An Illiberal Education Print
By James Schall   
Thursday, 28 May 2009

In an interview at Thomas Aquinas College, Ralph McInerny praised the school because students there had no choice about what classes they were to take during their college years. Imagine encouraging such rigidity, such arrogance that claims to know what we “ought” to read in college! Yet, if he heard those words, the late Thomas Dillon, the president of the college, who was recently lost his life in a car accident in Ireland, would have been delighted.

McInerny even maintained that teachers are at college not to do “research,” but to teach. This canny remark makes almost every academic department meeting I have attended irrelevant! The latest fad in undergraduate education features “student researchers,” of all things. McInerny intimated that teachers enjoy teaching as if it were much more important and delightful than “research,” which it is. The two great obstacles to liberal education today are, alas, social justice and research.

McInerny quipped that students who “designed” their own curricula deserved a refund. A student does not know what he ought to know. McInerny’s portrait of the professor lurking around for semesters just waiting to rush off on sabbaticals to do “research” is most amusing.

Of course, such intemperate suggestions for “required” programs are the heart of what many in academia would call an “illiberal” education. Something analogous, no doubt, happens in medicine and engineering. What one needs to know in those fields is just not up to the student’s preferences.

The science students are pitied on campus for the few “electives” that they can choose to “broaden” their education. Yet, you cannot be a doctor or an artist without some detailed courses in anatomy. We better know what and where the gizzard is, before we cut it out, to recall an image from veterinary medicine.

Still, can one be a doctor, engineer, or artist not knowing what a human being is when he is well and provided for? Plato warned us not go to a doctor who hates us. He knows best how to destroy us. But hatred is a moral issue. Our education begins when we have the moral issues more or less solved by virtue. Indeed, if we do not solve them, it is unlikely that we shall pass on to those things that Aristotle called “things for their own sakes.” We will just spend our time justifying that we live in a disorderly manner in a disordered society.

Allan Bloom once remarked that no longer is there a “canon” of books which everyone reads, lest, not knowing them, he be “uneducated.” He mentions the Bible and Shakespeare. In recent years, I have been struck by the almost complete lack of information students have about either of these – to them – obscure tomes.

A student gave me, from nowhere, a used book. He probably thought I needed it. Where he found it, I know not. I was astonished that he knew it. It was the English writer Charles Williams’ He Came Down from Heaven. This book bears no publication date. It must have been published in the early 1940s. I have Williams’ The Figure of Beatrice. I always meant to read his All Hallows Eve. If you do not have a pretty lengthy list of worthy books that you have not read yet, something is wrong with you.

Two passages in this provocative book got me thinking about liberal education. In the first, Williams speaks of the Book of Job. With reference to the Virgin Mary standing before Gabriel, Williams says: “A great curiosity ought to exist concerning divine things. Man was intended to argue with God.” Williams added: “Humility has never consisted in not asking questions; it does not make men less themselves or less intelligent, but more intelligent and more themselves.” These are precious lines.

What has this to do with “illiberal education?” Any fool can ask questions. Most do. We do not go to college to learn to ask questions. We began doing that when we first learned to speak. We ask questions to find answers. We distinguish. The minds we have are not just question-asking instruments. But as Msgr. Robert Sokolowski says, we are also “agents of truth.”

The old aphorism said: “Humility is truth.” The reason why asking questions makes us more intelligent is because, through them, we find, and expect to find, answers. Modern undergraduates, who are mostly told that truth is relative, are sent off on research projects. Still, some few students are around who spend their years reading the books that ask the questions that bring them, not to the skepticism of ever more questioning, but to the affirmation of the truth.

Truth, Aquinas said, is the “conformity of the mind with what is.” Any education that does not aim at this relationship is, yes, “illiberal.” Whatever the current pedagogues say, it does not free us.

James Schall, S.J., a professor at Georgetown University, is one of the most prolific Catholic writers in America. His most recent book is The Mind That Is Catholic.

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