Is there a distributist philosophy of education? What would it be if there were?
I take Distributism to be the view that private property should be widely distributed in society, rather than concentrated in a few hands, in order to enable more or even most people to be able to take responsibility for their own families by means of productive and dignified work. This can be seen as a practical expression or implication of the Catholic social doctrines of subsidiarity in solidarity, of the common good, and of the family as the best foundation of a healthy civil society
Distributism is not socialism. It does not suppose that property should be stolen from the rich and given to the poor, or appropriated by the state or by a party representing the people, but rather that legislation should make it easier for the small property-owner, landowner, tradesman, and shopkeeper to survive, and harder for the tycoon to accumulate so much wealth and power that the former is forced to become a mere employee of the latter, or effectively a wage-slave.1
It is assumed that human beings are happier not through the possession of great wealth but through the possession of freedom, in the sense of self-responsibility and self-determination, and especially the freedom to create and support a family. A man should be allowed to stand on his own feet, not dangle from another man’s belt.
If this is a correct understanding of human nature, then to build a society in which freedom, responsibility, and property are widely distributed is not to impose another ideology upon us, but rather to liberate us from ideologies–to free us to live in accordance with the best human instincts.
In fact, Distributism is not so much an economic policy as it is a philosophy and a way of life. G.K. Chesterton and his friends who originally proposed it in the early 20th century had lost faith in politicians and political parties, and instead aimed at inspiring a popular movement—a spiritual movement of renewal—in support of the extended family and “good work” (to use an expression of E.F. Schumacher’s).
Something similar could be argued in the field of education, which in the great Western tradition is or should be an education for freedom—a “liberal” education. In my two-part study of the seven Liberal Arts recently completed (Beauty for Truth’s Sake and Beauty in the Word), I show how these arts evolved as a preparation for the higher human freedom that culminates in religious contemplation and holiness—the attainment of Truth, Beauty, and Goodness. The study of these seven arts was preparatory to that of philosophy and theology, in which the soul could achieve its highest freedom.
The three arts of language consisted in the reminiscence of being through Grammar, the unveiling of truth through Dialectic, and the communication of understanding through Rhetoric. The four mathematical arts were devoted to the study of form in number, shape, music, and astronomy, and thus the discovery of the harmonies of space and time—the “cosmos” discovered, perhaps, by Pythagoras.
The “re-enchantment” of education is not the simple reiteration of these ancient categories, nor an attempt to force the universe to conform to a primitive cosmology, but a renewal of the search for harmony and the Logos within the complex world revealed by modern science, and the reintegration of science with art and the humanities through an appreciation of the poetic and imaginative human powers that are equally operative in both.
Our educational system always reflects a particular understanding of human nature. Most modern education reflects a fragmented understanding, and the plea I have tried to make through my books is for a more holistic view. In fact I believe that human nature in its integrity is revealed to us in the figure of Christ, although one need not share that faith to appreciate the understanding derived from it.
How is this “distributist”? Like Distributism, it is based on the notion that we may all become more free and therefore more happy (in the sense of “blessed”) by growing in real freedom, the freedom not of mere choice but of an ability to choose the good. That freedom is achieved by the wider distribution of wisdom. In fact, I would argue that Distributism in the social and economic sense will always fail if it is not supported by the wider acquisition of wisdom, that is of intellectual freedom in the truth, since it is in the last analysis truth that sets us free. Thus the success of Distributism will most likely depend on the successful re-enchantment of education.
It is also the case that schools themselves make an ideal target for distributist reform. Since parents are the primary educators of their children, it is appropriate that they exercise their responsibility either by home-schooling or by playing an active role in the local school. Of course, in many schools parents may form part of the board of governors, but a more distributist solution would be for the parents as a body to own the school, running it as a charity or co-operative for the benefit of the children, free of government control.
In the Middle Ages, universities originated as guilds owned and run by groups of teachers or students. Today, many primary, middle, and secondary schools are being founded by parents and teachers (Chesterton Academy being one obvious example), or are being liberated from state control. These experiments deserve our attention and encouragement. In many ways, the future of Distributism and perhaps, in a certain way, of civilization itself depends upon their success.
- Distributism is less impractical than is often supposed—though it depends, as I say later, on the presence of a certain spirit of cooperation. In less developed countries it is eminently practical, and even in the developed West it may suggest viable alternatives to an economic system arguably on the verge of collapse. Some of these alternative approaches to business and banking are mentioned in the encyclical Caritas in Veritate by Pope Benedict XVI.