By Rev. Thomas A. McGovern, S.J.
Tutor, Thomas Aquinas College, 1972–1985
Thomas Aquinas College defines itself in terms of liberal education and is concerned exclusively with such education. That phrase itself may suggest different notions to different people, but there is one traditional meaning thereof that the College intends to signify, and to which it adheres when it identifies itself as dedicated to liberal education.
According to this understanding, the term liberal in the context is derived from the Latin adjective liber meaning free. Used substantively, liberi signifies free men or the sons of free men. Clearly, then, education denominated liberal will be so named because of some connection seen and implied between such education and human freedom. What is here implied by the adjective is, however, not education denominated liberal because it flows from a spirit that is free in the sense of uncommitted, unbound to principle, approving everything and excluding nothing; rather, it refers to its end, or purpose. The kind of education here envisioned is called liberal because it is ordered to freedom as to its goal; it is called liberal, in other words, because its intended effect is the genuinely free person.
Human Freedom: To Be Achieved through Knowledge
In this, our day, we tend to regard freedom as our natural birthright; we see ourselves as born free and this liberty of ours as a heritage to be jealously guarded against restrictions stemming from without — from political systems, for instance, or social structures. But clearly others, in the past, have seen human freedom in quite another light, not as a natural endowment, but as a great good to be achieved for the individual by his own efforts, and this, at least in part, through his education.
Our Savior Himself appears to have regarded human freedom in this light, as a good to be achieved and to be achieved through knowledge of the truth. Speaking on one occasion in the Temple precincts to those “Jews who believed in Him,” he informed them: “If you remain in the truth, you will be truly my disciples, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32).
Christ’s words clearly ran counter to their cherished belief that descent from Abraham was their guarantee of freedom. “We are children of Abraham and have never been slaves to any man.” But Our Savior’s words imply that, if a person is to be truly free, more is necessary than birth into a nation called free: freedom is to be acquired, and its acquisition involves some knowledge of the truth He taught.
Relation of the Truth to Freedom
As instances of such, we recall the beatitudes that begin the Sermon on the Mount, and that sermon in its totality. The world hears these precepts and sees them as inhibiting, restrictive, anything but liberating. Yet they are all part of the truth “that will make you free.”
The relation of such truth to freedom begins to emerge when we consider what is actually implied in the notion of a free person. The free man must be understood in opposition to the slave. The latter is other-directed. The free person, then, is the one who is self-directed; he directs his own activities, the course of his own life, and it is precisely this self-direction that calls for some knowledge of the truth. No man can direct himself in the dark. But it is Christ who is “the light of the world.”
But he who knows the teaching of the Word Incarnate knows that his God-given goal in life is membership in the Kingdom of God. He knows the kind of living that is conducive to that end — life in accord with Christian virtue. He knows that freedom implies control over his own lower nature since it is this, rather than any exterior power, that is the enslaving tyrant. He knows, in sum, that the free man, the happy man, the good man, are all one and the same. In this light he can direct his own steps; he is not the slave of the blind who would lead the blind.
The Kind of Knowledge That Perfects Man
Such knowledge as this would, then, clearly be part of the education of the free man, and a course of liberal studies must include the moral teachings of the Church through which Christ speaks, and the ethics and politics which are the natural counterpart of the same.
Christ’s liberating doctrine teaches that man’s true end and happiness consist in the beatific vision — face-to-face knowledge of the infinite God. This truth contains implicitly another, namely that the kind of knowledge which does, of itself, perfect man, contributing to human goodness and happiness, is knowledge not of those things that he himself produces and which are, accordingly, less than he is, but of things greater than he.
But, again, the free person, in opposition to the slave, whose activities are for the good of another, is his own man; he devotes himself to what is really for his own good. Supernatural theology, therefore, which studies God and divine things, and metaphysics, which is both its counterpart on the natural plane and necessary for it, will be essential parts of the education of the free man. Nature, too, in the sense of particular principles of motion inherent in created things, the products of the Divine Wisdom that designed them, and beyond the power of man to produce, will engage his attention. There is an order, too, inherent in things as quantified which is also an effect of the Divine Wisdom inherent therein; hence mathematics and geometry, which consider that kind of order, and which, further, are necessary if nature is to be adequately understood, are parts of the education of the free man.
Liberal Education: Basic to the Good Life
The seven liberal arts and sciences are “certain ways by which the lively soul enters into the secrets of philosophy” (Hugh of St. Victor). As preparatory, then, to the properly philosophical and theological enterprise, these, too, play their role as parts of the entire program of liberal education.
The above is, in skeleton form, the program for the education called liberal at Thomas Aquinas College and the rationale thereof. Its natural effect, of course, is not good accountants, or good carpenters, or good musicians, but good men. Such education tends to be regarded as impractical, but the fact is that a people cannot long neglect the type of questions it raises and answers except at that people’s own peril, for such matters are basic to the good life. More than a decade of experience has confirmed the College in its conviction that such education is indeed beneficial in a deeply human way. Were this land of ours committed to education along these lines, its face would be remarkably changed — in the direction of justice and the other virtues, of general happiness, and, finally, in the direction of true human freedom.