Saint George the dragon and good education

Comment (English) on ‘Feestrede Sint-Joriscollege Eindhoven

by Theo van der Zee


Saint George, the dragon and good education

Theo van der Zee[1]

On Wednesday 30 April 1930, Titus Brandsma delivers a celebratory speech on the occasion of the twelve-and-a-half-year existence of Saint George’s School in Eindhoven. Saint George’s is a secondary school in the pioneering phase and is not doing at all badly. In 1925, it was established in a brand-new school building on the Elzentlaan in fast-growing Eindhoven and, in addition to the usual lessons, offers various activities such as chess, drama, debating, hockey, music and scouting.

For the school community’s celebrations, Titus Brandsma delivers a speech in which, by means of the story of Saint George and the dragon, he not only pays homage but also sets out a vision for good education. In order to be able to position the speech, it is first good to know something about the historical context. After this I will go into the speech itself and the vision of good education, and then consider what the vision still has to say in the year 2018.

Historical context of the celebratory speech

In the years after the First World War, Catholic education in the Netherlands experiences strong growth. The growth is linked to the increase in the population, certainly amongst Catholics. Eindhoven is developing from a large village with a few thousand inhabitants around the turn of the century, into a city with around one hundred thousand inhabitants in 1940. It is not only growing because of the annexation of surrounding villages, but also because of the movement to the city on account of increasing employment (such as with Philips). A growing population means more children and, with that, an increasing need for schools. Furthermore, the growth of Catholic education is related to the Pacification Act of 1917 through which denominational education (such as Catholic) receives the same financial support from the government as public education. With the pacification, the direction of Dutch society is being formed along the lines of what we would later describe as sectarian: society is organised into the Catholic, Protestant-Christian, Social-Democratic and Liberal sectors in which the school, club, broadcasting, etc. gathers and binds people together via their own sector. Saint George’s School is established precisely in the year 1917 (at that time under the name of the ‘R.C. Higher Civic School with a Secondary and Higher School of Commerce’), first for boys and girls, and a good year later the school is exclusively for boys, with the appearance of the Saint Catherine Grammar School for girls. The schools must meet the needs for education which provides young people with the necessary knowledge and skills for the new era and its employment, and also forms them into good Catholics.

The years after the First World War are not only characterised by the growth of the population and of Catholic education, they are also turbulent years in which countries and ideologies fight for space, power and influence. With Benito Mussolini, Italy knows a fascist regime, in the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin conducts a communist reign of terror, and in the Weimar Republic, National Socialism is on the rise. And although the Netherlands, on the basis of its neutrality in the international power game, also appears to be a peaceful, safe beacon, the unrest and the ideological movements do not pass it by. With the confessional cabinet under the leadership of the (first!) Catholic prime minister Charles Ruijs de Beerenbrouck (1929-1933), the beacon seems for the time being to be inviolable, but economic developments put that strongly under pressure. With the collapse of the stock market in 1929, the prosperous years of the 1920s end abruptly, and it will take several years before some economic light once again shines in the darkness. Perhaps even more than economic setback and uncertainty, the geo-political unrest and the ideological battle exercise many minds. Pope Pius XI expresses his concern about the unrest and the ideological battle, among others, in the encyclical Divini illius Magistri (1929) concerning the theme of Christian education. The central question: for what do we educate children and young people? In the encyclical, the Pope argues out of Catholic social doctrine (the principle of subsidiarity) for the space for Catholic schools to establish themselves and to provide education, and not to be at the mercy of a state educational monopoly.[2]

When he sat behind his typewriter to compose the speech for the occasion of the twelve-and-a-half-year existence of Saint George’s School, Titus Brandsma must also have known of the unrest and ideological strife and the concerns of the Pope. At that time, he is professor of philosophy and the history of piety at the R.C. University in Nijmegen and, furthermore, chairman of the Confederation of Boards of Roman Catholic schools for secondary and preparatory higher education. In the latter function, Titus Brandsma worked fervently for the space not only to establish Catholic schools but also to organise them according to Catholic principles.[3] The zeal with which he carries out this task evokes images of an indefatigable fighter for the good cause of Catholic education. Titus Brandsma is indefatigable because he is intrinsically driven by a vision of good education which he presents by means of the story of Saint George and the dragon.

Saint George and the dragon

Titus Brandsma not only comes to Eindhoven to pay tribute during the school community’s celebrations, he also comes to motivate it to continue to fight for the good cause of Catholic education. With this he is not so much concerned with the public manifestation of Catholic schools, but more with the heart of the matter: the formation of young people. In a context of political and ideological unrest, good formation is of the utmost importance. He perhaps no longer needs to convince the present listeners of the importance, but certainly of what more precisely that good formation implies.

The story of Saint George and the dragon offers him a rewarding metaphor for describing what the founding of a school means: namely, struggle. In this way, Titus Brandsma focuses not so much on the ‘financial concerns and difficulties’, but

in order to allow everyone, freely and unhindered, to quench their thirst at the fountain, threatened by the dragon; the fight for the child, the king’s daughter in the Libyan desert, the bloom of the desert of this world; the fight which rescues the child from the grip of the devil and nurtures it for the royal household of Christ, King for us all. (Fragment I)[4]

Titus Brandsma alludes to the founding of a Catholic school in terms of the fight for good (God’s Kingdom) against evil (the devil). A Catholic school makes it possible to form young people by bringing them to the clear fountain of truth, knowledge and understanding. It is true that Titus Brandsma expresses his admiration for non-denominational (read: public) education, but he also indicates that the Catholic school gives the most optimal access to the clear fountain, in order

as much as possible, [to] form the young into the ideal, then it is a duty to keep them free of many dangers, because experience teaches that though danger and strife can fortify and strengthen some characters more than a life without those dangers and that struggle, the majority are not able to cope with it, and experience the detrimental impact. (Fragment II)

Life is simply not without struggle so, he seems to be saying, as Catholic schools we should then equip our young people for the battle. In this battle, Saint George is an example and a saintly protector which speaks to the imagination.

With the image of Saint George, the dragon and the fight, Titus Brandsma hardly goes beyond the boundaries of the discourse of that time about living well and living well together. Living well and with each other is like a battle against evil. The Catholic school provides the context within which young people can be formed to take on the fight. Nevertheless, Titus Brandsma does not leave it there, for he has an intrinsic vision of what formation should actually involve. Formation is not purely the slaying of the dragon, he says, it is still more about providing a good alternative which, for the formation of young people ‘is of the utmost importance for the rest of life and the eternal future of that child, we desire the best for the child’. And when Titus Brandsma consequently (briefly) sets out what this formation involves, he says two interesting things. In the first place he speaks of ‘religious elements’ within all of the educational provision:

Through that connection to God and religion, education becomes something different, becomes alive and responds to reality, it receives new life, warmth and inspiration. (Fragment III)

In short, through the inspiration by means of the good spirit of God, educational provision is no longer an abstraction but a meaningful reality. The characteristic of the Catholic school does not lie in educational provision as a collection of subjects (as if the school is able to distinguish itself through the subjects which it offers its pupils), but in the inspiration of what is offered. Through the leaven of inspiration, the educational provision receives cohesion and perspective and, moreover, is addressed to the whole of the pupil (and not only his or her cognitive capacities). Formation is therefore not only a matter of knowledge and understanding, but something which addresses the whole character of the pupil. In his publication ‘Idealism at the Teacher Training College’ (1931) he goes further into this line of thought.[5] In itself, Titus Brandsma is not saying something startling here, but neither is it self-evident. He gives those who are listening to the speech an assignment, although he himself realises that it is not easy:

we often suppress an act of love and reverence because we do not want to expose ourselves, we lack the courage to express our belief, to act according to our belief. (Fragment III)

There is still something striking in the celebratory speech of Titus Brandsma, although it lies somewhat hidden in the text. That is, in the second place he speaks of the pupils as unique individuals. When things are said about life, society, religion, etc., then Titus Brandsma says that it is tempting but also dangerous to speak about it in abstractions. As if the essence of it can be made known by means of abstractions. No, he says,

But life is otherwise, and people are not simply all alike and do not comply with a casual construction or idea. The human being, and the child, is in each person different in nature and it does not help us when we would like to see beyond all the differences that are there, all the deviations from our ideal or of our abstraction. (Fragment II)

It would not be good to by-pass this unicity, and it is important to enable the good to flourish which is present in every young person. Here, it is striking that Titus Brandsma – very carefully – creates space for the unicity of every pupil and for the good which is present in him or her. He seems here to be making a plea for a formational curriculum which considers both the individual and the unicity of every pupil. Real life is no abstraction but lived uniqueness. Unfortunately, Titus Brandsma does not expand further on this, perhaps because the context of the celebratory speech did not permit this, perhaps because his own thinking was still in development.

Finally, Titus Brandsma pays tribute to the celebrating school community. First, he names the founders and the leaders of the school in order to then give full attention to the pupils of the school, former pupils and the parents who are ‘led by a noble striving for development of their children’. However, Titus Brandsma ends with the broad perspective. The school of Saint George is ‘a blessing’, not only for the Catholic community itself, but for the whole of Eindhoven society. It is an idea which completely fits with Catholic social doctrine, to desire as a Catholic school to contribute to good education, to the bonum commune of the whole of society.

Good education today

In the year 2018, good education is still the social assignment of all schools. However, no school can take possession of good education, also not Catholic schools. After all, it is greater than they are themselves. Catholic schools can certainly draw from inspiring examples as in the discussion led by Titus Brandsma about what good education means for them. The metaphor of Saint George and the dragon suggests that good education is not a matter with no strings attached but where something is actually at stake: the future of pupils and that of society. That future calls on governors, school leaders, teachers and other employees to devote themselves with passion and conviction for the sake of good education. This is no indifferent matter, but a passionate and dedicated effort, a more than worthy (struggle).

However, Titus Brandsma’s contribution to the present discussion about good education is particularly rooted in his plea for good education as inspired education for the whole pupil, and in attention towards the unicity of every pupil. Good education is not a collection of loosely affiliated subject areas – no matter how challenging or interesting – or the addition of final levels of attainment, but is inspired through the ideal of living well and living well together. Good education knows cohesion and forms a more ‘harmonious whole’ because the ideal gives direction to education and formational goals. Moreover, the pupil is not simply a thinking being with cognitive capacities but deserves education which addresses the whole of his or her person with social, emotional, creative and also spiritual capacities. Although there is no school in the Netherlands which would deny this, the practice shows reluctance in organising education along the lines of this ideal. Titus Brandsma can be an inspirator for these schools.

Good education gives attention to the pupil as a unique subject, and in the realisation of this, creates space for his/her development as a human subject (subjectification). On the one hand, this means that justice is done to the specific development of every pupil and, on the other hand, that every pupil is challenged to make his or her own unique contribution to the development of society.[6] In other words, the development of personal unicity means keeping the eye on individual development as well as on the contribution which each person makes to the greater whole of the development of society. The latter is not unimportant in connection with the good balance between the individual and society (part or whole). For many schools it is no sinecure to find the good balance, and also for them Titus Brandsma can be an inspirator in the belief that with the pupils actually ‘something is beginning and hiding within is a receptiveness’

And finally, may the fervour and passion of Titus Brandsma for the good cause, speak to the imagination. The whole of his life and work is a response to the Voice which calls and which he heard, and to which he could do nothing else but respond. Thus, in the year 2018 he invites us to hear the call which is made to us so that we respond – with the eye directed to the future of children and young people, and that of society.


  1. Translation of: Theo van der Zee, ‘Sint Joris, de draak en goed onderwijs’, in: Anne-Marie Bos (red), Titus Brandsma. Spiritualiteit dichtbij in veertien teksten, Baarn 2018.
  2. Jan Hendriks, De katholieke school. De ontwikkeling van het kerkelijk denken over het katholiek onderwijs van concilie tot codex, Brugge 1986, pp. 17-20.
  3. Brocardus Meijer, Titus Brandsma, Bussum 1951, pp. 333-334.
  4. For the fragments see: fragments anniversary speech
  5. Titus Brandsma, ‘Idealisme op de Kweekschool’, in: School & Studie, January 1931.
  6. Gert Biesta, Goed onderwijs en de cultuur van het meten. Ethiek, politiek en democratie, Den Haag 2012, pp. 23-36.

Translation: Susan Verkerk-Wheatley / Anne-Marie Bos

© Titus Brandsma Instituut 2018