In recognition of schools starting across the country this week, this essay is the first in a four-part series on liberal education.
It would be far less complicated to tell my seatmate on an airplane that I work as a real estate agent or a pharmaceutical salesperson than to admit to teaching great books and theology for a living. Inevitably, the follow-up question is whether I am a pastor or work in a church. Embedded in that question is the common assumption that, to be justified, the study of theology must be put to some practical or professional use. Vocational training in divinity schools or seminaries is perhaps forgivable, but what reasonable person would study theology on its own terms and for its own sake? Does the discipline have a place alongside other core requirements in universities, even religiously affiliated ones? If it does have a place, ought we say it is a place of honor or a symbol of concession? The question has been debated over last few decades not only behind closed doors but also in the public square.
It’s not only theology to which the challenge of practical use is posed, of course; the liberal arts are in crisis across the board. Higher education has witnessed declining enrollments and budget cuts in humanities departments, a renewed emphasis on STEM fields (perceived, whether rightly or wrongly, to be more straightforward in terms of job prospects and lifetime earning potential), and the growing sense among students, parents, and administrators that, especially given exorbitant tuition costs, a university or college degree should have pragmatic, direct, and immediate vocational relevance. There is a related and almost pathological scramble for students to specialize early in their academic training, which can exert subtle and not so subtle pressures to reduce or waive distribution requirements from the core curriculum.
As a Catholic university professor jointly appointed across not one but two of these beleaguered fields, I aim to offer here something between a manifesto and an apologia in the service of defending a Christian vision of liberal education and articulating the central place and critical function of the discipline of theology. While strictly speaking it is not necessary to agree to such extravagant theological claims as I will go on to propose in order to understand the value of theology in higher education (as Tara Isabella Burton marvelously argues in The Atlantic), neither the genre of the manifesto nor the apologia is the place for reticence or half-measures.
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Having taught in a great books/core texts department for well over a decade, I can claim with relative confidence that the study of the liberal arts—especially that which prioritizes the pedagogical model of a small-scale, primary text–based seminar—can promote resilience, effective oral communication, openness both to genre and ideological diversity, deft reading and writing skills, cultural empathy, patience, adaptability, an increased capacity to recognize and appreciate beauty, cultural literacy of the (mostly Western) canon, and maybe even something approaching virtue. The goals and methods of this kind of liberal education bear at least an implicit expectation of the sort of person the students not only will become but already are, at least in potency. Structurally speaking, this kind of curriculum expects its participants (on either side of the desk!) to live up to an ideal version of themselves, persons who have become habituated to a raft of desirable intellectual virtues. “Will you,” the imposing thicknesses of Herodotus’s Histories and Cervantes’s Don Quixote alike seem to ask, “be the sort the person who will, with perfect seriousness, warmth of heart, and goodness of character, forgo the lesser things of the world and the pleasures of the body to attend to these (very many) pages with care, investment, and thoughtfulness? Will you do the same for Sappho, Aeschylus, Kant, Dostoevsky, Woolf, Ellison?” Will we be persons who apply ourselves with equal patience and a disinterested curiosity to varied branches of knowledge, knowing that insight will eventually be disclosed whether or not the method, style, or content has an immediate appeal; who will attend, with equal kindness, calmness, and care to the expressions, arguments, and opinions of persons with whom we have no ideological position or starting points in common, to allow both text and person to disclose the complications and contradictions of themselves in the open space of our benign and serious attention?
Promotional materials for various liberal arts and great books programs across the country may quite rightly extol the capacity of such an education for a docket of transferable professional skills (here’s looking at you, “critical thinking”); religious exponents of such programs may celebrate their competence for forming moral agents and cultivating moral virtues in excess of virtues intellectual. But can books make people good? Can forms of knowledge genuinely or reliably make people better? More holy? On the one hand, it would seem as if such an argument would be load-bearing in a Christian defense of liberal education. And yet at the same time, I hear the calm and venerable voice of St. John Henry Newman, to whom I often look for sage exhortation on matters pedagogical and otherwise, echoing in my ear:
Knowledge is one thing, virtue is another; good sense is not conscience, refinement is not humility, nor is largeness and justness of view faith. Philosophy, however, enlightened, however profound, gives no command over the passions, no influential motives, no vivifying principles. Liberal Education makes not the Christian, not the Catholic, but the gentleman. It is well to be a gentleman, it is well to have a cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid, equitable, dispassionate mind, a noble and courteous bearing in the conduct of life;—these are the connatural qualities of a large knowledge; they are the objects of a University . . . but still, I repeat, they are no guarantee for sanctity . . . Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk; then you may hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend against those giants, the passion and pride of man.
Whether our books are actually up to the task of instilling moral virtue (and not, as Newman goes on to say, inculcating characteristics that can sometimes ape or be mistaken for real virtue), I suppose I don’t want to think of liberal education primarily as being good for these things, or really for anything. Lest I be misunderstood, the graduates of our great books/core texts program work in law, publishing, consulting; they are health-care and business analysts, data scientists, poets, professors, priests. The kids are all right. Liberal education, however, as distinct from the servile, mechanical, or fine arts, is not traditionally or fundamentally oriented toward commercial, technical, or professional ends but instead is (or at least ought to be) “self-sufficient and complete”; it “expects no complement, refuses to be informed . . . by any end, or absorbed into any art” (Newman again). Following Aristotle’s Rhetoric, Newman reminds his readers that liberal things pertain to enjoyment, the purview of freedom (or, said otherwise, liberality) rather than use, the purview of necessity and determination. He relishes not the ends of liberal education, however valuable they may turn out to be, but delights instead in the aesthetics of the intellectual enterprise, that is, in its intrinsic beauty. “Why,” Newman asks, “do you take such pains with your garden or your park? You see to your walks and turf and shrubberies; to your trees and drives; not as if you meant to make an orchard of the one, or corn or pasture land of the other, but because there is a special beauty in all that is goodly in wood, water, plain, and slope, brought all together by art into one shape, and grouped into one whole.” It is the same, he thinks, with the operations of knowledge and the intellect which are their own goodly end.
In fact, I would be sorely tempted to say that the refusal to mechanize and to commodify (even for something as noble as moral ends!) is perhaps the most Christian of all the defenses of the liberal arts, though such arguments generally will not be printed in the glossy pages of a recruitment brochure. The truth of the matter is that it is the innate nature of human beings to desire knowledge not only of things but also of radical meaning (as noted in Benedict XVI’s 2008 speech to educators assembled at the Catholic University of America). Not only is the desire to know embedded in our very natures; that our minds are bathed in the luminous light of Reason is a direct participation in the gratuitous disclosure of God’s Self. The quest for knowledge for its own sake unveils us for who we are: supernatural creatures with a transcendent vocation destined for glory, creatures whose every natural, provisional desire for goods reveals an ever more fundamental desire for the supreme Good. Can’t we sometimes taste, in those flashes of joy and curiosity when a sentence is written just so, or when we discover ourselves teaching with a radical joy that can still take us by surprise in all its giftedness, something of the infinite pedagogy of heaven where joy and curiosity are perpetually renewed before the triune God? Do we not sometimes have intimations that there is no bottom and no end?
The problem with the way that discussions surrounding university education are often framed is that they seem to accept as inevitable a pernicious anthropology that presumes students are autonomous subjects, consuming in order to be consumed. But we are more than what we achieve, more than we produce, more than our billable hours. Hand in glove is the tacit presumption that universities are mechanical spaces—efficient delivery systems and dispensaries of “content” and credentials—rather than organic media for the slow and patient (sometimes inefficient) cultivation of growth over time.
One symptom of this condition is an overwhelming reliance on metrics and assessments, various taxonomies of predetermined learning or behavioral outcomes and objectives, quantitative measures of gauging a learner’s “post-instructional behavior,” and so on and so forth. While I do understand and can even appreciate the need for such tools, I must admit agreement with philosophers of education like Joseph Dunne, author of Back to the Rough Ground: Practical Judgment and the Lure of Technique. Dunne in particular finds smuggled into these reasonable-sounding, pervasively implemented pedagogical tools the hyperbolic misvaluing of a rationalism borrowed from the natural sciences that requires empirical verification but can only play at the objectivity it presumes. Dunne’s primary concern about this model (which I share) is that an exclusive focus on outcomes minimizes experiential pedagogies of “engagement” and “process.” Furthermore, this model presumes that professors and students alike are extrinsically related to some neutral “educational ‘content’ as to an objectified tertium quid.” There are, however, more intangible (or are they, perhaps, much more concrete?) elements of education which “must be lived through—a kind of subsoil which nourishes the fruits of explicit purposes but which is not itself a fruit.”
And what of the place of theology within the liberal arts? That this once almost universally revered “Queen of the Sciences” has perhaps lost some of her luster in secular universities and historically religiously affiliated institutions alike attests at least in part to a misunderstanding of what the discipline actually is. It is not apologetics, catechetics, homiletics, church-going, piety, pastoral training, affect, private opinion, feeling, or sentiment. It is instead a branch of knowledge with distinct and recognizable principles and methods (what St. Thomas Aquinas called a scientia in the first question of the Summa Theologica); it is “faith seeking understanding” (Anselm); it is “the science of God, or the truths we know about God put into a system” (Newman). Newman took great pains to argue that the a priori exclusion of theology from the course of university study that presumes otherwise to teach universal knowledge is “simply unphilosophical” (Newman again). While Newman’s own historical circumstances (having been tasked with establishing a Catholic university in Dublin in the nineteenth century) are significantly different from models of university education in contemporary contexts, the aptitude of theology as an integrating force remains much the same. Minimally speaking, and whether or not its proponents possess or practice a personal faith themselves, theology may be one of the last nearly omni-competent disciplines, requiring at least some training in linguistics, ancient languages, philosophy, literature, history, and so on. Moreover, as Newman notes, some of its central doctrines—the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, for instance, which is simultaneously a historical and metaphysical claim—bridge disciplines in one fell swoop. The capacity of theology to integrate the liberal arts, however, is something more than this.
Modern forms of university education have become hamstrung by intellectual divisions of labor that fragment and silo knowledge into colleges, subjects, fields, and centers that often operate autonomously without reference to the whole. Newman’s profoundly Christian vision, however, surpasses cursory nods to interdisciplinarity because it is animated by the view that the disciplines are integrated not because academics and administrators have juxtaposed them but because “the subject matter of knowledge is intimately united in itself as being the acts and works of the Creator” (italics added). It is the presence of theology, oriented as it is towards the infinite mysteries of divine self-revelation in which all truths resolve, that singularly possesses what John Cavadini has called an “essential integrative function,” the search for which is a “sapiential task.” The synthetic power of theology, however, is neither totalizing nor homogenizing: engineers, mathematicians, historians, artists, scientists, sociologists, and poets retain the integrity of their respective disciplines even as the truths in each field mutually condition one another as part of an integrated whole.
The claim that all knowledge is from God and oriented toward truth—truth as meaning, not bare facticity—certainly grounds and conditions my educational philosophy as a practicing Catholic. I would also go a step further toward the Christological and suggest that the truth toward which universal knowledge is ultimately aimed is neither of the order of concept nor of proposition but is fundamentally of the order of the person. As Joseph Ratzinger put it in his magisterial volume Introduction to Christianity: “Not only is there such a thing as objective meaning but . . . this meaning knows me and loves me.” The Truth toward which all knowledge tends is not of our own making—no committee would ever have arrived there!—but rather is the logos, the second person of the Trinity incarnate in Christ Jesus, who, per Ephesians 1:10, gathers all things unto himself.