Out of the Ashes: a Book Review

A Catholic Blueprint for Change – Review of Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture by Dr. Anthony Esolen. Regnery Publishing, 2017

Within the past few weeks, I have had three encounters with Dr. Anthony Esolen. The first was Reconquest Episode 79 on the Veritas Radio Network during which broadcast he was Brother Andre’s guest. The second was reading his book, Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, the topic of Brother’s interview with him. My most recent encounter is Dr. Esolen’s article in the current issue of Chronicles Magazine, “Farewell to PC.” Lest the reader think that the good doctor predicts an end to the current madness of Political Correctness, the “PC” of the title refers to Providence College, the Catholic-in-name-only college he called home for a number of years and from which he was unceremoniously hounded for his insistence on the importance of his freshman course in the development of Western Civilization. He calls it the most culturally diverse course that the school offers, but of course, it was too Eurocentric, too white, too western, (in his critics’ opinions) to qualify as “diverse.” That his enemies on the faculty and the student body used “clickers” in their ugly efforts to silence him makes one wonder at the maturity level of these fascists, both students and faculty, for stooping to such a childish prank, not to mention the administration which allowed such deplorable behavior.

Anyone who has not been hiding in an underground cave lately surely knows that our culture has coarsened: What passes for music these days is mystifying; the spectacle of students tromping through the library of Ivy League Dartmouth College chanting their misguided slogan comes to mind; “students” burning cars and buildings because a conservative author is asked to deliver an address at Berkeley and the need for the poor fragile students to seek “safe spaces” from ideas that they find offensive are positively babyish. We hear politicians use words that even a few years ago were “gutter” talk. Families fall apart; marriage has taken on new meanings; we must call the person by the pronoun he/she/it identifies with or face prosecution. How MAD!

Dr. Esolen has a solution to these problems of our society; in fact, he has a whole slew of solutions. He presents the major problems he sees in American society today and his solutions to them in the well-named Out of the Ashes. He identifies a number of important aspects of our culture that have turned into “garbage” which needs to be cleaned out and discarded so that our culture can be rebuilt. “That requires humility, patience and determination…nothing else will do. When your only choices are repentance or oblivion, you repent. It is time to get to work…”

Here are some of the problems: We live in a world of lies — a woman CANNOT make as good a soldier as a man; opening a public meeting with a prayer is not forbidden by the Constitution; the right to kill your unborn child is not granted by that Constitution either; there are not more than two “genders” and two men (or women) cannot “get married.” Why do we constantly hear such terms as diversity, inclusivity, marginalization, misogyny, racism, sexism, homophobia, tolerance and other catch-alls from television, the radio, our computers, and our schools? Dr. Esolen calls all this cant, and says that we must clear our minds of it or we will continue to live the lie. When people lose their faith in God, they believe in anything, usually the nearest and dearest biggest thing — the state, the self, sex. He calls these the “three- poisoned god.” The Corpus Christi procession has been replaced by the gay pride parade.

Dr. Esolen bemoans the ugliness that has come to be accepted in music, architecture, art, furnishings, clothing, calling them either “drab” or “garish” – certainly not beautiful. It is time to “rip out the plywood” which covered the beautiful walls and floors of yesterday and rediscover what is beautiful. Sadly, we have lost the sense of the sacred that inspired men to build the great medieval cathedrals and the beautiful Catholic churches of the poor immigrants in nineteenth century America because God is no longer the center of our lives. Let us begin to reclaim what is important.

As an educator, the most important chapters of the book for me are the two that deal with the sad state of our schools and colleges. He speaks of the one-room school houses, the town halls and the churches of small town America and Canada and finds it telling that the first two resembled the last in construction. The people who frequented them knew that they belonged to these places and that these places belonged to them. “There is no grammar in grammar schools and there is not much school there, either.” The school has been replaced by a monster given directives from the capital (state or national) requiring courses in “sexual expression” and “gender rights.” Anne of Green Gables has been replaced by people “whose imaginations have been corrupted… The evil is everywhere, a pervasive pollution, like fecal bacteria in your water supply.” Formerly, education was oriented toward the worship of God. “There are only two things wrong with our schools: everything that our children don’t learn and everything they do.” Public schools are beyond reform. So, what do we do? “We start over!”

Grammar must be taught as it gives us the basis for learning our own language and others as well. Dr. Esolen emphasizes grammar because he believes that all human sciences are grammatical in structure, that is, they are built upon a logical and well-ordered structure. History (from the Latin word historia – story) is OUR story. It should not be boring because it is filled with exciting people — heroes and villains — who have made the world we live in. He mentions General Robert E. Lee, a man of “impeccable honor” as a good man who wound up on the losing side. How foolish an action of the current mayor of my home city, New Orleans, to attempt to erase history by removing the statues of Confederate generals, instead of allowing them to become a valuable lesson in the history of that time.

Literature is also important. What is taught as literature today comprises the inane and the politically correct instead of the great body of English and American literature. (“Dead white males,” you know.)

It is the firm belief of the author that the health of a society is gauged by how full the churches are. The parish church was always the center of the life of a community. This is why schools and town halls resembled churches with their cupolas and bells. The move toward “multiculuralism” has only served to “bleach religious devotion out of whatever remains of culture. For the “multiculturalists” culture exists in either the culinary or the epidermal. (Dr. Esolen certainly has a way with words, doesn’t he?) We avoid religious questions at the cost of avoiding the most human questions. Thus education is “reduced to the shallow and the low.”

He gives the wonderful example of teaching Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. How can this be done without teaching something of medieval English Catholicism? What is a Pilgrimage? Why do the pilgrims visit Saint Thomas a Becket’s shrine at Canterbury? Why was he killed? In other words, you cannot teach Chaucer without teaching the Christian Faith. And so it is with Shakespeare’s works, Dickens, Milton, Dante, Eliot, Donne, Tennyson, and on and on. “We need only restore a very old and venerable thing in the world, with its foundation solidly laid in the God-created earth, and its spire pointing towards the place where man is meant to turn.” This is obviously a man of deep Christian Faith.

And what about the colleges? In a word, higher education in the west is “in a bad way.” No more freedom of thought and no rational argument; no more speaking freely in political assemblies, in newspapers or in classrooms. Dr. Esolen offers the example of the professor of composition at the University of Winnepeg who remarked to a class that the most important work that most women do will be to raise their children well. For this he was relieved of his duties and even forbidden to administer his final exam. Today’s college students demand to be given “safe spaces” to protect them from ideas and speech that are offensive. In such cases, education stops. A quick look at some of the mottoes of the colleges of the (Poison) Ivy League colleges presumes the worship of God and the pursuit of Truth: Of Dartmouth here in New Hampshire — Vox clamantis in Deserto, “The Voice of One Crying in the Wilderness.” These are the words of John the Baptist citing Isaias which any Christian can complete, “Prepare ye the way of the Lord.” What do our colleges pursue today? Not truth, not goodness, not beauty, but wealth and power.

Challenging courses have been replaced by foolishness — Shakespeare by Young Adult Fiction. Useless courses abound — Feminism, Queer Studies, Black Studies — while the classics have disappeared. All the while, parents are getting themselves deeper and deeper into debt while their children are being taught to hate God, their country, their parents and true education.

Here again, we must start over. Small colleges that teach real subjects are what are needed to replace the university factories. Dr. Esolen cites a number of small, mostly Christian colleges that have begun in the last few years as shining examples, places that he has personally visited and spent enough time at to understand what must be done. Christendom college in Virginia is one where the school is a common enterprise — where students and professors eat together, attend Mass together, socialize together. They form a common community. Patrick Henry College, also in Virginia, is an evangelical Christian college where most of the students were previously home schooled. Most of the colleges he mentions are small schools that value a classical education; most, but not all, are Catholic. The big Catholic universities, such as Georgetown and Notre Dame, are no longer truly Catholic. They have been bitten by the PC bug and have essentially relinquished their Catholic identity.

There was a time at the University of Kansas that a wonderful program existed for ten years. It was called the Integrated Humanities Program. It met in a wide classroom that held about a hundred students. Three professors were seated comfortably on a low stage at the front. The three men were all devout Catholics and good friends — two English professors and one history professor. Did they lecture in turn? NO! The talked to one another about the work in question in the hearing of the students. In other words, the students were “eavesdropping” on the intellectual exchange of three brilliant men. They listened to great music together, gathered outdoors at night to examine the night sky; they learned proper dancing (NOT “the jitters and spasms of an animal in the throes of a seizure”). They learned to sing and recite poetry. What a wonderful experience that must have been for these privileged students. Many of the students converted to Catholicism and some even entered religious life. Of course, the very success of the program was the reason for its demise. Other professors became jealous of its success and the University put an end to it. Could this be done again? Yes, says Dr. Esolen, but not at any big university. We can build it!

Special mention must be made of Thomas More College right here in New Hampshire. A small liberal arts college in the true sense, it will be Dr. Esolen’s new home in the coming year. Providence College’s — and Rhode Island’s — loss is Thomas More’s and New Hampshire’s gain.

I have spent much time on the two chapters on education, but the book is rich in discussing other aspects of our American lives that need changing: There are two chapters on repudiating the sexual revolution, one on bringing pride and craftsmanship back into the world of work. Sports have become work; we must return them to their proper place of play for the sake of play. Finally, government must be reduced to what it is meant to be. The Catholic concept of subsidiarity declares that the most local form of government is the best to take care of local matters. The massive federal government needs to stay out of local affairs and take care of the “big stuff” that only it can do. Dr. Esolen says we need to get “Jabba the state” out of our lives. I think we would all agree.

This is a well-written and thoughtful book, at times humorous, but always serious. I am hoping that my next “encounter” with Dr. Esolen will be in person, now that he is not far away from our corner of New Hampshire.