My former student sent me a recent column published in Newsweek by its editor, Jon Meacham, on “liberal education,” the basics of which the students are supposed to receive here at Georgetown. The trouble is that few know what those basics are.
Meacham, is taken both by Sewanee College in Tennessee and online education.
“I love Sewanee,” he wrote, “an Episcopal university tucked away on 13,000 rural acres of the Cumberland Plateau. It is a place where students and faculty wear academic gowns to class, where the vice chancellor also serves as mayor, and where I spent four years without having a key to my room, much less locking it.”
Not bad, really. Meacham continued.
“We need to make sure that the liberal arts prepare people for a good life, not just the good life.”
That is a subtle distinction, “a good life” and “the good life.”
A thought struck me recently about students at Georgetown. No two of them ever follow the same four-year course. The education each receives is, in many ways, a product of his own ingenuity. Look at the “required” courses. Many different teachers teach introductory English, philosophy and theology courses. A student not only must decide what to take, but who is to teach him. If we run down the courses offered in any department, we find a bewildering number of offerings. Each department seems mainly in charge of the general program of its majors.
A core curriculum exists on paper, but what does it mean with so much variety from which to choose? I worry about students, in practice, majoring in “current events.” I have seen many semester schedules that are nothing but “current events.” If you major in “current events,” the “current events” that you expose yourself to during your four years here will not be the same four years hence. A new set of “current events” will arise and newer ones after that.
Are there things everyone “ought” to read and know? But this question runs against the multicultural current of our time – a current that seems, at best, another form of relativism. In Plutarch’s “Life of Dion,” the Sicilian philosopher whom Plato sought to instruct, we read:
“For though he [Dion] had been bred up under a tyrant in habits of submission, accustomed to a life of submission, of vulgar display and luxury, the mistaken happiness of people that knew no better thing than pleasure and self-indulgence, yet, at the first taste of reason and a philosophy that demands obedience to virtue, his soul was set in a flame, and in the simple innocence of youth, concluding, from his own disposition, that the same reason would work the same effects upon Dionysius (the heir-apparent), he made it his business, and at length obtained the favor of him, at a leisure, to hear Plato.”
Dionysius, of course, did not prove an apt pupil of Plato. His soul remained tyrannical.
The proper effect of a liberal – or freeing from self – education is, however, that our souls should be “set in a flame.” The first step in any liberal education is, indeed, simply “to hear Plato.” Plutarch speaks of “obedience to virtue.” We can likewise be disobedient to virtue.
The word “liberal” is opposed to the word “servile.” Things that are “liberal” are freeing, and exist for their own sakes. Once found, they incite us to a freedom that allows us to know the truth. We are the only beings in creation who have to “become” what we already are. It is not and cannot be automatic. It is one thing to be what we want to be, another thing to be what we ought to be.
“Humanism” does not mean making ourselves human. We are already that from our very beginning. “Man does not make himself to be man,” as Aristotle said. Both scientifically and morally, of course, we can decide to make ourselves what we concoct ourselves to be over against the standard of what it is to be human. This possibility is the great issue of our time. Today, “what it is to be human” depends more on will than on nature.
What, then, is liberal education? Charlie Brown tells Linus:
“I think I can understand your fear of libraries, Linus. `Library fever’ is similar to other mental
disturbances . You fear the library rooms, because they are strange to you. You are out of place.”
As they walk along, Charlie adds: “All of us have certain areas in which we feel out of place.”
Linus perks up: “Oh, in what area do you feel out of place, Charlie Brown?” Finally, a thoroughly dejected Charlie replies: “Earth!”
Dare I say that this sense of being alienated on Earth is precisely the beginning of a liberal education?
Fr. James Schall, S.J. is a professor of government. As This Jesuit Sees It … appears every other Friday, with Fr. Schall, Fr. Maher and Fr. O’Brien alternating as writers.