Education Reading Update: Sparta and Another Book

A. Here’s what came in the mail today:


Goes immediately to the top of the pile. Only 80 pages long, counting end notes, which is about 15% as long as most of the books on the shelf! Hope it is as helpful as the title promises.

B. Along with Parish School, have been rereading A History Of Education In Antiquitya very interesting book. Early on, Marrou discusses Sparta’s schizophrenic place in the Greek mind – on the one hand, they are considered something like rubes or hicks, on the other as the model Greeks. Partly, this has to do with Sparta’s reinterpretation of Homer: while an Athenian, say, wanted personally to be excellent and as great and immortal a hero as those portrayed in the Iliad, Sparta developed the idea of a city of heroes, where the men collectively strove for immortality. Thus, other Greeks would seek glory and a glorious death to be counted among heroes, but a Spartan achieved immortality and glory as a Spartan, part of a group. Thus, the sort of striving by which great works of literature and art are created came naturally to most Greeks, but had no place among the Spartans. 

That would be the Spartans as they are more generally imagined. Something I didn’t know was that Sparta was a great cultural center some centuries before Athens reached its peak, full of artists and music and elegant festivals. Only later did the maniacal implementation of Lycurgus’ quasi-mythical design (as understood and interpreted by the current leaders) drive out all higher culture. Marrou attributes this to an attempt to consolidate power by a Spartan faction, not as any native patriotism for Spartan purity. 

Marrou dwells on what I think is a central notion of education – the telling of stories that give examples of heroic behavior. The Iliad is not just a piece of literature, it is the supreme teacher of Greeks. What Homer does – recount at length and in detail how the excellent man, the great hero, lives, strives and dies – is the sole means and and expresses the one goal of true Greek education. He even goes so far as to point to Thomas a Kempis’ The Imitation of Christ as the Christian offspring of Greek Homeric ancestry, wherein the Hero we are to imitate changes, but not the process by which we learn. The anger of Achilles is replaced by the meekness of Christ as that excellence toward which all Christians should strive.

I’d add that the story-telling aspect of education is inescapable: that we humans make a story out of our experiences with our teachers, even when those experiences are sitting in a desk doing busywork. That’s what is behind Chesterton saying that children don’t learn what teachers think they are teaching, but instead learn what those teachers assume without saying. We learn that the heroes in our story are the ones who sit still, stay quiet, do as they’re told and hand in their homework on time. I think we should shoot for telling stories with a better class of hero in them.


Music at Mass: 1/31/2016 – a Tale of Two Children’s Choirs

From yesterday’s Epistle:

When I was a child, I used to talk as a child,
think as a child, reason as a child;
when I became a man, I put aside childish things.

After Mass, the principle of the parish school stated, in reference to this passage, that one main goal of Catholic schools is to help bring kids into adulthood.

This is National Catholic School Week, so the choir from the parish school sang at Mass. After the manner of their kind, they were quite good – they really sang, followed the director’s directing with clear, on-pitch voices. The kids were attentive and enthusiastic. Inevitably, it seems, they sang all third-rate modern music, mostly songs written under the assumption, evidently, that children don’t actually like music. (1)

Compare and contrast this children’s choir:


The kids at Boys Town were not any more special than the kids at any parish. In other words, the kids at your local parish school could sing like the Boys Town Choir, if the adults in charge were willing and able to put in the work.

Now very few parishes have a Fr. Francis Schmitt to direct its children’s choir. The difference is that, 60 years ago, the director of a parish children’s choir (did they even have those back then? And let them sing at Mass?)  would hear the Boys Town Choir and hear something to be aspired to. Now, the harried part-timer in charge not only falls far short of any fraction of Fr. Schmitt’s  musicianship and erudition, but doesn’t even want their kids to sound like that, singing great music. They, themselves, have probably learned to despise all that classical-type music as totally snobby, that having a good choir sing beautifully from the loft is just another way the mean old Church cut the people out of Mass.(2) Any attempt to have the kids do real music is met with grave suspicion.

Thus, the quality of music coming out of parish children’s choirs is roughly that of a grade-school talent show. Yesterday’s choir was better than that, for which I am thankful. The real damaging thing here is two-fold: to the people involved, it is a *virtue* that their kids march into the sanctuary and sing weakly along to goofy recorded music while some adult waves her arms like a stork and gives them cues – and then get a round of applause from the people in the pews. This would be called, I suppose, keeping it real. Second, this childish music and childish presentation and need for instant affirmation is not seen as one of those childish things St. Paul was talking about as needing to be set aside once we reach adulthood. On the contrary, from the adults’ perspective, not only would it be a real step back (on The Wrong Side of History, no doubt) to have the kiddies sing real music really well from someplace not distracting to the Mass itself,  it would be bad if the putative adults did it.

I had the honor of meeting Fr. Schmitt back in the early 80’s, even attending little classes wherein he attempted to beat a little music into our thick skulls. He really was a great man, one of a few people where I, now that it’s too late, wish I had just done whatever I could to just sit at his feet and learn whatever he wanted to tell me.

The sad thing: Fr. Schmitt had despaired of the church ever returning to good music as the standard. He had seen not merely neglect of good music, but concerted efforts to crush it out of existence (having people throw copies of the liber usealis straight into the dumpster or furnace, for example – sort of like that scene in That Hideous Strength, where Frost tries to get Studdock to desecrate sacred symbols as a way of breaking him down). If I could talk to him now, I’d tell him that, not only are there a growing number of chant and polyphony choirs springing up, we even get to sing at Tridentine Masses in, like, regular parishes without apology.

So, while the situation liturgically and musically is still borderline dire, it is not at all hopeless. Cheer up, Fr. Schmitt!

  1. When he was still little, introduced eldest son to Bach’s Little G-Minor Fugue. It became one of his favorite bits of music, despite (because?) being all intricate and grown up. I don’t think this outcome all that unusual.
  2. The typical behind in the pews may not think this on any conscious level, but I’ve almost exactly this said on more than one occasion, usually by some aged ex-hippy deacon or ex-nun. Even some of the better younger priests seem to be afraid to stick their heads into this particular lion’s mouth. Oh well: perhaps church music, like science, advances one funeral at a time.