inscribed in any constitution or embodied in any institution, since it is both personal and contingent in nature, and rooted in free initiative.  I should like to call the existential factor the prophetic factor.  Democracy cannot do without it.  The people need prophets.

12th Grade: The High School Insurgency Battle


My thanks to all who helped make our activity last Thursday possible, and my congratulations to the students who played an excellent game.  From all accounts, it appears that our senior insurgency was victorious.  The seniors can feel especially proud of this, as we intentionally made the rules harder for the seniors this year than it had been for the past two senior classes.  Their victory was well earned.  I am also glad to report that

In our planning phase I wanted to stress to the students that. . .

  • Wars are not won by acts of violence.  Don’t focus on hunting down the enemy.  Make them react in the way you want them to.  Or as Clauswitz might have put it, find their ‘center of gravity’ and seek to undermine it.

and, as Sun Tzu stated

  • Don’t begin the battle until it is already decided.  In other words, focus on creating the conditions for success, then it will come to you easily.  If we could make them bored, impatient, undisciplined, etc. we would have little problem earning the points we sought.

Finally. . .

  • Let the bad apples spoil the barrel.  Many of our opponents would stay focused, and disciplined — but we could count on the fact that not all would.  A large amount of our points came against a minority of students — students who had a habit of congregating together (creating an inviting target) or being quick to shoot first and ask questions later.  This required patience and careful observation  on the seniors part, but once armed with the appropriate information, we could take decisive action.

After stating these general truths we broke up into squads and started planning Monday and Tuesday.  Nearly all of the ideas came from the students.  I stressed that plans and squads should be flexible.  For us to have a legitimate chance to win, the students would have to cooperate with each on the fly, and expect to do so with different people as the game went on.  I am proud to say that I saw a lot of this during the game.

I’m also proud of how the 9-11 graders conducted themselves.  All the students and teachers I have talked to commented that this year the game was more fun and fair than previous years, and that’s a testimony especially to the students.  My many thanks goes to them.

Please do ask your children about their experiences.  I’m sure they had fun, and I think they learned something in the process not just about planning and coordination, but also about the particular challenges our country faces when fighting an insurgency.

Many thanks,

Dave Mathwin

Mr. Chadband

I confess that I have never been a big fan of Dickens.  I get lost in the verbiage, and sometimes find his endings a bit dull and overdone.  Still, I admit he deserves his fame as an all-time great, and he was perhaps the greatest creator of supporting characters of all time.

One of my favorites is Mr. Chadband, whom I referenced in the last post.  But that post had a heavy and somber tone, and my tribute to Dickens’ creative powers would have been out of place.  But I present here perhaps the best of Mr. Chadband from Bleak House:

“My friends,” says Mr. Chadband, “what is this which we now behold as being spread before us? Refreshment. Do we need refreshment then, my friends? We do. And why do we need refreshment, my friends? Because we are but mortal, because we are but sinful, because we are but of the earth, because we are not of the air. Can we fly, my friends? We cannot. Why can we not fly, my friends?”

Mr Snagsby, presuming on the success of his last point, ventures to observe in a cheerful and rather knowing tone, “No wings.” But, is immediately frowned down by Mrs Snagsby.

“I say, my friends,” pursues Mr Chadband, utterly rejecting and obliterating Mr Snagsby’s suggestion, “why can we not fly? Is it because we are calculated to walk? It is. Could we walk, my friends, without strength? We could not. What should we do without strength, my friends? Our legs would refuse to bear us, our knees would double up, our ankles would turn over, and we should come to the ground. Then from whence, my friends, in a human point of view, do we derive the strength that is necessary to our limbs? Is it,” says Chadband, glancing over the table, “from bread in various forms, from butter which is churned from the milk which is yielded unto us by the cow, from the eggs which are laid by the fowl, from ham, from tongue, from sausage, and from such like? It is. Then let us partake of the good things which are set before us! [below is a print entitled, “Mr. Chadband Makes Clear a Difficult Subject”]

"Mr. Chadband makes clear a difficult subject."

12th Grade: Do Power and Security have an Inverse Relationship?


This week we continued with our unit on “The Changing State of Nations.”

1. As we discussed last week, terrorism arises as a kind of heresy against the prevailing orthodoxy of how states are constituted and distribute power.  Their basic goals are the same, but as the rationale and goal of the state changes, so too do their methods and targets.  So, for example, a ‘Nation-State’ terror group like IRA would be quite unlikely to want to use WMD’s against England/N. Ireland.  The IRA was trying to create a national state for themselves, and it would not be in their interests to harm the territory they want for themselves to create their own national state.  Unfortunately, modern terror groups like Al-Queda would seek them and use them, as they have global goals and are not interested in national territory per se.

The targets too changed.  The ‘State-Nation’ (1776-1914), for example, ordered itself along a ruling elite ‘fit’ to rule on behalf of the people.  George Washington used  this patrician attitude towards government generally for good, and Robespierre used a similar rationale to inflict the Reign of Terror on France.  The State-Nation anarchists targeted the leaders of governments.  This made sense for in the “State-Nation,” the leaders gave the identity to the nation.

2. U.S. strategy in the Cold War attempted for the most part to separate the domestic environment from our conflict abroad.  That is, we believed that part of the key to winning the war would be to not substantially alter our normal lives.  Throughout this unit we have been guided by the thoughts and categories of historian Philip Bobbitt, who controversially asserts that we may not be able to do this in the ‘War on Terror,’ in which our national territory can be easily infiltrated and made part of the battlefield.  Is he right?  Should we adjust our concept of privacy and the powers of government as part as a ‘weapon’ against terror?  This is one his more controversial assertions that can certainly be debated.

Another controversial assertion Bobbitt makes is that we should not see the powers of government and the rights of people as always operating in an inverse relationship.  Rather, he believes they can, under the right circumstances, work together.  Think of environments like the old west.  People got there ahead of law, and the result was that many had to wear guns and could be intimidated through force.  The fastest, most aggressive gun had the chance to hold a lot power.  We would not call this freedom in the fullest sense.  As law moved west, more freedom came with increased security and rule of law.

His use of the western frontier does support his argument, but does this equation apply in every case?  Would the increase of governmental powers always lead to more rights?  If not, under what conditions would it do so?

In his ‘Discourses on Livy,’ Machiavelli praises the provision for a dictator in times of emergency for Rome.  He writes,

. . .it is the magistracies and powers created by illegitimate means which harm a republic, and not those appointed in the regular way, as was the case of Rome, where no Dictator ever failed to be beneficial to the Republic.

In the same vein, Bobbitt urges us to consider that just as we stockpile food, vaccines, etc. for emergencies, so too we should stockpile laws.

Just as the weaponry changes from the Nation-State of the 20th century to the Market-State of the 21st, so too will the tactics and targets of terrorists change.  Now

But next week we will prepare for our CIA v. Terror Cell game, which I hope they will enjoy.  The goals of the activity are to…

  • Try and mirror some of the basic tactical problems of fighting a networked terror organization, and
  • Try and mirror some of the basic strategic issues — the political and moral side of the war on terror.  How much of their success will be dependent on the good will they build up among the other students?  If they randomly detain, torture, etc. with no thought to broader consequences they may catch the bad guys but lose the people they seek to protect.


Dave Mathwin

8th Grade: Pride is the Fall


This week we wrapped up Babylonian civilization by looking at the reign of Nebuchadnezzar through the Book of Daniel.

Nebuchadnezzar reigned as one of Babylon’s greatest kings and one of the more powerful kings in the ancient world.  He had some significant faults, but also moments of keen insight.   When we first meet him in Daniel 2, we see that he had no patience for the sham dream interpretations of the various astrologers and “wise men” of the realm.

Then the astrologers answered the king, “May the king live forever! Tell your servants the dream, and we will interpret it.”  The king replied to the astrologers, “This is what I have firmly decided: If you do not tell me what my dream was and interpret it, I will have you cut into pieces and your houses turned into piles of rubble.

This may simply be Nebuchadnezzar’s famous temper showing itself, but he also knew that the astrologers Nebuchadnezzar's Dream, Daniel 2would simply look in a book once he told them the dream, and parrot back what the book said.  It doesn’t take a “wise man” to do that.

Daniel’s eventual interpretation of the dream had many lessons for Babylon and us today.  In its time, no other city on earth could equal the splendor and wealth of Babylon.  Not surprisingly, the “head of gold” in the vision referred to Babylon itself.  But even gold, the most precious and enduring of all metals, would eventually be superceded by the “silver” of Persia, the “bronze” of Greece, and the “iron” of Rome.  Only God’s kingdom will truly last.

The dream implicitly criticizes Babylon of course, and foretells of its coming judgment and dissolution, but Nebuchadnezzar has the wisdom and humility to reward Daniel and promote him within his kingdom.

In Daniel 3 we see the full range of Nebuchadnezzar’s strengths and weaknesses on display.  He sets up an idolatrous image of himself, and demands the death of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego.  His temper waxes so hot he demands the furnace temperature increased seven-fold.  But when God’s servants emerge unharmed he says,

Then Nebuchadnezzar said, “Praise be to the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, who has sent his angel and rescued his servants! They trusted in him and defied the king’s command and were willing to give up their lives rather than serve or worship any god except their own God.  Therefore I decree that the people of any nation or language who say anything against the God of Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego be cut into pieces and their houses be turned into piles of rubble, for no other god can save in this way.”

He seemed to like the whole “cut in pieces” concept.

His second dream in Daniel 4 deals with him personally.  He sees a great tree cut down and reduced to nothing, and Daniel tells him that the dream comes as a warning for Nebuchadnezzar to abandon all pride.  Alas, he fails to heed the warnings and succumbed to madness.

Nebuchadnezzar’s plight can serve as a template for examining other powerful leaders.  His insanity came as a direct judgment from God, but it stemmed from his pride.  When we think of clinically insane people we understand that they don’t live in reality, cannot perceive reality and cannot deal with reality.

Might a link exist between pride and insanity?

I think we can answer in the affirmative.  Pride, after all, prevents you from seeing yourself and others as they really exist.  Nebuchadnezzar’s own words reveal this:

[Nebuchadnezzar] said, “Is not this the great Babylon I have built as the royal residence, by my mighty power and for the glory of my majesty?”

Blake, NebuchadnezzarHis claim reaches ridiculous proportions.  Babylon had existed for centuries before Nebuchadnezzar, and no one would suggest that he did any of the actual building.  It’s quite easy to give the orders, after all.   Pride narrows the universe to one’s own dimensions and limitations.  A prideful man’s heart becomes cramped and unbearable.  Like other notorious rulers such as Stalin, Nero, and Caligula, Nebuchadnezzar didn’t begin insane, but ended this way.  Pride leads Nebuchadnezzar down the path to madness.

His sanity gets restored, however, when he “raised his eyes towards heaven,” possibly in silent prayer, or perhaps he simply recognized the universe outside of himself.

Daniel 4 concludes with Nebuchadnezzar’s own words,

At the end of that time, I, Nebuchadnezzar, raised my eyes toward heaven, and my sanity was restored. Then I praised the Most High; I honored and glorified him who lives forever.

His dominion is an eternal dominion;
his kingdom endures from generation to generation.
All the peoples of the earth
are regarded as nothing.
He does as he pleases
with the powers of heaven
and the peoples of the earth.
No one can hold back his hand
or say to him: “What have you done?”

At the same time that my sanity was restored, my honor and splendor were returned to me for the glory of my kingdom. My advisers and nobles sought me out, and I was restored to my throne and became even greater than before. Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and exalt and glorify the King of heaven, because everything he does is right and all his ways are just. And those who walk in pride he is able to humble.

 While Nebuchadnezzar’s repentance saved himself, it could not save Babylon, which soon after would face conquest at the hands of Persia.  This will be our next civilization.