Some things are never out of season and liberal education is one of them.
As a matter of fact the Holy season of Lent provides the Christian with an opportunity to focus on the first thing that anyone should know about Liberal education.
And what is the first thing that anyone should know about liberal education? It is, of course, that liberal education is the kind of education that specifically frees us from slavery!
You see, no matter what else one wants to say about liberal education, there is just no getting around the fact that it has something to do with freedom.
Liberal education frees us; liberal education frees us from some things and it frees us for other things.
And isn’t that just what Lent is all about as well? Isn’t Lent a time when the Church asks us to voluntarily fast and abstain and undertake some kind of sacrificial practice in order to free ourselves from unnecessary attachments? We are asked to make a special effort to empty our lives of things that distract us from the Lord; perhaps an excessive attachment to food and chocolate; perhaps an attachment to a certain behavior. But whatever these things are, they are aptly figured in Holy Scripture under the image of slavery.
As the Israelites wandered forty years in the desert before entering the promised land, so too we Christians traverse the forty days of Lent (which might seem like 40 years to some of us depending on how attached we are!).
Lent is a time when we are supposed to free ourselves from some things so that we might be free for other things.
Now liberal education, although not directly concerned with freeing us from the slavery to sin, is concerned with delivering us from other kinds of slavery. To be precise, liberal education frees us from four other kinds of slavery.
The first kind of slavery that it frees us from is the slavery to fashion.
1. The Slavery To Fashion
My favorite living philosopher defined this sort of fashion in this way:
Those are slaves of fashion who pursue (or read) what is fashionable because it is fashionable and cease doing what is no longer fashionable.
Those who do something simply because it is fashionable are slaves to fashion. Likewise, those who cease to do something simply because it is no longer fashionable are slaves to fashion.
I don’t think it is necessarily wrong to read books which are on the New York Times Best Sellers list. But if this list were the sole principle of one’s reading selections, then we would have to say that such a one was indeed a slave to fashion.
St Paul says (Philippians 4:8),
For the rest, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever modest, whatsoever just, whatsoever holy, whatsoever lovely, whatsoever of good fame, if there be any virtue, if any praise of discipline, think on these things.
He does not say,
….whatsoever is contained in the New York Times Best Sellers list…think on these things.
The fashionable has something to do with what is new. We tend to be interested in “the latest,” the latest fashions, the latest trends, the latest thinking.
But liberal education proposes the very opposite.
Liberal education suggests that we read what is old. It tells us to follow the tried and true. It advises us to follow those things which have passed “the test of time.”
Liberal education suggest that we read The Great Books of the Western World for starters.
Thus liberal education frees us from the slavery to fashion. It also frees us from the slavery to our passions.
2. The Slavery to Passion
Aristotle makes reference to this kind of slavery when in his Ethics he says that it is of no use teaching the science of Politics to the young because of the influence of their passions.
Hence a young man is not a proper hearer of lectures on political science; for he is inexperienced in the actions that occur in life, but its discussions start from these and are about these; and further, since he tends to follow his passions, his study will be vain and unprofitable, because the end aimed at is not knowledge but action. and it makes no difference whether he is young in years or youthful in character; the defect does not depend on time, but on his living and pursuing each successive object as passion directs.
Now, given the effects of original sin, the Christian needs lots of grace – lots of penance and a great deal of mortification to finally gain mastery of his unruly passions. But liberal education can also make a significant contribution in this regard.
First, it is liberal education that proposes that every human being should make an attempt to live his life in accord with reason. For Aristotle, virtue consists in allowing reason, rather than something else like the passions, to direct our actions. Thus, liberal education teaches that our perfection requires that we should attempt to bring all our passions under the influence of reason. This is an important contribution- namely that reason should rule, not the passions.
Secondly, liberal education involves a method for bringing our passions under the control of reason-and this method involves something that Aristotle calls “catharsis.” Catharsis first signifies some kind of bodily cleansing or purgation. Such a physical catharsis might be brought about through exercise or perhaps through medicine. Liberal education offers a more spiritual cleansing- a cleansing for our passions. Liberal education proposes that we purge our passions through reading great works of fiction. Liberal education proposes that we cleanse our passions and imagination through exercising our minds and hearts on works of beauty, works of goodness, and works of truth!
We cannot simply repress or sublimate our passions. We need to feed our souls on the wholesome nourishment of good literature and the fine arts. We need to exercise our passions on objects that will allow them to operate in a measure which is eminently reasonable.
Well, among other things, we should read The Iliad.
We should sing Palestrina.
We should dance waltzes, act in Shakespearean plays and recite beautiful poetry.
Now it might take other things as well to bring the passions under the control of reason, but Liberal education does make a significant contribution towards this freedom.
Let us move on to the next kind of slavery that liberal education frees us from.
3. The Slavery to Custom
This is my favorite sort of slavery! One is a slave to custom when his principal reason for thinking a certain way or acting a certain way is because of custom rather than because it is true or good.
At some point we all need to examine our lives and our thinking. We need to examine our ideas and ask of each one of them “Do I think this because it is true, or do I think this because it is what I have always thought?”
For example, at some point, we might become aware of the fact that we think and act the way we do in great part because of
- the time in which we live
- the place or country that we inhabit
- the government under which we are ruled
Now it might be true that we do in fact live in the best possible time and in the best possible place and under the best possible form of government, but it is only a liberal education that requires us to examine these things and consider alternatives.
Liberal education requires us to read and discuss the ideas and governments and thoughts of those who lived in other lands, and in other times and who lived under different political systems. This kind of investigation cannot help but to allow us to engage in a critique of our own ideas and customs. This kind of investigation allows us to think and act the way we do not only because it is our customary way of thinking and acting – but because we have considered it in light of different customs.
4. Liberal Education Frees Us From the Slavery to Plain Old Error!
Erroneous thoughts lead to erroneous actions. The one who is in error must necessarily be a slave, to a certain extent, to those errors.
Take any church teaching concerning morals, and look to the dissenter. If someone dissents from a teaching concerning marriage, he will probably act accordingly. If he dissents from the church’s teaching concerning church attendance or the reception of the sacraments, he will most likely act accordingly.
But the dissenter could only be described as one who thinks and acts in the dark. His actions are those of a slave and not of a free person.
No wonder then that our Lord said, “The Truth shall make you free.”
Liberal Education Makes us Free
Liberal education concerns itself almost entirely with reading the works of authors long dead in an attempt to preserve, or rather conserve, all that is best in literature and music and art. Liberal education is about reading and discussing the canon of authors to whom Western Civilization owes its origins. It is about immersing oneself in the very sources of civilization and holding fast to its elements and principles, to time-honored truths and traditions; to the vision of all those who contributed to civilization.
The end of liberal education is not first “to think for oneself,” but to know the truth. To know the truth that makes one free, this is the end of liberal education. Liber and libertas, in Latin, denote freedom, as opposed to servility and the servile. Liberal education is the education appropriate to free men and is a source of that freedom. Liberal education, this encounter with and conformity to the truth, frees man from enslavement to unruly passions, ignorance, current intellectual trends and public opinion. Once freed from these bonds, we might choose to live a good life, hold to the truth, and delight in beauty – not to please others or gain some practical reward, but simply because these things are good, or true, or beautiful. Once freed, we might even choose to serve others, as Christ did.
“And you shall know the Truth, and the Truth shall make you free.”
Why do we want a liberal education? Why, simply to make us free.