The COVID pandemic, the economic travails it has caused, and the social unrest that followed in its wake have all set American society on a new footing. Parents with school-age children are figuring out what the fall will hold for their students, with some school districts going fully online, others delaying start dates, and many figuring out how to implement a raft of health protocols to facilitate in-person instruction. But the Great Disruption that Eric Cohen describes in “The Jewish Schools of the Future” contains more than the pandemic and the human response to it. The economy has taken a plunge and the so-called “great awokening” has stirred riots and the tearing down of statues of figures from American history. Both economic downturn and social unrest have put more pressure on schools, especially those that work to pass along a tradition of biblical faith or American citizenship.
Yet this moment also contains opportunities for parents and communities who wish to pass those great goods on to their children. I’m grateful to Eric Cohen for his extraordinary “imaginative effort” to rethink Jewish education. The moment is ripe to undertake such a reconsideration, and, for a Christian like me, who sees in Cohen’s analysis a shared set of challenges, and in his provocations, inspiration for rearing the young in my own faith, this is a most welcome conversation.
In what follows, I’d like to add to his proposals by considering how his analysis of Jewish education might be extended to the world of Catholic classical education, and then consider how Jews and Christians might work together to form and protect American civic education, such that we might pursue the common civic good while also protecting and bolstering the particular formation of our respective traditions.
Cohen’s imagining stimulates the Christian imagination, too, especially parents and educators who care about forming the young with resources from Christian and classical inheritances. Does online education have a role to play in that effort? While online education comes with significant downsides, it also opens possibilities that ought to be considered, especially in an atmosphere in which families would benefit from more flexibility in order to raise their children to embrace the countercultural beliefs of traditional faith. As Cohen does in the Jewish context, let me briefly illustrate a number of ways that online education could help families pass on a living Catholic tradition of knowledge and practice. Some of these will also no doubt have analogues in the Jewish tradition, where online education could similarly enable more expansive thinking about the best education for our children.
1. Hybrid homeschooling: Homeschooling has grown since 1999 and now comprises more than 3 percent of the entire U.S. school-age population. While homeschoolers come in all shapes and sizes, a hybrid model often combines online instruction with in-person co-ops comprised of multiple families. This offsets the burden on any one family to provide instruction in every subject while also allowing them the flexibility to spend time on subjects they might not otherwise get in schools, e.g. time in liturgical prayer or time in unstructured play outdoors.
As online instruction matures, the possibility of excellent instruction online increases. One can imagine families spending two days in person with other homeschooling families, together undertaking common study in poetry, literature, and history, while supplementing education in core subjects such as Latin, math, and science. Online instruction might also allow students to move to a “competency-based” model of learning where a student is able to progress through various levels of a subject at his or her own pace.
2. School Calendar/Liturgical Calendar: The Jewish calendar structures Jewish religious life, and the same is true in my own faith, in which the sacred liturgy of the Church is “the primary and indispensable source from which the faithful are to derive the true Christian spirit” (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 1963, 14). Liturgical practice—Mass participation, participation in the sacraments, prayer of the Divine Liturgy, celebration of the feasts of the Church’s liturgical calendar—is the primary way that Christians pass on their form of life from generation to generation. The liturgy has been constructed slowly and with great labor so that time itself is experienced as oriented toward God and the saving grace of redemption.
While much of the United States, until this March, operated according to the conventional academic calendar—September through May or June—a hybrid model could allow families more flexibility to emphasize liturgical religious practice and formation alongside general studies. Christian families could organize their children’s education in such a way that they would be free to take a break from general-studies courses on particular feast days in order to devote extra time to liturgical prayer and festivity.
Rather than observing Easter Monday (a federal holiday) and then going back to school, a family could structure their children’s schooling to include the Paschal Triduum and Easter Octave, as well as feasts such as Our Lady of the Rosary, St. Michael, and the Purification (or Candlemas). (The equivalent for Jews would be closing school for all of Passover, intermediate days included.) This flexibility would also allow families to put time aside for feast days that are particular devotions of the household—for example, the saints after whom the parents of a family take their confirmation names.
3. Latin and Sacred Music: Cohen writes much about the possibilities opened up to reform and improve Hebrew instruction, and here too, there is an analogue in Catholic education. For living traditions embody accumulated wisdom within action and speech, and the universal language of the Church is Latin. It’s true that the liturgy is now translated into vernacular language the world over. Still, Latin remains our foundational language of the Church. All its liturgical prayer is translated from Latin and the Gregorian Chant was shaped around prayer in Latin. Indeed, the sacred music of the Church is a “treasure of inestimable value” and holds a preeminent place among the Church’s artifacts because it contributes most greatly to the nobility of liturgical worship (Sacrosanctum Concilium, 112-3).
For American Catholic families, there are a host of online options for the study of Latin, from beginning, intermediate, and advanced courses to specialized reading and “living Latin” courses where students practice speaking and listening to conversational Latin. The newly formed Classical Learning Resource Center, for instance, offers such courses to elementary-, middle-, and high-school students, and is staffed and governed by veterans of the classical-education movement.
Looking down the line, one can see the development of online courses, led by parish choir directors or musicians, who instruct groups of students in Gregorian Chant using the Divine Office as a resource on a daily basis. Another version of this would be a group of courses where a music teacher is able to instruct families in how to pray the Divine Office together on a daily basis.
American Catholics, like American Jews, have a vested interest in nourishing the cultural soil of the United States. Turning completely inward, and ignoring the ambient culture in which our communities are rooted is insufficient to meet the challenges created by the great awokening. If we are to see this moment as an opportunity, we will need to strengthen the particularity of our own traditions and at the same time contribute anew to the common civic good of America.
To this end, Jews and Christians are aligned and allied. We both share a vision of how to make use of the liberty afforded by the American constitutional system, including perhaps its greatest achievement, religious freedom and toleration. Moreover, both of us view history as alive in a fundamental sense: not as an antiseptic record of what happened to occur in times past, but as accumulated wisdom that has been bequeathed to the present generation, and which it is our task to learn from, add to, and in turn pass along to the next generation. This orientation to the vital power of the past attunes us to American and Western history no less than religious traditions.
That deferential spirit of learning from the past is out of step with the times. For, the spirit of our age overemphasizes what Friedrich Nietzsche called “critical history,” a different attitude altogether, under whose spell critique is levied against history in order to emancipate the present generation from that ignorance and evils of the past. Once liberated from those evils, we are also liberated to forget their source, and so history criticized is ultimately history abolished. The act of tearing down statues of American heroes like Frederick Douglas and Ulysses Grant, the riotous atmosphere in which that violence against the past took place, as well as the New York Times’s “1619 Project,” all share this critical posture toward history.
Part of the work of renewing and strengthening a patriotic Jewish-Christian alliance around education would be to articulate and model a healthier approach to the American past. As Wilfred McClay and others have documented here in Mosaic, a Jewish-Christian alliance is developing in an historically unique way in America. Civic education—building a generation of religiously observant Jews and Christians devoted to the civic health of the United States—serves that alliance and the country at one and the same time. In the spirit of Cohen’s essay, here are my own thoughts about how traditionalist Christians and Jews can take advantage of this moment to bring classical and civic education to their children.
1. Online civic-education resources: While myriad resources exist online at present, there is a long way to go to provide adequate civic-education resources—especially in light of the historical revisionism heralded by the aforementioned “1619 Project.” Wilfred McClay has provided an excellent textbook resource in A Land of Hope and the online video series of that book produced through Hillsdale College. But McClay’s impressive effort should show us a model, and be the first and not the last word on how to produce texts and other materials conducive to civic education.
Imagine, for example, an online portal of resources comprising ten-part lecture series on various parts of American history—the Revolution, the Founding, the Civil War, the Gilded Age, World War I, World War II, and so on. The resource could also have “topical” lectures series such as “Maritime Trade in American History” or “American Literature.” At the same time, the portal could provide children’s resources—including, for instance, audiobooks of the Little House on the Prairie series, contemporary authors such as Lynne Cheney reading from their own work, and video resources such as the animated PBS series Liberty’s Kids. The portal could also produce original content in addition to aggregating the best that can be found on American civics.
2. Put religious veterans in front of students: Why have religious Jews and Christians fought for America? Agree or disagree with America’s wars in the last twenty years, the fact is that the country now has a generation of veterans who have shipped off to the other side of the world to fight for the Stars and Stripes, and many of these warfighters see their own religious devotion and their American duties in relation to each other. Students at Jewish and Catholic institutions would be well-served to hear from those who chose this path despite the difficulties it put on their religious practices.
3. Religious freedom: Understanding the religious roots of this tradition and coming to know the works that have best exemplified the principles that comprise this tradition is an entire civic education in itself. From George Washington’s 1790 “Letter to the Hebrew Congregation of Newport” to this year’s Espinoza Supreme Court decision, America has contributed to the repository of Western civilization by forging a history of religious freedom and toleration, as well as the debates and conversations to understand that history. Jews and Christians should be on the forefront of this living tradition, and educate our youngest members in its principles.
In addition to emphasizing this aspect of America’s civic architecture for students, Jews and Christians should partner to provide teacher training programs in the tradition of religious liberty—work already being done by groups such as Civic Spirit in New York City. Putting courses and lectures about religious freedom online would also benefit home-schooling parents.
4. Jewish-Christian civic conversation: Cohen raises the possibility of having Jewish and Christian students in conversation with one another, while also emphasizing the wisdom of keeping those populations separate at certain crucial moments of human development.
I second this proposal in various forms—Cohen’s suggestion that Jewish colleges be formed that welcome Christian students in the Holy Land is particularly appealing—but especially at the high-school level, when students might, by encountering great texts in the history of religious freedom, learn both about the civic traditions we share and the religious commitments that make us unique. Deep, permanent friendships are born out of such stuff.
The Great Disruption has shaken up a system of education that already struggled to appreciate the riches of the Jewish and Christian traditions. Jews and Christians, for our part, are increasingly besieged by the overly critical stance of secular American culture toward the inheritance of both biblical faith and Enlightenment rationality. A civic renaissance may be possible when furnished with the deeper covenantal and religious commitments on whose basis we proud Americans revere our national story and national way of life. As that story and way of life are now misunderstood by the very educational institutions charged with perpetuating them, it’s up to us.