What liberal educators may not omit
by Regis Martin
What is the single most important issue we face as an academic community? Surely it is the task of determining what things our students are most in need of knowing. Everything else, from food to the fieldhouse to festivals of praise, remains subordinate to this single end, i.e., the acquisition of such learning as we deem it necessary for them to possess. Have we completely thought through the nature and implication of what we’re doing? Of the meaning of liberal education? Are we fully intent on imparting all that is worth knowing in the tradition, “the best,” as Matthew Arnold famously put it, “that has been thought and said”?
I ask the question because it is entirely possible for a graduating senior at this University to obtain a Bachelor of Arts degree, a degree in the liberal arts, without ever having read a line of Homer or Dante or Shakespeare. This strikes me as an absolutely astonishing omission inasmuch as here, unquestionably, are the high-water marks of world historical literature. Indeed, each represents one of three seminal epochs of human consciousness. Omit such titans and, all at once, we leave our students bereft of such education as their tuition fees entitle them to receive.
In what does a liberal education consist but those things we are not at liberty to omit? And why is that? Because, at the deepest level, such things determine what it means to be human, i.e., free. Here are things which aspire to the highest possible perfection of the human personality, the pursuit of intellectual excellence for its own sake. There is the operative phrase, the crucial distinction at the heart of what a liberal education aims to accomplish. To use the language of Newman, “there is a knowledge worth possessing for what it is, and not merely for what it does.”
What this means is that there exist disciplines laying claim to an intrinsic importance, as opposed to the merely instrumental. Classes in typing, bookkeeping, automotive repair may be useful, but only in terms of something plainly more useful. A taste for typing, for instance, is something one learns to perfect for the sake of what it is one wants to type. The message of the syllogism or the sonnet is finally more important than the medium. Homer is more important than Hotel Management. We need especially to attend to those activities which carry their justification, as it were, on every line.
What ought the governing question to be? Why not ask to what extent this or that proposed course is likely to touch upon the most elemental dimension of the human person? Will it promote the desire to know the truth, the aspiration to do the good, the capacity to take delight in the beautiful? These transcendental pursuits are precisely what warrant the existence of a liberal education in the first place. And to that end courses in theology, philosophy, literature, history, natural science, music and art ought to be found at the center of the curriculum.
Asked once which books young people ought to read, the philosopher George Santayana said that it didn’t matter so long as they all read the same ones. Can it be so hard to come up with a provisional list? While perfect curricular consensus may be quixotic, could not a cross section of our own University faculty produce a handful of books every student should be expected to read? Do not in fact such texts come almost trippingly off the tongue? After all, didn’t we have to read them?
“Poetry, story, and speculation,” wrote Mark Van Doren, a wonderful writer and teacher who helped design the celebrated Humanities I and II at Columbia College back in the late 1920s, “are more than pleasant to encounter; they are indispensable if we would know ourselves as men. To live with Herodotus, Euripides, Aristotle, Lucretius, Dante, Shakespeare, Cervantes, Pascal, Swift, Balzac, Dickens, or Tolstoy-to take only a few names at random, and to add no musicians, painters, or sculptors-is to be wiser than experience can make us in those deep matters that have most closely to do with family, friends, rulers, and whatever gods there be. To live with them is indeed experience of the essential kind, since it takes us beyond the local and the accidental, at the same moment that it lets us know how uniquely valuable a place time can be.”
Missing out on such stories and songs and speculations, the stuff of who we are and where we come from, is tantamount to a loss of complete civilizational identity. Why would a University want to deprive its students of so basic a patrimony? Why would it wish to commit suicide in this way? An education unmindful of the whole of human experience, of the best that has been thought and said, can only be contemptuous of the students it is charged with teaching. As Lionel Trilling once put it: “The best citizen is the person who has learned from the great minds and souls of the past how beautiful reason and virtue are and how difficult to attain.” Or, to quote an old professor’s pithy definition: the ideal citizen, he said, is someone who, in a pinch, could re-found his civilization. Are we preparing our students to become citizens in this way?
I close with the following from Allan Bloom, describing his first encounter with the world of higher education; taken from The Closing of the American Mind, it is a moving evocation of what true learning had meant to him in his youth: “When I was 15 years old I saw the University of Chicago for the first time and somehow sensed that I had discovered my life. I had never before seen, or at least had not noticed, buildings that were evidently dedicated to a higher purpose, not to necessity or utility, not merely to shelter or manufacture or trade, but to something that might be an end in itself.”
Is it too much to hope, I wonder, that here at Franciscan University we too might fashion a setting not unlike the one Bloom describes as having ravished his youth? A place where intellect and soul, Athens and Jerusalem, exist amid a myriad of splendid tensions marking the life of a great University? If such is not a goal worth striving for, then what possible excuse have we for offering an education to those who come to us seeking wisdom and wholeness?
Dr. Martin is an associate professor of theology at FUS.