Friday, December 22, 2006

A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning

By Fr. James Schall, S.J. and published by the Intercollegiate Studies Institute. I will be reviewing this for the Fellowship of Catholic Scholars Quarterly. I've read it once. So far I am very favorably disposed to his argument. I am a little concerned about the tendency toward liberatrianism that I detect on the ISI webpage. I'll have to look more into this.

Monday, December 18, 2006

Orators and Philosophers

Bruce A. Kimball’s Orators & philosophers: a history of the idea of liberal education (New York : Teachers College Press, 1986), is a fascinating study of the ages old conflict over what constitutes a liberal education. He especially focuses on the modern conflict over what he calls the artes liberales tradition and the liberal free tradition in recent American conflicts over higher education. But the distinction goes all the way back to the conflict between Plato an Isocrates. Among the first group he includes Isocrates, Quintilian, Cicero, Isidore, Cassiodorus, Luther, Erasmus, Calvin and the Ratio Studiorum of the Jesuits. Among the latter he includes Plato, Aristotle, Boethius, Anselm, Descartes, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Voltaire, Franklin, Jefferson and Dewey.

“In the artes liberales ideal, a presumption of certitude underlies the identification of virtues and standards reposited in classical texts; the commitment is thereby demanded, identifying an elite who embrace the virtues and preserve them as leaders of society. The foundation of the curriculum lies in the study of language and letters, required in order for the student to fathom the texts and then to express their lessons in public forums as advocates, statesmen, preachers, or professors. In the liberal-free ideal, skeptical doubt undermines all certainty, casting individuals entirely upon their own intellect for judgments that can never finally be proven true. Consequently, the views of others must be tolerated and respected equally, while all beliefs must change and develop over time. Logic and mathematics, which hone the intellect, and the experimental science, which teaches the honed intellect to turn old truths into new hypotheses for further testing, form the core of the curriculum designed to graduate the scientist and researcher who loves knowledge and therefore pursues it without end” (228-9).

Kimball identifies seven characteristics of each tradition. For the artes liberales tradition he identifies:
1. The fundamental assumption that truth can be known and expressed, a dogmatism underlying the belief that the task of the liberal education is to transmit wisdom rather than to teach the student how to search for it.
2. The purpose of knowing and conveying the truth is to train the bonus orator of Isocrates and Quintilian, the statesman who could and would serve society in any capacity of leadership.
3. the clear prescription of values and standards for character formation.
4. Norms derived from a body of classical texts
5. the clear identification of a liberally educated elite.
6. The respect for the commitment to the pretensions of ‘Good Breeding,’ by which was attained the proper ‘nobility of mind,’ and the disapprobation of tolerance tward those without the acquirements of polite and liberal learning.
7. the regard for liberal education in the established virtues as and end in itself (111-112).

For the liberal-free tradition he identifies:
1. Emphasis on freedom, especially freedom from a priori strictures and standards.
2. emphasis on the intellect and rationality
3. critical skepticism
4. tolerance
5. egalitarianism
6. emphasis on volition of individual rather than upon the obligations of citizenship.
7. Free thinking itself is the ultimate goal and value (119-122).

My question at this point is where does Newman fall on this map? He does say that the purpose of higher education is the handing on of knowledge, not the formation of virtue. On the other hand, the University is for the passing on of knowledge, not the furtherance of knowledge, as in the liberal-free ideal.

Fulton Sheen

Fulton Sheen has a very unusual technique. He starts by giving some philosophical definitions and distinctions that seem inadequate, simplistic or even wrong-headed. Then he reflects on them at length. By the end he winds up making an astounding spiritual point that "heals" whatever seems to have been "broken" in his original exposition.

He does this at least twice in the opening pages of The Power of Love. He begins the book by making a stark, almost cartesian contrast between body and spirit. The point he is trying to make is the reality and priority of the invisible, but he does so in a way that might seem to denigrate the body and its value and relationship to the spiritual. By the end of the section he clearly and beautifully affirms the necessary connection between the visible and invisible. "The happiness of life depends not on ignoring the things of time, but on impregnating them with eternity, using the world as it is, and getting our vision level for eternal things through time and in it." (p. 11)

The second instance is in his treatment of eros and agape (which ends up being an application of the above quoted principle). He first strongly disparages eros--seemingly equating its essence with its existential form distorted by Original Sin. It seems to be a depersonalizing, selfish "love." "The frosting on the cake is eaten, but the cake is ignored." (p. 13)

In the end, though, eros is not rejected and contrasted with agape--as in Nygrens--but is redeemed and transformed. "Once this Agape began to exist, then it flowed down to illuminate even Eros; Eros became the sensible expression of the Divine love." (p. 14) This is theology of the body stuff.

I do not know whether Sheen himself held defective philosophical opinions, that were then miraculously overcome by his deep, penetrating spiritual insight, or whether he intentionally proposed defective commonplaces so that he could redeem them before the reader's eyes--beginning where his readers are and leading them where they needed to go without first knocking their intellectual feet out from under them. Elevating and mending in a Catholic sense, rather than tearing down and rebuilding in a Protestant sense.