A Heresy in Education (or An Education in Heresy)

“In this world nothing is certain but death and taxes.” Eloquent though he may be, Benjamin Franklin would have done well to add “heresy” to his infamous pair of unavoidable realities.

Philosophical preconceptions once condemned by the Church have an odd way of rearing their ugly heads. Take Manichaeanism for example. Battled by the great St. Augustine of Hippo, the Manichaean school taught the profound separation of soul and body, a dualism that has been condemned by the Church more than once throughout the centuries. With two equally powerful deities, one good and the other evil, the human person of this heresy becomes the battleground for their contest of power, with the body being the domain of evil and the soul being the domain of the good. The Christian faith, of course, has taught the contrary, the inseparable union of body and soul, both good because of their creation by the one God who is pure goodness.

I was a high school teacher of mathematics and computer science for nine years, and Manichaeanism is only one of the many heresies I see deeply imbedded in modernity, particularly amongst adolescents. In the years I spent in the classroom, the cases of academic dishonesty had noticeably gone up. What is perhaps more noticeable, however, was the change in students’ reactions when the dishonesty is exposed. There was a time when the remorse was authentic, but more recently, when present at all, it seemed more like mere regret over being caught.

I found myself repeatedly in conversations about how students view the act of cheating. A colleague of mine once remarked, “I honestly do not think that the students see it as wrong.” On the contrary, the students’ actions do not reflect any moral confusion. After all, students will go to great lengths to see to it that they are not caught, and when they are, they will craft the most elaborate of stories to exonerate themselves. I once had a student who plagiarized a computer program off of a university professor’s web site. When confronted about it, he claimed, with a great deal of confidence and conviction, that he would like to meet the professor who stole his code to post on the university web site. While the creativity is remarkable, the same cannot be said for character.

What, then, is at the root of the issue? While teachers generally recognize this as a growing and problematic trend in the education environment, they are often at a loss to explain the trend, and therefore end up remarking, “I honestly do not think that the students see it as wrong.” The truth is that students do understand the difference between right and wrong, and they do understand that cheating is a morally impermissible action. The problem is not in their ethics; the problem is in their anthropology. Students are Manichaeans.

The heart of the matter is that adolescence often do not understand the profound connection between body and soul that the Christian faith has always taught. Quite the opposite, students have a tremendous ability to keep a rift between body and soul. Said differently, these adolescents do not see a connection between their actions and their personal character. While they know and understand that certain actions are morally unacceptable, they do not see these actions as reflective of their person. They sincerely believe that they are good people and that this goodness cannot be tarnished by any action.

What adolescents fail to understand is that the human person is not only the source of his actions, but is also a product of his actions. What we do is reflective of who we are, and who we are will influence what we do. Philosophically, we would say that the human person isconstituted by his actions. There is no rift between the actions of our body and mind and the state of our soul. Body and soul are mutually interpenetrating. This is the essence of the Catholic teaching on mortal sins. Because there is an indestructible link between the body and the soul, there are certain actions that can affect the very state of the soul, remove it from the state of God’s grace.

We are how we act. A thief is nothing more than one who steals, and a lair is nothing more than one who lies. Similarly, a cheater is a person who cheats, and it is impossible to cheat without at the same time becoming a cheater. The student, however, does not see himself as a “cheater”; instead, he sees himself as a “good person” who happened to cheat, but the action of cheating is not reflective of his character. How is it that they are able to maintain this disconnect? It is simple: they are Manichaean. How is it that they are Manichaean? That is also simple: modernity is Manichaean, and this is perhaps the greatest heresy of our time. It is a heresy that is not only at the heart of academic dishonesty in the schools, but also constitutive of the greed and avarice in the market place, the sexual permissiveness in the media, and the utter disregard for the sanctity of life in the abortion industry.

Being a heresy, however, I have a feeling that it, like death and taxes, is inevitable. This does not mean we give up an authentic education in the virtues. It does not mean that we neglect to expose the lies for what they are. But it does mean that, while the battle has already been won on the Cross, the enemy of heresy is as certain in this world as death and taxes. Perhaps, though, heresy has more in common with death and taxes than its inevitability. “In this world” certain the trio may be; yet in the next it is certain that all three will be abolished.

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Jake Tawney


  1. Huh. I’m not sure I agree with this analysis, but it is provocative.

    I remember reading C.S. Lewis talking about ethics, how the proof of the moral law written on our souls is that when we’re caught doing something wrong, we try to make up an excuse or an exception. I think he used the example of someone not giving his seat on a bus to an old woman. When caught, they try to justify their action. The thing I’ve noticed lately is that we’re not bothering to do that as much. It does seem like we’ve successfully drowned out the conscience.

  2. Jake-
    “modernity is Manichaean.”
    Good point.
    I’m reminded of Jesus carrying the Cross and His discourse to the weeping women; “Don’t weep for me, but for your children.”
    Thanks for the view, even though it’s gloomy.
    Prayer to the destroyer of all heresies is greatly needed…Our Lady and her Holy Rosary.

  3. Teaching in Catholic schools for 12 years now (5th, 7-10th grades) and I’ve heard much of the same excuses by students and, unfortunately, parents. What really astonishes me are principals who are intent on blaming teacher! Somehow we “failed to teach it was wrong” or “maybe they didn’t understand it was wrong.” Not taking action or attempting to sweep it under the rug is exactly the wrong thing to do.
    And yes, there are the students who act like they don’t know what they’ve done wrong – and there are parents who do it, as well – which really drives you crazy.

  4. Then there is the ever-present example of teachers who hold students responsible for material that they do not teach in their lessons. In many cases, students merely attempt to figure out how they will be judged before taking the test or turning in the assignment, and teachers refuse to divulge the points on which students will be judged. Students caught with material that divulges this information are often accused of “cheating.” However, when teachers refuse to offer the information in the ordinary course of lessons, it is the teachers who lie. The teachers who cheat. The teachers who are Manichean. Of course there are authentic examples of Manichean students. But many such examples merely reflect the honest attempt of students to figure out the dishonest motives of their teachers.

  5. For students who need tutorials and wish to take personal responsibility for their progress, I recommend kahnacademy.org. For teachers who would like to be freed up to teach, rather than continuously tutoring rote subject material, this is also an invaluable resource. Students become responsible for their own learning, parents ‘and teachers can also track students’ progress using this program to keep abreast of where students may be falling behind and intervene in a timely manner. This program is used worldwide and is available free of charge. It covers core subject material for K -12 including college prep math, sciences, history, arts and computer sciences and SAT Prep. Includes tutorials and self assessment tools which again place the responsibility for learning squarely on the shoulders of the student. Any student can register at this site with or without parental involvement. It is completely confidential and is self paced. Courtesy of the Gates Foundation. Check it out.

  6. I am far beyond an age of adolescence and have no idea of a connection between body and soul; between body and mind I do most of the time.

  7. The student, however, does not see himself as a “cheater”; instead, he sees himself as a “good person” who happened to cheat, but the action of cheating is not reflective of his character. How is it that they are able to maintain this disconnect?

    Whether or not he’s a ‘good person’, you might just keep your eye on his acts and habits and refrain from characterizing his essence.

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