Neil Postman gave his book, The End of Education (1996), an ambiguous title to highlight the drama that is always being played out between the purpose and the dissolution of education. He is convinced that many of our most troubling social problems could be ameliorated if we could improve our methods of true education.
Unfortunately, we are surrounded by forms of education that are highly unreliable. Politics is an educator, but all too often it teaches cynicism. So, too, is the media, though all too frequently it teaches consumerism. Poverty is also an educator, though it commonly teaches hopelessness. And what does higher education often teach but political correctness?
One factor the author insists upon in the process of a good education is accuracy, so much so, in fact, that he invites his students to correct him whenever he wanders into error. After making his students honorary members of “Accuracy in Academia,” he gives them the following mandate:
Your task is to make sure that none of my errors goes by unnoticed. At the beginning of each class, I will, in fact, ask you to reveal whatever errors I made in the previous session. You must, of course, say why these are errors, indicate the source of your authority, and, if possible, suggest a truer or more useful or less biased way of formulating what I said.
This is a most praiseworthy challenge. We are all fallible and no sensible teacher should present himself as an unchallengeable authority on everything he says.
Now, if we regard Postman’s book as his classroom, we can take up his challenge. Thus, we can turn to page 155 and read: “Even a cursory review of Roman Catholicism will show that its ideas have changed—for example . . . on abortion . . .” He makes this erroneous statement without referring to any authority.
But even a “cursory review” will show that Mr. Postman is in violation of his own stated principles. This error is worth exposing because it is made so often and adds to our list of unreliable forms of education, namely, books on education.
Germain Grisez, in his compendious study on abortion, Abortion: the Myths, the Realities, and the Arguments (1970), states that “The Roman Catholic tradition is marked by clear, consistent, comprehensive, and firm teaching against abortion in general. John Hardon, SJ, avers that “On the level of morality, Roman Catholicism has always held that the direct attack on the unborn fetus, at any time after conception, is a grave sin. The history of this teaching has been consistent and continuous, beginning with the earliest times and up to the present” (“A Catholic View,” The Human Life Review, Fall 1975). Finally, scholar David Granfield, in The Abortion Decision (1971), writes as follows: “To summarize, throughout history the Catholic Church as resolutely opposed the practice of abortion. From the first recorded condemnation in ecclesiastical writings in the Didache . . . we find no authoritative deviation from the doctrine that abortion, at any stage, is a serious sin against God, the Creator of all human life.”
It is interesting to note that some critics of the Church fully recognize Her consistent teaching on abortion and mount their weaponry from that basis. For example, S. Chandrasekhar, in his book, Abortion in a Crowded World (1974) argues that the Catholic doctrine on abortion is “rigid, irrational, and cast-iron . . . changeless and monolithic.”
Roger Wertheimer, himself an advocate of abortion, suspects that there is considerable prejudice directed against the Church on the issue of abortion. Accordingly, he writes, “I think it undeniable that some of the liberals’ bungling can be dismissed as the unseemly sputtering and stuttering of a transparently camouflaged anti-Catholic bias” (“Understanding the Abortion argument,” The Rights and Wrongs of Abortion (1974).
In today’s electronic world there is a considerable gap between information that is readily available and scholarship that requires some degree of discipline, research, and questioning. Education is more than the compilation of unquestioned information. The end, that is, the purpose of education is to convey the truth of things with the benefits of the student and society in mind. If this end is subverted by ideology, political correctness, and fashion, then the end of education becomes its dissolution.
The difference between these two “ends” of education cannot be stressed too strongly. As H. G. Wells once said, “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.”