Wisdom and Education - Cardinal Newman Society

Wisdom and Education

The following is a review of Rejoicing in the Truth: Wisdom and the Educator’s Craft by Christopher O. Blum (Christendom Press 2015).

Christopher Blum is one of those rare writers who are as comfortable with the gravitas of the scholarly tome as they are with the levitas of lighter fare. With regard to the former, he edited and translated Critics of the Enlightenment: Readings in the French Counter-Revolutionary Tradition (ISI Books, 2003), which should be essential reading for anyone interested in a greater knowledge and understanding of the greatest minds in the French intellectual tradition. By way of contrast, his most recent book, A Mind at Peace: Reclaiming an Ordered Soul in the Age of Distraction (Sophia Institute, 2017), is an easy-to-read and accessible guidebook of how to extricate ourselves from virtual reality and reconnect with reality itself, a volume which could almost be called a self-help book in the populist tradition.

Dr. Blum combines the gravitas of scholarship and the levitas of accessibility in his book, Rejoicing in the Truth: Wisdom and the Educator’s Craft, which is to be recommended to all who are themselves Catholic educators, either as professionals in Catholic schools and colleges or as amateurs engaged in the task of homeschooling their own children.

Dr. Blum’s credentials speak for themselves. Apart from his gifts as a writer, he taught at two Newman Guide colleges, Christendom and Thomas More, for a total of seventeen years before accepting his present position as academic dean and professor of history and philosophy at the Augustine Institute in Denver, Colo. As if this were not enough to convince us that Dr. Blum speaks with both experience and authority on the subject of Catholic education, the fact that his book has a foreword by the late Don Briel should be more than adequate to assuage any remaining doubts.

Drawing on his own extensive research into the intellectual underpinnings of the Enlightenment, Dr. Blum opens his discussion of education with a chapter entitled, “The Cultural Tragedy of the Enlightenment.” Using a well-known question posed by T. S. Eliot as his launching pad (“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge?”), he analyzes the difference between knowledge and wisdom and the disastrous consequences of failing to make the distinction. Specifically, he points to two seminal works of the Enlightenment as being harbingers of the age of wisdomless knowledge: the Encyclopedia of Denis Diderot and Jean d’Alembert, and Immanual Kant’s “What is Enlightenment?”

Here is how Dr. Blum summarizes d’Alembert’s break with classical tradition:

Unlike Aristotle, who attested to man’s natural desire to know and associated that desire with a kind of wonder about the order of the universe as a whole, d’Alembert thought human investigations to proceed primarily from the body’s need to be protected against external causes of pain. It followed that the ultimate test of knowledge was in its usefulness in contributing to what he called the “sovereign good of the present life … the exemption from pain.”

One does not need to be a philosopher to see how such a non-Aristotelian or anti-Aristotelian approach to the desire for knowledge will impact culture in general, and the culture of education in particular. The radical shift from an understanding of the desire for knowledge as being the pursuit of wisdom through the faculty of wonder, a wonder rooted in and inseparable from humility, to an understanding of such desire as being an essentially selfish pursuit of personal comfort could only lead to a seismic shift in the way that knowledge is pursued and education is structured. The classical model of an education rooted in the virtue of humility had given way to the Enlightenment model of an education rooted in pride which is pursued for reasons of pragmatism.

Much more could and should be said about the wisdom that Catholic educators can glean from Dr. Blum’s excellent book. The foregoing will, however, serve as the appetizer which will prompt, one would hope, the purchase of the book itself. Those with a healthy hunger to learn more will hardly wish to deprive themselves of the veritable feast that awaits them should they choose to add this volume to their library.

JOSEPH PEARCE is a senior fellow at The Cardinal Newman Society and editor of its journal. He is a senior contributor at The Imaginative Conservative and senior editor at the Augustine Institute. His books include biographical works on C.S. Lewis, Shakespeare, Tolkien, Chesterton, Solzhenitsyn and Belloc.

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