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.

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