Monday, December 03, 2007

Review: A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning

A Student’s Guide to: Liberal Learning by, James V. Schall, S.J.
2000, ISI Books, 52 pages, paperback, Catholic

One thing people who homeschool worry a lot about is what college to send their children to. Many people homeschool to provide their children with the right kind of education—religious, liberal, etc. The last thing we want is for a bunch of flaky atheist, deconstructionist professors--or dorm life--to undermine our children’s assent and conformity to the natural and supernatural truths of our faith. So, do we send our children to one of those super-Catholic schools that are listed in the Cardinal Newman Society Guide? Or do we send them to one of the older, well established, but secularized to varying degrees Catholic universities and hope for a good campus ministry? Or a secular university, whether private or public? Is the Newman center okay? Will our children lose their faith? Their morals?

The answer, of course, varies with the child. All things being equal all Catholic schools should be genuinely Catholic and genuinely universities. If that were the case the decision would be a no-brainer, setting finances aside, because a genuinely Catholic university is the only real university there is. Alas, not all Catholic universities are Catholic. Not all fields are available at the Catholic schools that are. And many people can’t afford a private college or university of any sort. So, many people find it better to send their children to a state school or a Catholic school where the administration and faculty seem to have missed the memo (Ex Corde Ecclesia) about the meaning of Catholic identity.

The university, Catholic or not, has become a place where the focus is on the attainment of information that will lead to an increase of power, and the teaching of a sophistic rhetoric that will persuade others to allow you to exercise that power. Knowledge as such has become the only activity of the University, without any attention to the personal context of the cultivation of knowledge, or the practical significance of knowledge for living a good life—to the acquisition of wisdom. University students need wisdom as well as knowledge precisely at the age they are at and the university, where the student spends most of his time, needs to provide for the formation of the whole person, not just the intellect.

So, if you choose one of the schools that are not Catholic to the core can you count on losing your child to the secular humanists? Certainly not. Let us hope that our home education has given our children a good, solid foundation from which to negotiate the crazy things that are said and done out there, especially at the University.

Of course, our children can’t rest on their laurels. Neither can we. Because they will be growing exponentially as persons during their college years, they will need to continue their education as persons, not just professional training. First in importance, of course, is an active spiritual life and continued study of the faith. Also important, indeed essential, is a continued effort at a formation of the mind that corresponds to our genuine human nature and calling. And this does not merely mean studying the Catechism or encyclicals. It means learning to think like a Catholic about all things, such as politics, art, and science. It means gaining something that approximates a Catholic, liberal education.

Most universities, Catholic or otherwise, do not seem to know how to form the intellect according to the Catholic pattern, so our children will need guidance from somewhere else, especially if we ourselves did not get and have not since acquired such an education. Fortunately, that guidance is available in the person of James V. Schall, S.J., professor at Georgetown (a particularly secularized Catholic University).

In A Student’s Guide to: Liberal Learning, James V. Schall, S.J. gives some attention to the deficiencies of the contemporary university education and offers the discontent university student, or any adult serious about life, a three-pronged remedy.

Schall’s book can best be described as a 12-step program for higher education. First, we have to be aware of and acknowledge the problem in higher education and we have to admit we can’t do anything about it on our own. We are powerless before the relativistic forces of professional intellectuals. Then we have to know that a solution exists, help is available. Then we need to seek it.

The help that Schall proposes is threefold. “We need some self-discipline, our own personal library where we keep what we read, and real good guides” (p. 49). In order to remain intellectually sane in the poisonous atmosphere of many universities and the world around us, a person must take an antidote—which is a guided reading of the good books in the tradition of classical western liberal arts, whether ancient (Plato) or modern (Flannery O’Connor).

1. Self-discipline. The emphasis on reading makes the focus of the book on the intellectual life. Schall highlights, however, the role that moral disorder plays in losing sight the truth. “There is an intimate connection between our moral life and our intellectual life” (p 30). Although, as Newman held, the teaching of knowledge is the purpose of the university, that does not mean that the university is absolved from helping the student form his will so he can achieve his intellectual goals. Those for whom the formation of the intellect is the primary concern cannot neglect the moral virtues without sacrificing the intellectual ones as well. Although, Schall does not directly address the proper way to attend to the formation of the will, he does state that moral virtues are as important for the formation of the intellect as intellectual virtues. The focus is on the human mind which cannot function properly outside of a healthy will and body and affections. “If we do not have our lives in order under the rule of right reason, we will simply not see the first principles of reasoning and of living” (p. 11).

Intellectual virtues themselves are important as well: He, for instance, encourages, without naming them, the classical intellectual disciplines of the mind, the trivium of the liberal arts. The liberal arts aren’t just knowledge, but arts, distinct from the useful and fine, but arts nonetheless, directed at understanding and communicating the truth. That is why such books as Adler’s How to Read a Book, Sertillanges’ The Intellectual Life, and Schumacher’s A Guide to the Perplexed are as important as the great texts themselves, such as Augustine’s Confessions. Reading even great books without a mind trained in something like the trivium is less likely to gain true knowledge that can be communicated and put into action. We will be left with good, vague feelings about a text, but no clear understanding of how the ideas in the book relate to the whole.

2. Good books. One of the best features of this book is the lists. Not only do we find “Schall’s Unlikely List of Books to Keep Sane By” as Appendix I, but throughout the text there are short lists, serious ones, such as, “”Five Books on Thomas Aquinas,” “Five Classic Texts on Philosophy,” “Six Classic Texts never to be left unread,” “Seven Books About Universities,” and quirky and whimsical ones, such as “Three of the More than One-Hundred P.G. Wodehouse Novels” and “Four Books Once Found at a Used Book Sale.” Names of other good books not on any of the lists are sprinkled throughout the book. They are listed in the bibliography of the online version.

But, even good books aren’t all equally valuable. Being the good guide he is, Schall does not leave us without indication of what is the most essential reading. The two most important books are the Bible and Shakespeare. The seven intellectual heroes for Schall are: God (the Bible), Shakespeare, Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine and Aquinas. Honorable mention may be given to Eric Voegelin.

3. The need for guidance (authority). Schall is proposing initiation into a wisdom tradition, not just an intellectual ‘great conversation.” This implies a prior judgment of the value of given books: an authority. It is not enough, as in some Great Books programs, to be introduced into the Great Conversation about what is true or whether the truth is knowable. For young readers such an encounter can lead to confusion and cynicism. Great books don’t answer the question about what is true (p. 23), unless we already know how to tell. What is really needed is a prior judgment about those works that in fact articulate some aspect of the knowable and known truth and center our intellectual formation on them. This is done quite readily in particular disciplines, such as physics or economics. Why not in knowledge as such or knowledge as a whole? Schall has positioned himself as a master, a guide. He is pointing to the texts of intellectual sanity. This does not absolve our irreplaceable need to make our own judgment about the truth of the good books our guides suggest. Schall makes it clear that ideas need to be tested by the reader against their own experience (p. 41) and college students are at an age when they need to take responsibility to discern the truth of what they hear.

The goal of a liberal education as conceived by Schall is not just knowledge, but sanity—a mind that corresponds to the real so the person can act according to the truth and make decisions about the organization of his personal life and society that are in accord with the nature of the parts, the whole and their relationship. “Just because someone is smart does not mean he is wise” (p. 8.) The goal of the university is the cultivation of the intellect. But that intellect needs most of all to be able to address the meaning of the whole and our place in it and relation to it. Although we can “know” a truth, it isn’t actually true for us until we can and do act upon it. Our actions reveal what we believe (p. 21). Schall himself speaks on page one of “knowledge for its own sake.” He follows quickly, however, on page two with an assertion that we need not only “to know what is,” but also “to know what we ought to do” (p. 2).

The classic liberal tradition is precisely that, a wisdom tradition to be handed on. Because modern university culture has been deeply influenced by a philosophy of liberal education that believes that the critical faculty is the most important faculty of the human intellect, rather than the ability to receive and understand the accumulated wisdom of the ages, we have to cultivate the latter on our own.

Although this book is intended to be a guide for undergraduates, it may be equally useful for the many of us parents who may not have had access to a genuinely Catholic liberal education. And even those of us that did can benefit greatly from many of the books on Schall’s great lists. I personally have discovered in the past six months at least one life-changing book by reading Schall's Student's Guide.

A fuller version of the book can be found online here.

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