Common Wisdom: In Search of Liberal Education

Our family has taken up a new pastime — the search for a college. As our oldest child prepares for college, we have recently completed a series of tours of the schools on our son’s “list.” We covered some ten schools, colleges with beautiful campuses, no campuses, and in-between cam­puses. Three were Catholic schools; the rest were not. But what they all had in common was their high rating as liberal arts schools.

What they all had in common, as well, was something even more remarkable — that is, their secularism. One quickly adds that the Catholic schools under scrutiny are, in principle, religious schools. It is comforting that the chapels on those campuses still serve the purpose for which they were built and that the students appear to use them. Yet, browsing through the catalogs, one can’t escape the feeling that these once formidably, overtly Catholic institutions are somehow abandoning much of the integrative principle by which the world is recognized as God’s revelation and therefore as the proper object of study by human reason. To be sure, there are sprinkled across America some small pockets of education in the classic Catholic intellectual tradi­tion. For the most part, however, in so many Catholic col­leges that have for years set the pace, it seems apparent that theology, once the focus to which the other branches of knowledge referred, has been removed to the position of just one in a smorgasbord oaf courses. Moreover, theology is often served up in the form of either comparative religion or political ideology. Judging from the signs posted in the win­dow of the chaplain’s office, or the posters tacked on the bulletin board in the campus center, these colleges prefer to define Catholic doctrine not as a creed to be addressed with intellectual rigor but rather as participation in world hunger days or dubious trips to Central America. One can only worry that, in these very schools designed to foster faith, the way in which faith is sometimes defined may actually kill off the faith of many students. And yet, there in the middle of the campus is the church; the students do not ignore it. They do go to Mass. One hopes that the strength of the Eucharist will cancel out any foolishness in the curriculum that may have been proclaimed as the word.

Secularism, then, in this sampling of Catholic colleges shows up too often either as ideology masquerading as doc­trine or as general intellectual mushiness in examination of the tenets of faith.

Secularism in non-Catholic schools, on the other hand, comes out as skepticism: the noncommittal sneer. Yet the tragedy of these schools, all formerly mainline Protestant, is that once they, too, were committed. Making the rounds of these campuses, one is struck by the prominence the nineteenth-century founders intended to give the college chapel. Every one of these schools has a lovely Greek Revival or Gothic chapel set deliberately in the heart of the campus. But these buildings are generally locked; they come into official use only for convocations. Unless there is some arrangement whereby various congregations split time on Sundays, students who want to worship must seek out a church in the local community. The empty college chapel, divested of the sacred, mocks the intentions of the school’s founders. Further, it stands as a strange outcast on the land­scape of American history. For all our talk of secularism in America, this country, despite its separation of church and state, was not founded as a secular society, nor is its heart now secular. Although the secularization of America is undeniable, secularism is actually a perverted religion in itself — a religion of skepticism. Secularism stands not in the mainstream of American religion but as a cancerous growth on the body of American history and religious faith. Central to the definition of America is that its founding, in its very purposefulness, was a religious act. As the Lutheran theologian Richard John Neuhaus has put it so brilliantly, “America is not a fact of nature but a product of human decision. It is a nation on purpose and by purpose. As with any decision, it requires explanation and justification. Americans can and do ask of themselves, What are we here for?” That question is, of course, the ultimate religious question.

College educators in Catholic or non-religious institu­tions, by adopting various degrees and forms of seculariza­tion (presumably in the interest of adapting to a pluralistic society), have not only distorted the beneficent influence these schools once had on the course of American history. They have also struck a dangerous blow to the very nature of the liberal education for which they claim to exist.

Liberal education is concerned not so much with means as with ends. The question of the liberally educated person is not how we should build a bridge or a highway, but why we should build it at all. How we medically treat a sick person is a technical question; why the sick person has value is the question of the liberally educated man and woman. Liberal education in the classic definition is not useful. It is beyond usefulness. It is educa­tion for freedom, the education that a free man ought to have. Thus its basic issue concerns the end of human life. What is human life for? Its basic issue, then, is a religious one. As Christopher Derrick has pointed out, the Christian statement, “The truth shall make you free,” in fact defines a liberal education. That statement also opposes those who define liberal education as the freedom to declare anything to be true.

Yet in our pluralistic America fewer and fewer people agree on what is true. To declare something as an ultimate value is invariably to cause a struggle. For that reason the liberal arts college, where ultimate value is by classic defini­tion the soul of the curriculum, is the likely place for the hot­test struggle. And, since no one can agree on ultimate value, the usual result has been to give up the idea that there is truth at all. The search for truth becomes everything; the end — that is, truth — becomes impossible to attain.

Catholic colleges cannot quite bring themselves to this embarrassing and scandalous admission, an admission of course alien to Catholic tradition. Consequently, they tend to dodge the study of ends about which they are no longer sure. They look instead for final answers in this world, in the political realm, where the real questions are judged to be those concerned with feeding the hungry or with redistributing wealth. Non-religious colleges are sometimes more honest in their skepticism. They admit that Hamlet’s question, “To be or not to be” is their own question. But, as Chesterton or Derrick or John Senior would say, “To be” is the answer. Truth is not a question or a doubt; truth is not a maybe. If God exists, John Senior remarks (in his essay, “A Final Solution to Liberal Education” in The Restoration of Christian Culture [Ignatius Press]), then there really is a verb “to be.”

“Suppose that God is not a feeling but a fact,” he writes. “If he exists, that makes a difference, not just about some things but everything, including ethics, politics, science, literature, engineering, business and religion, in a word, the cursus completus, the entire curriculum.”

If God exists, then he is not only our beginning but our end. If we believe that, then our lives are different from what they would be if we said he did not exist or if we said that we do not know if he exists. Once we say that God is, then, as in other assertions of ultimate value, we automatically close the door on certain opposing ways of thinking and acting.

Ignatius of Loyola, Senior emphasizes, saw immedi­ately that if God exists, all learning and acting becomes a prayer of thanksgiving; all of life is for the greater glory of God, ad majorem Dei gloriam. Ignatius established his spiritual exercises and his schools on The First Principle and Foundation: “Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God Our Lord and by this means to save his soul.”

“This First Principle and Foundation,” declares Senior, “sets up a new economy by which to measure schools, curricula, subjects, teachers and students; if you ac­cept it, not just something but everything will change.”

Would that there were an Ignatian renaissance just in time for the college class of 1990.


  • Anne Husted Burleigh

    Mrs. Anne Husted Burleigh is a free-lance writer, mother, and grandmother who lives on a farm overlooking the Ohio River in Rabbit Hash, Kentucky, near Cincinnati. She has written two books: John Adams, a Biography, and Journey up the River: a Midwesterner’s Spiritual Pilgrimage. She has contributed to many publications, including Crisis and Catholic Dossier, and now writes for Magnificat.

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