Birthright, “Progress”, and the Objective Good~ Incendium Sonanti in Defense of Education By John Tristan

If you could see a human mind rotting away, what would it look like? I don’t mean the flesh of the brain. I mean, if you could see a person’s cognitive ability spoiling and decaying before your eyes, what would you see? How would it smell? If you could touch it, how would it feel? How might it sound?

For some the answers to these questions are easy. Elementary teachers may see visions of a tornado of children ripping through their desks and learning materials. High school teachers may conjure images of pallid, hazy, or blood shot eyes, the tops of students’ heads as they slump dejectedly over their desks, or the mindless hooting of a crowd as fight breaks out.

I wonder why God gave us the senses to detect the color of an infection, the heat of a fever, the wail of an infant, even the scent of death, but no common sense to detect the spoiling of a mind. Maybe He knew how ruthlessly we would deal with our neighbors if we could see their mental rot on the outside.

Are the educational institutions of our nation shining bastions of acumen and ability, or are they more like commercial playgrounds in the best cases, and fetid prisons in the worst? Consider the critical inquiries made by Dorothy Sayers in her essay, The Lost Tools of Learning. She asks, in paraphrase:

Has it ever struck you as odd, when literacy throughout the West is higher than it has ever been, people have become more, not less, susceptible to the influence of advertisement and mass propaganda? Do you have an uneasy suspicion that modern educational methods are less good than they might be at disentangling fact from opinion and the proven from the plausible? Have you ever listened to adults debating and been worried by their inability to speak to the question, or to meet and refute the arguments of speakers on the other side?   When you think of this, and think that most of our public affairs are settled by debates and committees, have you ever felt a certain sinking of the heart?

If you have not yet read this essay, I urge you to place it near the top of your reading list. It is widely considered the incendium primis, the first signal fire lit along the spiritual wall which protects the collective intellect of our society which began the classical education movement.

But, the aim of this introduction, and a coming series of articles, is to commend to you another great piece of writing, another signal fire in the ever-growing chain of defenders who perceive the same hateful symptoms in the products of our educational institutions. That is, the collection of essays by C.S. Lewis entitled The Abolition of Man. In this collection, the criticism of modern education is so well-formed, a three-word question lifted from the 21,000 words which compose it should suffice as a cornerstone for an insurmountable defense against the entire force which asserts the need to “progress” beyond what our society traditionally called “objective goodness.”  They are:

“Progress towards what?”

With this foil, a good debater can best the greatest apologist of progressivism, for progressivism begins with the idea that “goodness” is unknowable. To a progressive, progress is necessary is because our forbearers were wrong about the idea of “goodness” altogether.  Progressives are workers who stand atop the highest level of a magnificent tower and, looking down, say to each other, “We will have to demolish everything underneath us if we’re going to make any progress at all.”

Many readers must feel a keen irritation at this charge, and rightly so.  “Progressive” is not quite the correct term. The spirit I, and The Abolition of Man, speak of hides behind many masks. In ancient Greece, it paraded nakedly as pyrrhonism, then garbed itself in noumenalism. In modern history, it posed as nihilism. Critical theory was another disguise. The most accurate modern term is probably “relativism.” Even so, I’ve chosen to target the term “progressive,” because this mask is the spirit’s most effective camouflage. There are no “relativist schools.” But, relativism yet rampages in our schools by other names, or namelessly, as an unspoken assumption in our culture.

As an important concession, “progressive” is commonly understood to mean “reforming the problematic legacy of erroneous values.” There is nothing wrong with this, of course.  Let me define the kind of progressivism that I reject. I do not reject the practice of correcting objective mistakes, nor the progress of replacing good ideas with better ones. I reject the progressivism which says, “’truth’, as an objective idea, does not exist. ‘Good’ is subjective. ‘Beauty’ is a matter of personal taste.”

Far too many people perceive “progressivism” as innocuous. It is a seemingly healthy body which bears a disease fatal to itself and the society that accepts it. It needs to be rejected, directly and decisively.
The good news is this idea is as easy to kill as a scorpion which threatens to ruin your picnic if it is spotted early enough. If you do not wish to read The Abolition of Man, or even my upcoming synopsis, you should be able to kill, at least in your own mind, this crawling progressivism with the following, short syllogism.

Nothing is absolutely true.

The above statement is absolutely true.

The above statements add up to utter nonsense.

If you recognize the logic of this syllogism, you should be able to live your life free from the menacing thought that the ideas of “goodness”, “beauty” and “truth” which you have trusted since childhood are mere illusions imposed upon you by your delusional ancestors.

If, on the other hand, you wish to thoroughly understand the evil nature of this empty philosophy, the plague-like effect of its proliferation which continues despite its known stupidity since ancient times, and, most importantly, if you wish to arm yourself to war against progressive-relativism’s poisonous tide, I aim to help you.

I entitled this introduction “Birthright, Progressivism, and the Objective Good,” without so far explaining what “birthright” refers to. Our birthright is the accrued wealth of wisdom our ancestors have left to us, more valuable that gold or silver, in the form of classic works of art, beautiful tradition and sacred honor, which the progressive-relativists call a useless burden. If they could speak to Sir Isaac Newton, they would tell him that though he can see further by standing on the shoulder of giants, the giants are all facing the wrong way. And if he dared to ask which way he should look, they would only tell him, unironically, his entire notion of a “right way” is wrong.  

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