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Return to the Crossroads: Maritain Fifty Years on

Author(s): David Carr, John Haldane, Terence McLaughlin and Richard Pring
Source: British Journal of Educational Studies, Vol. 43, No. 2 (Jun., 1995), pp. 162-178
Published by: Taylor & Francis, Ltd. on behalf of the Society for Educational Studies
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? Basil Blackwell Ltd. and SCSE 1995. Published by Blackwell Publishers, 108 Cowley Road,
Oxford OX4 1JF, UK and 238 Main Street, Cambridge, MA 02142, USA

VOL. XXXXIII No. 2, JUNE 1995 ISSN 0007-1005



by DAVID CARR, Heriot-Watt University, JOHN HALDANE, University of St

Andrews, TERENCE MCLAUGHLIN, University of Cambridge and

RICHARD PRING, University of Oxford

ABSTRACT: Writing a little over a decade ago of developments in

educational philosophy, R. F. Dearden remarked on the dearth of
alternative approaches to that of conceptual analysis which predominated,
at least in Anglophone cultures, at that time. One possible avenue of enquiry

which he identified as conspicuously absent in this respect was the

development of a distinctively Catholic approach to problems of educational

philosophy, observing that a work of the mid-war years, Maritain's

Education at the Crossroads (1943), appeared to be well nigh the only
modern effort in this direction. More than a decade on from this, in a
climate no longer exclusively dominated by conceptual analysis - indeed, in
which there is unprecedented interest in a wealth of different schools,
traditions and approaches to philosophy of education - Dearden's remarks
about the absence of a distinctively Catholic perspective still apply. In the

following essay, therefore, the authors have undertaken, via a critical

analysis of Maritain's educational speculations of half a century ago, to try
to discern some of the principal issues and considerations which would need

to be addressed in the interests of identifying a distinctively Catholic

educational philosophy.

Key words: Maritain; Catholic education; educational philosophy


In a survey of philosophy of education from 1952-83 published in the

British Journal of Educational Studies, R. F. Dearden writes as follows:

Concerning possible alternatives [to conceptual analysis], one

might have expected a distinctive Catholic school of philosophy of

education to have developed, but this has not happened. Many

philosophers of education are Catholics but they generally follow

the mainstream in their choice of topics and methods. The nearest

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to a distinctive Catholic perspective is probably Jacques Maritain's

book Education at the Crossroads though this has had very little
influence (Dearden, 1982, pp. 63-4).

A decade later this remains an interesting observation. First, it is

surely a testimony to the reputation of Catholicism for producing
important theoretical positions that one would look to it to deliver a
systematic account of the nature and role of education that could sit

alongside those born of Marxism, Pragmatism and analytical

philosophy. Second, given that very fact, it is curious, as Dearden

observes, that philosophers in the English speaking world have not
attempted such a constructive task. Third, while Dearden writes of
Education at the Crossroads as having had "very little influence", it might

be more accurate to say that it is now virtually unheard of.

Here, then, in pursuit of the question 'what might be the form of an
adequate Catholic philosophy of education?', we offer an account and
assessment of Maritain's book some fifty years after its original
'publication. Before embarking upon this, however, some clarificatory
preliminaries are in order. First, we come neither to bury nor to
resurrect Maritain; rather we are interested in whether this particular
offspring, of what on any view was a fertile philosophical mind, is still
alive. Second, in writing of an adequate Catholic account of education
our concern is not with denominational, let alone sectarian, pedagogy.

The interest of the issue is precisely in its potential breadth of

application. A Catholic philosophy of education is not, save by

inclusion, a theory of Catholic education; rather it is an understanding,

from what claims to a universal standpoint, of education as such hence its potential as a rival to Marxism or Pragmatism. Third, the
text in question is not a comprehensive and detailed treatment of
these issues. It is a short work deriving from a series of four lectures

given at Yale in 1943: 'The Aims of Education'; 'The Dynamics of

Education'; 'The Humanities and Liberal Education'; and 'The
Trials of Present-Day Education'. Moreover, the printed version

retains much of the wide-ranging and informal style associated with

its origins (Maritain, 1943). Thus, the following discussion seeks not
to articulate a full-blown account of Catholic educational philosophy,
but merely to discern some likely features of such an account drawn
from an admittedly limited source.

Notwithstanding the range of philosophical perspectives adopted by

Catholic thinkers, it is hardly possible even to entertain the idea of
Catholic philosophy without thinking of Thomism. This is due first to

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the immense influence of the work of Thomas Aquinas on the

scholastic tradition, and second to the particular imperative associated
with Thomist methods and doctrines through their commendation to

Catholic thinkers by Pope Leo XIII in his encyclical of 1879 Aeterni

Patris. Since then other approaches such as phenomenology and

existentialism have found favour among theologians and others but

the Thomistic influence has been ever-present, particularly in official

documents, such as the much discussed encyclical Veritatis Splendor

(1993), and in recent years has begun to come to the fore again as

philosophers such as Alasdair MacIntyre espouse its merits. It is

reasonable, therefore, particularly in the present context, to interpret

'Catholic' as Thomist and to ask 'what would be a Thomist

philosophy of education?'.
This question inherits an ambiguity from applications of the term
"Thomist". In one use it refers to the philosophical ideas propounded
by Aquinas himself, while in another it encompasses the full range of
methods and doctrines advanced by those who claim some lineage for
them deriving from Aquinas. Considering the restricted meaning and

pursuing it narrowly one may turn to a work such as Aquinas's De

Magistro (Aquinas, 1928). This is one of a number of "disputed

questions" gathered in a series entitled On Truth (De Veritate). It is

divided into four parts, or 'articles' as follows: a. 1 "Whether Man can

teach Another and be called a Teacher, or God Alone"; a.2 "Whether

Anyone can be Called a Teacher of Himself?"; a.3 "Whether Man can
be Taught by an Angel?"; and a.4 "Whether to Teach is a Function

of the Active or of the Contemplative Life?". Whatever the interest of

these questions and of Aquinas's treatment of them, it should be clear

that they are distinctly scholastic in style and that if this is the
main source of a Catholic philosophy of education it is unsurprising

that few have drawn from it.

As Maritain appreciated, however, a Thomistic approach to

educational questions has available to it a much richer and wider-

ranging treatment of fundamental issues, namely the Summa Theologiae,

which in its four parts addresses over five hundred questions covering
all aspects of theology, metaphysics, anthropology, epistemology and
ethics. Since his conversion to Catholicism in 1906, Maritain had read

extensively the work of Aquinas and certain commentators such as

John of St Thomas, and had written a large number of works

developing themes in philosophical anthropology and social theory

along neo-Thomist lines (Maritain, 1966). In exploring the question

posed in the title of his first lecture 'what are the aims of education?'

he draws continuously on that background and it may be useful,

therefore, to sketch the outlines of this.


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According to Aquinas, human beings are rational animals possessed

of a transcendent destiny. Unlike Plato and Descartes he does not
regard human persons as composites of distinct substantial parts - a
body and a soul - but sees them as psychophysical unities; entities

whose formal principle of organisation is biological, in a non-

reductive sense, combining vegetative, sentient and rational powers.

On this account it is in virtue of one and the same nature that we eat,

walk and think. Such a transcendent 'naturalism' treads a path

between dualism and two versions of monism - materialism and

idealism: we are not bodies plus souls, nor just bodies, nor just souls;
rather we are rationally animated bodies.
This central thesis of 'incarnational anthropology' (Haldane, 1990)
connects with many others. Thus, for Aquinas, as for Aristotle whom
he follows in this and in much else, ethics is not wholly reducible (as

in Kantianism) to inner intentions nor (as in Utilitarianism) to

material consequences; instead it concerns the well-being of animals

whose nature is directed towards a completion or perfection intimated
by the condition of the risen Christ. Similarly, it is an important part
of this view that we are social animals. That is to say, without denying

human individuality it is contended that the possibility of realising

oneself as a person depends upon one's participation in the collective
life of members of one's own kind. This in turn connects with moral

and political philosophy, since it follows that among the values

contributing to our perfection are some that are irreducibly social and
which constitute the 'common good' - a condition that far from being
an aggregated function of individual goods is a pre-condition of them

(Haldane, 1996). For example, clean air and civic orderliness are
elements of the general good, a participating share in which

contributes to individual well-being.

Unsurprisingly, on the side of metaphysics and epistemology

Aquinas is a realist. His claims about human beings are aspects of a
wider view of things as possessed of real natures. More generally, he
regards the world as having a determinate structure and history
constituted independently of our understanding of it. At the same

time, however, our rational powers make it possible for us to

investigate this structure of real natures and to arrive at theoretical

knowledge and aesthetic appreciation of them. Indeed, for Aquinas
the intelligibility of the world is potential and awaits the intellectual

powers of investigators to realise it - like colours illuminated by a



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One of the impressive features of the Thomist scheme, and this

extends to Maritain's interpretation of it, is its comprehensive and
systematic nature. It is hardly an exaggeration to say that, like the
plan of a Gothic cathedral, one can infer the overall form and internal

relations from any part of it. Additionally, the richness of the

anthropology suggests various ways in which the question of the aims

of education might be approached.

As befits the Aristotelian inspiration of Thomism, Maritain

emphasises the fact that education is a practice made sense of by its

telos or goal. As Chesterton once put it, with characteristic paradox,
"it is the whole definition of man that in social matters we must

actually find the cure before we find the disease" (Chesterton, 1910,
p. 3). If we want to know what to 'do' about education we must first
ask what is it in its nature to achieve. The failure properly to address
that question, let alone to answer it, comprises the first of what
Maritain describes as 'seven misconceptions' of modern philosophies

of education.

In his own words, the seven are as follows: (1) A disregard of ends;

(2) False Ideas concerning the End; (3) Pragmatism; (4) Sociologism;
(5) Intellectualism; (6) Voluntarism; (7) Everything can be Learned. Here

there is not the opportunity to pursue these fully, but it may be

interesting to draw out a couple of the more striking of them. In
considering the ends of man secular philosophies too rarely have
anything to offer by way of an ennobling self-conception; and if we

were to base accounts of human nature on the kinds of events that are

daily reported to us in the news the only coherent picture of life that

might emerge is that it is a continuing struggle of opposing forces.

What this view neglects is any perspective of potential completion

from which it might be seen that human life may progress to a higher
condition, and that much or all of what we rightly regard as evil can
only be made sense of as such in terms that describe it as a frustration
of this inbuilt normative teleology.
Similarly, when Maritain observes that it is a great mistake to hold
that everything can be taught he touches on several ideas of profound
importance. First, there is the error of assuming that all knowledge is

codifiable in rules that can be imparted to people independently of

their experience. On the contrary, much moral knowledge is

possessed in the form of dispositions to feel or act in response to

various values, and these dispositions can only take root in ground
that is prepared through experience to receive them (Carr, 1991).
Second, Maritain invites us to see knowledge and the possibility of

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acquiring it as gifts which all may not possess to the same degree, if at

all. There is, of course, a view of Divine Providence implicit within

this way of describing the matter, and it would be wrong to try and
remove this from a Catholic philosophy of education. At the same
time, however, it is possible to put a similar point in non-theological
terms by saying that not all ground may be equally fertile and that

this fact must be taken account of in considering the forms of

education and the allocation of resources. It also bears on questions
concerning the source, extent and distribution of educational rights,
for example, telling against some familiar egalitarian principles.
Whatever may be made of them, it should be clear that the ideas
presented in Maritain's opening chapter are philosophically rich and

that examination of them is likely to be both rewarding and

provocative. However, they are not introduced as objects for

contemplation in their own right but as elements necessary for the

construction of a secure educational theory and the next stage of that

construction concerns the "dynamics of education".


In the second chapter, then, Maritain turns to the difficult task of

formulating appropriate aims and procedures for education. His

treatment of these issues appears to proceed via a critical examination
of both sides of a familar dualism of educational theory - that between

traditional and progressive perspectives. It has been common, of

course, for educationalists to stand on one side or other of this schism

concerning what is sometimes construed as an issue about the

relationship of authority to freedom and other times regarded as an

issue about the nature of pedagogy itself. True to the overall Thomist

disinclination to dualisms, however, Maritain would also seem to be

opposed to this one on the grounds that both these educational

perspectives, at least in their extreme forms, offer at best partial and

at worst utterly mistaken views of the dynamics of pedagogy and the

springs of human freedom. By way of summary, the 'despotic

conception of the education and progress of man is', he writes, 'no

better than the anarchical one' (Maritain, 1943, p. 35).
Maritain's general repudiation of the dichotomy of traditionalism
and progressivism is also likely to remind us of its similar rejection by

John Dewey that great archenemy of philosophical and educational

dualisms (Dewey, 1916, 1949). This point of comparison between
Maritain and Dewey can be stretched even further, however, in so far
as one can fairly describe both philosophers as 'naturalists'; neither of
them, for example, sees any need to invoke 'occult' Cartesian entities

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or states in order to explain the development of those human powers

and dispositions which it is the proper business of education to

promote and perfect. But the contrast between Maritain and Dewey

assumes greater significance than any similarity as soon as we

recognise that what the latter has to offer us is a kind of secular,

evolutionary and reductive naturalism whereby the only explanatory
principles and categories needed to account for the goals and purposes

of human agents are those of a natural or social scientific kind. In

denying the need to explain human development by reference to
anything other than processes of biological formation and social
conditioning, then, Dewey's reductive naturalism also denies the

possibility that the powers which are produced by such processes may
nevertheless be directed to certain transcendent goals by the light of
which we might judge the quality or value (in other than mere survival
terms) of human flourishing.
Indeed, for Maritain, Dewey's naturalism can only exemplify most
of the misconceptions about education which he identifies in his first

chapter. To begin with, it is much too unspecific and open-ended

about the overall purposes of education and its esentially liberaldemocratic conception of human progress is ultimately unable to
identify substantive goals of aspiration - any ideals of perfection against which we might reasonably evaluate individual personal
development. Again, it is unashamedly reductive with regard both to
truth - which is construed pragmatically - and virtue - which is
interpreted in terms of an unstable secular compromise between social

instrumentality and individual autonomy. Not least, however, as

Maritain openly declares in his one direct critical comment on Dewey

towards the end of his fourth lecture (Maritain, 1943, p. 115), it

encourages the sort of faith in the instrumental efficacy of reason
which readily collapses into a shallow technicism of the kind which
holds that everything can be learned.

Thus, the task before Maritain is to identify specific goals for

education and methods for their achievement which might enable us

to avoid the spiritual and evaluative vacuum which is opened up by

pragmatism. In the first place, he identifies the following basic

dispositions which he believes it to be the business of educationalists

to foster: (1) A love of truth; (2) A love of goodness and justice; (3) An
openness to existence (a positive attitude to life); (4) The sense ofa job well
done (a positive attitude to work); (5) A sense of co-operation (a positive

attitude to other people). Secondly, however, he sets out four basic


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procedural rules for educationalists - which deserve a word or two of

elaboration here.

Maritain's first rule affirms the importance of promoting human

liberty. He does not regard this, however, as a matter of advocating
the wide ranging freedom of personal choice so often canvassed by
liberal educational proponents of individual autonomy - but as the
promotion of a capacity precisely guided and conditioned by the goals
of the dispositions already identified. But although Maritain envisages

this liberty as operating within a disciplined framework, he is also

keen to emphasize that the discipline in question is more a matter of
positive aspiration than negative constraint; indeed, in insisting that it
is less advisable for teachers to prohibit wrongdoing than to clarify the

good which such wrongdoing is liable to spoil, Maritain explicitly

endorses the familiar Thomist principle that evil is best understood as

a sort of privation.

He also takes a discernibly Thomist line in emphasising, as his

second rule of educational procedure, that our pedagogical efforts

should be directed primarily upon the development of certain

'inward' qualities of the learner. Employing language borrowed, not

entirely helpfully, from the intellectual currency of his time, Maritain
refers to these qualities as the 'preconscious of the spirit' - though it is
clear enough that what he has in mind here is something rather closer
to the 'actual potentiality' of traditional Thomism than anything with

psychoanalytic associations. Indeed, by referring to a distinction

drawn in the previous chapter between individuality and personality

(Maritain, 1945, p. 9), Maritain now maintains that whereas the

subconscious processes of the psychoanalysts lie at the root of that

aspect of human development he associates with individuality, the
spiritual preconscious is the active principle behind the development
of personality - normatively identified as a goal of human flourishing.
By emphasizing that worthwhile learning involves the actualization
of a vital inner principle, Maritain is concerned to disassociate himself

from the sort of shallow 'reception' views of knowledge acquisition

which he identifies with traditionalism and empiricism. However, in
specifying definite intellectual, moral and social goals for personality
development, he is also at pains to distance himself from the equally

superficial progressive ideas which would encourage the winds of

nascent intellectual curiosity to blow where they listeth. His settled

view, in short, is that it is in the nature of the inner spirit of active

rational enquiry, which Providence has bestowed upon the human

species, to have knowledge as its proper goal - and that knowledge is

above all about something or other. It is therefore ultimately just not

possible to supply an account of knowledge acquisition which focuses


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upon the learner to the neglect of what is learned, or upon the process,

as it were, apart from the product (Clark, 1988; Carr, 1992).

All these observations, moreover, are of a piece with Maritain's
emphases, in his discussion of the third and fourth procedural rules,
on a certain quality of wholeness which it should be the concern of
education to promote - a wholeness which reconciles the theoretical
with the practical, the academic and the vocational and which resists
any separation of knowledge from experience. At the heart of his
essentially Thomistic case for personal wholeness as the key goal of
education, first place is given to the integrative role of reason in
bringing into a meaningful relationship the diverse aspects of human

life and experience. Here he quotes with approval Aquinas' own view

that learning should always proceed along a route of systematic

understanding of what has to be learned and that those who teach
should avoid raising idle doubts or unnecessary questions merely for
their own sake (Maritain, 1943, p. 50).

The upshot of all this is that a proper view of the aims and methods of

education requires the development of a coherent philosophical

anthropology - a satisfactory conception of what constitutes the

development of persons or of human personality. This personality
development is explicitly distinguished by Maritain from the development of mere individuality in terms of its direction towards a specific

goal or telos - and as therefore much more than a matter of selfexpression. Specifically it entails the acquisition of knowledge and
virtue via the soul's conformity to objective standards of truth and
goodness and the discipline of the appetites and passions by reason
and will. In rather more explicit theological terms, however, one
could also say that to the extent that a human person seeks the
wisdom that perfects knowledge and the love which perfects virtue he
also aspires to be fashioned in the very image of God who created him.

Towards the end of the second lecture and throughout the third,

therefore, Maritain addresses the question of what sort of educational

programme is substantially most conducive to the promotion of that
very wisdom and virtue in terms of which he is inclined to conceive
personal development. At this point, it is probably only fair to admit
with regard to the fine detail of Maritain's curriculum proposals that
they are now unlikely to be of much other than historical curiosity. It
is difficult to suppose that in present day conditions and circumstances

curriculum planners would be much taken by Maritain's views -

particularly, for example, by his advocacy of substantial doses of logic


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in lower secondary, and philosophy in upper secondary, schooling.

What is of considerably greater interest for contemporary curriculum

theory, however, is Maritain's evident endorsement of a view of

curriculum planning focused on stages of human development. To a

large extent, of course, this is consistent with Maritain's other

Thomist ideas about knowledge and human development - that, for

example, there are degrees of knowledge (Maritain, 1937) reflecting
lower and higher modes of access to objective reality, and to which the

learner may stand in different relations of active potentiality at

different stages of his intellectual growth.

It is worth noting, however, that what Maritain has to say at this

point about the development of knowledge (backed by words of

approval for Rousseau and Kant) bears some resemblance to what

some of the more interesting of child-centred theorists have had to say

about the nature of early years psychology (Lane, 1954). Thus, for

example, Maritain clearly regards those years of what would

nowadays be referred to as primary education as implicated in an

essentially pre-discursive process of aesthetic and imaginative

development which is focused on the more figurative and mythical

aspects of human comprehension.
On the other hand, however, Maritain is quite clearly of the view
that secondary education should be directly focused on cognitive
development and a principled understanding of the diverse aspects of
human experience; first, through a mastery during the first three years

of secondary education of certain educational 'basics' - particularly

those skills of grammar and expression which serve to facilitate the
precise articulation of more substantial forms of knowledge; and
second, via a thorough immersion in the four years of upper secondary

education (what Maritain calls 'college education') in broad programme of liberal studies primarily designed to promote the

development of certain civilized sensibilities and virtues. Interestingly,

this broadly conceived upper secondary or college education is also

regarded by Maritain as something to which all are entitled and from

which all may benefit - but the university education which comes

after cannot be for all in either of these senses.

In his contribution to the perennial debate about the nature and

purposes of higher education Maritain acknowledges, with evident
reluctance, that universities must inevitably accept some degree of
division of intellectual labour. The broad categories of study which he
recognises reflect the traditional Aristotelian classification (Aristotle,
1925, Book VI) of human enquiries into the theoretical, the practical (or

moral) and the technical - to which Maritain adds a fourth area of

second order philosophical concerns with the theoretical questions

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raised by first order enquiries. Maritain's detailed treatment of the

question of university education, however, soon gives vent to a concern

which runs throughout his educational thought that certain

dehumanising specialism - expressed particularly in the separation of

the vocational from the educational - should not at this or any other
stage overtake the business of knowledge acquisition. Generally, he
believes that each and every stage of human learning, at whatever
level, should be concerned with the promotion of wisdom rather than
expertise and the self-mastery of virtue rather than the domination of
nature or other people.

Thus far, of course, we have identified only those aspects of Maritain's

educational thought which are evidently derivative of and consistent

with a broadly Thomist philosophical anthropology and thereby,

presumably, with an orthodox Catholic perspective; not much has yet

been said which might assist us to pinpoint the salient features of a

Catholic educational philosophy as such. In the fourth chapter of his
work entitled 'The trials of present day education', however, Maritain
addresses a set of pressing contemporary issues in a way which more

directly brings out the distinctively Catholic character of his

educational views. The two main issues here are those of how one

ought rightly to conceive the relationship of the individual to society

and the nature and purpose of moral education and development in

relation to this. Although Maritain's somewhat belated attention to
these matters is generally continuous with his earlier discussions of
educational ends and means he now, however, focuses primarily on
problems of political authority and healthy social functioning and on

the moral formation of the individual with regard to human

flourishing in general.
Maritain would appear to conceive the problem of moral education
mainly in terms of how to wean the individual from a primal condition

of pre-social egoism; this he holds to be reinforced by a prevalent

scepticism about the substantial goals of moral reason which has
pervaded much - especially secular - moral thought. Acknowledging
the extent to which secularism has gained ground in modern western

society, Maritain advocates as a last ditch defence against nihilism,

the teaching of a natural morality which may at least be capable of
promoting, presumably via a recogniton of civilized needs for at

least procedural rules of interpersonal conduct, a sense of civil

responsibility on the part of young people. However, he also

recognises that such a morality has no real power to get to the heart of

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things, not only because of its disassociation from larger transcendent

goals of the kind characteristic of a religious morality, but also - more
crucially - because true morality is rooted in love more than law and
therefore requires nurturing in ways which explicit formal instruction

cannot reach. Indeed, for Maritain, the positive human sentiments

which lie at the heart of true morality are conditions for which those

close bonds of attachment characteristic of a stable and supportive

family life can be the only adequate source and model. In short, true
morality cannot be effectively established by direct teaching as it
requires fostering in circumstances and conditions of positive prerational affection in default of which the explicit rules of morality
cannot be expected to secure much of a hold on the human heart.
But, of course, this already suggests a view of moral education and
of the origins of our moral responses considerably at odds with those
which have been canvassed in much recent philosophy of education.
For the main drift of recent thinking about moral education in the
modern liberal educational tradition has largely been influenced, like
liberal theory itself, by certain forms of moral rationalism associated
with the philosophical enlightenment. Indeed, until very recently a
kind of neo-Kantian duty-based conception of ethics which locates the
heart of moral conduct in rational prescriptivity and the development
of cognitive capacities for moral problem solving has represented
something like the orthodoxy of thinking about moral education

(Kohlberg, 1981). Clearly, however, in emphasizing that human

capacities for moral reason giving require to be firmly rooted in the

soil of more fundamental pre-rational bonds of positive human

association, Maritain proposes to return via Aquinas to an older

Aristotelian view of such matters in which moral reason is integral,

but not foundational, to moral life. In so doing, moreover, he

anticipates the sort of objecions which have been more recently raised

to predominantly rationalist accounts (Gilligan, 1982; Carr, 1991).


Maritain views the question of political and social flourishing as not

merely a matter of how to avoid permissive and divisive individualism

but also in terms of how we might at all costs avoid the sort of
collectivist and authoritarian social thinking which he believed to
have led to the 'fascist dehumanisation' of his time (Maritain, 1943,
p. 103). Basically, then, he seeks a via media between a radically
totalitarian or corporativist social philosophy which purports to
account for the identity and role of the individual in terms of some
higher social purpose and an individualist vision which takes society

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to be no more than a mere aggregate of different personal interests. In

fact, this particular dichotomy - the pivotal issue around which so

much recent social and political philosophy has turned in the debates

between liberal theorists and their communitarian critics - has also

occupied a central place in recent educational philosophical contro-

versies between advocates of the liberal educational ideal and their

various critics. Hence, negotiating this apparent impasse of social and

political philosophy may well be ipso facto the way to a view of

education which contrasts interestingly with both liberal individualist

and non-liberal collectivist accounts.

And, in fact, Maritain finds his via media in the previously

mentioned Thomist idea of the common good - an idea which is very

much at odds with the essentially reductive perspectives of both
liberalism and communitarianism. Briefly, Aquinas holds that man
stands in relation to society as a part to a whole and that every just
law is directed towards the establishment, maintainance and
improvement of the common good. But in order to avoid the sort of
corporativist reading of the first of these ideas which we find in much
communitarian thinking, it is vital to recognise that Aquinas also
regards individual persons as complete entities in themselves. By
implication, then, Thomism is able to avoid the dichotomy which
bedevils current social debates and which regards persons as either
parts of a greater whole - society - or else as preexisting individuals
out of which society is formed. The via media consists in recognising
that persons are both wholes and parts; wholes as selves and parts as

social selves (Haldane, 1996).

But what should also be emphasized about the idea of the common
good is that, as Aquinas also says, every just law should have as its
proper goal the well-being of society as a whole. This idea has been
construed individualistically by treating 'common good' as a distribu-

tive notion equivalent to the good of each and every member -

suggesting that whilst some goods are indeed commonly possessed they
are actually social means to individual ends. On this account law should

promote civil order and public health because these are conditions
that each may benefit from equally - they and other public goods
being objects of convergent and overlapping interests. However,
Maritain in another work rightly resists this interpretation of the
common good, arguing of all the common cultural, civic, social and

moral benefits of a civilized society that, "these things are, in a certain

measure, communicable and so revert to each member helping him to
perfect his life of liberty" (Maritain, 1941, p. 53).
Maritain's emphasis here on the communicability of the integrated

sum of social and personal elements contrasts with a notion of


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commonality as a mere function of convergent interests. The common

good is essentially shared, as a 'good-for-many' taken collectively,

rather than a 'good-to-many' taken distributively. Hence the conception of the relationship of the individual to society inherent in the
Thomist notion of the common good contrasts markedly with those
entertained by liberals and communitarians. For Aquinas the good of
individuals resides in their participation in, but not reduction to,
participation in the life of a community of persons.

By the same token, however, to the extent that the Thomist notion of

the common good contrasts with both the liberal emphasis on the

primacy of the individual and that of communitarians on the primacy

of the collective, any view of education which derives from it must also
differ from its liberal and communitarian rivals in at least some

significant respects. Furthermore, since the view of individual and

social flourishing associated with the idea of the common good cannot
be accounted for in the essentially reductive terms of either a liberal or

collectivist view of the basis of moral reason - for example, in the

atomistic terms of individual interest or the holistic terms of social

consensus - it would seem to call for explanation in terms of a moral

epistemology which contrasts markedly with those which have found
most favour in recent analytical philosophy.

Much the same, of course, applies to Maritain's alternative

conception of moral development as rooted in those positive human

sentiments which are characteristic of such natural forms of human

association as family life; his view of moral education, like his view of

the common good, is that it needs to be grounded in conditions and

considerations of human flourishing which run considerably deeper
than ideas of rational self-interest or social contract. Indeed, his idea
of moral education and the common good are precisely alike in their
shared recognition of the fact that notions of human justice and moral
wellbeing are founded less on abstract laws or principles and more in

particular forms of life and sentiment in relation to which formal

ethical rules are not so much constitutive as regulatory. One serious
implication of this essentially Thomistic rejection of certain familiar

forms of rationalistic ethical foundationalism, however, is that it is not

generally reasonable to hope to discover a disinterested, non-

controversial and socially disconnected conception of human justice

and wellbeing of the sort to which both liberal and non-liberal social
philosophies so often seem to have aspired. (For the classic liberal
position see: Rawls, 1971; 1993). As this, of course, is roughly the

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perspective which has recently been defended with great power - from
an explicitly neo-Thomist position - in a number of highly influential

works by Alasdair MacIntyre (MacIntyre, 1981; 1988).

But is it not a damaging consequence of adopting this viewpoint
that a distinctively Catholic conception of moral, spiritual and social
flourishing cannot be any less controversial than other substantial
moral perspective (including, of course, its contemporary liberal
rival)? And is this not to capitulate to a viciously relativist view of the

general ethical status of moral perspectives from which no objective

defence of a Catholic moral or educational philosophy might be

mounted? Whilst we have not the least wish to deny the first of these
points, it is crucial to recognise that the second by no means follows
from it. What does follow from the anti-foundationalist assumptions
underlying Thomistic conceptions of moral life and the common good,
of course, is that a Catholic vision of human flourishing, along with its
various religious and secular competitors, must fight its own corner by

being prepared to show precisely how its moral claims are capable of
ethical defence and justification over those of others.
From this point of view, what Catholics precisely wish to maintain
is that they are parties to a distinctive vision of spiritual, moral and
social life which is grounded first and foremost in divine revelation,
but which has also been refined and developed in the course of a long
tradition of patristic and doctrinal reflection into an ideal of human
flourishing which can successfully compete with others. Apart from
faith and grace, however, the effectiveness of such competition must to
some degree depend upon the possibility of offering a rational defence

or justification of the ethical and metaphysical presuppositions of

Catholic moral philosophy and theology, with regard to which

Maritain and others have seen fit to look primarily to the philosophy
of Aquinas for inspiration. Notwithstanding the recent emergence of a

striking diversity of views among contemporary Catholics we are

nonetheless inclined to hold that significant support for this cause is
still to be sought in this justly celebrated direction and that important
resources for the rational articulation and defence of a distinctively

Catholic conception of education are indeed to be found in the

philosophy of St. Thomas. In the course of this paper we have tried,

via a re-consideration of Maritain's views, to indicate something of
the general form of such a conception and to make the point that its
detailed philosophical exploration and justification is a task worthy of
much serious attention.


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The present paper arises out of contributions to a conference on

Catholic Philosophy of Education held in the University of Navarre,

Pamplona, Spain in May 1994. The authors wish to take the

opportunity here to express sincere gratitude to their hosts for their

generous hospitality on this occasion.


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Moray House Institute of Education

Heriot-Watt University

Holyroad Campus
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Received: 20th July 1994

Accepted for publication: 27th September 1994


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