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Maritain And Einstein On Education

August 15, 2021 Featured Today No Comments

By DONALD DeMARCO

Two great minds may differ in many ways, but in some ways their areas of greatness will coincide. When this occurs, the insights of one reinforce the credibility of the other. Aristotle and Aquinas, Plato and Augustine offer examples of this fortuitous coinciding.
Jacques Maritain is a Catholic philosopher; Albert Einstein, a Jewish physicist. Both of them, despite their many differences, come to important and sound conclusions in the field of education that are essentially compatible with each other. Their respective insights are even more relevant today than when they were first enunciated several decades ago.
Einstein was a great believer in the existence of truth, the right to pursue it and the duty to defend that right. Accordingly, he stated: “By academic freedom I understand the right to search for truth and to publish and teach what one holds to be true. This right implies a duty: One must not conceal any part of what one has recognized to be true. It is evident that any restriction of academic freedom acts in such a way as to hamper the dissemination of knowledge among the people and thereby impedes rational judgment and action” (“Einstein on Academic Freedom and Political Inquisitions,” posted by Hank Reichman, June 11, 2017).
In today’s “post-Truth” era, it is politically incorrect to speak about truth. George Orwell was not exaggerating when he stated: “Speaking the truth in times of universal deceit is a revolutionary act.” Yet, as Maritain points out, “A movement without aim is just running around in circles and getting nowhere” (Education at the Crossroads, 1943 p. 11). Truth provides the proper object of all academic pursuits. Without truth serving as a magnetic north, education becomes a mere game, a diversion delivered in ivory-tower lingo.
“Truth,” Maritain writes, “which does not depend on us but on what is — truth is not a set of ready-made formulas to be passively recorded, so as to have the mind closed and enclosed by them. Truth is an infinite realm — as infinite as being — whose wholeness transcends infinitely our powers of perception, and each fragment of which must be grasped through vital and purified intellectual activity” (ibid, p. 12).
Maritain and Einstein, both seekers of knowledge, stand before the infinite with humility and wonder. They both understand that the realm of being and the domain of the universe are intellectually inexhaustible. Nonetheless, they both agree that the pursuit of knowledge is fruitful for the individual as well as for society.
Einstein, who played the violin, regarded the cultivation of moral virtues and an appreciation of beauty as an essential part of a well-rounded education. “It is essential,” he remarks, “that the student acquire an understanding of and a lively feeling for values. He must acquire a vivid sense of the beautiful and of the morally good. Otherwise he — with his specialized knowledge — more closely resembles a well-trained dog than a harmoniously developed person” (Ideas and Opinions, 1954).
As wonderfully gifted as non-rational animals are, they are highly specialized creatures: The bee produces honey, the spider spins webs, the beaver builds dams, etc. But “Man,” Maritain avers, “is not merely an animal of nature, like a skylark or a bear. He is also an animal of culture, whose race can subsist only within the development of society and civilization” (ibid, p. 2).
Education, therefore should be directed to the whole person. “If we remember,” Maritain adds, “that the animal is a specialist, and a perfect one, all of its knowledge-power being fixed upon a single task to be done, we ought to conclude that an educational program which would only aim at forming specialists ever more perfect in ever more specialized fields, and unable to pass judgment on any matter than goes beyond their specialized competence, would lead indeed to a progressive animalization of the human mind and life” (ibid, p. 19).
Man is a spiritual being and super-exists through knowledge and love (ibid, p. 80). Therefore, in agreement with Einstein, his education should involve the creative arts. In referring to music, Maritain states: “It is necessary to make clear for the understanding of the pupil the inner logic of a Mozart sonata, read and discussed from the score. But it is first necessary for the pupil to hear the sonata, and be delighted in it, and love it with his ears and with his heart” (ibid, p. 52).
Maritain, in addition to sharing important points on education, also shares an important point on democracy with Abraham Lincoln: “The democratic ideal more than any other requires faith in and the development of spiritual energies — a field which is over and above any specialization — and because a complete division of the human mind and activities into specialized compartments would make impossible the very ‘government of the people, by the people, and for the people’” (ibid, p. 19).
Education deals with timeless verities. Sound contributions to education are valid for any time. The pedagogical ideas of Maritain and Einstein are perhaps more pertinent today than they have ever been. In the present climate, truth is scorned, justice is paralyzed, virtue is scoffed at, and morality is relativized, while an education of the whole person is replaced by ideologies that are inimical to the survival of democracy.
The “cancel culture” movement, which has little regard to the great achievements of the past, is far more iconoclastic than progressive. But tearing down is not building up. Great ideas, however, have a way of outlasting those that are barbarous. Life is stronger than death; knowledge is more powerful than ignorance.

  • + + (Dr. Donald DeMarco is professor emeritus, St. Jerome’s University, and adjunct professor at Holy Apostles College. He is a regular columnist for St. Austin Review and is the author of forty books. Some of his latest books — including The 12 Supporting Pillars of the Culture of Life and Why They Are Crumbling — are posted on amazon.com. His fortieth book, Glimmers of Hope in a Darkening World, is now available.)
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