A Proposal for the Fulfillment of Catholic Liberal Education
Click image for downloadable PDF

It remains to consider in detail the nature of liberal education, its essential parts and the order among them, in the light of the understanding of Christian education presented above. Everyone seems to agree that liberal education is the best education. Discussions about liberal education usually begin with a sort of agreement, but as they proceed, almost inevitably reveal profound differences in the light of which the original agreement seems superficial and even illusory. But when we consider the root meaning of “liberal” we are not surprised. Common to all theories of liberal education is the notion of freedom, and while all men recognize and value freedom, they do not all agree about what it really is. Thus, it is hardly strange that, involved as they are in more basic disagreements, men fail to reach agreement about the nature of liberal education. A fruitful discussion of liberal education will have to be based, therefore, on a true understanding of freedom.

Liberal education aims to benefit the learner in a specifically human way. This is implied even by its name which means “the education of a free man.” For no animal except man is capable of freedom. But more precisely, it is the education of a free man insofar as it helps him to achieve freedom. Yet it does not try to help him through any and all means, but specifically through knowledge. Accordingly, we must ask what kind of knowledge suits the free man so that he becomes free in the acquiring of it.

We must therefore first understand the essential character of the free man. Perhaps it will help to contrast him with his opposite, the slave. The slave is characterized by living for another — he is, as Aristotle says, “not his own but another’s man,” “a living possession.” Thus it follows that the free man lives for his own sake; he is his own man. Does this mean that the free man is selfish? It would be strange indeed to say that a man loses his freedom when he lives for the sake of the community. Rather, since the good of a community exists in its members, even though he does not pursue a private advantage, he is yet pursuing a good which he himself shares. By contrast, the slave, insofar as he is a slave, is ordered to an end which he does not share. Therefore, the life of the free man properly consists of such activities as are in themselves worthwhile.

Now there are in general two kinds of knowledge. Such knowledge as medicine or jurisprudence, for example, is practical: it is desirable exclusively or at least chiefly for the sake of action. But another kind, theology or natural science, for example, is theoretical: it is desirable in itself. Therefore, if the free man is properly concerned with what has intrinsic value, his education must concentrate upon theoretical knowledge.

Knowledge does not become theoretical simply because someone does in fact desire it, but is or is not theoretical because of its own intrinsic character. We can see that this is so by considering how one desires theoretical knowledge. When knowledge is desired from a theoretical motive, it is desired for the sake of the knower as such, that is, for the perfecting of his understanding. But human understanding cannot be perfected by knowledge of an order which it has itself produced as, for example, the order in an artifact or in a constitution. Such an order, since it is the effect of human intelligence, is to that extent inferior to man; but nothing is perfected by reflecting within itself that which is inferior to it. Thus, the natural objects of theoretical interest are the things better than man, so that whoever intends to become a free man will be chiefly concerned with the study of God and divine things. This means that his proper concern will be the study of theology, which has God as its subject, and proceeds in the light of faith.

But, as theology itself teaches, there is a knowledge of God and divine things which proceeds in the natural light of human reason. This knowledge, traditionally named metaphysics, or first philosophy, is also an essential part of liberal education, because it is necessary for the full development of theology. It does not follow, however, that liberal education will omit the study of man himself or of other natural beings. Aristotle gives the reason:

Having already treated of the celestial world, as far as
our conjectures could reach, we proceed to treat of animals,
without omitting, to the best of our ability, any
member of the kingdom, however ignoble. For if some
have no graces to charm the sense, yet even these, by
disclosing to intellectual perception the artistic spirit
that designed them, give immense pleasure to all who
can trace links of causation, and are inclined to philosophy.

(Parts of Animals, Bk. I, Ch. 5)

If nature were not the work of an intelligence superior to ours, the effect of a divine art, we would not become more perfect just in understanding it. Our relation to nature would be only practical, and we would confront nature as the potter confronts his clay. Marx is thus consistent with his atheism when he says that “the philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it.” Further, the study of the fundamental properties of nature, such as change and contingency, provides basic notions which are necessary for all the sciences, and gives an entrance into metaphysics, since it leads to the discovery of an intelligible order which transcends nature. Therefore, the education of a free man must include the study of nature.

There is yet another intelligible order which human reason does not originate but can discover and understand. The order found in quantity, that is, in number and in magnitude, though it does not so profoundly reflect its divine origin, is nevertheless uniquely accessible to our minds. Further, since nature exhibits a quantitative order, it cannot be adequately understood without the aid of arithmetic and geometry, the sciences which consider that kind of order. Therefore, both in itself, as study of a divinely established order, and in its contributions to higher sciences, mathematics must be part of the education of a free man.

We have been arguing that the education of a free man will concentrate upon theoretical knowledge. Does this mean that it will be exclusively theoretical, or will some kind of practical knowledge also be necessary? The productive arts, whether servile or fine, are clearly no essential part of a free man’s education. Of course, he should be able to recognize and appreciate the various kinds of artifacts, but his knowledge will be that of a judge rather than a producer. Because he seeks the kind of life which is intrinsically worthwhile, he will be a good man rather than a good carpenter or musician. Even medicine, although it concerns the well-being of man himself, is no essential part, for a man is no healthier by being himself a doctor. Thus, we may conclude that any practical knowledge concerned with production, or with a good which can be possessed equally by those who know and those who do not know how to procure it, is no essential part of a free man’s education. It seems to remain, then, that the sort of practical knowledge appropriate to a free man is that which studies the end of human life, the knowledge traditionally called ethics and political philosophy. And as we reflect further on the character of the free man, this becomes more probable. We distinguish the free man from the slave and the child alike by the fact that he rules himself. Now the arts of production and acquisition cannot adequately rule, for they only provide the instruments for a good life, but do not direct their use. However, such direction is necessary, for good things used badly do the most harm. It follows that no man can rule himself unless he understands the end of human life with some clarity, and knows the right use of every sub-ordinate object in view of that end. Thus, the education of a free man must include ethics and political philosophy.

All this implies that the free man and the good man are one and the same. The good man is characterized by right desire and good habits, and no man can rule himself unless he intends the right end and habitually pursues the appropriate means. For the end to be achieved is the principle of every rule, and contrary desires and disorderly habits prevent even well-intentioned men from successfully governing themselves. Furthermore, the very notion of the bad man is that he lives a bad life, while the free man is characterized by the intrinsic worth of his life. Accordingly, to seek freedom, rightly understood, is to seek virtue.

From the foregoing, one might get the impression that the primary requisite for living a good life is knowledge, and that a man becomes good by studying ethics. But this would be contrary to common experience and to the explicit teaching of the greatest masters. (It would also be contrary to what was said in the first part of this paper.) The good life is primarily a matter of right desire and good habits. Aristotle, speaking of those who live “as passion directs,” remarks that “to such persons, as to the incontinent, knowledge brings no profit” and that “any one who is to listen intelligently to lectures about what is noble and just and, generally, about the subjects of political science, must have been brought up in good habits.” Not only is ethics useless to a man badly disposed, but he cannot even rightly understand it.

Accordingly, we must recall and clarify what we stated at the outset. Liberal education does not try to help the student achieve freedom through any and all means, but specifically through knowledge. The professional educator is surely a fool if he supposes he can lead a student to freedom regardless of whatever habitual formation that student has received and is receiving besides his scholastic instruction. The factor most crucial, of course, and (humanly speaking) irreplaceable, is the family life from which the student comes; next, perhaps, come the friends whose company he enjoys and who inevitably influence his attitudes for better or worse. A school devoted to liberal education is effectively concerned with only part of the necessary means to freedom, and insofar as matters of conduct are concerned, a secondary part. Thus it is evident that parent and educator naturally form a community, for each supplies an essential part of the object which they both intend — a rightly ordered life for the student. Ethical knowledge is no good without right desire and good habits; nevertheless (in Aristotle’s words), “to those who desire and act in accordance with a rational principle knowledge about such matters will be of great benefit.” Thus we concede that ethical knowledge is not the decisive influence on the moral health of the student, while upholding the argument given above that, given a well-ordered soul, a man is greatly profited by a detailed and explicit knowledge of the good life.

Nevertheless, there is a way in which a good school directly encourages the formation of good habits. The whole of an appropriate curriculum but especially its theoretical parts, if rightly conducted, will habituate the student to the life of reason. The preparatory sciences, such as mathematics, are most important here, for in a manner proportioned to the student’s age and experience, they lead him to respect reasonable argument, while giving him confidence in his own ability to proceed reasonably both by himself and in company with others. Now the basic ethical problem, most simply stated, is to conform one’s will and appetites to right reason, that is, to live according to reason. Accordingly, when the student comes to consider the rational ordering of life as a whole, as he must when he studies ethics and politics, the enterprise will seem natural to him, as simply extending a principle whose power he already feels in his day-to-day work as a scholar. Thus, the habituation to study and rational reflection, though ineffective without other kinds of habituation as well, not only perfects the understanding, but also tends to rectify will and appetite.

With respect to this habituation, the teachers are even more important than the structure of the curriculum. How can they help, while remaining within the limits of their competence as teachers? Sometimes teachers try to think for their students, even though they know better, when they become discouraged by passivity and inertia. At other times, provoked by hostility, they become drill masters. At the best of times, they lead attentive and friendly students from what they know to what they don’t know, showing them the unsuspected implications of the knowledge they already have. But in these cases, the teacher leads more by example than direction, in conformity with the essential character of his vocation. For the teacher desires the students to share in a good which he already possesses, at least more fully than they do, something not required for an ulterior purpose, but desirable in itself. Whatever suggests force or necessity is alien to teaching; the teacher must draw from in front, rather than push from behind. Thus, the common-sense observation that one man influences another more effectively by example than by any other means is borne out in the intellectual life as well.

The view of liberal education which we have been arguing might be well summarized by a brief discussion of wonder, the proper human motive for higher education. Wonder involves two things simultaneously: ignorance and knowledge. It is because we at once know something and at the same time do not know everything that we find ourselves wondering. It should be carefully distinguished from mere curiosity, for it implies knowledge of a fact or group of facts, and it bears directly upon the explanation of those facts; it involves an acceptance, a certain delight and joy, a sort of fascination with the way things are, and a confidence in their ultimate intelligibility. Indeed, it is because he is so taken with the facts that a man who wonders lives in heightened expectancy of encountering the manner of their arrangement.

Mere curiosity, on the other hand, is not so much interested in the question “why,” but in the question “how.” It is more concerned to see how certain generalizations work or how they apply to varying circumstances. As opposed to wonder, it assumes the validity of a principle, in order to see how effectively it will exploit a given situation. This is not to say that the methods of verification in experimental science may not very well be an instrument of wonder of high order, but when those instruments are employed not in order to explain, but in order to expand experience, curiosity and not wonder is the immediate motive.

The proper satisfaction of wonder is knowledge of the causes. But causes are of two sorts: a cause may simply be primary within some particular order, or it may be primary without qualification, a cause of causes. Knowledge of the latter is called wisdom; the science which treats of the first causes in the light of the natural capacity of human reason is metaphysics, which may be called wisdom only with the qualification ‘human’; the science which studies God in the light of what He has revealed about Himself is wisdom without qualification. Thus, theology is the principal satisfaction of wonder on this side of the grave, though it hardly appears to be such, since the answers it gives, though they take us far beyond any human science, make us increasingly aware of our ignorance of God. (Accordingly, the study of theology would be unbearable without hope of eternal life.) Here, of course, we speak only of such wisdom as is properly pursued by scholastic study and instruction.

The sciences which pertain to liberal education are a community of unequals. Wisdom, divine and human, is primary, the rest are subordinate. But all are in harmony, as a consideration of their mutual relations has already indicated. The inferior sciences prepare the learner for the superior, while the superior sciences strengthen and illuminate the inferior. Yet the value of the inferior sciences is not exclusively (even though chiefly) in contributing to the learning of the superior; they have in themselves a likeness to the first Truth which, though secondary, is not contained without deficiency in the superior. Thus, for example, even if metaphysics could be learned without natural science, the latter would still be worthy of study.

Now if it be possible for man to have wisdom, at least in some measure, it will be only at the end of very arduous efforts, and perhaps only at the end of a lifetime. But the whole of his life and the special disciplines he pursues will rightly be named philosophy — the love of wisdom — for he undertakes every study for the sake of wisdom. And insofar as he lives for wisdom, his whole life is devoted to that which in itself makes life worth living; thus, he is not a slave but a free man. Accordingly, only the kind of education which introduces a man to the philosophic life is properly named liberal.

Some puzzlement may be occasioned by the fact that we have nowhere spoken of the liberal arts. Are they what we have been discussing all along? To be sure, in modern times, liberal education is usually identified with the liberal arts, but traditionally they are distinguished. Liberal education names the whole procedure of the philosophic life, including the study of wisdom itself; liberal arts, on the other hand, properly names seven introductory disciplines which though intrinsically of lesser philosophic interest are “certain ways by which the lively soul enters into the secrets of philosophy.” (Hugh of St. Victor) These arts are twofold: some concern the proper method of discourse, such as grammar, rhetoric, and logic (the trivium), while others treat of quantity and the quantitative, such as geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music (the quadrivium). (The introductory studies of the stars and of music consider only the quantitative aspects of their subjects.) The former are clearly instrumental in purpose, being concerned exclusively (though in quite different ways) with common methods;the latter study kinds of order which though less profound are more intelligible to the beginner, and inescapably provoke wonder about the more difficult and important issues of philosophy proper. Thus, it is clear that the quadrivium (the mathematical disciplines)have already been included in our survey. The trivium must here be added. Taking logic as the principal part of the trivium, we are thus left with a threefold division of doctrine, into theoretical, practical, and logical. We are encouraged to rest in this division by recalling that it is the one given by St. Augustine as a likeness of the Blessed Trinity. (City of God, Bk. XI, ch. 25)


Previous: What is Liberal Education?
Next: Liberal Education and the Christian Faith