Morals, Family, and Subsidiarity

The Loss of Culture


I would like to comment on two important and interrelated themes; tradition and education. The purpose of this series is to confront a few of the major issues facing our culture today, especially as regards the faith and the family. The method I will use will simply be that of commenting on some excellent quotes from a book on natural law.


Most of the quotes expounded upon will be from the book What We Can’t Not Know, by Budziszewski. His excellent comments provide the necessary base from which to expand.


In doing this, I am not being lazy, although I hope that I am indeed being, for the most part, unoriginal. This method alone should be a lesson in itself. For there may be new methods, for instance, in mathematics, but 2+2 will always be 4, and there is no need to try and be “original” in our findings here. Just so, the natural law is unchanging, and even if we come upon new details of its practical use, we must never try and teach a new ethic for the sake of originality. With that in mind, we turn to our first of three topics; that of tradition.


On Tradition:


The first quote, however, comes from G.K. Chesterton’s book, Orthodoxy.


“Tradition means giving a vote to most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. It is the democracy of the dead.” Chesterton goes on to say: “Tradition refuses to submit to the small and arrogant oligarchy of those who merely happen to be walking about. All democrats object to men being disqualified by the accident of birth; tradition objects to their being disqualified by the accident of death. Democracy tells us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our groom; tradition asks us not to neglect a good man’s opinion, even if he is our father.”


It is often said that one of the keys that sets humans apart from all other animals is language. I certainly do not deny this. But language does this in several ways. Two of them I would like to address here. The first is that language gives us a way to communicate our ideas with one another, especially the kinds of ideas that only humans can have; those of abstracted universals. But only temporally posterior to this is the second use of language, and that is to hand on knowledge from one generation to the next. This can be done orally through memorization, or in written form.


This means that each generation does not have to reinvent everything or rediscover everything.  We have, instead, a collected body of knowledge that we pass down, and this enables us to further and further develop our culture and the human race. We could not possibly have the understanding of nature, and yes, the power over much of it, that we have today, were it not for all the collected knowledge and wisdom of those of the past.


However, many today, in the name of progress, individuality, and other such ideologies, seem to have forgotten this. What we need, rather, is to get the young generation out of the “outmoded” ways of their unenlightened parents, and teach them to “think for themselves. Budziszewski tells us,


To some people in our day the word “tradition” suggests merely a repeated action that is hallowed by sentimental associations, like wearing a certain tartan or eating turkey on a certain day. I mean a good deal more than that—a shared way of life that molds the mind, character, and imagination of those who practice it, for better or for worse. It is a sort of apprenticeship in living, with all of the previous generations as masters, and includes not only ways of doing things, but ways of raising questions about things that matter…Traditionlessness, then, is not the absence of traditions so much as a particular, unsound sort of tradition that does not recognize itself as tradition, disbelieves whatever it does recognize as tradition, and is traditionally smug about its disbelief. It is the absence, not of traditions as such, but of sound ones…


Those that teach against tradition, whatever they may mean by that, do so to instill a “new tradition” of there own. The goal, simply, is to create a void, which will then be filled with their “better way.” Tradition, in this case, seems to be “wrong” no matter the content, and this for the sake of telling one to “think for oneself.” Of course, once the student/child/citizen is told to “think for himself,” the new teaching is immediately preached as being enlightened and correct.


But if this new teaching is indeed enlightened and correct, it ought to stand on its own merits. Usually it does not, and it is for this reason, first, that “tradition” as a whole must be broken down. The individual arguments, if they were worthy, ought to be able to replace or improve old errors. This, indeed, is a good and necessary thing.


In general, a person who has been raised in a sound tradition is far better prepared to change his mind, should his beliefs prove faulty in some particular respect, than a person who has been raised “to make up his own mind” about them. While the former has at least acquired some equipment—the habit of taking important things seriously, and a body of inherited reflections about what some of these things are—the latter is weighed down with different baggage: the habit of not taking important things seriously, and the habit of considering the way things really are as less important than what he thinks of them at the moment…


Those, for instance, who have a great knowledge of Newtonian physics will be more prepared to understand newer ways of looking at the world, such as the theory of relativity. Indeed, Einstein did not discover such principles in spite of being learned in the old traditions of Newtonian science, but because of that very education.


The vigor of sound traditions requires a way of life in which the generations live in close proximity and have discourse with each other. It requires that people in general live in communities in which they know each other and can hold each other accountable. It requires that in relations among the various cultural institutions— parents, churches, schools, government, and so forth—the agents higher on the totem pole regard themselves merely as servants of the lower, and not as their masters or competitors. Unfortunately, the lines along which our own society is organized are diametrically  opposed to these. The generations say little to each other, and may be hundreds of miles apart.


Certainly, the principle of subsidiarity has been subverted and all but destroyed in most modern governments. The fact that people move around often due to ease of travel and the location of universities and employment hasn’t helped families and thus small communities form the same sort of cultures and traditions as in days of old. Certainly there are benefits to a “smaller world” as we seem to have today, but with the demise of the family community seems to have come the family of the big government. With people moving around and families distant from one another, the state has become, often, the closest common factor. When this happens, “the higher agents on the totem pole” no longer regard themselves as “servants of the lower“ but “as their masters or competitors.”


On modern education:


Modern education is really more focused on expertise in certain fields than it is on forming persons who can seek truth. After all, in our competitive markets, we need computer experts and doctors and scientists, and not well formed human beings.


With the destruction of tradition and of close knit families, this liberal arts education would hopefully be found in the schools…it is not. Instead, and especially in the public school systems, the students are trained (yes trained) mostly in a pragmatic and utilitarian way: they are built to be useful to society. The will become these experts in their particular fields, and those fields that they are not trained in are best left for the other experts to decide.

Strategic sophism is the outcome. We learn to listen to “the experts,” and often the “experts” are chosen because of their agreement with a certain ideology. They are the expert, it seems, because they already agree and can sound convincing, in teaching what the ideologues wish to be heard.


In our own polity this strategy is well advanced, especially in the courts. When the U.S. Supreme Court declared that “At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life”, it was expressing the Sophist charter… If Sophists are to run the courts and the civil service, they need plenty of help. From somewhere there must come a steady stream of people who think as they do, to fill vacancies as they open up. Universities fill this need. Ordinary people who have not spent time on college campuses find it difficult to believe just how thoroughly they subvert the mind and how little they train it…


The mind is not trained, at least not so much to think and understand as to do and execute. The collectivism of society requires a certain number of technicians (in the broad sense of the word) to do the various jobs, of which parts make the whole function correctly. The human, who is a seeker of truth and a willer of good, is secondary in such a society. Wisdom is secondary (if desired at all) to production. The university is no longer designed to advance the wisdom of man and culture, but the output. This is not limited to the classes alone, but the entire project of modern education, often right from the elementary level.


The curriculum of the university is but a tithe of what it teaches. It is a total-immersion counterculture whose methods of indoctrination include classroom style, freshman orientation, speech codes, mandatory diversity training, dormitory policies, guidelines for registered student organizations, mental health counseling, and peer pressure… if the modern university is not theoretically Sophist, it is operationally Sophist, and the extremists hold the high ground…


There is, of course, an oft used circular argument to what is required to be a tenured university professor these days. One should be an “intellectual elite,” and to be so means to follow a certain ideology. How do we know one is actually qualified to teach at the university? They are smart enough to understand why the university teaches the way it does.


We see the same circularity in supposed arguments against those who would say there is a God. “Only fools believe in God” But what about Tom? He believes in God. Well, Tom is a fool. How do you know? Because he believes in God; obviously he isn’t very bright.”


Speaking of arguments, we live in a culture that uses the phrase “I feel that” way more often than it uses the phrase “reason shows that.” In a culture of subjective “truth” (whatever that oxy moron means), we talk a lot about how we feel and little about what we can actually reason about.


When I ask my graduating college students to “formulate an argument”, I have to tell them what I mean. Many of them have never heard the expression; the idea of persuading someone by reasoning is new to them. They conceive an opinion as a kind of taste, like a partiality for one brand of soft drink over another. Many of my colleagues will tell them that they are right…


Morals and the Family:


 The bottom line is this. Our culture has achieved the perfect conditions for bringing about the ideologies of a “new morality.” The family is hardly as close as it once was, and traditions are seen as meaningless sentimental actions. The sophistical operating standards of the public education system, aided by these former conditions in the family’s own influence (or lack thereof) on the young mind, is conditioning the youth to easily accept whatever the talking heads are preaching. The only way to prevent this is for parents and communities to reverse this trend at their own level, by taking responsibility as the primary educators, once again, of their own children, first, and then of the communities in which they live. Simply put, the principle of subsidiarity must be reestablished, and it will only be reestablished by the “smaller agents on the totem pole” enforcing it themselves. It will not be willfully handed back by “their masters or competitors” at the top of the totem pole.

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