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Learning for All Seasons: What We Owe to Thomas More

Praising St. Thomas More for his contributions to The Heights School is something akin to praising a single link in the strongest of chains, or a single pearl among many in a beautiful necklace. In one sense, we are given the same task as St. Thomas: we are charged with the preservation and propagation of truth, prudence, and wisdom for the sake of ourselves, our children, our country, our culture, our Church, and our God. Thomas More completed the task with a high degree of human and divine excellence: our own humble attempts, by contrast, ought to rouse us to do, learn, and teach with greater firmness of purpose and joy.

Thomas More was a Christian Humanist. Humanism, to speak roughly, is the affirmation of human intelligence as an indispensable aid to achieving human happiness with the Trinity in heaven and with one another in the world, or as much as may be achieved in a world that is fallen. Humanists stamped all educational ideas that followed them with a profound respect for the pagan authors of antiquity because of the enormous repository of human knowledge and wisdom their works contain.

The most famous letter of Thomas More addressing the subject of education is a letter written to the prestigious tutor of Thomas More’s children, outlining his desire to have all of them, including his daughters, well educated. It is a letter that exemplifies the ideal: fathers and mothers directing the careful education of their sons and daughters. It is a letter showing Thomas More’s profound love for his children. It is a letter that reveals a cherished and well-reasoned approach to education. And it is a letter, an excerpt of which hangs framed in manuscript form, just outside the office of the headmaster, in the main entrance of our School.

Those who know The Heights School know that letter hangs there not by chance, but to remind us all of the first goal of education:

“… warn my children to avoid as it were the precipices of pride and haughtiness, and to walk in the pleasant meadows of modesty; not to be dazzled at the sight of gold: not to lament the lack of what they erroneously admire in others; not to think more of themselves for gaudy trappings, nor less for want of them; not to deform the beauty that nature has given them by neglect, nor to try to heighten it by artifice, to put virtue in the first place among goods, learning in the second, and in their studies to esteem most whatever may teach them piety towards God, charity to all, and modesty and Christian humility in themselves. … These I consider the real and genuine fruits of learning, and though I admit that all literary men do not possess them, I would maintain that those who give themselves to study with such intent will easily attain their end and become perfect.”

The Heights School offers each of its students an excellent education: that is certain. Thomas More reminds us that an excellent education is one that places virtue above learning, for even though we must know in order to love, love is far greater than knowledge. These words of More’s are backed up by the ultimate proof of conviction. Thomas More died a martyr, in part, to teach us this very lesson: he was arguably the most learned man in a thousand years, a statesman-philosopher with all the theoretical and practical knowledge a man could have, and he died for love of the truth and love of the Church—for love of God.

There is no doubt that this lesson from Thomas More to his children’s tutor contains within it an echo of the paradox of the Christian way of life: one must lose his life to gain it. In a similar sense, one must seek virtue to gain knowledge. Consider the present era. Are we not deeply focused on education and the acquisition of knowledge? The evidence is all around us: a vast Department of Education, the most extensive national public and private school system in the history of the world, the information superhighway of the World Wide Web, an ever more elaborate industry of educational consulting, a unanimous market demand for employees with postgraduate degrees, even a History Channel.

And yet, each class of young Americans graduating from college is demonstrably less educated than the previous one. By failing to focus on virtue and instead aiming at knowledge, perhaps we have removed the compelling reason for attaining knowledge in the first place. “Learn chemistry,” the teacher might say. “Why?” the student may retort. “Because it will help you get a job.” the teacher might counter. “Who cares?” the student may ask. And here the parent, the teacher, the school–whomever the student is testing with these questions–must defend education with its only real defense: “Well, don’t you want to be…virtuous, responsible, a good father, someone who can give back to the community, a true lover of the world, mankind, and God, our Creator, so that one day you will be able to give the full measure of love and dedication to God, to His Will for you, and to the good of those around you?” These are the appeals that lead a young boy to eternal happiness, and, not incidentally, they have the added benefit of getting young men to do their homework!

Here a question presents itself: Does this hierarchy of virtue first and learning second lead to a type of Christian fundamentalism where higher learning is replaced by love of Jesus? Such a question is common today because of the vast ignorance about, and lack of gratitude for, the Catholic Church and her many children who extended, advanced, protected, and taught many of our greatest intellectual treasures: Venerable Bede, the famed English historian; St. Thomas Aquinas, the great theologian; St. Gregory the Great; and, of course, Saint Thomas More. Christianity has always distinguished itself for love of learning. As proof, remember that Christians invented the university in the Middle Ages, and remember also the life of Thomas More.

At The Heights School, the faculty strives always to remember and live by the words of Pope Paul VI: “Modern man listens more willingly to witnesses than to teachers, and if he does listen to teachers, it is because they are witnesses.” For those who fear that learning will suffer when virtue is emphasized, the witness of Thomas More’s life should allay those fears. Thomas More was one of the most virtuous and learned men ever to have trod the earth. He is a martyr who coined the English word “fact” among many others; he is a saint that wrote several histories, a dialogue, and numerous lengthy treatises. Thomas More cared deeply for excellent education, both for his children, as illustrated by his famous letter to his own children’s tutor, and for adults, most famously in another letter.

Thomas More addressed “The Letter to Oxford” to the entire faculty of, logically enough, the University of Oxford. In it, More affirms the preservation of knowledge and academic excellence as the by-product of seeking virtue. At that time a reactionary movement against secular learning began to grow on Oxford’s campus that claimed only theology was needed for true learning and holiness. The letter is a flawless and firm reproach to the Oxford faculty, advising them to reinvigorate their desire to preserve and advance the study of Latin and Greek at Oxford.

Thomas More, because he cared so much for virtue, cared about secular learning. More writes to the professors at Oxford that worldly learning “prepares the soul for virtue,” and that even if they wanted to teach only theology, it would be worthless without the knowledge of the ancient languages in which Scripture and most previous theologians’ thoughts were originally set down. More chastises these scholars for a lack of love for the wider community, which, if they had fostered such love, would have prevented them from ignoring the various sciences that could in turn contribute to the better governance of England. Thomas More, martyr and saint, stands up for pagan authors, writing, “Prudence in human affairs, too, must be acquired… and this prudence can nowhere be drawn more abundantly as from the [ancient] poets, orators, and historians.”

Love and prudence: these are virtues won through study, a study that yields intellectual excellence, skill, accuracy, calculation, and a host of human faculties for success in the world. The formula for success is not a bitter choice between virtue and excellence, holiness and success, heaven or Harvard. Thomas More is proof that the path of wisdom does not have such a false choice. Some might argue that More’s own martyrdom is evidence that there is such a terrible choice: rather, More’s life, by that final witness, is made all the more glorious.

The Heights School owes Thomas More its thanks for a great many things which go far beyond the boundaries of our hillside School. He might be called by many titles of honor, but each would fail to thank him fully: father of free speech, grandfather of religious toleration, greatest statesman, the first martyr of conscience, saint, philosopher, family man. It is enough that our families, faculty, and especially the boys know to look to him and learn from him. If they do, then they will raise their hearts to heaven and open their minds to their books.

About the Author

Matt Mehan

Associate Dean & Assistant Professor of Government, Graduate School of Government, Hillsdale College
Dr. Matthew Mehan is the Associate Dean and Assistant Professor of Government for the Steve and Amy Van Andel Graduate School of Government on Capitol Hill. He has been teaching and designing humanities curricula for twenty years. Dr. Mehan is a graduate of the University of Dallas and the valedictorian of his class. He received a B.A. in politics, ...
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