The Empire – Modern American Education

I am apparently not alone when it comes to taste in contemporary Star Wars content, and I took a delayed approach when it came to watching one of the recent mini-series: Andor. We had all seen just how well mini-series were doing on Disney+, and when they came out with a back story…for a back story…none of us were seemingly convinced. I for one, care almost nothing about the upcoming series based on Echo – Maya Lopez, a character we were briefly introduced to in the Hawkeye mini-series. But that is a tangent. The more pressing matter I wished to write about are some thoughts that occurred to me after watching Andor.

Star Wars has been around now for a long time, and ideas about what Palpatine’s Empire means, what it does, and why we hate it have similarly been part of general public discourse for a long time. So even if you haven’t seen Andor you can at least understand the principles put forward here.

As I was recently watching the series I realized that Palpatine’s Empire and the United States’ public education system share at least one major trait: the belief that prosperity and success comes through more control. It’s easy for us watching Star Wars to dismiss the Empire as the bad guy and to think that since they are so obviously evil none of us would ever agree with them in real life, but the entire point of Andor is to show the larger scope of the consequences of the politics of the Empire, and the sincere hearts of those who fight and think for the Empire as much as those who rebel against it.

Throughout the series, it is demonstrated that the Empire does and must exert control over individuals and systems if for no other reason than the control itself. It has, other than Palpatine’s wicked desire for total power (which I have ideas about, but I’ll leave that for later), a sincere desire for peace and stability, but the way it achieves it is through controlling for wild cards and anomalies that fall outside of its desires. It does not view its own violent actions as counter productive or destabilizing because of pride and especially because of the belief that it is the ultimate good for the galaxy. Darth Vader’s conversion to the dark side is not one devoid of logic, focusing only on the death of Padmé; throughout the prequels we see distaste from Anakin about how the Jedi react to certain injustices, and Anakin wants to change that so that instead of resulting consequences like Padmé or his mother’s death, more good might come out in the galaxy on the whole.

Public education in the U.S. adopts a remarkably similar approach to promoting success and managing students. No, the Secretary of Education does not wield a red colored light saber, but if we look at what districts and states are doing and if we look at what professors in colleges are researching and teaching to the next generations of educators and administrators, we see where the comparison is strong. Most strategies for educational systems in the U.S. revolve around this idea: controlling any and all outside factors so that students achieve academic and social success. Isn’t that a good thing? Isn’t that what everyone wants? Certainly you don’t have the know-how or ability to do the job…you just ought to let them figure that out for you.

There are so many things that trouble modern public education, and the troubles seem to have no end. Random public attacks, high numbers of mental health cases, low test scores, truancy, apathy…the list goes on. Notice, however, what the response is to these issues: more. More security personnel, more psychiatric personnel, more teacher duties, more district policies, more funding consequences for districts, more testing, more school days, more classes, more teacher requirements, more initiatives, etc. The list goes on. By overtly controlling more factors, success can still be guaranteed or even improved.

From my perspective in the classroom I understand the appeal for this method of improving school; I am constantly tired by the way I have to work against the flow of student behavior. From my limited perspective, more control seems fine because maybe it means less for me to have to deal with on a daily basis. Yet also from my perspective in the classroom I can see that something is wrong and that things each year are not getting better but worse.

The answer, like the rebels demonstrate, is less. Less control and more freedom is what is needed in school. Less initiatives, less programs, less interventions, less requirements. Notice I’m not saying different, or smaller…I’m saying less, as in take them away. Forget them. This answer is so counter intuitive because it seems bad for two reasons. One, it doesn’t answer our contemporary woes with an actionable response, and two, it seems as the responder has no care for the fallout of such a solution. Yet both of these, in our contemporary context, are not true. Just recently my wife showed me a social media phenomenon of people talking about “Silent Walks,” where Gen Z somehow believes that they have come up with the idea of a long walk outside without the influence of technology. What the Gen Zers were amazed to discover was that after a while, they found their anxieties calmed; as if the constant attack of technology and busyness couldn’t somehow be the very cause of it all. The surprising answer to everyday modern anxiety? Less.

The second issue I mentioned, where the responder with such a solution of “less” seems to not care about the fallout, is the more significant objection. This is the case because it gets to the heart of the proponents of modern education. It is sincerely believed that “more” must be the answer because it is the conscientious and kind answer. It is a philosophically positive position, meaning it is a solution that introduces an intervention. The problem here is that while the motivation is kindness, the subjects of the many interventions are essentially being killed with kindness. There is simply too much happening to be effective. Think of an artist mixing colors, only to add an excess of variety to find an awful and disgusting brown as the result.

It must be acknowledged, then, that a solution of “less” will be met with inherent anger. How, the Empire asks, can we have more ‘order and peace’ if there are no interventions to establish it? Answer: we won’t. How, the Dept. of Education asks, can we have a higher rate of graduation, better student mental health, better test scores, more security, more literacy, more numeracy, higher college admission rates, less child abuse (etc, you get my point) without more interventions to establish them? Answer: we won’t. In the course of the events of Andor, the main character has just finished a heist job. Away from everyone else and after already losing several other teammates, his teammate suggests that they both split the heist and run away with the spoils. The teammate would abandon the remaining living teammates and steal the money not just from the Empire but also from the rebellion. At yet a later point in the show, a background rebellion organizer is speaking to an independent rebel faction, and is trying to convince them to cooperate with other factions, only to hear the objection that each faction had its own political ideology and can never possibly unite.

The point there is that when you advocate for “less” you are deliberately opening the door to suffering, moral inadequacy, and failures. You are literally inviting these things into existence whereas they may have not been seen before. The truth is, however, that even though they weren’t seen before, hearts were already set on them. Explicit interventions in a system the size of U.S. public education do not address problems – they cover up symptoms. In Andor, an Empire investigator is looking into missing technology. As part of her investigations she noted that fear of being reprimanded for losing equipment contributed to inferiors lying about it and covering it up. A solution to that is never addressed – but can we acknowledge that staying the course of fear tactics in a hierarchy is not going to solve the heart of the issue? The failure already existed – pulling back whatever “interventions” were already in place was simply exposing them.

Furthermore we must acknowledge that sincere proponents of Palpatine’s Empire, like Darth Vader, are seeking a utopia. Many contemporary progressivists are similarly desirous of a utopia. “With enough progress [interventions] we can achieve utopia.” As a Catholic, yea as a Christian, I strongly object to the feasability of utopia. Believing in such a utopia denies truths about our world and our existence that are unavoidably true. Free will – the ability to choose good as much as evil, is inherently part of our world. We cannot change that. Utopia inherently denies free will, since a utopic world cannot allow the possibility that someone might choose against it. Our education system inherently denies free will – of the parent and of the child. Our public education system, like the empire, cannot tolerate dissent. Worse yet is that even those who venture “dissent” still imbibe the same philosophical principles and educational practices, upholding public education as some sort of standard. In Andor the first governing authority we meet is not the Empire itself, but an affiliate authority who practices the same governance. It is not the Empire, but it might as well be. If other education systems are subject to similar regulation as public schools, like most diocesan schools, then even if they are allowed to do something like teach religion they commit the same flaws.

A world that involves free will is one that must accept “no” as a potential answer. At what point does public education accept “no” as a possibility? At what point did the Empire accept “no?” God Himself created us with free will, creating us knowing that someone would deny Him, so that those who accepted Him and loved Him did so with sincerity and not out of compliance. Just because something is good: order, peace, education, love; it does not follow that it should be forced because then it is no longer good.

What does “less” look like, then, for public education? The answer is astonishingly simple: abolish truancy and school attendance laws. While still providing the public with accessible education, but removing compliance, it means that the public chooses education as desired. Most of the ills that plague modern education would disappear, and nowhere more in particular than high school.

Now I find myself having difficulty suggesting that K-8 education should not be compulsory, since the benefits of a literate society are clear; but arguably it is even more critical for the K-8 sphere to be rid of compulsory education because of the demand such a freedom would put on parents. At the very least a freedom of choice for parents on what K-8 education looks like for their child should be provided.

I will focus, at least for now, on the more palatable suggestion that high school should be the first target of eliminated attendance laws. Maria Montessori, for those who sincerely follow her principles and design, does not have any programmatic guidelines for adolescents (those in the high school range):

“The essential reform is this: to put the adolescent on the road to achieving economic independence . We might call it a “school of experience in the elements of social life”

“Therefore work on the land is an introduction both to nature and to civilization and gives a limitless field for scientific and historic studies. If the produce can be used commercially this brings in the fundamental mechanism of society, that of production and exchange, on which economic life is based. This means that there is an opportunity to learn both academically and through actual experience what are the elements of social life. We have called these children the “Erdkinder” because they are learning about civilization through its origin in agriculture. They are the “land-children.””

(Montessori, From Childhood to Adolescence)

The adolescent is not primed for high school. The adolescent is ready to begin learning about entering the adult world. Sitting in a compulsory class setting for the majority of their waking hours is a living hell. Their bodies and mind are going through such a tumultuous change that asking them to sit still and comply with endless amounts of rules and requirements to endure specifically intellectual academics is crushing them. Once they are developmentally calmed down again they will be ready to do more calm and intellectual activities, and here we can talk about university, but until then it has to be a matter of choice and awareness around the unique traits of each child.

What we can talk about, then, are other kinds of activities like apprenticeships and a Montessori style farm that might actually benefit the development of adolescents instead of something like current public education.

In any case, this all begins with a discussion of removing attendance laws. The solution, as I said, is astonishingly simple. Our society has sowed a disaster, but has been covering it up for a long time; a terrible harvest awaits us on the other side. Past the other side, however, is a place of sincere growth and a beauty. We have to learn the lessons set forth in a fictional way about the Empire, and avoid furthering ideas of intolerable hyper-control. Instead of creating conditions that precipitate rebellion, we should foster environments of true growth and nurturing. By accepting that we cannot control everything and thereby create a Utopia, we find those who willingly want to create a better world and work for it. The society as a whole is actually more motivated to work towards the good. But as long as we’re forced to go to K-12 education…we will see a decline in its value.

Swamp of Devotions

There is no doubt that the world we live in is difficult. Droves of people are leaving the Church and the Christian faith at large, societal sins like abortion and contraception are reaching new feverish heights, and whole crowds of people are letting themselves live in an absolute fantasy so as to seek out a world of delight, no matter the cost. Any reasonable Catholic or Christian would certainly feel repulsed by such a world, one that continually pushes away religion and a love of Christ and the Blessed Trinity.

As Christians it’s not hard to think about what our minds do and should turn towards: prayer. Here I am often fond of reflecting on Fray Luis de León’s La Vida Retirada. Plagued by the world and her woes, the poet seeks to escape into a simpler life, one pulled away from the chaos of society. A life, perhaps, filled with the simple but immensely pleasurable contemplation of God and His mysteries. Simple prayer is not, however, as tempting as a counterreaction.

For reference, I would like to highlight the Reformation, an event which, though never named as much during the time, became incredibly important to the Christian faith expressed in the cultural West. The Reformation is such an interesting event because while its supporters laud it as something of a genesis of genuine western faith, it is more actually an event which gains its character via protestation. In other words, it is not an event or way of thinking that has originality or even a renewal of its original roots, it is a way of thinking and an event which solely lives in reaction against the Catholic faith. Take away the Catholic Church and all of a sudden the foundations of Protestant faith begin to fall apart.

I would venture to say that this view of Protestants is unattractive and, perhaps, untenable. Some Protestants have found out just how unattractive it is, and have sought to reclaim their roots as “Bible Christians” or “Non-denominational.” No matter its label, however, the identity formed in reaction is inescapable. Generally speaking, no one likes such an idea unless they are of a postmodern mindset. For the sake of this article I will assume that the reader does not adhere to an explicitly postmodern worldview.

As the reformers so established their identity against the Catholic faith, it would be easy to establish something of a hyper-religious identity against the postmodern world which plagues us. Through a very sincere desire to escape the world and flee to the shadow of the Cross, though, we forget to look at the path we are taking to get there. Then, rather than finding refuge, we find ourselves in something of a swap, and it is hard to navigate or move out of. This is especially true for Catholics after Vatican II who want to pursue traditional prayer patterns instead of innovating new prayers or using prayers created by our contemporaries. Our whole goal is to abandon ourselves in the face of Christ and His Church, and to conform ourselves to Tradition, yet sometimes this abandonment leads to a lack of reflection on our choices.

The reason that a goal of conformity turns into a reactionary identity is because, as I said, the path to the shadow of the cross is not clear. One of the unintended consequences of post-conciliar Catholic culture was an ejection of traditional prayer practices. Seen as old and not of the ‘Spirit’ of Vatican II, many were discarded in favor of novel practices or ones that reflected other traditions. Therefore when traditionally minded Catholics grew tired of these new age practices they had to go back on their own and find out what their spiritual predecessors had been doing, or had to educate themselves on their own to find out what Tradition actually supports, rather than what was simply popular. Converts in the recent era, especially, are not necessarily as reliant on the experience of their local parish as they are on the Church across the whole country, if not the whole world, the internet being a great gateway into the deep history of the Church. When converts indeed convert, they are often not doing so based on what modern Catholicism looks like, per se, as much as what the Church has historically always been, and so when they ask themselves how they should grow deeper in prayer their first thought is to consult the long-standing traditions of the Church.

From experience I can tell you that once you begin down the road of historical Catholic devotions, it’s a lengthy journey you’re embarking on. Between all of the devotions known to tradition, one could easily spend all of their waking hours engaged with them and be plenty occupied. And so, with a mountain of devotional prayer in front of him, and a desire to jump right in to flee to the Cross and escape the world, the Catholic engages with as many devotions as he can.

This entails, as I have suggested, many things; a daily rosary, daily Mass attendance, frequent visits to adoration, wearing the brown scapular, making a morning offering, doing a daily examen at night, making a consecration to Mary, to St Joseph, to the Sacred Heart, or to an angel, praying the Divine Mercy Chaplet, always being engaged in a novena, collecting devotional medals, First Fridays, First Saturdays, and many more which I have not mentioned, which include devotions very particular (such as the Devotion to the Wounds of Jesus).

Let me make this clear: no devotion of our Tradition is bad. Obviously these traditions have survived and have aided many to grow in their holiness. Rightly, too, whenever I have talked with other Catholics, the discussion is not if we are engaged in prayer outside of the Mass, but which prayers we are engaged with outside of the Mass.

The trouble, I wonder, is the self-awareness that the Catholic has when performing a mad-dash to complete  and participate in as many devotionals as possible. Let’s not begin to talk about the shame of the Catholic who fails to do them all, or does not have the desire to engage in the same race. Mind you, I’m not questioning the Catholic’s faith as much as their method of engagement. If the reason for engaging in a Catholic act is “it’s traditional” then I think we have a bit of an issue. Engaging in practices solely because of their status as traditional erases the quality of engagement, and means that the practice does not serve it’s original goal as much as it serves the goal of shaping oneself as “traditional.” Just because someone started a practice 400 years ago does not automatically mean it is a practice we should continue; modern Catholics engaged in the Tradition are still obliged to do so responsibly, and that means engaging with intention and understanding.

Devotions should be practices which shape our prayer life in a particular way. It is not a question of how many devotions we engage in as much as which particular devotions we adhere to. Let’s use the analogy of school. Here, devotions are analogous to clubs. We all remember the crazy kids who attempted to participate in every open club, and also how inordinate their life was on account of it. It wasn’t about how many clubs you could be in, but about which clubs you were going to devote yourself to. Though it is very possible to spend every waking moment engaged in devotional prayer, it absolutely does not mean that we should be.

The analogy carries even farther. If clubs are the devotional life, then what is analogous to the school day, full of classes? If the logic of this analogy says that it us disordered to fill one’s day with club activities, then it should look for the main content of the school day as an alternative or as a primary mode of private prayer. Just as the school day is filled with a variety of subjects, we find that the center of the Christian life is filled with a few different things. The sacramental life, most importantly, service to our family and community, and liturgy.

Liturgy, I wish to suggest, should be the highest priority in the average Christian’s daily prayer. The sacramental and communal life, critical elements that they are, and even prayerful elements, are not things that can be done at any moment the way that devotional prayers can. For the Catholic heavily engaged in devotional prayer, I would make the assumption that these other categories are well attended, anyway. When suggesting Liturgy as a higher priority to devotional prayer, however, there ought to be some clarification.

Too often I have heard ill-catechized Catholics who use the word “liturgy” with a broad and undefined net, typically at the expense of the Mass. They casually refer to the Mass as The Liturgy, as if the terms are entirely synonymous, or will also refer to “a liturgy” for ceremonious occasions which are not a Mass, but loosely have some sort of prayerful dialogue written within them. No, indeed we must remember that liturgy as a word etymologically means “public office” or “public work,” generally referring to religious duties that the society owes to God.

Historically, there have always been two arms of liturgy which the Church has taken seriously, the first being Mass or the Divine Liturgy, and the second being the Divine Office or the praying of the Psalter. The first is well attended by serious practicing Catholics, but the latter is not as well attended. A Tradition received from our Jewish elders, the praying of the Psalter, or the 150 Psalms found in the Bible, is a practice which is split up among certain day hours. Certain ancient practices prayed all 150 Psalms every single day, but in the West we take our Tradition most directly from St. Benedict, who established a Psalter that rotated on a weekly cycle.

The Divine Office, broken up into specific hours each day, has a quotidian nature where the prayers are uniquely tied to the general atmosphere of every hour. Lauds, the principal morning hour, is characterized by it’s joyful greeting of God at the new day, and Compline, the minor hour before bed, is full of prayers which call to mind the calm resolution to face God with accountability for your day, and to inspire peace within the heart to let go of your own grandeur before God as you lie down to sleep. And so the Divine Office, more than any devotional prayer, meets the praying Catholic where they are in their day and contextually raises the Catholic’s mind to God from specifically wherever they were. Tied to the celebration of Church’s feasts and to the penance of fasting and abstinence, this is what further joins the individual’s work of prayer to the rest of the Church. The Office, by its very nature, is designed from the outset to consume one’s day in prayer, and to so so in an organized fashion. Devotional prayer is simply not intended for the same purpose.

If the Catholic has much prayer they want to engage in beyond the Mass, and they should, then the substance of that prayer life should begin with the Divine Office. It is not simply another devotion that we attend to; it is the substantive prayer that the Church has placed as a priority in the Christian life. While there are enough devotions to engage the layperson for his whole day, the layperson may yet barely find enough time to pray the full Office. Hereafter is where devotions can regain their ordered place in the Christian life: as a few select devotions toward which the Christian tailors his prayer.

In a mad dash to pray as many devotions as possible, the Christian finds himself knee-deep in a swamp of devotions. Substances which were meant to aid him end up becoming overwhelming and distracting from the path he was originally on. If instead the main course of the Christian’s prayer is that of the Divine Office, or even only a small portion of it, then the Christian finds himself in a Great Hall of architectural prowess, filled to the brim with meaning, where every arch and ornamentation cooperates with the rich literature lining its shelves. Whether or not the Christian makes use of every inch of the hall, it is nonetheless a foundation upon which the Christian can build the rest of his prayer life. Therein devotions become beautiful accents which tint the whole hall.

Anyone who is familiar with exactly how large this hall is, may contest that the Office is simply too large a task for the laity, and is something they need not or should not engage in. This is understandable, but may not be well made. Sacrosanctum Concilium, Vatican II’s document on the Sacred Liturgy, says that “the laity, too, are encouraged to recite the divine office, either with the priests, or among themselves, or even individually,” meaning that the task is not reserved solely for religious and clerics. The laity are thus encouraged to participate in the Church’s work of sanctifying the day and the hours, no matter how much it may be. The same Church document encourages pastors to prioritize celebrating Sunday Vespers every week with the laity for the same purpose. Clearly the vision of the laity praying the Office is to whatever degree they are able, and that they should indeed try. Since the laity are not obliged to say the Office the same way religious and clerics are, it means there is a liberty for the lay person to decide their level of participation.

Truly, though, learning to pray the Office is a significant task, and for either a lack of education or a lifestyle that is necessarily too busy it is possible that praying the Office is not a task that certain lay people are afforded to do. This was indeed true for much of the Church’s history, such as when St. Dominic began his Order of Preachers in modern-day France. The life of the laity indeed fit this description, but it was felt that the laity should be able to have a prayer life which could similarly help them sanctify their day. The simple salutation of the Angel Gabriel was elongated into the Hail Mary prayer and was tied to a collection of mysteries from the Gospels, something the laity would know. 15 mysteries, in total, with 10 Hail Marys used to meditate on each one, meant 150 Hail Mary prayers. Religious prayed 150 psalms, and the laity prayed 150 Hail Marys. So indeed if you find yourself in a position of not being able to pray the office, praying the Rosary is more than an appropriate recourse. Naturally one could always do both the Office and a daily Rosary of 15 mysteries, as the Dominicans exemplify to this day.

When fleeing the world, then, we must avoid the temptation of finding and clinging to every prayer or devotion or act which is “traditional” and shame ourselves if we fail to do all of them. This intense fleeing, without reflection, culminates in a Catholic identity of counterreaction, so scarred by the modern world that is evermore “progressive” and modern that participation in all lowercase t traditions becomes nothing less than obligatory. Instead, an authentic identity formed in Catholic roots will know how to properly order devotions within the larger prayer life, and grounding oneself in the Divine Office is a principal way to achieve this. 8 hours of devotional prayer, which was never meant to be strung together in such a way, is much more chaotic than 8 hours of the Divine Office, which was orchestrated together down to the last phrase. This attitude greatly affects the disposition of Christian character, grounding him and centering him more within the heart of Mother Church, enabling them to engage the world more readily and with a firmer foundation. Ordering one’s prayer life, where the Christian grows his love for God, leads to an ordering of the rest of one’s life, properly disposing him to answer God’s call to mission.

May the Holy Spirit guide us all in the virtues of Temperance and Prudence.

#6 – The Grammar of the Soul

In previous articles, I have written about the existence of the human soul, justifying it using Aristotelian and Thomistic logic. Expounding on the logic is difficult for a new reader, laborious for an amateur explaining it, and grueling for an academic trying to add to the already standing body of work around Aristotelian and Thomistic metaphysical ideas. Of course, the intersection of my academic studies and Aristotle or Aquinas really collide when speaking about language. While there is plenty to speak of within the Thomistic tradition about the nature of language, it is done in one sort of way.

Seemingly from age to age, it is enough to send the minds of philosophers spinning to contemplate the fact that the phenomenon of language is so uniquely intertwined with the human soul, indivisible from our nature as both rational and animal. Most of the energy that St. Thomas puts toward contemplating the nature of language and the mind deals with the nature of man’s reception of knowledge. The reception of knowledge is the grounds on which we formally understand that we do have souls, and rational ones at that. This fact, as O’Callaghan writes, is closely intertwined with St. Thomas’ understanding of the purpose of man.

“Not only is it the case that for St. Thomas our mental life is incomplete without its welling in the world of animals, plants, and inanimate objects, but perhaps even more striking is St. Thomas’s position that the created world of animals, plants, and inanimate beings is itself incomplete until it is taken up into the mental life of the human person who dwells within it. This mutual indwelling is for St. Thomas the perfection of the created order, a more perfect image and likeness of God” (Thomist Realism & the Linguistic Turn, p. 280-281).

Man’s teleos, final purpose, is to behold God as He truly is, for “final and perfect happiness can consist in nothing else than the vision of the Divine Essence” (Summa Theologiae, First Part of the Second Part, Q. 3, Art. 8) This is the Beatific Vision. God is a truly infinite being, infinitely higher in nature than we ever could be, and our purpose is to spend eternity beholding Him, coming to know Him. We could spend all of eternity beholding Him and still never find an end of wonder.

For Aquinas, the human soul is, primarily, receptive in nature. Its teleos is receptive, therefore Aquinas understands the whole of the soul as primarily being a receiver in and of the world, and more so a receiver of God. Thus, when exploring the soul’s relationship to language, Aquinas primarily engages in the notion of comprehension, the work of such contemplation leading to my aforementioned articles.

Yet as many know, this is not the whole of language. Sure, language is comprehended, but how does an integral view of an ensouled human explain the action of speech? How does it explain where languages come from and how they develop and change? There are many questions that we could get to, but for now my big question is this: how do we explain the phenomenon of language grammar within a Thomistic framework? Modern linguists all have their ideas about how words exist in the human mind, but a large part of my linguistic studies at university were not so much interested in how words are and become manifest in the human mind (though that was certainly of interest as well) but also how those words cooperated, whether in comprehension or production, to produce elements bigger than themselves.

Curious to my experience, there, was how the most successful language acquisition models would often sidestep some of these questions of the nature of grammar, deeming any one model or idea insufficient, ultimately claiming it wasn’t an important enough question to satisfy before looking on to classroom practices. It was especially odd since most of my other classes spent time looking at just how language is constructed in the mind, such as my syntax classes. It didn’t take long, though, to notice a particular obsession with my favorite acquisition theories that was common to my favorite philosopher: comprehension. From observing Stephen Krashen to Bill VanPatten and beyond into the larger community of language instructors that were hyper focused on enveloping learners with mountains of opportunity for purposeful comprehension, it was impossible to not connect my favorite academic subjects.

The theories expounded by these academics, the Input Hypothesis and the Input Processing theory, subordinate or eliminate grammar lessons in the language classroom when practically applied to curriculum. Overt grammar knowledge, they argue (and prove), is unnatural and isn’t effective for novices. What is? Many repeated innocuous exposures to significant forms of grammar in context.

So can Aquinas explain why these theories are true? Can Aquinas explain how the human mind learns grammar without overly explicit lessons? I firmly believe that a Thomistic Theory of Grammar would help explain and inform many courses of modern linguistic study.

The Proposition

Grammar exists as Aristotelian form knowledge in the intellect as abstracted relationships.

In Article #3 of this series, I presented the facts that words are equivalent to the passiones animae, the impressions made on the soul from reality around it. As an important beginning point, I wish to recap the way that words exist in our minds. From the perspective of comprehension, we see that a set of phonological or orthographical conveniences become associated with a distinct passion of, or impression on, the soul. The human subject perceives something in reality, or rather, something in reality makes an impression on the human senses, and the intellect becomes impressed upon by the senses themselves. While the true Aristotelian form of the perceived object never leaves itself, the very what-ness (quidditas) of the object becomes grasped at by the soul, and the impression can be called a passio animae. The act of receiving the passio and remembering the passio within the passive intellect becomes comprehension.

Now, in my classes and in the field of study of linguistics, grammar is classified as a unique branch of the reality of language, because it seems to be its own category. Suddenly one is not considering the abstraction of ‘dog’ or even the abstract motion of ‘eating’ but the strange application and rules of how these words work together. We do not say “Eating dog” or “Eat dog” or “Dog eat” but rather “The dog eats.” It is no surprise that multiple words get strung together, but the linguist studying grammar wishes to understand not only why we string words together in this specific way, but how we implicitly know and control this construction of language and how we know when to add or remove different linguistic affixes. Perhaps, even, the linguist wants to know why an incorrect construction of these elements leads to miscommunication. The average man does not overtly think about constructing his sentences, but simply communicates his observations, needs, desires, and inquiries. Even an educated man, though, can be quite confused by obscure sentence strings and sentences that ignore standard grammar conventions.

Returning to our information of St. Thomas Aquinas, we see that when words work together, there is in fact a single passio animae that results from the conveyed information. All of the individual components work together and create a single impression, a “complex concept” (Thomist Realism & the Linguistic Turn, p. 19-20)  . Thus informed, one might ask where grammar fits in. It cannot be ignored, as clearly incorrect grammar leads to obstruction of comprehension, but done well or with little deviance it is unnoticeable.

Since language is particular, and not universal to all of mankind, it would be easy to propose that grammar somehow belongs solely within the material domain, in the brain, or, at the very least, as a sensory phenomenon. This would likely be akin to a behaviorist understanding of language and grammar, where there are positive associations built up with certain word or sound relationships, and negative associations with incorrect relationships. If I said to my friend “Nosotros hablas mucho bien español” I would suffer some negative reactions, but if I then corrected to “Nosotros hablamos muy bien el español” I would be received much more positively. The issue with this approach is that it ignores the fact that words and grammar conventions themselves carry meaning, which within the human mind properly belongs to the intellect. There’s a reason that behaviorist ideas of psychology haven’t aged well.

If grammar somehow belongs to the intellect, then we have to differentiate grammar and words. Words observe a singular entity, while grammar primarily entertains multiple entities. Here it is helpful to consider what sorts of substantial categories of things the intellect abstracts. Aristotle long ago distinguished between substantial forms and accidental forms, substantial being something like “human” whereas accidental is “red hair.” Within the concept of accidental forms, Aristotle described nine types, and one of the most significant here for us to understand is that of relation. Mere relationships are themselves abstracted accidental forms, beings, that the intellect entertains, separate even from the things that a relationship enjoins.

In Spanish, there are many suffixes for verbs which convey a range of information, from the time of the action and the subject that performed the action to subtle mood differences of the action (whether it for sure happened or whether it is desired that it happens). Certainly, then, the suffixes connect the primal identity of the word with more subtle applications of that word with other abstract notions of ‘past’ and ‘unfulfilled’ and ‘by us.’ At play is a distinct relationship. But this distinct relationship does not exist solely to that unique action in that one context. It can be applied to many words describing different actions, but it is the same abstract relationship at play.

When students learn a new language, it can be fascinating to learn about the novel grammar constructions of new languages. One of my favorites of these is one I learned of Irish Gaeilge, where possession cannot be expressed by a transitive verb. One must say that a certain object is “at” them. But by saying something is “at” one self, they have thus expressed possession.

Tá  an   uisce agam.

Is   the water at-me.

I have the water.

Yet, as wild and foreign as the grammatical concept may propose itself to be, it is nonetheless still comprehensible to the student, even if only after many exposures to the various instances in which the language proposes it to the student. In my experience of teaching language, this is the part that students struggle with the most. It’s not necessarily learning that certain phonetic or orthographic pieces are constructed together, but that the abstract relationships proposed by the grammar are actually meaningful and appropriate.

Why can’t I just say that I LIKE the food Mr. Skipper? Why do I have to say that it pleases me? That’s so wEiRd.

So inevitably, grammar is a composition of certain abstract relationships that one language orchestrates very differently than another. In Spanish one of the most important relationships is between Action, Time, and Subject. The importance can be seen in not just the primacy in a phrase, but how convenient the expression of this relationship is in phonetics. It all gets conjoined in the very same word.

Fuimos – We left

It is not impossible for other languages to convey similar meanings, but the conventions of expressing those meanings look differently, and the attention given to those conventions and relationships take on different value as an abstract whole. The fact that prepositions are always connected to other subjects or objects means that in Irish, personal pronouns become subjugated as suffixes to the pronoun in question. Yet that is the key – the two separate elements of preposition and pronoun, in Irish, are subject to a grammar relationship that results in a phonetic merge.

Ag + mé
(At    me)
= Agam

Where Grammar Comes From

This is a point I want to address with particular importance and stress. In an “I-make-me” world, we want to decentralize power into the individual, often to the detriment of our communal nature.

When a baby learns a language, they have to learn about the conventions of grammar and the abstract relationships that the language of their parents prioritizes. But the parents do not take the baby to school to expound on the nature of those relationships, and the baby still learns the language just fine. In general, it’s probably a common assurance that most parents are not able to expound on those relationships. For them, the language is as much innate given as it will be for their child.

Here I want to stress the obscure nature of the soul. You see, when Aquinas investigates the nature of the soul and talks about comprehension, he is never speaking about an overt process. He doesn’t talk about the intellect recognizing the act of cognition. He talks about the immediate and incognito effects of cognition. For Aquinas, comprehension is not really a voluntary action, it is mostly involuntary. Callaghan explains that, “in the case of intellect, a potentially intelligible thing extra animam, rendered actually intelligible by the agent intellect, moves the possible intellect to its act” (Thomist Realism & the Linguistic Turn, p. 214), where the motion of intelligibility and comprehension begins outside of the intellect. The intellect is capable of recognizing how it works, but it is a complex act of self-analysis, a reception of itself into itself, only after the primary acts of comprehension are already complete. So when one speaks of analyzing grammar, we are already speaking about things that we have understood, and are grasping at how it is possible for our intellects to have already done what they have. In other words, we do not know what the primary relationships motivating our language’s construction are until we are able to later reflect on them.

Initially, of course, humans did not just have their languages. They had to have come out of something else. What is innate to humanity as a source out of which language came? Perhaps philosophers like Naom Chomsky want to talk about the powers of Universal Grammar, where there are certain neurologically based constructs that predict the growth of language in the human person, and are evident in the analysis of syntax across languages. Later advocates, such as Ray Jackendoff, will of course be sure to tell us that such explanations are possible without resorting to a ‘magical’ view of the mind as soul. Yet, truly, it is the intellect and will, that which makes us rational creatures, that is the true substrate of the human person, which gives rise to language.

At some early point in human development, historically and not in any one person, groups of humans could have begun with artificially and intentional phonetic relationships that conveyed abstract relationships. One can think of how a string of words can convey grammatical notions:

Dog eat now but cat eat morning not now.

The children of those who came up with the more artificial constructions of language would receive them more naturally, and it would not be so difficult to use and explicitly remember those linguistic conventions. They might even feel so free as to build or synthesize more linguistic conventions and further their language into something more advanced. There is modern evidence of this behavior with the phenomena of pidgin and creole languages, where a certain community synthesizes two or more languages, oftentimes with difficulty or with novel structures and what would previously be considered unconventional, but then the children of that community acquire the synthesized language as its own and do so with ease, essentially creating a new language. To conceive of primitive human communities doing so without a previous linguistic base is not difficult. Certainly within three generations it is conceivable to think of a human community moving from not having a language at all to having an incredibly elaborate language. Yet, as the third generation carries on to the fourth, there is no need to overtly convey linguistic grammar conventions, if there ever was a need to do so.

Wherefore doth it import to us?

In the general process of abstraction, there is  an observation of particulars that contributes towards a non-specific thing which is shared between all of them. In the case of grammar, I have appealed to something of a grammatical relationship that guides specific linguistic constructions. But, one may ask, why is that any different than the more recent tradition of understanding a linguistic ‘rule’? In other words, how is a rule different than a relationship?

Before even engaging in the specifics, I think the description of rule vs. relationship is already a tangible difference. One can think of rule as something with authority that imposes on another, that conveys overt control, and paints an image of very finely tuned divisions between correct and incorrect. Yet quite readily anyone who has spent time in the language classroom will be able to observe that the ‘authority’ of a rule is realistically only a façade, that overt knowledge of rules does not guarantee fluency in the language, and that there are always exceptions. In other words, while there is speak of grammar ‘rules’ it’s really difficult to maintain such an appearance. Instead, a relationship implies something that works dynamically between idea and user, even between ideas, that more often exists implicitly, and is much more forgiving, or even encouraging, of deviances from any norm.

More critically, the average grammar rules are often too dependent on the material elements of language. I can easily picture a Spanish textbook in my head which looks at grammatical categories that are based on purely orthographic and phonetic differences, such as the difference between –ar and -ir verbs. Yet there is no movement of difference in meaning when analyzing these categories.

Fruitfully one can look at these textbooks and see the relationships that stand out as foundational. Ironically they can be found when textbooks attempt to explain the rules, talking about why exceptions exist, what the goal of these different grammatical forms are, etc. When looking at the differences between –ar and -ir verbs, for example, one might end up instead contemplating the relationship between verbs and the present sense of their action as compared to the relationship between verbs and a future sense of their action. While the traditional rules are generally divided somewhat arbitrarily, understanding grammar as a set of relationships is a notion fraught with meaning and purpose. Instead of a learner being taught how to create “correct” phrases, they are instead oriented towards finding meaning and purpose in phrases, and are oriented towards creating meaning and purpose in production.

Now, I hear the critics crying out, “the lists and divisions may be arbitrary, but they help divide up what is a long and complicated list of deviations! There’s no other way to learn so much content! Textbooks can still be used in the classroom if they were to perhaps include more organization around these relationships!” And in a sense, they are correct. Trying to organize grammar lessons and principles around relationships, one may inevitably separate out –ar, -er, and -ir verbs because of the ease of demonstrating their orthographic and phonetic differences, but this returns us to our friends who are teaching language in input-intensive comprehensible classrooms.

Comprehensible Input

The goal of the Input Hypothesis in a practical application is to provide a language learner with a ton of rich and meaningful input, input that actually bears meaning and relevance to a student, so that the student comes to possess the language. The input is often context-rich, heavy with cognates at the beginning of education, and long and drawn out towards a lofty goal at the end of every lesson, filled with many repetitions along the way. It draws the student with purpose towards a third-party goal that immerses and guides the student through language growth the entire time.

Over the years countless studies around input comprehension have demonstrated that students exposed to this rich input perhaps do not develop a rich overt knowledge of textbook rules, but that they have a high implicit understanding of how a language works. They do not struggle in reading books (yes, full books) that target their language level, they engage in relatively fluent conversations, and otherwise have a quite natural possession of a language.

In other words, students taught in Comprehensible Input based classrooms, classrooms that might be considered ‘immersive’ and most often without textbooks or guided curriculum, come to possess a language much in the way that a young child comes to possess their first language(s), without overt grammatical knowledge of a language. They implicitly have formed an understanding of the way that grammatical relationships work within a language, possessing those abstract forms within their intellect that easily guide their comprehension and production of a language, no matter the format.

The Soul is Necessary to Explain Language.

In the end, we return to the main point of this article. At the beginning I asked: “how do we explain the phenomenon of language grammar within a Thomistic framework?” to which we have this answer:

Grammar exists as Aristotelian form knowledge in the intellect as abstracted relationships.

Since grammar in practicality is a set of organizing principles of language that relate two or more meaningful notions together, then those organizing principles, relationships, must exist somewhere that can implicitly exert a governing dominance over the words and affixes that need to be arranged together. Since it has already been established that words root themselves in the abstract formations of the intellect, then it follows that grammar relationships need to similarly take residence in the intellect. Once again we find ourselves needing philosophical logic of the human soul in order to explain the phenomenon of language.

Of course, while this doesn’t seem to have any practical applications, we see that it is incredibly relevant not only to scientists and academics who are trying to explore the nature of language and the forces that govern it, but also to those who teach and learn language. Before you say “I’m not taking a foreign language class!” I just want you to think about how you’re understanding the words of this article, and how you perhaps have taught your own children to speak. What about that word you saw last week for the first time and you had to google search its definition? Language acquisition is most effective, it has generally been documented, when set up with effective Comprehensible Input. As a whole, also, language knowledge is largely implicit, and this Theory of Grammar – a Thomistic Theory of Grammar, finally explains what is going on at the root of our human nature to make it all possible.


~ * ~

Rising high in the midst of beautiful lands,
Are great ugly spires of death and decay.
Built to mimic ascent and to help men pray,
They created dissent, and made it a brand

The men who traipse in the mire below,
Only partially less happy than they
Who in misery built their prisons so gray;
The commoner, at least, is blessed to not know.

In great waves of toil, all fell in to fight,
Donning breastplates of old,  effaced with  great age,
Under those great towers of pleasure, their cage,
But heraldry, also, aloft at great height.

Recalled not their steps from afore, just what’s next,
They billowed into a carcass of salt,
A desiccate ocean where life came to halt.
So came these armies; into battle they trekked.


Grimly opposed, there sat fathers and brothers,
Staring down a world they’d ne’er think to bear.
Caressing the breeze, plate hard-cut, like feathers,
Capturing the sun and suspending the air.

Their vestments were white, full of color and life.
Calling on their Remittress, heraldry shone.
Close aligned they marched on, more keen than a knife,
Their strike ordained as much as mission condoned.

Plowing through their foe, relentlessly they flayed,
Laying waste to the mobs, though bearing no sword.
They descend’d up that hill whence fell their poor prey,
Sparing not mind nor heart ’til all heard their Lord.


Form never broken, their numbers now higher,
Their order never more graceful and tame.
Hardened faces and eyes ablaze with white fire,
In singular passion and voice they acclaim:


~ * ~



The Atlas Complex

The unspoken burden of the modern teacher.

Atlas is a famous titan of Greek mythology, condemned to forever bear the weight of the world. He alone is responsible for holding it on his shoulders; if he falters for even a second, the world will fall away and perish, and he will forever bear the fault of it.

Today’s teachers stand in Atlas’ place. The educational success of each student that comes through their classroom rests entirely on their shoulders. It is fair to say that this was not always the expectation of society. In more recent years there has been an excessive attempt to standardize and systematize education so that all who participate may receive equitable profit, yet this mission is fraught itself with iniquity. Most importantly, here, is that the teacher becomes the focus point of education, and this is no good thing.


Standardization was generally achieved through a few main channels. Standardized tests is the most recognizable, but textbooks are also significant for this process. Most importantly is the notion of Standards Based Grading (SBG), where students are graded according to content mastery rather than assignment completion.

Most definitely, at face value, we see that standardization really helps students. By establishing a system for better education and for more regular education, we find less educational performance gaps, regardless of where the students are living and regardless of who the teachers are. I personally have found that SBG really does seem to take away the “racing” mentality of school. Students are less focused on earning all their points and are more focused on mastering content knowledge.

At its root, standardization is an attempt to systematize what already existed. Standardization determined education to be a good thing and disparities in education to be a sad thing. That one child in rural Arkansas might not be getting the same level of education as a child in a well-to-do area of Washington D.C was not okay. By systematizing the medium of education (curriculum, grading policies, etc.) then education itself became systematized. The ultimate goal? To fine-tune the system of education so that every child, no matter of background, strengths, or interests, will come out the other side as a well-educated and well-rounded individual.

An Unintended Consequence

For a moment, I will lay aside some philosophical concerns about the nature of systemizing a civic institution. I instead want us to think about the effects of standardization and what it does with its participants. For the children, there are a mountain of benefits. There are, perhaps, some drawbacks when we think about creativity, but on the whole we find that more children are improved than not. But children aren’t the only people in this scenario: teachers are also in the midst of it.

Instead of an approach to education that begins with the unique qualities of all participants, standardization methods begin with predicting appropriate or inappropriate methods of instruction. With this understanding, teachers are part of the medium itself. Just as textbooks have to be standardized in order to deliver a standardized curriculum across broad circumstances, teachers also have to be standardized. This is necessary in order to truly establish a singular standard of education across the nation, but it has a serious side effect:

When teachers themselves are seen as part of the system at hand, that means that they are attributed direct causal authority over the outcomes of said system.

Your standard drip coffee maker has a filter holder, a filter that you insert, a water vat, a heating element, a switch, and an electrical plug. Each of these elements are arranged in such a way that they all have a causal effect on the outcome of the coffee maker. They are individual pieces, but there are a cascade of causes that make them work. If you have your coffee maker plugged in, and it doesn’t make coffee, what is to be assumed? Certainly that something in the middle isn’t working.

We can think about a standardized education system looking something like a coffee maker. We hope to design such a system that when used, produces expected results; if it’s plugged in, it should make coffee. When something goes wrong in the educational system, we can assume something similar to the coffee maker problem: something in the system failed. There could be a number of things that end up receiving the blame: the textbooks, the structure a school administration has put in place, or, most importantly here, the teacher.

Under the principle of subsidiarity, the teacher is the most significant element in a system of education, as they are the closest human element to the students. Being human means they are the most variable, and so the most problematic in the face of standardizing education.

The Teacher, Atlas

The teacher is the last domino to hit the children, so to speak. They are the final deliverers of content, the assessors, the troubleshooters, etc. Now, when I was teaching as a graduate student at the university, my role was extremely minimized into being a mere facilitator of content. I had no design authority and it was not my place to change anything; I was merely meant to deliver. My professor meant it when he said that we were not responsible for our students’ outcomes. Barring some major immoral act, the challenge of our university level classes was between our students and the content. We were not Atlas.

When I got my first public teaching job, I got the complete opposite message. It was told, albeit not directly, that my students’ performances were a result of my efforts. If my students failed, it was my fault. If my students succeeded, I had done my job sufficiently. The idea was that the curriculum and knowledge was already standard, and so any variance in student performance would be a result of my effectiveness as a teacher.

The first test I gave went very poorly for my Spanish students. I’ll never forget when a student asked me:

“Well you’re going to curve the grades, right? That’s what all the other teachers do.”
“No, absolutely not!”
“Why? It’s only going to look bad on you if you don’t.”

Even my students thought that their failure was actually mine.

The teacher, here, is the Atlas that holds up the classroom. Whereas my college professor told us that we were nigh an independent variable when it came to student success at the university, my new school’s policy was telling me that there were nigh any other variable as causal as myself. The most crushing reality of my new job was in this difference: that an entire world came down on my shoulders, and nearly swallowed me up.

“Oh, get over yourself Robert. You just don’t get it. One group is made up of university students and the other is made up of high schoolers.”

“You’re just upset because you finally took on a real job instead of babysitting university level students, and you don’t actually like having responsibility.”

Thankfully no one has ever said these things to my face, but I’m just anticipating the most likely responses to my article. They might even be comments I would have levied against myself, had I not experienced it for myself. Now, though, with more experience I am able to look back and realize that I had been thrust into Atlas’ place without warning. The newfound weight was unbearable.

The Difference

When teachers become part of the system, their individuality is forgotten: their strengths, weaknesses, and unique experiences are pushed aside in the interest of standardization. What is worse, though, is that children are almost forgotten, too. As previously discussed, children do indeed reap many benefits from standardized education, but by forgetting their individuality along with their teachers’, their learning is negatively impacted.

Think back to the coffee maker example: in order for the device to be effective, and for the resulting cup of coffee to be the same every time, the coffee grinds going into the filter need to be the same as well. If the grinds are different, you notice.

It goes without saying that children are even more diverse than coffee grounds.

Any perfected system of standardized education necessarily forgets that all human beings have free will.

For teachers, the issue of human will is a pretty easy variable to rule out. We want to be there, either intrinsically because we want to teach and we want the kids to be successful or extrinsically because we want to be paid for doing a good job. That means that our will power is automatically counted in and you don’t have to worry about whether the teacher is invested. There are, of course, exceptions, but by and large this rule applies.

Students are not equally incentivized. Students are not coffee grounds that can simply be placed into the machine: they have to will themselves to be educated. In application, standards-based education suggests that motivation is irrelevant. As long as students are put through the best system their motivation doesn’t matter, because the best system has accounted for their motivation and has provided the right tools to get the students engaged.

But this makes my analysis too shallow. I’m not just addressing the issue of intrinsic motivation in students. If that was my issue alone, I might get on board the “gamification” trend within education. What I am getting at is a deeper reality within the culture. Students are not only human beings that have will power that needs to be engaged at school. How they are raised at home to handle life’s challenges are dramatically more important than what they learn at school.

First and foremost, parents are the primary educators of children. 

This is a teaching of the Catholic Church. Part of the burden of parenting is that as a parent, you become the primary teacher and role model of your children.

Does the parent:

  • Care that students master content or only care that students bring home a letter grade?
  • Think education is about getting a good job or that education is primarily about self-improvement?
  • Care more about their own work and interests over their children’s growth?
  • Foster that inner moral compass innate to us all?

Teachers are sometimes recognized as spending more active time with children than parents, but this isn’t ever just one teacher. Usually it’s multiple, and even then it’s with a large group of children. The time that matters most is the time at home and the voices that matter most are the ones that feed them every night.

Not only are parents’ voices the ones that matter most, but parents’ actions are the things kids watch the most. We tend to think of our sins as private, but the reality is that our children are very perceptive of us at home. They’re very quick to recognize hypocritical tendencies. They know our habits sometimes better than we do. They hear what we say about government, about our own friends, about our worries, and about school. Sure, they know what you want them to do at school, but what do they think you would do if you yourself were sitting in a classroom?

It is said that actions speak louder than words.

When I talk about the unique human quality of will when it comes to understanding children, I do not exclusively mean intrinsic motivation. I instead mean the entire culture that students carry with themselves as they enter the school doors, and that is nothing a teacher has ordinary power over. It has everything to do with priorities in a student’s home life.

Upon the many goats and the few sheep.

Christ tells us in Matthew 7:13 that the way to hell is broad and easy to follow, while the path to heaven is narrow and difficult. Many will enter through the wide gate, he warns. Thus in an operative way we are obliged to have great hope that many will be saved, but we must live with the reality that this will probably not be the truth of what occurs. This is the shadow under which the Church operates. The most fundamental reality which we face, the existence of God and the necessity that we cooperate with the Church, is something that we don’t expect everyone to conform to.

Certainly we don’t expect that there is some miraculous system of evangelization that will convert the whole world, if Christ Himself didn’t even convert every person He came into contact with.

Education is a process that involves the human will, just like religious conversion. We might refer here to St. John Henry Cardinal Newman’s notion of assent. As much as any human individual needs to assent to something for it to be manifest in them in a real way, education must reach past logical agreement and into a deep assent. But it will not reach into a real assent if the student never consents to receiving educational content.

If the Church herself does not assume that all she preaches to will be receptive of God’s word, why does educational policy assume that all it drafts into its curriculum will be receptive of its content?

By no means does this mean that the Church does not have hope that all she preaches to will be receptive. Similarly, too, it does not mean that the educational system itself must fail to hope to reach all of its recipients in an authentic way.

What I am trying to address in this article is the ultimate issue of the Atlas Complex. When we forget that the ultimate source and goal of education is a group of human beings, we might have the arrogance to assume that there could ever be a perfect system of education. Most importantly, when we forget that students are also human beings with will power, with their own ideas, with their own goals, with opinions, with problems, we think that they are all average and adequate recipients of educational formation. Thusly, and usually unfairly, we attribute student success and failure to the next most variable portion of the educational system: teachers.

When standardization is the primary organizing principle for education, and when it is allowed to play out, then teachers bear the weight of the responsibility for the success of their classrooms. If my student fails, it is my fault. If they are successful, it is due to my good effort. This is a detriment to the student because it forgets them and their inherent personality and ignores their necessary volition as a part of the educational process. We must not forget our students’ humanity. We must not be so arrogant as to assume that we can perfect human institutions and that we can solve all human problems with them.

No matter the system of education in place, students will fail. No matter the quality of teacher, students will fail. No matter the accessibility of knowledge, students will fail. We must always remember that public and standardized education exists at the service of parents, the primary educators. If parents raise and teach their children to be cynical and untrusting, then the children stand a good chance of becoming cynical and untrusting. If parents raise their children to value education (in and of itself, not for some further goal of money or status), then their children stand a good chance of making something of their education.

Of course, I would be remiss to leave it at that and possibly leave you thinking that parents are Atlas in place of the teacher. As much as a perfect system of education and the perfect teacher will not lead to 100% student success, I must also emphasize that perfect parents and a perfect family will also not lead to 100% student success. The nuclear family is just the most basic unit of societal structure and is where people are most affected by others’ opinions and beliefs. If anyone stands a chance to make a drastic impact on children, it is the people that exist within that unit.

The issue in this article is that teachers, especially in public education, have been encouraged to have an Atlas Complex. If the main factor contributing is that the educational system has shifted all responsibility of success onto the teacher, the antidote is to successfully remember the place of student assent. Instead of further questioning teachers and encouraging an Atlas Complex, we should focus on supporting families and fostering a culture that values education for its own sake. Then, of course, remembering that nothing we do will establish a perfect system for success, we must incorporate an expectation of failure into our systems of education, and do our best to accommodate those failures with compassion and charity.

Kyrie, eleison.

Watch out, it’s a Trad!

I’ve only been a Catholic for two years. Two years. That’s not long, in Catholic terms. And of course, when you enter a community, you don’t begin by first understanding every nuance of their people. You get to know the surface level of the people and the core tenets of their bond. But as you sink in longer, you start to see more and more sides of people, their delights, their frustrations, their arguments, etc. Since I came into the Catholic faith already barreling through books and podcasts at a million miles an hour, I didn’t stop, and these two years have been almost as enlightening as the one leading up to my conversion.

One thing of interest to me is the general Catholic community’s response to traditionalists (rad-trads, glad-trads, etc). Ironically, since I converted from a pretty vague and liberal non-denominational Christianity, I’ve seen it in other people’s faces as I myself have approached them. My goal in this article is to offer a method of healing conversation in this rift between modern Catholics.

The source of conflict seems to arise from the Second Vatican Council, started in the early 60s, generally concluding around 1965. This council was different than many, primarily being *more of a pastoral council, rather than being a doctrinal council, as almost all others in the past had been. One of the documents from this council was Sacrosanctum Concilium, a document that addressed the shape of liturgical life within the Catholic Church. In and of itself it left a lot of wiggle room, but the idea was to remember the way that the early Church adapted itself to the many cultures it was evangelizing to, and the way that it married the sacred and true, within the church, with the beautiful that was found uniquely expressed in the people it was preaching to. Pretty soon after the Second Vatican Council, however, came up a group called the *Concilium, who took it upon themselves to respond to Sacrosanctum Concilium‘s demands and modify the regular Catholic Church’s liturgy so that it conformed to the Council’s demands. It is generally agreed that the *Concilium was much more left-leaning than the Council Fathers themselves, and modified the liturgy in much more extreme ways than anticipated. The result? The *Missal of Paul VI, or the Novus Ordo Missae, the New Order of the Mass, standing in contrast to the Tridentine Mass of old. As you can imagine, not everyone was happy with the new changes.

Imagine Father Michael, a priest at a pretty normal parish. He knows most of his parishioners well. One of the parishioners, John, has talked with Fr. Michael often about the Liturgy and traditional elements of the old Latin Mass. But John is not the only trad that Fr. Michael has known. He’s encountered many trads in the past who are angry, perhaps vitriolic in their speech, and who waste no time in correcting Fr. Michael or his fellow priests on ‘abuses’ of the liturgy. John has never himself demonstrated these negative behaviors towards Fr. Michael, but he has been talking more and more about traditional liturgy and traditional Catholic practices.

One day, John approaches Fr. Michael with a calm smile on his face, excited to talk about a new element of traditional liturgy he learned about the other day. Fr. Michael sees John coming and immediately tenses. What will he do this time? Is he finally going to be angry? Reprimand him with false authority? Call him a bad priest? Fr. Michael steels himself, puts up a wall to genuine conversation, and hopes the barrage passes soon.

Sadly this reaction is not uncalled for. Recently Bishop Barron directed a video to trads who, while claiming to uphold a better example of the faith, are spewing vitriol all over the internet and social media, committing the mortal sin of calumny. Despite the novelty of my own Catholicism and the staunchly different origin of my conversion, I have encountered the same measure of ‘shut down’ from priests and other church leaders that I have directly spoken with. Once they learn that I’m even interested in elements of older liturgy, they seem to stop listening, and steel themselves against whatever I might say next. It seems to me that this conflict of the recent past has erupted into mountains of pain and ill-speak. The result? Liturgy has almost become a taboo topic within the Catholic Church. People put themselves and others into camps, they don’t open themselves up to hear what other influences might offer, and nothing productive seems to be done.

My goal here is to offer a bridge of connection, a way for non-trads to understand trads.

Firstly, why are trads always so angry? Why do they hurt people so recklessly? There may be a mountain of reasons, but one thing most trads have in common is this: a desire for beauty.

Think about walking into a beautiful old Cathedral, that has stood since the time of the Roman Empire, but has been burned down and abandoned. What is that pain that you feel, watching something so beautiful be cast to the wayside?

Recently I walked into St. John’s Episcopal Church for the first time in Tallahassee, Florida. BeautifulStunning. Compared to the Catholic Cathedral of St. Thomas More down the street? A hundred times more beautiful. But when I thought about that Church not being in Catholic hands? When I thought about the Catholic Church just down the street not having the same level of beauty? I felt a pain in my chest. A heartache.

The main source of anger, or, if more vulnerably revealed, sadness and hurt, is having a high expectation of beauty and reverence in every aspect of the Catholic faith, but not having those expectations fulfilled.

The Catholic Church is nigh 2,000 years old. It’s traditions are old and beautiful, and have had much time to refine themselves and become elevated to all new levels. Architecture, music, art, iconography and liturgy have all had so much time to be taken to such high levels of sophistication that the trad has many expectations for the current Church. Yet when a trad walks into a Church shaped by the Novus Ordo Missae, he typically does not find these things. Along with many of the adaptations of the Novus Ordo in the late 20th century, architecture became increasingly simplified. Music was taken in from local cultures, and Gregorian Chant was all but deleted. Art was infiltrated by modernists and postmodernists. Liturgy had many elements of mysticism erased, and, comparatively, can be incredibly less reverential.

When a trad looks at a ‘progressive’ Catholic Church, they feel pain from the lack of fulfillment of their expectation.

Regarding Vatican II

Certainly, yes, there are trads who actually have beef with the Second Vatican Council documents themselves. They think the Church has somehow ‘protestantized’ itself, abandoned Church teaching, and is living in some sort of apostasy. But not all trads are that way. I, for one, enjoyed the Vatican II documents. Were it not for them, I don’t think my article here would be very welcome by clergy. Even understanding Sacrosanctum Concilium, while I admit has been difficult for me, is something I can get by. But in processing that document and coming to terms with it, it has helped me understand something about the relationship between more progressive and conservative strains of Catholics.

The Sacredness of the Liturgy

What I think non-trad priests and clergy may not understand about the trad movement is that the manner of celebration of the liturgy and conformity to the Second Vatican Council are not a unified identifier for trads. In other words, just because I as a trad do not like the Novus Ordo Missae as much as I like the Tridentine Mass, does not mean that I don’t agree with the Second Vatican Council. These things are separate.

Bishop Barron, in a video (1:20) recently about the Second Vatican Council, reminded viewers that the Novus Ordo Missae spiritually fed the lives of saints such as Mother Teresa and St. John Paul II. While it might be easy to retort that the Tridentine Mass spiritually fed almost all of the other saints in Catholic history, it is important to recognize what Bishop Barron is getting at. In many ways this is what a lot of non-trad clergy would wish for trads to understand. Since the Novus Ordo is valid and licit, it means that Christ is present just as much there as it was in the old Mass. It is an objectively good thing. We don’t need to return to an older liturgy just to find Christ’s presence, or to be reverent when praying the Mass. Reverence is just as possible in the Novus Ordo as it is in the old Tridentine Mass.

Fr. Michael O’Loughlin, a Byzantine Rite Catholic priest, once said something that made me think about this. He highlighted on the podcast Catholic Stuff You Should Know that the Novus Ordo may not be as outwardly obvious when it comes to portraying reverence for Christ, but does not negate it. It just means that the responsibility for reverence lies more within the heart of the mass-goer to seek out and give that worship. This, compared to something like the Tridentine Mass, where directions for reverence and general beauty are simply more obvious and easier for people to understand. Fr. Michael’s point here is that it actually demonstrates a stronger faith if someone is able to find Christ in the Novus Ordo, as much as that person is able to find Christ in the heart of a homeless person, because they don’t need all of the outward beauty in order to carry their minds into the deep heart of Christ’s love.

A bridge between these two perspectives.

Wise trads will legitimately recognize the validity of the Novus Ordo, and should even agree that reverence is just as possible. But how do we find a path forward between self-identified trads and non-trads? What do we talk about?

The first point is that just because reverence and beauty are possible does not mean that they are effectively implemented. In order to make the Mass adaptable and understandable to the many cultures it has reached out to in this globalized world, many optional instructions had to be introduced. Even though the general structure is the same as the old Tridentine Mass, there are many ways to adapt the Novus Ordo Missae that may make it look very similar or incredibly different.

One of my firm beliefs, and this may be the most important section of my articleis that there are many ways that the Novus Ordo Missae can be implemented that would actually form a bridge to those trads that people seem to be so afraid of. My suspicion is that upon implementing these changes, or at least seriously entertaining these more traditional aspects, many may find that rad-trads will be plenty appeased. As I previously said, the source of pain in a trad’s heart is usually about a lack of beauty within the Church. When the only people offering these elements of beauty are those offering the Tridentine Mass, should we be surprised that people would flock to that? *After listening to a recent episode of the Burrowshire Podcast, I would even go so far as to say that the Novus Ordo Missae can be done incredibly reverently.

Here is a list of things (in no particular order of importance) that should not bring any conflict, and, if implemented reverently, may inspire all to a deeper beauty and reverence for the Mass, all the while *properly and actually conforming to the demands of Sacrosanctum Concilium:

A. Reception of the Eucharist

Typically in a Novus Ordo Parish, the Eucharist is primarily received on the hand, while standing. After receiving, the communicant steps to the side and then crosses themselves. They then receive the Eucharist under the species of wine from a common cup. Communicants alternatively may receive the Eucharist, under the species of bread, directly on the tongue, usually while standing as well.

More traditionally, the Eucharist is only received on the tongue while kneeling at an altar rail. Yes, many elders find it difficult to kneel, and an accommodation seems to be in order, but on the whole, what is the best way to receive the sacrificed corpus of the King of the Universe? Tradition says that we should kneel before our King. By receiving directly on the tongue, we are letting the hands that consecrated the Eucharist, the hands of the priest, be the only hands that are worthy of touching something so precious. This posture of receptivity, more reverential towards the magnitude of God-made-flesh, communicates this reality not only to the communicant, but the whole community around them. Then, the communicant does not cross themselves. Why? When crossing oneself, we are calling to us the presence of the triune God in our prayer. In the reception of the Eucharist, have we not received the most perfect earthly presence of God into ourselves? At best, crossing oneself is redundant, and at worse, it is border-line heretical, not acknowledging the true presence of Christ within the Eucharist, thinking that there is some ingredient further necessary in the reception of the Eucharist.

Lastly, regarding the common cup containing the Eucharist under the species of wine, we traditionally find that the laity does not regularly consume it. The Catholic Church teaches that the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of our Lord Jesus Christ is present in the Eucharist under each species. If you only receive one form, you receive it all (hence during this time of pandemic, we do not commonly find the distribution of the common cup). At times of importance in one’s life (confirmation, first communion, marriage) it is encouraged that the laity may receive under both species, but certainly not every Sunday. Some of the reasons are for logistic purposes, but generally it is so that the Eucharist is handled as carefully and reverently as possible.

B. Celebrating Mass Ad Orientem

Typically in a Novus Ordo Parish, the priest celebrates Mass while facing the people. More things are typically pronounced aloud so that the people can hear and generally feel more included in the act of consecration.

More traditionally, the priest celebrates Mass while facing away from the people, typically facing the crucifix that the laity themselves look at. Did you know that Catholic Churches are typically constructed so that the laity faces the east (oriens)? The idea of the Mass is that the priest, as the representative of Christ, offering up the sacrifice of our Lord, is doing so with the people. In the modern sense this would seem to suggest that the priest face the people, as an act of cooperation, but in tradition the priest also faces the east (ad orientem). With everyone facing the same direction, it helps everyone call to mind that what is happening during the mass is not something that is internal to the Church; it is directed towards something Heavenly, something outside of the Church.

An often circulated idea around the internet is this question: Which way would you prefer your bus driver to face? Towards the passengers, or away from the passengers, leading them as they travel on?

C. Using Gregorian Chant

Typically in a Novus Ordo Parish,  Sacred Music takes on the form of hymns in the local language, or in the language of most of the parishioners. Sometimes other music like popular Christian Rock songs may find some adaptation into the liturgy as well. Many instruments are potentially used: guitars, violins, trumpets, keyboards, pianos, etc, in addition to the traditional organ. There are many ways that the ordinaries of the Mass can be sung, usually with one overriding melody that repeats throughout the ordinaries.

More traditionally, Sacred Music exists in the form of Gregorian Chant or Polyphony. Many people find this daunting because of the use of Latin, but more on Latin in a second. Polyphony is when multiple voices come together and harmonize around the traditional Gregorian Chant music. This music has, intentionally, a more solemn tone than much modern music. This is not contrary to the Christian image, it is to be encouraged! The documents of the Second Vatican Council say that Gregorian Chant should be the golden standard of Sacred Music. This does not mean to cast it aside: it means that Sacred Music should conform largely to the form of Gregorian Chant, excepting some differences for how it can be localized in different regions. One example of this is how we might view chant in the High Anglican Church or in The Ordinariate of the Chair of St. Peter (The rite within the Catholic Church that is an Anglican celebration of the Mass properly ordered under the rule of the Catholic Church). Because of a more intimate familiarity of the use of the English language within a holy setting, the Ordinariate and the Anglican Church, I believe, contain more Sacred Music that is in the form of Gregorian Chant, but which properly recognizes the way that it interacts with the English language. In the end, this is what I think Vatican II wanted to see, not upbeat guitar music in Mass.

Unfortunately when the Norvus Ordo was implemented, the standard of Gregorian Chant materials for it were delayed and not fully implemented. The result is that Gregorian Chant has fallen to the wayside in the modern Church. It needs to be revitalized!

D. Using Latin for the Ordinaries of the Mass

Typically in a Novus Ordo Parish,  Latin is not used. It might be used on occasion during extra solemn occasions (during Lent or Advent). Even then it might only be used for the penitential rite and for parts of the Liturgy of the Eucharist, like the Sanctus and the Agnus Dei. When combined with some sort of chant, the music tends to have a simple tone (compared to a highly variant tone).

More traditionally, Latin is used for the whole of the Mass, except for the Homily. Vatican II documents call for, at the very least, that Latin be used for all of the Ordinaries of the Mass. These are the parts of the Mass that don’t change week to week. The goal is that the laity learn what the Latin is for these parts of the Mass and don’t have difficulty encountering them on the regular.

Further, by using Latin, a language not commonly used by the laity, the Mass becomes a place of extraordinary difference. It becomes the most out-of-place element of our lives. It stands out. By using this different, albeit common, language across the same rite, the liturgy itself helps Catholics remember that the world they are living in is a passing and fleeting place, that the reality of Heaven is more beautiful and other compared to the world that we currently live in. Latin helps draw the Catholic out of the haze of this world and encourage them to seek what is holy, which is often considered illogical by the world.

The goal is not to alienate the laity from the Church, it is to remind the laity that they are aliens to the world and the world’s ways.

E. Bowing when certain names are pronounced during the Liturgy

Typically in a Novus Ordo Parish,  everyone bows during the pronunciation of the Nicene Creed, when acknowledging the conception of our Lord by the Holy Spirit through Mary. Entering the Church, and ideally every time that someone crosses in front of the altar, all genuflect.

More traditionally, in addition to the elements above, everyone bows at the pronunciation of the name of our Lord and when the Trinitarian doxology is pronounced, and during the Nicene creed everyone genuflects instead of bowing. These extra gestures of physical movement, which are inherently reverential, direct the worshiper towards Christ and towards God many times throughout the liturgy. Call it Active Participation, if you will.

F. Forgoing the assistance of Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist

Typically in a Novus Ordo Parish,  there are a regular squad of Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist, who help distribute the Eucharist and, ideally, speed up communion. They make the whole process more efficient. These are especially necessary when considering the distribution of the common cup, as the priest alone cannot effectively distribute both forms of the Eucharist in a timely and careful manner. By distributing the work out, it is possible to help everyone receive under both species in a safe way.

More traditionally, the laity do not receive from the cup. They only receive the Eucharist under the species of bread, except for special occasions. Calling back to the idea of receiving the Eucharist in a more reverential way, the use of Extraordinary Ministers presents conflict for the traditionalist. Extraordinary Ministers of the Eucharist are not able to consecrate the Eucharist itself. They have not been ordained to consecrate it. The priest’s hands, by virtue of his priesthood and by virtue of the hand cleansing that he does prior to the consecration of the Eucharist, is particularly disposed to handling the Eucharist in a reverential way. No matter how much hand sanitizer an Extraordinary Minister uses, it does not change that they do not share themselves in the priesthood and that they do not set aside their hands for holy purposes the way that a priest does, especially during Mass. They are not as “set-aside” as the priests intentionally are. You will also find trads become uncomfortable if they see a priest touch his face after having consecrated the Eucharist, prior to completing the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

Ironically, while Extraordinary Ministers are Extraordinary, they are a pretty ordinary staple of most Novus Ordo parishes.

G. Vestments for Lectors and Cantors

Typically in a Novus Ordo Parish,  Lectors and Cantors (much less Extraordiary Ministers) are not vested. They are not marked as set aside for the purpose of Holy Mass. I have always seen Altar Servers vested, but I have only ever seen Lectors vested in one Church, and I have only ever seen Cantors vested in one other.

More traditionally, anyone directly supporting the flow of Holy Mass, be it lectors, cantors, or altar servers, are all vested. By having some kind of vestment, however simple, it helps all involved recognize the measure that the Holy Mass is “set-apart.”

Something else about these roles that disrupts an air of reverence is how the altar is approached and treated by these figures. In the Tridentine Mass the priest spends a significant time in prayer before ascending to the altar to begin the Mass, yet in the Novus Ordo Missae lectors, cantors, and extraordinary ministers seem to simply walk up to that area around the altar with a simple bow, if any reaction at all. My wife and I first served as lectors at our Church, but thinking about how casually we were able to enter the area of the altar put us in a place of great discomfort. We initially thought that our Pastor’s restriction of needing to wear fancy clothes was a burden, but we came to think that even that wasn’t enough.

H. Incense. All the time.

Typically in a Novus Ordo Parish,  incense is used on special occasion, typically in times of solemn celebration.

More traditionally, incense is used



Sunday. (and every sung mass)

’nuff said.

In Summary

Should all of the more traditional elements of the liturgy, as lain out above, be incorporated into the Novus Ordo Missae, I imagine you would find many trads happily cooperating and participating in non-Tridentine Mass. I truly believe that much of the unrest in trads’ hearts lies with the way in which the Liturgy is reverentially treated.

These suggestions are not somehow contrary to the Second Vatican Council. They are very much in line and are able to be used in the Novus Ordo Missae. The desire for their inclusion is not bad, either. The desire for the more traditional implementations of these elements of the Mass are holy. We are an institutional Church. We desire not only to be more holy at the individual level, but also as parochial , diocesan, national, and global communities.

Don’t be afraid talking to a trad. Some are scary, I give you that. Some are spiteful, hateful, and are in deep need of love, just as much as anyone. But if we, as Catholics, were more unified and more reverential in our conduct of the Mass? I think we would find this source of division to be a source of holy unity and power in the modern world. Church isn’t where we go to be comfortable. It’s where we go to seek that which is out of this world, which is truly “set-apart,” or holy. Let’s treat it like that.

The most important thing is that we celebrate one Eucharist, and that we know Jesus loves us.

Yes, yes, we know. We get it! But more and more young people do not platitudes. We don’t want to be appeased. We don’t want to be handheld through the faith and through the liturgy.

We want to be challenged.

We want the liturgy to put us in our place.

We want to worship God.

We want to break that jar of perfume for our Lord’s feet.

Post Script


#011 – What You Need to Know about Vatican II – Burrowshire Podcast

This podcast, hosted by Brandon Vogt and Father Blake Britton, delicately and profoundly engages the meat of the Second Vatican Council. They address the notion of the Para-Council which dramatically affected the Post-Conciliar Church, especially when considering the Liturgy.

*Based on listening to the Burrowshire podcast, I made a number of edits to this article. Any changes will be noted by this asterisk note.