Friday, December 28, 2018

Thurber M. Smith, Education for Democracy (1941)

[200] [Footnote attached to the article title: A paper read at a conference on educating in democratic principles at St. Louis University, October 1940. Presidents and representatives of forty-one institutions of higher learning attended. We are pleased to print this paper with its careful and scholarly analysis of a subject which is receiving foremost attention by the country's educators. A university president stated recently, "I am convinced that the schools of this country have not earnestly and intelligently considered the nature of their responsibility in the transmission of our (American) culture in its basic social, political, and moral ingredients."]

What the future holds none of us can foretell, but one need not be a prophet to see that in all probability the next five or ten years will be among the most vitally important in the history of our nation. The things to be done, the legislation to be adopted, the leadership to be developed, our response to the problems and events that lie ahead of us in the struggle between dictatorship and democracy will inevitably modify, if not fashion, a pattern of life for us all and for our children’s children.

We, who are charged with the responsibility of education, have a duty whose importance cannot be overestimated. To us has been given the opportunity, and to us has been entrusted the sacred duty of guiding and influencing others, during the formative period of their lives. Hence, our judgments, our words, and our actions must be based not upon the emotions but upon real understanding of the issues and problems with which we as a nation are confronted.

Today we are engaged in the preliminary stages of a program of national defense. The questions confronting us transcend the interest of any party, section, or group. They affect on the one hand our political, economic, and cultural relations with other peoples of the world, and on the other hand our very doctrines and traditional views concerning the scopes and functions of our government.

It is not without profit, therefore, that in these troubled times we recall to ourselves and to those who come under our influence some of the fundamental principles which if adhered to will preserve our American way of life.

During the past few years it has become clearer that the structure of the modern world is changing. These changes are perhaps more observable in the political and economic order, but there is no doubt that they have affected, or will in time affect, the foundations of the moral and religious order as well.

[201] One of the most striking features of this changing structure is the diminishing stature of the individual human being and the increasing importance of the group. No longer is the state conceived of as the mere umpire of disputes nor a policeman to suppress open discord. The modern state, whether it be looked upon as the organ of the proletarian class as in Russia, or a racial group as in Germany, or the incarnation of national and political aspirations and ideals as in Italy, is considered to be the one social reality which absorbs the individual and replaces all other forms of social organization. It is its own absolute end and knows no law higher than its own interests. Its claims embrace the whole life of the individual whom it insists upon moulding [sic] and guiding from the cradle to the grave, in order that it may make him the obedient instrument of its will.

This, of course, is one answer to the perennial problem which has confronted human beings from the beginning of social life—the problem, namely, of coordinating the forces of liberty and authority so as to attain the highest degree of social happiness. But it is an answer which is not acceptable; the answer of tyranny. A problem is not resolved by suppressing one of its terms. However vague and ill defined our concepts of authority and liberty may be we realize at once that they are at the same time complementary and opposed: opposed in the sense that they undoubtedly restrict each other; complementary because they really support and protect each other. Unrestricted liberty is abusive license; while unlimited authority necessarily implies the negation of both liberty and authority as well as the destruction of society. Liberty and license are as far apart as liberty and tyranny; indeed license breeds tyranny. It would be no exaggeration to say that the essential question for every social group is that of combining liberty and authority properly.

In all discussions concerning the relations of the individual and the state we find, I think, that the source of differences of opinion will be found in our varying ideas of what human nature is. As Aristotle warns us of the danger of a little error at the beginning of philosophical discussions so from this source momentous consequence can grow.

There are, I think, two fundamental positions which may be taken concerning the nature of man. According to one, man is the product of a material evolutionary process, or man, nature and that entity which some thinkers are pleased to call God are identified in the same reality which is undergoing a process of emergent evolution. If this is true, then, of course, the whole Christian point of view is a delusion. The human being is not the result of creation nor may he look forward to union with God. He has no inalienable rights resulting from his divine origin and destiny, but he is completely subordinated to the state or [202] organized group which is the highest manifestation of the emergent absolute. Right and wrong and the laws commanding the one and forbidding the other are no longer based on eternal plans but merely represent the exigencies of an ephemeral situation.

The other fundamental point of view can, I think, be summed up in the memorable words of the Declaration of Independence, "We hold these truths to be self-evident—that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and pursuit of happines [sic]. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it and to institute a new government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness.” In this passage, I think, we find, to a large extent, the gist of our philosophy of government. First of all, our attention is called to the fact that we are children of God, created by Him and endowed with certain inalienable rights; rights which are given to us as so many means of returning to Him. We are brought face to face with two basic truths, our own human dignity and our divine destiny, and in these truths lie the explanation of all rights.

We are made by God in His own image and likeness and are destined to be happy with Him for all eternity. Indeed we are given life in order that we may freely pursue and attain everlasting happiness. In other words there are at least three basic rights which man may rightly claim in virtue of a divine heritage. They are life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness.

This is the doctrine that our Declaration of Independence sets forth. It asserts, moreover, that governments (in God’s plan at least) are not instituted for their own selfish ends, but that they are instituted by men under the influence of a natural urge which impels them to live in society in order to secure and protect their rights and to attain their safety and happiness.

In other words the objective of man’s existence, although it means personal individual effort, is not to be attained by him in isolation from his fellows. By means of mutual assistance and cooperation with his fellowmen, man can arrive at a fuller actualization of his powers and capacities than would ever be possible by his own unaided efforts. His needs cannot be met or safeguarded except in the broader frame-work of civil or political society. Hence, civil society or the state is a normal postulate of man’s nature and destiny, an institution whose very raison [203] d'etre is the procuring of those advantages which correspond to the social nature of man, and hence to the intentions and plans of the Author and Creator of that nature.

The question, however, which concerns us more directly at the present moment is that of the limits of the authority of the state or organized group, or more generally the relations between the individual human being and the group of which he is a part. Admitting the evident difficulty of fixing the limits to civil authority in many specific cases, still there are some principles that may help as guides to their solution.

In the first place it is true that the human being is an individual and as such is a part of the group, but the human being is something more than an individual—he is a person, that is, an individual of a free, rational nature and, as such, self-directing and master of his own acts. His dignity comes from the fact that he is a person, not from the fact that he is an individual.

The state, on the other hand, is not a mere collection of identical irresponsible individuals; it is an organism involving the mutual dependence and responsibility of its members. It does not exist merely as an instrument to serve man’s needs and desires. It is an order, a sacred order if you will, in which and by which human activities are conformed to the Law of God. It is, in other words, a social expression of God’s will.

The end or purpose of the state is, of course, the attainment of the temporal felicity of all its members by the cooperation of all. By temporal felicity is meant peace and prosperity or, to use the Scholastic expression, the "bonum commune,” that ensemble of conditions necessary for its members’ or subjects’ well-being and happiness. Now this common good in the temporal order is not only material but moral in its scope. While it has a distinctive character and integrity of its own arising from its temporal end, it must not be forgotten that such an end in the Christian view is not final but intermediate. It is true that the function of the state is not precisely to guide men to Eternal Life, still its function is essentially subordinate to that ultimate end and, hence, in a very true sense it does foster the beginnings of something which transcends its own nature. It may be said, therefore, quite correctly that its purpose is to aid men to arrive at the perfection of which they are capable and not merely to aid them but to direct them and direct them authoritatively.

It seems obvious that no society, whatever its character, can accomplish its task unless it possesses authority to repress abuses and direct its members to the ends for which its was instituted. There can be no society without authority; and since human nature and the Author of [204] nature demand society, they require also the authority. Without attempting a complete analysis of the functions of authority we may describe it according to the common concepts as a moral power or right residing in a person to issue commands which are to be taken as rules of conduct by the free will of other persons.

It is to be noted: (1) That authority is not an impersonal necessity; it resides in a lawgiver. (2) It is not to be confused with physical force or coercion. Coercion may become an instrument of authority (as may persuasion) but it is not to be identified with authority as such. Such an identification leads logically to the conclusion that "might makes right." (3) Authority is not a mere substitute for deficiencies on the part of those ruled by it so that if deficiences [sic] were to disappear authority would vanish. Indeed if this were so, then theoretically anarchy would be the best government.

The essential function of authority is to provide a fixed principle assuring unity of action in a social group. Even supposing a group of adults, all intelligent and of perfect good will, that is, not handicapped by deficiencies, authority would still have its place. The group is aiming at some objective which will be a common good for all. That is part of the very concept of society. Such an object obviously demands common action arising from some decision which binds all the members. Such a decision obviously may be the unanimous agreement. But there can never be any guarantee of unanimity of judgment; it is always precarious and casual. Any member can disagree with the others. Hence the unity of action required by the pursuit of the common good will be ceaselessly jeopardized unless all agree to follow one decision and only one, whether issued by a single individual or a selected part of the group. To submit to the legitimate and reasonable requirements of civil society is to obey the order of human nature in the same sense that it is obeying the law of man’s nature to put into practice the essential duties of family life and to respect the property and rights of others.

The human mind, however, seems to find it exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to face an antinomy without worshipping one or the other of its terms. Unfortunately there is a tendency among many to overemphasize the antinomic character of liberty and authority, while overlooking their complementary character. There seems to be a widespread acceptance of the assumption that growth of freedom and the decay of authority are synonymous terms; that we can have one only at the expense of the other but not both. That is why the world has oscillated between the extremes of apotheosizing the individual and deifying the group. It is not and cannot be true that we are doomed to fluctuate between tyranny and unbridled license.

[205] The exercise of authority is not necessarily an unreasonable invasion of personal liberty. The end of social life is not merely to preserve and extend freedom of choice. Freedom is not really an end in itself but a means to something else—happiness.

On the other hand, if all individual autonomy, all individual freedom of choice, is completely merged and lost in the autonomy of the state, then the person becomes a mere sacrifice to social utility. Nor do I see how this sacrifice can be logically avoided if one remains on the plane of pure naturalism. Without ultimate reference to God it seems to me impossible to rescue the individual from complete immersion in the group because on the naturalistic assumption that the community is the absolute, the highest good, man is necessarily and totally subjected to the community. Today unfortunately many states, even some who try to reject the label totalitarian, seem to think that man is made for the state and derives all his good from the state. This is totalitarianism however labeled, and I must confess it is a perfectly logical consequence of the assumption of a humanity without God.

The Christian interpretation of man and society is based on the fact that reality transcends the material, the temporal, the purely natural; and that the whole temporal order is subordinated to spiritual ends. This does not mean that the temporal and material is of no importance—much less evil, nor does it mean that matter and spirit, time and eternity, nature and supernature are identifiable. But it must never be forgotten that the common good in the temporal order is not the ultimate end of man’s activities. The temporal order is essentially subordinated to the extra-temporal and the goods of this life to the eternal interests of human personality. It is only when we appreciate this alternating rhythm of subordination that we perceive the true status of the individual human being. Considered as an individual or a part of the temporal order he is properly subordinate to the order as a whole. That is why it may be perfectly right and just that he should surrender his temporal goods and, if necessary, even his life for the welfare of the community. That is why the community may and perhaps should impose upon him, as a part of the whole, many restraints and sacrifices. But there is a limit beyond which the state or community cannot go. They cannot infringe upon the eternal interests of those human beings who are subordinate to them only from one aspect. States and nations are creatures of time. They have existed and passed away, but the souls of those men and women who once lived in them will exist for all eternity.

This concept of the state as an institution, complementing the individual powers of man, offering him a proper environment for the fuller development of his personality and a safeguard for the rights which [206] flow from his nature, protects him from the extremes of both state absolutism and exaggerated individualism. There are many today who, like Hobbes and his leviathan or "mortall [sic] God,” look upon the state, the civil power, as the sole source of man’s rights and duties, who make temporal welfare the exclusive object of all laws and the standard of all morality. It is this absolute subordination of the whole personality of its citizens which marks the absolute state as an inhuman despotism. Either the state is omnipotent and can do everything or it cannot. If it can, you have despotism under the dictatorial, oligarchic, or democratic form, benevolent or not as may be, but despotism for all that. If it cannot, then there is something beyond its power.

The dilemma which confronts the modern man is not merely a choice between rival economic or political systems. The question is much deeper and more complex. The choice, as Christopher Dawson says, is between the mechanized order of the absolute or totalitarian state (whether it be nominally Communist or Fascist or something else) or a return to that order which asserts the primacy of the spiritual, that is the subordination of the state and of the whole temporal order to spiritual ends; a return to that concept of humanity as a great community or republic in which all work out their final destinies under the rule of God. However fantastic a dream this may appear to the modern mind, it is a concept which was once accepted without question as a principle of the European social order and the foundation upon which our western culture has been built.


Source: Thurber M. Smith, S.J., "Education for Democracy," Jesuit Educational Quarterly 3, no. 4 (March 1941): 200–

Social Leadership: The Challenge to Our Schools (1940)

[193] Many have been wondering about the INSTITUTE OF SOCIAL ORDER. What is its reason for existence? After a long time, we think we have found the answer. Our mission in life is to worry people. To prod, prick, good people. Not for the sheer pleasure of sticking pins in people, but to arouse them to a realization that there are social problems, that the necessary and vital emphasis today of Catholic teaching and Catholic activity is a social emphasis, that the social apostolate is not the work of a few specialists, but the task of the Church and of every member of the Church.

Time and time again we come up against the question, puzzled and well-meaning: "Why talk to people about the reconstruction of the social order if they are perfectly satisfied with the social order as it exists right now? the same question has been asked, sometimes in all simplicity, sometimes maliciously, of the mission work of the Church. Why bother pagans with Christianity if they are more or less satisfied as they are? Why hurl the Ten Commandments at them if they are happy in their ignorance of the Ten Commandments?["]

The answer to the question as applied to the reconstruction of the social order is that the people so happily satisfied with the world as it is are sitting peacefully on a volcano that is all set to erupt; and for their own greater happiness, it is necessary to disturb their present very temporary contentment. Pius XI thought there was something radically wrong with our present social order, so radically wrong that he wrote a letter to the world, calling on Catholics to do something about it and telling them in general terms just how to do it. Leo XIII, fifty years ago, actually "viewed with alarm," and warned that if something were not done immediately to remedy the situation, widespread revolution would result. Not much was done and widespread revolution did result. Pius XI "viewed with alarm” and warned that the principles and operation of the present social order tended inevitably to world war. The warnings of Pius XI were paid more respect because Communism and upheaval were already on the scene, but there has been no general response to the late Pontiff’s urgent plea, and world war is with us.

Worse is yet to come. Whether it is already too late to stave off that "worse” by a frantic universal Catholic mobilization to apply Catholic [194] social principles to the whole social structure, or whether our work is a work of preparation with the aim of rebuilding a new structure after the collapse of the present, it is hard to say. One thing is certain, that there is no time to be lost. Another equal certainty is that only Catholic social principles can work in either case. And a third certainty is that our schools should be preparing the leadership for the work.

Training leaders, of course, has always been the aim of our schools. The phrase in itself is rather vague. It is not always easy to judge either leaders, or the qualities of leadership. The number of Catholic names in Who’s Who does not necessarily prove Catholic leadership. The Catholic names in large print or in high places are not in themselves an argument that our schools have succeeded in their aim of training Catholic leaders. Even a full roster of priests and bishops is not proof of Catholic leadership unless priests and bishops, in their awareness of modern problems and the Church’s twentieth-century approach to modern problems, are actually leading people to play a Catholic part in salvaging and reconstructing the modern world.

As a test of our success, we might inquire into the Catholic influence of our graduates in politics, in the industrial world, in the labor field, in the professional world of law, medicine, engineering, advertising, writing, in the distinctly Catholic world of the parish, in the smaller world of the family. A Catholic leader is not merely a Catholic who succeeds in climbing to the top rung of his profession. A Catholic leader is a man who has made his influence as a Catholic felt in whatever be his chosen field, a man who has brought the thought of his surroundings more in harmony with the teachings of Christ. Or, to put it a little differently, a Catholic leader is a man who has brought Christ into the little world in which he moves, and brought the men and women of that world closer to Christ. Thus, a man never listed among "prominent Catholics” may be a real Catholic leader, while the "prominent Catholic” may actually be leading a retreat rather than an advance.

A statistical examination of conscience in the matter would be interesting and perhaps revealing. We might inquire into the number of our graduates who are exercising influential leadership (influential, as Catholics) in the field of education, particularly in the all-important educational fields of sociology and economics. We might inquire into the number of our graduates who are exercising a really Catholic leadership in politics, in law, in medicine, in labor, in industry, in the field, so important today, of labor law, in the field of the social sciences. Have our graduates in all these fields exerted their energies to bring a Christian viewpoint into their field? Have they fought the current that has led to collapse, the current of individualism, the current of materialism, in judging success, or have [195] they been merely men who "made good" in their chosen fields? Has the ideal of success as drilled into our students in their college courses differed fundamentally from the ideal of success accepted in non-Catholic institutions? Has their choice of life been really a vocation in which they sought an opportunity of service, service to country and service to Christ, in spreading the principles of Christ?

All that would be interesting and to a certain extent important, but more important still would be a consideration of the lines that that training for leadership must take in our schools today.

Catholicism is complete, inexhaustible in the sense that it has in itself the ability to meet every situation and every error. While Catholicism must always be a complete teaching and a complete way of life, emphasis at different periods will vary according to the needs of the time. And the needs of the present time call for a special emphasis on the social aspect of Catholicity. The great and necessary apostolate of the Church today is its social apostolate, so that our training in leadership must aim from the very first year in high school to awaken in our students an acute awareness of the very real social problems of the world, to inculcate in every student a deep sense of personal social responsibility and a thorough knowledge of the social doctrines of the Church which must be the foundation of any real Social Reconstruction.

The insistence on social Catholicity is the Church’s answer to individualism run riot, just as devotion to the Sacred Heart was the Church’s answer to Jansenism, and the poverty of St. Francis was the answer of the Church to the worldliness of that era.

The insistence is necessary because even Catholic thought has not remained unaffected by individualism, the pagan philosophy of the last century. It could not remain unaffected, for individualism came cloaked in Catholic phrases like liberty, the dignity of the individual, the rights of human beings, the equality of all men. All these are Catholic concepts, all fundamental Catholic truths when properly understood. But underneath the phrases was a sordid selfishness entirely un-Catholic, a disregard of the social nature of man, an application to all living of the theory of evolution, the necessary hostility of all men, the survival of the fittest in a struggle for existence.

Today the effects of individualism are evident in family life, in industry, in politics, in international relations. The selfishness of individualism has resulted logically in divorce and birth control and the domination of the family by the state. Industrially, individualism has meant unbridled competition, the accumulation of large fortunes, the centralization of wealth and economic power, the spread of proletarianism. Worse still, it had as a result that men are satisfied with their proletarian condition, satisfied [196] with their loss of economic independence, and an easy prey to totalitarian ambitions. Free enterprise has meant the "right” of the wealthy to make money in any way whatever, and to do with money exactly as they willed. In the philosophy of labor unions, individualism means the "right” of labor unions, where powerful enough, to carry their demands beyond the realm of justice. In politics, individualism has meant ward bosses, graft and waste in government, government by special privilege. In international affairs, it has meant tariff wars and imperialistic expansion. The survival of the fittest, the superman, the unlimited freedom of the individual is logically and ultimately the survival and domination of a Hitler, a Stalin, a Mussolini. Our own nation has not yet traveled the full road, but the signs are all present, and individualism if unchecked in the United States must and will lead logically to the only thing to which individualism can lead—the selfish domination of the man or men powerful enough, brutal enough, and conscienceless enough to survive.

It would be flattering if we could say that Catholic education is entirely without blame in the present situation. But have we too taught an ideal of success that was rather an ideal of individual success? Many of our graduates have suffered from what Pius XI called a "strange cleavage of conscience” that failed to carry the religious principles of individual life into the field of industry, politics, and the professions. Many Catholics in high places, graduates of our schools, have merited the reproach that Pope Pius directed at those who, by their neglect of the fundamental principles of social justice, gave an excuse or pretext for the spread of Socialism and Communism. Catholic politicians have at times been a scandal to the Church. Catholic industrialists have rather generally subscribed to the theory that "business is business,” and have resented the papal insistence that the moral law should have an important place in the business world. Catholic lawyers, men who live individually edifying lives, have been heard to say that you simply must put your conscience in your back pocket if you wish to succeed in the world. Catholic workingmen have subscribed to the use of force on the theory that anything that works is good.

There has been, unfortunately, some foundation for these attitudes in the individualistic note that has come even into the teaching of religion. Frequently, the high point of religious education has been the study of apologetics, the defense of the Church, rather than the Apostolic Mission of the Church and the spread of the Church, the conquest of the opposition rather than the conversion of the opposition. In many places, until very recent times, spiritual development and seclusion went hand in hand, and the ideal Catholic was the one who preserved his spiritual life in a glass case from the contamination of contact with the world. In industrial ethics much of our energy has been spent in a defense of the right of private [197] property, to a neglect of the duties and limitations of the rights of private property. Most educated Catholics today would look askance at the priest who would tell them that they had not a perfect right to do anything they wish with the money they own.

Even into prayer individualism has made inroads. To a majority of Catholics, the very Sacrifice of the Mass remains an individual sort of prayer. They attend, they listen, but there is no unity in their attendance or their listening. Whether they have not been taught, or whether individual attitudes have been a barrier to the penetration of the lesson, they miss the universality and the unity of the Offering. They say their rosaries, they read prayers out of a book, but rarely do they offer Mass as a group, with the realization that they are one with all the Catholics of the world, one with all the saints, one with the Blessed Mother, one with Christ.

Individualism in prayer has led almost inevitably to the idea that religion is something individual, something private, something apart from the ordinary contacts of everyday life.

That is the situation; and in the presence of this situation the Church has gone back to the social consciousness of early Christianity to find the answer to individualism at one extreme and false collectivism at the other. The study of the doctrine of the mystical body, the liturgical movement, more active lay participation in the Mass, a deeper understanding of the highest dignity of the individual in the brotherhood of Christ and a consequent zeal to spread Christ to others are the spiritual foundations of the Church’s new social drive. Catholics are being taught more and more that man the person develops, and sanctifies his own individuality, not in isolation but in his social relations in the family, in the vocational group, in the parish, in the community.

Once a Catholic has grasped the idea that Catholicism must permeate all his social relations, individualism for him no longer exists. Catholic principles re-enter family life, neighborhood life, industry, law, and labor; and the vocation in life of a Catholic college graduate is not to "make good" but to make Christ influential in his sphere of activity. In his very choice of a vocation he will look to the possibility of serving the interests of Christ. He will aim to know the living conditions of his own neighborhood as well as he knows what is going on in Europe. He will be at least as interested in defending religion and democracy against enemies at home as he is in defending them against enemies abroad. He will know that the enemies at home, even in the Catholic camp, are indifference, poverty, proletarianism, and the consequent loss of self-reliant independence, an individualistic concept of religion summed up in the phrase, "Religion is all right in its place, but business is business, and politics are politics.”

[198] If our colleges today are to produce the leaders the times require, social responsibility must be drilled into them from the very first year of high school. The liturgical movement, corporate worship, the mystical body, sanctifying grace, the dignity of all human beings in the brotherhood of Christ must become as familiar as the Ten Commandments. A knowledge of Christ as a living leader must be at least as important as a knowledge of the four marks of the Church. Positive theology must be given at least an equal place with apologetics. Defense of the faith must not only give the answer to attacks of enemies, but a knowledge of the methods and technique of lay apostolate. The vocation of family life, with its high ideals, its importance, its responsibility, must be presented with the same reverence with which we treat the vocation to priesthood and religious life, the same insistence on necessary preparation, generosity, sacrifice, lifelong dedication.

The study of social problems must begin in early high-school years, and may not be limited to a refutation of Communism. "The Church defends private property," should be only the beginning of a high-school graduate’s knowledge of the Church’s doctrine on property. Catholic teaching today lays new stress on the limitations and social obligations of property, a defense of property not for the few but for the many, and on the need of a greater distribution of property as a safeguard of democracy and independence. An early interest must be aroused in industrial problems and labor problems, in the long-range planning for what Pius XI calls the "redemption of the proletariat," the eventual redistribution of property with the aim that more and more people will become owners of productive property. Industrial democracy, profit-sharing, joint management, cooperatives, farm problems, housing problems, population problems, race problems must be made personal problems, problems to which all Catholics must give serious thought and study.

But, if ever our high-school students are to be taught such subjects, then our colleges and universities must turn out men thoroughly qualified in every way to speak with authority on social subjects. No matter how highly we esteem the outstanding economists, sociologists, and social planners who are leaders in the field in non-Catholic universities, their approach and their philosophy are not and cannot be ours. Our universities must face the task of preparing Catholic scholars in these fields so thoroughly competent, so well trained that they will be in a position to command the respectful hearing of all scholars and build up in our universities and colleges a curriculum of social studies the equal of, or superior to, the very best that is offered anywhere in the country.

Briefly, Catholic leadership today is social leadership. Spiritually, intellectually, practically, the emphasis in our training must be on the social [199] doctrine of the Church. We must train leaders spiritually conscious of a great social responsibility, imbued with a high ideal of the Apostolic Mission of putting Christ on a twenty-four-hour basis in every phase of modern life, thoroughly competent scholastically and practically to undertake leadership in every field—in education, law, politics, industry, labor, the priesthood.

Beginning with the family, Catholic social principles must be made operative in the parish, the community, the professional and vocational world, the state. That is the task of modern Catholic leadership. And we in our schools have made a profession of leadership.


Source: John P. Delaney, S.J., "Social Leadership: The Challenge to Our Schools," Jesuit Educational Quarterly 3, no. 4 (March 1941): 193–199.

Jesuit Education and Democracy (1940)

[152] To the distant rumble of bomb explosions in Britain and along the French coasts, thoughtful people everywhere are re-examining their heritage of political ideas and institutions. The press constantly reports discussions on what science, industry, the schools, the churches can do for democracy. It is all a little frantic, perhaps; but that such soul-searching should take place is inevitable in this grave hour of history. And it may not be without profit to consider what contribution our own educational system may make to the strengthening and defense of American democracy.

I suppose we can agree that the aim of Jesuit education may be described, partially at least, as mental awareness and moral strength. Catholic education in general proceeds from a very clear and definite doctrine of human nature, founded in revelation; and to such a doctrine it can never be false. But the institutions and techniques of Catholic education are subject to change. Thus, as the various fields of knowledge have been more fully explored, and as various branches of learning have been differentiated, curricula have been enlarged, enriched—some would say, overstuffed—in the attempt to place before the student a well-balanced, if admittedly incomplete, picture of the cosmos of which he is a part. Similarly, research and years of accumulated experience have improved and facilitated the work of both teacher and student. Surely the American Jesuit college of today is very different from its European prototype of a few centuries ago. I am not arguing that what is new is of necessity superior, and still less that our present system cannot be improved on, even with our present resources. The point is that our organization of today has evolved and developed, just as our whole world has evolved and developed; that as the social patterns of successive generations have changed, our educational system has been and must necessarily be responsive to the new intellectual and social developments. To do otherwise would be to fail in our main endeavor—the moral and intellectual preparation of men for a fruitful life in the actual world.

But with all the changes in curriculum and technique, the Jesuit ideal remains the same. The chapel is still the heart of the college. The doctrine of human nature is abiding, the spirit of our teaching is unchanged; and these things are what make our work meaningful. Fundamentally, the old and the new are the same, as are the acorn and the oak; and it can fairly be said that we have kept faith with the past and are keeping faith with [153] the present. Hence the serious view we must take of our professional responsibility in facing today's problems in the organization of society.

Now, if institutionalized education within the same philosophical system has changed in the sense described above, so too has government, and more particularly, democracy. Man has always had government, because he has always needed it. But the City-State of ancient Greece and the great national "Service-State" of today are as different as a trireme and a transatlantic clipper. Changes and developments in science, philosophy, law, technology, language, geographical discovery, mechanical invention, all have played a part in the growth of governmental institutions, and have necessarily affected political thought.

For political thought cannot be static. While at its best it is no mere rationalization of a temporary status quo, one of its most important functions is to explain a given political order to those who live under it and are parts of it. As new developments in science, say, or industry affect organized life in society, the political thinker must undertake new attempts at a synthesis which will harmonize the new forces and elements with those that preceded them, interpreting and providing for legitimate human needs and aspirations as they arise. For example, political parties and labor unions were developments quite unforeseen by the democratic theorists of the late eighteenth century, but both are highly important elements in contemporary society—so important, indeed, that their forcible extinction was thought to be necessary in totalitarian states, the several Master Parties being rather more like palace guards than parties in the conventional sense.

At the same time, political theory, if it is to be of any real significance, must repose on a theory of human nature. When you are planning a house, or studying a house already built, it makes all the difference to your conclusions about it whether the house is meant for a man or for a dog. As Professor Ross Hoffmann has finely said:[1] "First things come first, and back of all politics and sociology there lie philosophy and religion.” And so the Catholic political thinker, like the Catholic educator, is capable of deeper and more intelligent and more meaningful social criticism than any other.

It is a mistake, however, to be content merely with stating first principles, or simply to echo, with little commentary and no development, the ideas of St. Thomas Aquinas, St. Robert Bellarmine, Francisco Suarez. The men for whom and about whom they wrote are fundamentally the same as the men of today; but the social organizations, then and now, are, for better or worse, different. It should be noticed, too, that Bellarmine, for example, was not content with a mere repetition of St. Thomas. In the [154] given situation, he could not have been. The conception of the Emperor as temporal head of one undivided Christendom had largely passed in Bellarmine’s day; national states and kings were rising on every hand, each claiming complete sovereignty in his own domain. Bellarmine’s problem was to legitimize reasonable claims to secular authority, and at the same time reasonably to defend the indirect power of the Pope in temporal matters. True, man still had the same origin and destiny, in society and out of it; true, authority still came from God; but actual society—the means to the end—was different from what it had been in the thirteenth century and before; and authority, divine in origin though it was, now manifested itself in ways that would have seemed strange indeed to the men of the Middle Ages.

Suarez, too, was alive to new problems. For example, in a paragraph that is big with consequences for our own time, he writes:[2]
...Though any one state, republic or kingdom be in itself a perfect community ... nevertheless each of the states is also a member, in a certain sense, of the world.... For none of these communities are ever sufficient unto themselves to such a degree that they do not require some mutual help, society or communication, either to their greater advantage or from moral necessity and need.... For this reason therefore, they need some law whereby they may be directed and rightly ruled in this kind of communication and society. 
Such a statement might have almost mystified students a few centuries earlier, when there was but one Respublica Christiana, when a barter economy based on self-sufficient villages, the feudal system, and an international culture bestowed by the Church made quite superfluous a plea for international law of the kind Suarez here seems to demand.[3]

Adjustments of the foregoing type are the problem of the Catholic political thinker today. The rate of social change has been tremendously accelerated in the last century and a half. It requires a strong effort of the imagination to picture a world in which the smoke of modern industry did not blacken the sky, in which a voyage to Europe was a matter of weeks or months, and even a trip to the county seat was an adventure. Even those who have witnessed the coming of the automobile, the airplane, and the radio are now so accustomed to them that one is startled at seeing a photograph of a national highway of 1912, with all its ruts and mud, and [155] amused and alarmed by a snapshot of an early "airship”—a nightmare contraption of wings and bicycle wheels. Yet all these things and many more have changed the pattern and the matrix of our social lives. The Political Revolution did not come alone; the Industrial Revolution was superimposed on it. It was still true that the purpose of civil government was to provide for the peace and security of those who lived under it; but the content of these general concepts had to be analyzed anew, with reference to problems—the growth of an urban proletariat, for example—which earlier generations were not called upon to face, and in terms of new channels of authority, new governmental institutions and processes. The age of "Social Politics,” to use the happy phrase of Professor Carlton Hayes,[4] had arrived. For the Political Revolution cast off various old political ties, and various social disabilities; it was, if you will, a somewhat negative movement, emphasizing "freedom from.” Later in the process, in consequence of democratization and industrialism, a positive demand makes itself felt, emphasizing greater participation, not only in the governmental process but in economic advantages, calling for positive services from the state—benefits such as unemployment insurance, standards of wages and hours, old age pensions and the like. To describe the movement would be to tell, among other things, the history of de Mun and the Social Catholics in France and elsewhere on the Continent, of Manning and the pre-1914 Liberal Party in England, and—much later—of the New Deal in this country, not to mention, ex altera parte, socialism in its many forms.

Now all this may seem remote from the problem set before us at the outset, namely, what contribution our Jesuit educational system in this country can make to democracy. I do not think, however, that we have wandered too far afield. For our problem, as I see it, is two-fold: it is, first of all, to hand on to our students, in definite and vivid terms, such a doctrine of human nature as will provide them with something basic to all their political thought, and something partaking of the nature of an absolute to which they can refer democratic doctrine. And secondly, it is to play our part, as teachers, students, writers, in interpreting the needs of our time with the aid of our age-old and immutable philosophical concepts. For both tasks, understanding of the origins of our pressing social problems is absolutely vital.

Some contemporary writers and some university professors and presidents are experiencing an uncomfortable intellectual draft as they awake to find a large proportion of young men and women, well formed in scepticism and disillusionment by their very teachers, no longer actively believe in any values, and that if these young people cling with a certain [156] instinct to a belief in democracy, this belief, lacking a radical basis in logic and human nature, is not likely to survive sudden, violent shocks. The situation has been admirably though perhaps too pessimistically described by Professor Mortimer Adler.[5] There are plenty of people who base their belief in democracy, very sincerely and very completely, on a theory of natural rights. Theirs is a fair working theory so far as it goes, and it may provide them with a more or less permanent philosophical abode. But there are almost inevitable contradictions which will beat at its windows. And when you say, "yes, but on what do you base natural rights?” the discussion becomes viciously circular.

Catholic educators do not labor under such disabilities. Their doctrine of natural rights can be traced back to verities that are pre-political, that are bound up with ethics and with theology. They do not need to plead for "faith in the democratic process”; they do not view democracy as a particular set of mores, which, in a given cultural frame of reference (blessed phrase!) enjoy a temporary vogue and a somewhat dubious respectability. But they should endeavor to communicate to their students a reasoned, vital enthusiasm for responsible representative government according to just law and reasonable interpretation of the Constitution, as that form which is most in harmony with individual dignity and social responsibility in our historical setting.

Catholic educators will be realistic; yet they shall not betray themselves and their students by hard-boiled, disillusioned cynicism about political facts—which logically ends in the overthrow of democracy and perhaps in a "revolution of nihilism.” They cannot afford to shrug their shoulders at political corruption, because, forsooth, it has "always existed,” and anyway, doesn’t the "machine” give handouts to the poor and tear up the clergy’s traffic tickets? Mr. Charles Michelson, publicity director for the Democratic National Committee, has recently given us a splendid example both of a type of political mores and of the cynical attitude we must combat. In an article released to the daily press by the North American Newspaper Alliance agency, dated Washington, November 11, 1940, Mr. Michelson offers a "critique by a publicity engineer of the technique and strategy of ... the battle for Wendell Willkie.” Speaking of the choice of Mr. Willkie as candidate for the Presidency, he writes:
I do not know that anybody could have beaten such a popular idol as Franklin D. Roosevelt, but I have in mind the type which would have had a much better chance than Mr. Willkie. He should have been a bland person, with some wealth, inherited possibly, and a record of public service—governor of a state, perhaps, or a judge, or even the head of a conspicuous philanthropic [157] organization, with a war record to take away the taint of stuffed-shirtism. A human bromide? Certainly; that’s what the occasion demanded.[6]
Whether or not Mr. Michelson is spoofing his foes, the same attitude is to be found in many political treatises by serious scholars, and I submit that the logical consequences of such statements are more dangerous to democracy than Mr. Earl Browder's noisiest rallies.

On the other hand, and at the opposite extreme, we will carefully refrain from identifying any form of governmental institutions with "Catholism,” bearing in mind the precisions of every pope since Leo XIII as to the compatibility of the Church with any form of civil society which recognizes the rights of God and the Church. Nor will we be deluded into thinking that Christianity is, to quote Mr. Christopher Dawson,[7] "like a patent medicine that is warranted to cure all diseases." The same author continues:[8]
Christianity offers no short cuts to economic prosperity or social stability. A century ago there was a tendency to treat Christianity as a kind of social sedative that kept the lower classes obedient and industrious, and the consequence was the Marxian denunciation of religion as the opium of the poor. And if today we treat Christianity as a social tonic that will cure economic depression and social unrest and make everybody happy, we shall only ensure disillusionment and reaction. It is impossible to create a Christian social order ab extra by the application of a few ready-made principles or by introducing legislative reforms.
Furthermore, just because we are by second nature so conscious and respectful of order and hierarchy in truth, we shall be very careful not to withdraw prematurely to the higher ground of abstract principle, and content ourselves with being philosophers, leaving what are called the social sciences to stew in their own thin intellectual juices. Those sciences—politics, economics, sociology—need precisely what we have to give them: an ethical bearing; but the trick can’t be done without studious application to political, economic, and sociological facts, as they actually occur in our social setting. Some day, some of our graduates may make important contributions to social theory, to law, to public life, precisely because they are Catholic scholars. Let us remember that, as educators, we have a duty to society of preparing not just good citizens, but really capable leaders, in public life as well as in the Church and other vocations.

One last word. Our concern with democracy and its problems at home [158] should not distract our attention as Catholic educators from the larger problem of world organization. In this field perhaps more than elsewhere, Catholic scholarship in America faces a challenge. Is it not fair to say that Catholics, who ought to be universalists by habit of mind, and hence better qualified to apprehend the issues at stake, have been somewhat slow to contribute anything very substantial to the raging debates about international organization and law, the concept of neutrality, intervention, national self-determination, that fill the air about us? Here the ground is shaky indeed; ethical principles have still to be formulated and developed. But perhaps in this very domain, American Catholics may make their best contribution. The vigorous Catholic social thinkers of France, the Low Countries, the Germanics, have now been silenced;[9] perhaps we can try to fill their place.

Catholic—and Jesuit—education, then, has a contribution to make to democracy, and to the American way of life. It has its Christian-humanist tradition and philosophy of man with which to give true meaning and value to our democratic institutions. But it cannot confine itself solely to abstract statement, as though the social order were static. In a changing, growing world, ever more complex, it must continually enlarge and refine its doctrine to reach and to penetrate new human problems and situations created by external forces—"omnia probate, quod honum est tenete.” In proclaiming what ought to be, Catholic education should never overlook what is: to do so would be to create an inadequate picture of the world, and risk untrue conclusions. But its view of what is will never obscure the beckoning summons of duty to that which ought to be, to those things which will create a better world for free yet responsible men.



1. The Will to Freedom, London, 1936, p. 68.

2. De Legibus ac de Deo Legislatore, lib. II, cap. 19, par. 9. Italics inserted.

3. I do not mean obviously, that the Middle Ages were not conscious of what we might call international law. St. Thomas is full of meaty reflections on peace and war; the notion of "Jus Gentium" was inherited from Roman times. But in the passage quoted, Suarez seems to be thinking about law as between equal and independent states—a concept unknown to the Middle Ages. And "Jus Gentium" seems to mean "a body of rights belonging to all peoples, whatever the accidents of their birth, which should be respected, in their mutual relations." Cf. Eppstein, The Catholic Tradition of the Law of Nations, London, 1935, p. 259.

4. Cf. British Social Politics, New York, 1913.

5. "This Pre-War Generation," Harper's Magazine, October 1940.

6. Italics inserted.—One may doubt whether this is a very good analysis even on Mr. Michelson's own premisses [sic]. After all, Mr. Willkie ran an excellent race; most commentators considered him the strongest possible candidate, and he attracted five million new votes to the ticket, while President Roosevelt lost half a million from his 1936 total.

7. Religion and the Modern State, London, 1938, p. 121.

8. Ibid., pp. 121-22. Italics inserted.

9. Everyone must know about such movements as the J. O. C., Action Populaire, etc. But Catholic thinkers in Europe were also greatly concerned about international problems. See, for example, the Semaine Sociale de France of 1926, the subject of which was "La Vie Internationale" (Compte Rendu: La Chronique Sociale, Lyon, 1926); also, the excellent "Code de Morale Internationale," published by the Union Internationale d'Etudes Sociales of Malines, Paris, 1937, which was compiled by Father Albert Muller, S. J., of the faculty of the Institut St-Ignace of Antwerp, and later translated by the Catholic Social Guild, Oxford, 1938.


Source: Gerard F. Yates, S.J., "Jesuit Education and Democracy," Jesuit Educational Quarterly 3, no. 3 (December 1940): 152–158.

Thursday, December 27, 2018

Robert Gannon, Jesuit Education of the Future (1940)

[128] [Footnote attached to the article title: An address delivered at the 54th annual convention of Middle States Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools at Atlantic City, New Jersey, November 23, 1940.]

When I found that there was no escape from the honor of addressing you this morning, I asked that the authorities assign me a subject on which the audience had even less information than I had. They answered that that would be possible only if the audience were composed exclusively of college presidents. So the next best thing was a seance of crystal gazing in which we could all have our feet well off the ground. "What will the Jesuit education of the future be?" proved to be an excellent question for such an occasion, because the proper approach to an answer that might apply in even a single country, presupposes a few such simple questions as these: How long will the present war last? Who, if anyone, is going to win it? Are we, perhaps, going to take a hand ourselves? If so, will our own form of government remain unchanged? Even if it does, shall we have a Secretary of Education? Will she be known as the Secretary of Propaganda, or will she simply be such in fact? How long will private institutions be allowed to grant degrees? How long will they be tax exempt? How long will they be able, in any case, to pay the grocer? It is all pretty foggy of course except on the supposition that our form of government in the United States will change eventually to the Russian or the German model. Only in that case can we be relatively definite in predicting the future of Jesuit education in America. For then will it most certainly be one with Nineveh and Tyre. Come the revolution, we Jesuits are prepared to dangle from 5,000 telegraph poles, beginning with the rock-bound coast of Maine. We may dangle Jesuitically, in a clever diabolical manner that no one ever expected, but the breathing is sure to be awkward and in any case the Ratio Studiorum will be done for until, of course, we return again, as we always do. (It would be un-American to say that we have been thrown out of better countries than this. But no one can deny that we have had a lot of practice!)

Suppose, however, that democracy not only endures, but triumphs, that education is able to resist strangulation at the hands of the Federal Government, a strangulation that has been threatening for nearly twenty years; suppose that the public comes to realize the immense debt this country owes to private institutions and the irreparable loss that would be suffered if all the small colleges of liberal arts were to be crushed. In other [129] words, suppose that the next sixty years turn out to be something like the last. What can we predict with any amount of confidence? Only such things as may be called essential to our ideals.

As Abraham Flexner once said, "Subjects change, problems change, activities change, but ideas and qualities abide." In the course of our four hundred years, we have ourselves seen many changes in subject matter, or more accurately perhaps, changes in the emphasis placed on various subjects in the curriculum. The vernacular, for example, was not entirely ignored, even in the sixteenth century, and the physical and social sciences were all familiar, in a way, to a boy attending a Jesuit college in the time of Henry of Navarre. For even then, in his study of the classics, he went far beyond the problems of grammar and strove for a grasp of the varied content found in the old historians, scientists, and statesmen. To a still greater extent, in his study of systematic philosophy was he concerned with questions no relegated not only to sociology and government, but to physics, biology, and chemistry. Yet the emphasis now placed on modern languages, and the social and physical sciences, to say nothing of the de-emphasis evident with regard to Latin and Greek and philosophy would certainly have amazed the Very Reverend Father Claudius Aquaviva. So, too, would the complexity of our problems in preparing students for modern life. It is a far cry from the days when university graduates were expected merely to be teachers, statesmen, gentlemen of leisure, or clerics. The value of the old classical training for such was fairly obvious. Their financial and political problems were different too. It was one thing to receive a foundation of so many golden ducats from the Duke of Gandia or the municipality of Hildesheim, so that one could operate in tranquillity as a free school, and quite another to begin in a log cabin and live on one's wits. The presidents of our older institutions were saintly and scholarly men who left a tremendous impression on their two or three hundred pupils. Now we have to find the type that can stay out late and wake up cheerful, eat rich food and keep the old figure down, shake hands like a Rotarian, pass the tambourine, and preserve the King's peace among some four hundred and fifty faculty members. Similar changes may be anticipated for the future in subject emphasis, social problems, and activities. Professional schools will of course as in the past, change most radically, being concerned chiefly with changeable elements, new discoveries, and skills. But these we mention only in passing, because there is nothing distinctly Jesuit in even our own schools of engineering and medicine. Our college of liberal arts, however, will certainly change the least. For its principal purpose, the training of the intellect and will, its principal subjects Divine and human nature, and its principal instruments, literature and philosophy, will always be essential in any civilized country [130] at any time. I should not be surprised (though this of course is shameless crystal gazing) if the numbers in our liberal arts were drastically reduced before my golden jubilee. Neither should I be a bit displeased. For like all other American institutions, we have our own proportion of spoiled house painters working for an arts degree. I expect, however, to see a time when only those will take up the liberal arts who can profit by them, and trade schools and professional schools in abundance will look after the other boys and girls. For the shadow of vocationalism, the constant demand for ad hoc training which comes today from so many parents and students and which more than anything else has caused a loss of confidence in our traditional college course, would vanish if schools with irreconcilable purposes existed side by side, frankly different, without any effort at compromise, the large ones teaching their students how to make a living, the small ones how to live a full, rich, intellectual life. It is true that most of the students who will thus be able undisturbed to give their hours to Aristotle and Sophocles will have to learn eventually how to make a living, too, since these schools will be too small and few to absorb all their own graduates as teachers. For them, however, vocationalism will wait on culture and be in the nature of graduate work, the time element being remedied by getting our students through their undergraduate studies at eighteen and nineteen years of age—an end devoutly to be wished, and not impossible.

Having thus solved the modern problem of vocationalism by reserving the liberal arts for those who are fit for them, let us imagine ourselves a board of inspectors visiting a Jesuit college in the year of our Lord 2000. The first room we enter, presided over by a middle-aged Father who will have been born about 1960, is doing the Pro Marcello, reading the Latin with emotion, analyzing the power of the speech, trying to transfer some of its beauty into English. Next door, a somewhat smaller group will be getting ready to produce Antigone, arguing about the difficult meter of the choruses. For our persistence in defending the ancient classics is not vestigial; it is not a mere habit that was formed in a simpler time when people had less to learn and much more leisure. It is a matter of dispassionate conviction arising from arguments which will probably be as valid in the year 2000 as they are at present. Then, as now, it will be desirable to know some other civilization with familiarity in order that we may better know our own. Then, as now, the splendor, depth, and completeness of Greece and Rome will be more impressive than that of China, Carthage, or Victorian England, not to mention Rooseveltian [sic] America or the worm-eaten Europe of the twentieth century. They will always have, moreover, immensely greater value than any other civilization as being two of the principal fountain heads of modern life. Then, as now, the sympathetic [131] understanding of another civilization will involve a knowledge of its language. And when you add the further advantage in the present instance that these languages are themselves so beautifully and so logically developed that their mastery tends to form invaluable habits of the intellect, you can readily understand why Jesuit colleges of liberal arts have no intention of abandoning Latin and Greek. The same is even more true of systematic philosophy. Sixty years from now our students will still be learning to think, not in bunches, but in an orderly process that turns all the stones and picks up loose threads as it goes. They will still be learning to analyze, a rare enough thing even now in this age of synthesis. They will still be welding together more through philosophy than any other means all their literature and their social and physical sciences; welding them into a definite interpretation of their own experience and of the world in which they will be living at that time. Science, will, as always, have its place. But it will be a place definitely subordinate to literature and philosophy. For we can anticipate nothing that will change our conviction with regard to the end of the liberal arts. While we remain what we are, we can never regard that end as the accumulation of facts or skills. We shall always be content to train the attitudes of our students, to let others train their hands. We shall never try to evaluate an ode of Horace in terms of dollars and cents. We shall always be absorbed in the thrilling task of enriching the taste, sharpening the intellect, and strengthening the will of future leaders of men. We have consistently resisted a dozen will-of-the-wisps through three generations of American floundering. We are not likely to follow any new ones in the next sixty years. The most influential of the present crop whose spirit has permeated every state of the Union with socialism, pragmatism, and exaggerated experimentalism, has left us happily unscathed. We esteem the individual too highly to be thorough-going socialists. We are too devoted to principles which we regard as eternal to be entirely pragmatic. We are too impressed by the accumulated wisdom of the human race, by that treasure of experience to which each generation adds its small deposit of true gold, ever to have our schools ignore the past and start again as though no one else had ever lived before us. Sixty years from now, we shall still strive to honor the individual, to honor eternal principles and traditions but above all, to honor God, who is the reason for honoring all the rest.

Therefore, of this one fact we are more certain than of all the other predictions about our future schools that have gone before, Jesuit education in the year of our Lord 2000 will still be definitely anti-naturalistic. It will be strong in its opposition to a system in which to quote de Hovre "mental life is reduced to psychology, psychology to physiology, physiology to biology and biology to mechanism," in which "concepts become [132] percepts, ideas become images or representations, intelligence becomes a function of the brain, the soul is reduced to matter, will is identified with instinct, freedom yields place to determinism." In which, to put it briefly, man is reduced to nature. You can be equally sure that all the symptoms and signs of naturalism will be absent, too. Relativity, with its fuzzy thinking about universal truth. Psychologism, with its desire to dissect human nature as one would the brain cells of a frog. Scorn of tradition, which makes everything old, seem absurd. Scientism, which accepts the laboratory as the only source of truth. Methodicism, with its worship of "how" at the expense of "what." Scepticism, which worships the pursuit of truth, rather than truth itself. Bibliolatry, which worships mere production for its own sake; which rates a teacher by the number of books he may have published.

Perhaps the rejection of all this will not be as individualizing in the year 2000 as it is today. Perhaps this naturalism, with its easy and empty catch phrases may be as extinct as the white rhinoceros in another sixty years. Certainly American educators of today are not as openly enthusiastic about it as they were three generations ago. At that time, you may remember,  it was popularized by Comte in philosophy, by Darwin in science, by Spencer in education, and by Zola and Balzac in literature. It was so terrifically modern and so scientific in 1850, it was so easy to grasp and explained so much: "Nature is the source of all, all is explained by nature." My dear, it was as simple and as smart as stepping into a horse car. Then, too, it was so optimistic. All one had to do to be happy was to live in tune with nature. You know, clouds and rocks and things? Then, too, it had the distinct advantage of flattering the private judgment and doing away with the troublesome Ten Commandments. Unfortunately, however, the intervening century has emphasized the inadequacy of such a point of view, and now educators say they have abandoned naturalism. They haven't. They have abandoned only its name. All the derivative aberrations we mentioned above, beginning with Relativity and ending with Bibliolatry are still flourishing in American universities. It is still true that science is the main instrument of our national education, that it is still dehumanizing our schools, that it is still crowding out our liberal arts. As Max Scheler wrote in Person und Sache, "There is no point perhaps in which modern minds are more in accord than on this one, namely, that nature and machinery, things which man should control, have come to dominate man more and more, that things are becoming more powerful, more beautiful, more noble, that man is becoming smaller and more insignificant, a mere cog in the machine he has built." Sixty years from now, we Jesuits shall be still specializing in human nature. The tide may be with us or against us. It varies in different generations. We shall be just [133] as interested as ever in man's importance, man's absolute and relative importance. We shall still be absorbed in problems that center on the double role he plays as creature and lord of creation because when we cease to consider this, the starting point of all our education, we shall no longer be ourselves; our education will be something else.

In one way, therefore, our future is wholly unpredictable. Sixty years from now we may be just a picturesque chapter in the history of education, a phenomenon of the Renaissance that lasted into the bloody and barbarous twentieth century. If, however, the human race muddles through its difficulties and normal life returns, if the Jesuits are still conducting liberal arts colleges in a free United States, they will be following a rejuvenated, streamlined, but still quite recognizable Ratio Studiorum.


Source: Robert I. Gannon, S.J., "Jesuit Education of the Future," Jesuit Educational Quarterly 3, no. 3 (December 1940): 128–133.

Robert Henle, Stimulating the Superior Student (1940)

[15] [Footnote attached to the article title: Summary of paper read at the meeting of the high-school delegates, Jesuit Educational Association, Kansas City, Missouri, March 29, 1940.]

There is little need to insist on the importance of the problem raised by the presence in our schools of the exceptionally gifted student. It is a problem set us by God Himself. For does not the bestowal on our boys of unusual gifts of mind and character, impose, by that very fact, an imperative obligation on those to whom their development is entrusted? We who know of His Providence must believe that He means, in our day, to raise up among us leaders of courage and power. And these leaders—may they not be those highly talented boys that we find in all our schools, boys who are eager and alert, susceptible of inspiration, receptive to ideas and ideals?

The problem seems so important, that I will not limit myself to dealing with individual methods or auxiliary activities by which all good teachers who have the time attempt to stimulate their gifted students. These are makeshift devices, mere appendages of the classroom work. No amount of such extra or special work, excellent as it may be in the circumstances, can provide the adequate treatment that the superior student needs. We will never do him justice nor realize our full potentialities as Jesuit educators until we make basic changes in organization and curriculum. I believe there is latent power in our traditions and our organization which we have not as yet fully realized or applied here in America. I envision a Jesuit high-school education that would not only be superior to all others, Catholic and non-Catholic alike, but also to our own past successes. Whatever criticisms, then, I may offer in the course of this paper will be relative to this ideal.

We are hampered in dealing with gifted boys by the present rigidity and uniformity of curriculum and organization. It is on the superior student that the evils of mass education fall most heavily. He is marked by stronger individuality, by greater differentiation in quality of talent and temperament. This naturally strong individuality he has often further emphasized by accidentally directed interests, habits of reading, observation, and the like. The gifted student simply refuses to be generalized into an average. Yet, he finds himself in a system based on the doctrine of the average. The class is taught according to methods adapted to the average; its matter is set up and assigned by an average; the goal of achievement set is based on an average of ability. This goal the superior student finds [16] easy; the classroom teaching is too plodding for his more rapid mind; mental tension of the classroom is at too low a potential for him. He becomes bored; he does the required; he is not interested or stimulated. Some of these brighter boys become lazy through lack of incentive; some of them expend their intellectual energy in outside activities like debating, dramatics, desultory reading.

Again, the superior student above all others learns by self-activity. To him the principle of St. Ignatius is supremely applicable that what one discovers for oneself is of far more value than what another tells him. Yet, the general classroom technique is necessarily open to the charge of spoon-feeding. With an average class we cannot busy ourselves, as Socrates did, in any midwifery of ideas; the Socratic method would be too slow, would raise more difficulties and obscurities than we could ever handle. And so the greatest thrill and inspiration and profit of the intellectual life, discovery of ideas, is denied to the very student who could most profit by it.

I would propose to meet the situation by setting up an honors course for select students. I do not mean simply a grouping together of the upper-ranking students at a higher average level of teaching and achievement, but a separate course outside the average organization itself, one based precisely on the principle of individual education. We could outline the essential features of such a course under four heads: (1) The subject matter would be divided into two sections; namely, one integrated central course in the humanities, to include the linguistic, literary and historical disciplines; and a small group of auxiliary branches like mathematics and science. (2) A single able teacher would be assigned to a small group of, say, fifteen boys as their permanent director. He would himself teach the humanities throughout the four years. (3) The progress would be based on achievement and mastery, not on the unit-test-mark system. (4) The method would include directed study and self-activity; personal direction; personal tempo of progress; Socratic method in dealing with ideas.

Obviously, the important element in such a system would be the directing teacher. He should be a man of intellectual interests, of balanced character, and, above all, devoted with apostolic zeal to the best interests, both spiritual and intellectual, of the boys. This teacher of high calibre [sic] would, with a small and permanent group, be able to apply himself to the study of each boy as an individual problem. He would come to know and understand the  minds and characters with which he is dealing, and, through his four years of contact, he would be able to direct reading, discussion, and study strategically, like a good general, towards the goal most fitted to each boy. The constant contact with such a teacher would arouse admiration and the incentive to imitation in the young minds. After all, youth develops its ethical attitudes from social pressure and imitation rather than from [17] copy-book maxims and religion-class exhortations. Many would object to wasting, as they would put it, such a man in high-school work. But if there can hardly be a work of more permanent value and of greater ultimate influence than the production of the great Christian character, and if secondary schooling is the most plastic period of a man's life, how could we do better than to place outstanding men in such positions? A province would reap rich rewards from such a 'sacrifice' of talent. If the contact with one major teacher would be thought too narrow, perhaps two such men could handle several groups of honor students in close cooperation, close enough at least not to destroy the intrinsic unity of the humanities course.

The course I suggest would be based on a single major study including languages, literature, and history. All true liberal education has included these disciplines which are so solidly established in our own traditions. This is precisely because such studies present a diversified and yet unified training that corresponds to the fullness of human nature. They bring out in harmony and polish to perfection the potential excellencies and powers of man as such. The arbitrary division of an hour for Greek, an hour for Latin, and hour for English, has greatly weakened the efficiency of the humanities, especially by dividing the direction between a classical M. A. and an English M. A. The underlying habits and ideas are the same; we wish to teach sound linguistic habits, literary attitudes, and general cultural ideas. Unity of study and teaching will throw emphasis on the educational goal and on the boy rather than on a specialized subject-matter. Within the course all our traditional methods and many excellent devices developed in modern times would find place. Basing the whole on the personal tempo of the individual student and on achievement, we could have the boys working at a tension of activity rightly proportioned to their ability. And if the system were based on achievement progress, every step would be sound. It is easy enough in the unit-test-mark system for a boy to get a passing grade in a test or even in a course without real mastery of the subject. As such a boy passes on from class to class, he is found to have preparation progressively less adequate for each advance. He pulls down the average of the class and himself develops a garbled mentality and a set of slipshod intellectual habits. If, on the other hand, mastery is the test of advance to new matter, if new units or projects are not undertaken until habitual mastery of the pre-requisites is acquired, solid and genuine intellectual growth will result, a thing for which the gifted boy will have respect and a growing gratitude.

The matter of the humanities would admit a variety of excellent methods, all permitting a maximum of self-activity and individual direction. Some matters, like syntax, would fall naturally into progressive units to [18] be mastered in sequence by the individual. Others, like history, where a dull lecture-recitation method is often used, would be organized as projects to be worked up under direction. Reading—think what it would mean to be able to direct and study the reading of a boy through four years of high school, especially if one had other opportunities of taking intellectual measure of his mind. With a small and selected group one could frequently resort to the Socratic method, leading a boy to the splendid surprise of idea-discovery.

All this is firmly founded in our Ratio and our traditions; and it would profit by and perfect the better efforts being made by outsiders in this same field.[2] We Jesuits, whose educational achievements turned back heresy and reformed Catholic Europe, whose history is one of courageous conquest of obstacles and daring victory, are not we supremely fitted to turn our hands to the reconstruction of education and of society by making available to boys of talent an even more effective system of secondary education?



2. Cf. "An Experiment in Responsible Learning," by William S. Learned and Anna Rose Hawkes, Thirty-Fourth Annual Report, the Carnegie Foundation, New York, 1938, pp. 45-75.


Source: Robert J. Henle, S.J., "Stimulating the Superior Student," Jesuit Educational Quarterly 3, no. 1 (June 1940): 15–18.

Jesuit Education in the Contemporary Scene: Dangers and Obstacles (1940)

[12] [Footnote attached to article title: Summary of a paper read at the general meeting of the Jesuit Educational Association, Kansas City, Missouri, March 26, 1940.]

The greatest danger for our American Jesuit educational system would seem to be the threat of extinction. Primum est vivere. We have been so accustomed to chart the progress of our schools by the annual increase of enrollment, we are so dependent for our support and the liquidation of our debts upon tuition fees, that a decline in numbers and revenue must inevitably sound like the first knell of our untimely interment. Yet competent students of population statistics assure us that the enrollment tide has been running out in the elementary grades, and the effects will soon be felt in secondary and higher institutions. Instead of worrying about how to find space for the students who clamor at our doors, how to discriminate and eliminate the less desirable, our successors, and even we ourselves before many years, will be hard put to it to utilize the buildings we have already provided. Competition with tax-supported institutions will become increasingly unequal as people become more habitually dependent upon public money for the various necessities and luxuries of life. Our smaller schools and colleges (and there are at least a dozen such) will naturally feel the pressure first; their death notice has already been given, and in some cases will undoubtedly be carried out, lessening insofar the national spread of our educational influence. But all of our institutions, even those in the largest urban centers, as recent studies have warned us, will have to face the task of adjusting themselves to a falling market.

But a more immediate danger is the threat to our independence. However favorably our educational liberty may compare with that enjoyed in other countries, absolutely speaking we are not free to apply our educational ideals to the fullest degree. I doubt if we ever will be. No institution is completely free that has recurring interest payments to meet. And even within the ambit of our means we are not free. The State has something to say about the type of courses we give and the accrediment [sic] thereof. A patent example is the business of teacher training and certification. When our students conceive the laudable ambition to enter this field, they subject themselves and us with them (if we wish to cooperate) to the standards [13] and examples of the state institutions. Our curriculum has in many instances to be adjusted, or else teacher preparation becomes a state monopoly. In either alternative liberty suffers. Similarly in the field of secondary education, certain services are made available at public expense for students of public high schools, scholarships are offered to the state's higher institutions; where occasionally the same or similar privileges are extended to students of private schools such as ours, it is only at the price of much of our own freedom.

Should we seek to throw off the educational shackles of the state and organize as independent institutions, we only take up the yoke of the various accrediting agencies, more tyrannical because more meticulous than the state. I do not wish unqualifiedly to decry these associations, or to cast any blame upon our predecessors who chose to ally us with them. On the contrary I can see many benefits that they brought us; for one notable example the better preparation of our teachers. But I insist that by their judicial function these associations are a constant danger to our independence, tending to reduce all institutions to the same pattern. Our colleges and universities in particular are noticeably hampered in their organization and division of classes by the fear of reprimands from higher commissions. Graduate work is rigidly controlled or eliminated by their ipse dixits; and thus the reputation if not the existence of our institutions is made dependent upon the beneplacitum of a strong pressure group.

It is true that a measure of this freedom may be perilously preserved by our faithful participation in the councils of these agencies. Thus we can expect to serve our turn in the offices and on the commissions that wield the power; we can for a change be the judges instead of the judged. We can even shape the policies and ideals of the other institutions to some extent. But to a very small extent. Our philosophy of education, like our psychology, is hopelessly alien to most of our non-Catholic educational colleagues, and for the few ideas of ours that they absorb, they subtly impose upon us a great many of their own. It takes stronger resistance than most of us have, not to imbibe ideals and criteria that are fallacious, if not harmful. By dint of filling out questionnaires we begin to accept implied quantitative standards and to value our institutions according to the number of learned magazines we subscribe to, and the conventions we attend.

The third danger to our educational integrity is the constant temptation to modify our traditional educational policy. The Jesuit code of education, though sometimes more honored in the breach than in the observance, has historically been committed to the Renaissance ideal of the liberal arts as opposed to vocationalism. Gradually by force of circumstances, a considerable growth of specialized non-liberal courses has been grafted on to our system so that now it is not always easy to recognize a Jesuit school or [14] college except by the black robes of some of the teachers. In the face of dwindling enrollments already foreseen, this deliberalizing tendency will go on unless we are seriously determined to stop it. Already more than half of the students in our higher institutions are in courses that cannot be classified as liberal, and there are clear indications that the trend is on the increase. Random sampling indicates that in our high schools too, in many sections of the country, a similar situation prevails. What is it that brought about this denial in practice of our four-century old theory of education? It is the fear of empty classrooms if we resist the vocational spirit of the times. Only the inveterate humanists, the belated followers of Newman will wistfully wonder whether a few distinctly Jesuit institutions are not a greater glory than a disparate group of complex institutes of applied arts. Or is it only the leader of a lost cause who says, "Sint ut sunt, aut non sint"? [NB: "Let them be as they are, or not at all."]

It may not be feasible or desirable to scrap immediately and everywhere all our courses and departments which do not properly come under the traditional scope of Jesuit education, but a beginning could be made forthwith. At least as a group we could subscribe to a clear-cut manifesto of our predominantly humanistic sympathies. Individually our administrators might pledge themselves for the quadricentennial year to a moratorium on expansion and experimentation; to the better publicising [sic], preparation, and conducting of our courses in the humanities, and to the leavening of all other curricula by a more generous injection of the liberal arts. Would not our whole educational system bask in the reflected glory of one strictly and uncompromisingly classical college? Why should not our high schools, when they exist side by side with other Catholic secondary schools, be reserved for those who are willing and able to follow the full classical curriculum? Are we not obliged in justice to take every possible means that our students secure that type of education for which we are the best fitted by training and tradition, and which moreover we consider the best system yet evolved for the cultivation of the human mind?


Source: Andrew C. Smith, S.J., "Jesuit Education in the Contemporary Scene: Dangers and Obstacles," Jesuit Educational Quarterly 3, no. 1 (June 1940): 12–14.

Ted Gioia on Music Criticism and His Critics

Ted Gioia, "Music Criticism Has Degenerated Into Lifestyle Reporting," Daily Beast, March 2014,

Responses and criticisms:

Kurt Poterack, The Rhythm of Popular Music

The most interesting response to my Principles article, “A People without Melody,” was: “I get what you are saying about melody, but what about rhythm?” The person continued: “Certainly, there is a big emphasis on rhythm in popular music; wouldn’t you say that popular music today excels when it comes to rhythm?” I replied that rhythm is certainly a defining feature of much popular music today; however, the notion that these rhythms are always “excellent” would require a lengthier answer. This essay is my response.

I should say, by means of introduction, that I can only survey what I see as major trends in contemporary popular music and cannot even cover all of these. I very much regret, for example, that I will not be able to speak about that complicated, yet important, phenomenon of swing rhythm. There just isn’t enough space. But what follows will be an honest attempt to critique some of the major rhythmic trends in popular music.

It might be helpful, first, to look at St. Augustine’s definition of music: Musica est scientia bene modulandi. There is some question about the meaning of the last word (modulandi), but a good translation would be: “Music is the art of measuring well.” There is, however, another possible, and very complementary, translation. Taking the word motus (movement), which is very close to modulandi’s cognate word modus (measurement), I propose another translation: “Music is the art of moving well.”[1]

These two connected ideas of the measurement of musical rhythm and the movement that it inspires in dance go back, most famously, to Plato. However, it is important to understand that it is the perceived movement in the music itself that, arguably, inspires the reciprocal movement in dancing. Keeping this in mind, I would like to proceed to what I think is a central, and poignant, question implicit in Roger Scruton’s fascinating book The Aesthetics of Music. The question is: How did we get from “the cheerful and life-enhancing sound of Louis Armstrong” to the “monsters of Heavy Metal”?[2] Or, if I may add, to the modern-day Danse Apache of Gangsta Rap?

Even before Louis Armstrong, there is the equally cheerful and life-enhancing music of Ragtime. Ragtime seems to have been created by black pianists of the American Midwest who took the pre-existing musical form of the march, but “ragged” (i.e., syncopated) the rhythm of the melodies. Syncopation, which means emphasizing normally weak beats or weak parts of beats, was not a new phenomenon—you can find it in classical music. What makes Ragtime different, however, is that it uses syncopation regularly as a normal part of the music.

Is this more frequent use of syncopation something that comes out of Africa? Yes, but there is more to it than that. In Africa, as well as other places outside the West, one can find very complex percussion music of long tradition. It is typical in Africa to hear percussion ensembles playing layered rhythms that create fascinating textures, polyrhythms (e.g., groups of four played against groups of three), intellectually stimulating ambiguities (are these three groups of two or two groups of three?), and, at times, a deliberate obscuring of the beat.

Since such practices are beyond what one would hear even in Ragtime and in Louis Armstrong, where would one hear these influences in American popular music? The answer is that they can be heard in the Latin American music that comes out of South America and the Caribbean—rumba, mambo, salsa—where black slaves were able to preserve more of their musical traditions than in North America. One can also hear this in some of the more sophisticated forms of jazz, particularly the solos of some of the better jazz drummers like “Papa” Joe Jones, Art Blakey, or Max Roach, to name just a few. Speaking about musicians in India, but applicable to African-influenced music, the critic Winthrop Sargeant notes that:
It often happens among Indian musicians that a vina player and a drummer will engage in a friendly contest to see which can confuse the other into losing track of the sam (the beat). . . . The vina player delights in apparently losing himself in the most abstruse counter-rhythms, leaving the listener with an utter sense of bewilderment, only to issue forth triumphantly at the sam again without a hair’s breadth of inaccuracy, and with a sparkle of obvious satisfaction.[3]
If you want to get a sense of this technique in jazz drumming, look at the YouTube video “Max Roach -Solos.flv.”[4] The second solo in that video is a particularly good example of this technique of obscuring the beat for a long time and then re-entering without missing a beat—a technique that is utterly foreign to most popular music today. In fact, the stronger and more obvious a beat is, the more likely are people to call the music “rhythmic,” which is a bit like saying, “2 + 2 = 4” and people responding, “He’s a brilliant mathematician!” So, whence comes this idea that a throbbing, pounding, obvious beat is especially “rhythmic”—let alone “primitive”?

In order to understand this, we have to go to Paris, the night of May 29, 1913, when Igor Stravinsky’s ballet The Rite of Spring was premiered. The ballet tells the story of a virgin in pagan Russia sacrificing herself to Nature for the coming of spring. At that time, primitive cultures were a common enough fascination for Western artists and intellectuals going back at least to Herman Melville and continuing through Gauguin’s sojourn in Tahiti. Margaret Mead’s 1925 trip to Samoa should also be included as a cautionary tale of how this Western fascination can involve a certain amount of wish projection.[5]

Now Stravinsky had no agenda, but those famous stabbing, pulsing chords in the Danse des Adolescentes section of The Rite of Spring, which the audience heard that night, were to become forever seared into our modern Western cultural consciousness as exemplars of “primitive rhythm.” To be fair to Stravinsky, this is one section in a very long work, and even these repeated pulse-like chords are accented at irregular intervals that give the rhythm a real subtlety. However, as great a work of art as The Rite is, in my opinion, its faux primitivism unwittingly inspired lesser talents to create everything from cheap slasher movie sound tracks to the mindless thumping of disco music (including, but not limited to, the Village People) to the hand-clapping in Queen’s tribal anthem, “We Will Rock You” (short-short, LONG, short-short, LONG), and a whole lot more.

It is almost as if our culture collectively said, “You see, this is what primitive people do, and we all know that they ‘have rhythm’!” But as I already established, many non-Western cultures have a much more sophisticated sense of rhythm than that. What developed was a musical caricature of the primitive. For example, take Stravinsky’s pulsating rhythm; speed it up a bit; amplify it; put it into the most predictable, symmetrical patterns; spike your hair; wear a torn T-shirt; and maybe vomit on stage for good measure and—voilà!—you have punk rock.

In her book Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music, Martha Bayles points out how punk rock was largely created by the impresario Malcolm McLaren. An English fashionista and art-school dropout, McLaren was in thrall to what Bayles terms “Perverse Modernism.” This can be summed up in the French phrase, Épater la bourgeoisie! (Shock the bourgeoisie!), which was a rallying cry among the Decadent poets of the 1880s. It continued through the perverse plays of Frank Wedekind, Dadaism, and into the Fluxus Movement of the 1950s. It was the notion that art had to shock, offend, and unsettle in order to be effective. In this case, popular music was commandeered as a platform on which to pursue this art-school philosophy. Interestingly, the black jazz trumpeter and music educator Wynton Marsalis has a somewhat similar take on Rap, calling it “ghetto minstrelsy.” He speaks of white “safari seekers” saying, “Let’s go into the ghetto and see what the natives are doing.”[6] His point is that in the nineteenth-century minstrel show, the “safari seekers” would have seen what they thought of as rather buffoonish, but lovable primitives. What such safari seekers are tempted to see in Rap today, according to Marsalis, are savage (but lovable, because they secretly want to be like them?) primitives who murder and fornicate without scruple. This is a harsh indictment, and, to be sure, his criticism tends to provoke strong reactions. Nevertheless, it may do this because it hits close to the target. I shall investigate the musical reasons why this may be the case later.

However, before we do this, we need to move on from the faux primitive to what I call the mechanical approach to rhythm. To this end, I will quote Roger Scruton again:
Rhythm plays with regularity, but is not reducible to it: the pulse is both counted and discounted. . . . even the most exact performer will imbue a piece with a minute rubato, and this rubato is the mark of a living organism—the unnoticed vacillation of the pulse. When this rubato is absent—as when someone plays in time to a drum machine or a metronome—it is precisely rhythm that is the primary victim.[7]
Here we return to the notion that musical rhythm is both measurement and movement. If its measurement is too exact, then it won’t actually move us in a human way. As Scruton says in another venue, “one note invites the next into the space that it has vacated.”[8] A note might coyly linger, creating anticipation for the next note, or more quickly cede, stressing the next note’s importance. There is a subtle give and take, just as in human relationships. Music is not strict geometry. When it is treated that way, it has a very different effect. Scruton observes, for example, that “the rhythm in Heavy Metal . . . is shot at you; the rhythm of the [eightsome] reel [on the other hand] invites you to move with it.”[9] He then goes on to discuss the difference between “at” and “with” and how profound this is in human relationships. For example, we all know the difference between a conversation with a close friend and the pushy salesman who talks at us.

One example of this phenomenon in music is the song “Bleed,” by the Swedish Heavy Metal band Meshuggah. It’s not only the song’s unrelenting fortissimo volume and the shouted vocals, but also the absolute rigidity of the accompanimental rhythm. Though there is measurement, there is no true relationship among the individual notes; they are isolated points, pulsations spaced along a timeline. They are like bullets, shot out at us from their evenly spaced places within an ammunition clip. This is why such music is often associated with violent, dehumanizing ideas and images. (I strongly warn against watching the very disturbing video associated with this song.) Or listen to the more anodyne Eurodance hit from the 1990s “What Is Love?” Again, it’s not just the computer-produced sounds; it’s the exactly measured computer-produced rhythms that create the feel of the hip yet impersonal world against which the singer makes his plaintive cry, “What is Love?” The presence of a humanizing, plaintive cry cannot be counted on in all such music.

While it has been common enough over the past century for moralists to decry the “sensuality” in some music, a fair amount of popular music of the past thirty or forty years lacks the rhythmic fluidity to be truly sensual. Often enough, its rhythm is machine-like and rigid. Though there will be the obligatory syncopations—all but required in contemporary pop music—they are the processed, reified product of the digital studio. They do not seduce or tempt. That would be an improvement. Rather, such rhythmic stiffness creates a more impersonal, “objective” effect. And this is also why such music inspires neither the ordered movement that the Waltz would, nor the more sensual, but still relational, movement that the Tango would. Such uncompromising rhythms do not encourage the subtle male-female negotiations, the give and take typical of couple dancing. In fact, as Roger Scruton has observed, it should not surprise us that what Punk, Heavy Metal, and Techno do inspire are “head-banging, slam-dancing, . . . [and] ‘moshing.’”[10]

This brings us to Rap. Where does it come from?

The only thing that we can say for sure is that Rap emerged in New York City in the 1970s, specifically in black neighborhoods in the Bronx. Rap’s musical origin seems to have been the joining of three distinct elements: 1) the beat-heavy faux primitivism of 1970s popular music, 2) the nascent mechanical approach to rhythm that would come to prominence in the 1980s, and 3) certain rhyming games and speech patterns common in African-American neighborhoods (think of “jive talk” and the poetry of Mohammed Ali).

As you can see, of these three elements, only the last is truly African-American. At its most effective, in Gangsta Rap in particular, Rap takes place against a pounding faux primitive beat, often employing that technological cookie cutter that is digital sampling, and couched in an unrelenting ostinato pattern. The effect can be that of Chinese water torture. You do not move with such rhythmic structures so much as submit to them, as one does to a good thrashing. It bowls you over—or you fight manfully against it. The only thing of any musical sophistication is that sometimes the rapper will chant the words in unusual rhythms against the beat, as in the quintuplet rapping of Eminem, in which the man vs. machine nature of the genre becomes most explicit.

How far we have come from the days of West Side Story (1957) when the kids were, or at least aspired to be, “cool.” Tough teenage delinquents though they were, the Jets and the Sharks strove for a certain cool unflappability, which had a concomitant flexibility as well as a natural grace to it. Gangsta Rap is not cool, it is rough, graceless and merciless—masculinity at its most unyielding. I realize that there are other types of Rap, but the tamer the subgenre of Rap is, the more it has the quality of a gimmick, like Fred Astaire dancing to the rhythms of the steam ship engine in Shall We Dance? (1937). While this certainly is entertaining, it is hardly something that would normally endure as a popular music genre for decades. No, it is the rougher, more authentic variety of Rap that holds most people’s attention because it speaks to them. We are dealing with a very significant cultural phenomenon.

Rap, simply put, often draws on the same sort of primitivist and, at times, perverse modernism that Punk and Heavy Metal do. In the final analysis, and despite most of its performers, it is only partially African-American in its musical makeup and hardly African at all. In my opinion, Rap does not even come close to that truly great product of African-American culture: jazz. Thus, the cultural significance of Rap’s deep and widespread popularity needs to be examined more carefully from the starting point of its actual musical structure, rather than from any politically correct (or even well-intentioned) views of ethnicity.

Finally, Rap seems to be a part of the general trend toward verbalism in the popular music of our day. Beginning at least with Bob Dylan, and continuing through Bruce Springsteen to U2, popular music has often been a venue for earnest poets and social critics of modest musical abilities. Dylan at least had the ability to craft a decent enough, tuneful melody; by the time we get to U2 all we have is eminently forgettable musical recitative. Rap drops even this pretense.

In conclusion, I want to stress that I have tried to delineate rhythmic trends in American popular music: the faux primitive, the mechanical, and the African. These are not the only trends, nor do they explain every single piece of popular music. However, these are major, significant trends. So my response to the question at the beginning of the article is that, because of the decline of African influences over the last half-century or so, only a small percentage of rhythm in popular music today could be considered musically “excellent.” On the other hand, the rhythm of much popular music today speaks volumes about where we are as a culture.



1. The Latin verb modulari does not itself mean “to move,” though it can mean “to dance” or “represent by dancing.” And the noun motus, as in the phrase dare motus, can refer to “dancing.”

2. Roger Scruton, The Aesthetics of Music (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 480.

3. Quoted in Philip Ball, The Music Instinct (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 222.

4. Max Roach Solos (YouTube) (

5. See Derek Freeman, The Fateful Hoaxing of Margaret Mead: A Historical Analysis of Her Samoan Research (New York: Basic Books, 1998).

6.Bill Milkowski, “Wynton Marsalis: Wynton Throws Down the Gauntlet,” Jazz Times, April 1, 2007.

7. Scruton, Aesthetics of Music, 24–25. (

8. Roger Scruton, “Music and Morality,” American Spectator, February 11, 2010.

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.


Source: Kurt Poterack, "The Rhythm of Popular Music: Primitivist Slumming in a Machine Age?", Principles 4, no. 1 (2018), accessed December 27, 2018,