Beauty for Truth’s Sake: On the Re-enchantment of Education
Stratford Caldecott (Brazos Press, 2009; 156 pp)
The subtitle of this book led me to expect that it would be good but somewhat conventional. I expected that it would be about the attempt to recover the foundations of education as they were understood before modern specialization and vocationalism made education principally a preparation for some specific career, and perhaps even before 18th-century skepticism detached it from its metaphysical grounding in the true, the good, and the beautiful.
A good deal has been written on that subject over the past thirty years or so, and those who are familiar with what I’ll call the neo-orthodox movement in Catholicism of our time, and especially those involved in Catholic home education and/or some of the recently-founded Catholic colleges, will probably understand why I didn’t really expect the book to say much that is new.
However, as far as I know (which is not all that far, so I’m open to correction), most of that discussion has centered on theology, philosophy, and literature, with a nod toward the sciences as a witness to the wonders and mysteries of Creation. Those are all very important, obviously, but they’ve been worked over pretty well.
This book is doing something different. It does indeed recommend the recovery of an approach to education that has been mostly abandoned, but it is not about classical education so much as about classical ideas. And—this is what really sets it apart—it is concerned more with mathematics and science than with literature.
…the chapters that follow are not just about education, although if taken seriously they would change the way we teach. They are also about the search for beauty in art, science, and the cosmos—in short, the search for the Logos.
(from the Introduction)
This passage serves as a summary of the author’s intention, which, as I see it, is twofold, comprising the simultaneous application and explication of one core idea. In its first aspect it seeks to explore, on the basis of modern scientific knowledge, the idea that the truths of geometry and mathematics have spiritual significance. In conjunction with the discoveries of modern science about the way mathematical truth is embodied in nature, this idea opens the mind to a sense of profound and intimate connection between science and theology. It is not so much an attempted response to that tiresome formula, “the conflict between science and religion,” as a deep recognition that there is no conflict. Our conflict is not with science, but with men using science as a weapon in an ethical and theological war.
Of course most Catholics, if they’ve given the matter much thought, already affirm this, as does the Magisterium. Yet I think we still tend to put math and science into a box, set off to one side from the central activities and concerns of faith, and regarded still with just a bit of suspicion and apprehension. What I think Caldecott proposes here, though, is that math and science are part of the same process which gives us art and philosophy, activities which are informed by the faith and able in turn to deepen and enrich our understanding of the faith—even, I think it’s fair to say, in some sense enriching the faith itself.
The heart of the book is an exploration of specific aspects of mathematics, geometry, and their presence in the order of nature. There are many intriguing things in it, but I’m not going to attempt to reproduce or summarize them here because they don’t lend themselves to such treatment. And besides, many of them require pictures. But here’s a passage that serves as a sort of prelude to that exploration:
Our present education tends to eliminate the contemplative or qualitative dimension of mathematics altogether, reducing everything to sheer quantity. Mathematics is regarded as a form of logical notation, a mental tool with no relation to truth except the fact that it assists us in manipulating the world. This elimination of the symbolic dimension of mathematics is largely responsible for the divorce of science from religion, and art from science. But rather than continue to argue that case in the abstract, I want to immerse us in an alternative vision of mathematics. Let us learn for ourselves the beauty to be found in this world of patterns and relationships.
The broader aspect of the book is its building of intellectual support for the central idea. It’s an effort to recover the attitudes and some of the assumptions of ancient and medieval thinkers who saw not only the world itself but its deep structure as part of God’s revelation of himself, while letting go of their factual errors and embracing in this Pythagorean view the facts as science reveals them to us. The knowledge that these facts are provisional and always subject to revision and refinement need not worry us, for the same is true of all our knowledge, including and especially our knowledge of God.
The passage I quoted above continues:
This search is partly a matter of retrieval, but again, not exclusively so. We must have a proper sensitivity to the positive insights and fruits of the Enlightenment, lest we reject the good along with the bad.
This wish to recognize and retain whatever real progress has been made in post-Enlightenment thought and practice—in what we call “modernity”—is one that I share, and have given some thought to in connection with politics. I find that it sometimes distances me from otherwise like-minded Catholics in that neo-orthodox crowd I mentioned earlier. I don’t think the best way forward is to attempt to repeal the Enlightenment, or to act as if it never happened. It seems to me a poor line of argument to deny that there have been genuine advances of many sorts since the end of the Middle Ages. Whether they would have happened anyway, or with fewer destructive features, if European civilization had remained Catholic is impossible to know. What we need, I think, is stated nicely in a phrase Caldecott quotes from Charles Tayor (I don’t recognize the name, but Caldecott describes him as a Catholic philosopher): “a creative re-application of the spirit of the tradition.” And the mathematics, science, and technology of the modern world are among the things to which that spirit needs to be applied.
This is an exciting book. I recommend it. I might add that it’s also very well-written, and contains a number of really memorable passages, too many to quote here.
(Here is the publisher’s page describing it.)