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Chesterton…Schools?

The attempt to promote what are being called “Chesterton Schools” by Catholics is strange.

First, Chesterton was not an academic man. He had no significant academic achievement and isn’t a part of the Catholic intellectual tradition.

Second, Chesterton did not become a Catholic until he was 48 years old. He had nothing to do with Catholic education.

Third, Chesterton had no children. He was not a fatherly man, nor was he ever actually involved in the education of children.

Fourth, he is not a man to model one’s earthly life after. Chesterton was a man with bad personal habits. Shall school children look up to an obese, smoking, drinking man?  Apparently, some think so, but this suggests that the moral formation of children (which comes primarily through imitation) is not a priority.

What Catholic men seem to have found in Chesterton is a male version of Dorothy Sayers. He is a witty reactionary who writes to entertain common people and causes them to think they are superior to their opponents because they can make fun of them. He was not a holy man, and does not challenge men to abandon their vices and bad habits. One need not take up any discipline or undertake any actual work to be a “Chestertonian”.

There is nothing bad about reading or liking Chesterton, just as there is nothing bad about reading Tolkien or Lewis. The question I ask, however, is what is a Chestertonian “school”? There is no such thing. Chesterton had nothing to do with education. His writing was not a studied, practiced art, like that of classical poets, but an expression of a clever individual personality. Chesterton is a model of popular talent, not academic training.

Moreover, Chesterton’s message is comparable to that of American political conservatives, whose entire platform is one of reaction. Chesterton shares the fault of Thomas Paine had in early America, which was criticized by John Adams, who warned that he was “better at tearing down than building up”. Thomas Paine could rouse the rabble to an emotional revolution against King George, but he would also have led them to self-destruction, with no positive plan for life beyond rebellion. Thomas Paine’s actual thoughts on government were naive and reckless, and led to the irresponsible Confederation (1781) which almost ruined America and needed to be replaced by Constitution (1789) less than a decade later–led by positive, responsible statesmen like John Adams. We see Paine’s reactionary naivete reflected in Chesterton’s goofy advocacy for “distributism”. The parallels with modern conservative podcast culture are not surprising.

Coming up with clever comebacks may be impressive and entertaining to one’s fans, but it’s not the positive, constructive work needed for education. It’s the work of the ad-supported, book-selling mainstream media, not the work of real schoolmen, churchmen and statesmen.

The reactionary rhetoric that’s popular today is like the dialogues of Plato, which reacting to the opinions of the interlocutor can show others to be false and bad, but they do not establish what is true and good. While Socratic dialogues were the state of the art in 350 BC, they’ are ‘re just smart-aleck armchair philosophy in 2023 AD. Aristotle, correcting Plato, and moving from dialectical reactions to demonstrative syllogisms, established the philosophical sciences and actually made true education possible. Aristotle–not Plato or Socrates–is called “the Philosopher” in Catholic tradition. Academic Catholics including St. Albert the Great and St. Thomas Aquinas made this crystal clear in the 13th century, by doing the real work of philosophy.

In that Catholic tradition, we find positive founders and models of what is true and good, not witty reactionaries. St. Benedict left us a positive rule for holy living. St. Thomas Aquinas left us a library of demonstrative sciences to serve as the Catholic school curriculum. St. Ignatius of Loyola left us a positive rule of studies, preserving the classical liberal arts in the modern world. St. John Bosco left us a positive model of pedagogy. The Church provides us with a positive sacramental and liturgical life, along with real theological science.

Why, in the presence of so many greater characters, would Catholic people identify G.K. Chesterton (or Dorothy Sayers) as the patron (sic) of their Catholic schools?

It seems to me that there are politically conservative Catholic adults who are lonely and seek their own social activity through their children’s educational life. They do this through homeschool co-ops and small private schools, which have no real academic mission or curriculum, but are arranged for the promotion of certain social or cultural appearances. This can be seen by the focus on school uniforms, names, mottoes, mascots, logos, social activities, etc., rather than any formal instruction and assessment. They form these groups not primarily for the instruction of children or for the Church, but for the parents. The identity is determined by saying what one is not rather than what on is. It’s is a retreating and critical culture (words), not active and progressive and positive (works).

If the school was rigorous and academic (i.e., “Scholastic”), these parents would have to delegate instruction to others and stand back, because they are ignorant of the philosophical sciences. That’s not what they want. They want common culture to be celebrated as best and they seek “the true, the good and the beautiful” among material things and bodily pleasures, rather than in what is actually “the true, the good and the beautiful”. Though they attempt to give an appearance of depth to their activities by pulling phrases and quotes from the internet, they don’t understand these ideas because they don’t study philosophy, but simply take phrases from the past and drag them into their own common use.

Chesterton may provide conservatives some with relief that they don’t need to continue attempting to rally around someone as absurd Dorothy Sayers, but it’s the same vulgar view of education being rebranded that can’t be justified in light of real Catholic educational tradition.

3 Comments

  1. Matt N Matt N December 20, 2023

    I don’t agree with everything you wrote here, but I do agree the name choice is ridiculous. What were they thinking? There are so many canonized saints they could have chosen, as you mention, that would have been more fitting. Even the logo is the profile of a visibly overweight man – how did anyone approve that?

  2. Grace Peletier Grace Peletier January 2, 2024

    “It seems to me that there are politically conservative Catholic adults who are lonely and seek their own social activity through their children’s educational life.” Yes, I believe this. I think co-ops might have some use when children are very small, just to get to know other homeschoolers; temporarily if you move to a new city/state; or for a family that has only one child. In the beginning homeschooling can be lonely. But having multiple children pursuing real classical education, co-ops are a burden.

    Using CLAA is so freeing!! I love solitude and the time to think, read and understand the classics for myself and my children. I found co-ops to be exhausting. So much time, money and effort and almost no academic benefit. They are really for socializing, which can be done with church activities, parties etc. for free!

    • williamcmichael williamcmichael Post author | January 3, 2024

      There’s a line in “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” where the elf-boy (Hermie?) says “Let’s be independent…together.” That’s how I feel when I think about homeschool co-ops. If I wanted to make my kids’ education a group activity, I’d just enroll them in school. I don’t.

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