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How Liberal are our “Liberal Arts?”

February 20, AD 2012 2 Comments

One of the catchphrases thrown around by Catholic higher education is the phrase, “Catholic liberal arts education.” Most of these Catholic Liberal Arts institutions do a good job explaining exactly what they mean by it, but to the target audience the phrase has the same effect as any other catch phrase in advertising. It causes knee-jerk reactions. People either think of their kids spending four years studying moldy old philosophers and reading through books that haven’t been popular since, like, the dark ages, man. Then they go out and starve to death in the “real world.” Or they envision John Paul Augustine and Mary Ann Philomena in sweaters, skirts and slacks (I’ll leave you to sort out the respective wardrobes in your own imaginations) worshipping in a brick chapel with faces full of profound and youthful devotion. Priesthood, Religious life, or parents of a large family; those are the options. Lawyer, Doctor, Accountant, etc. all of that can take care of itself later.

Now, there is a great deal of truth to both points of view. It is quite true that no one gets hired to a high-profile, high-paying job (which is the only kind we Americans seem to be interested in) solely on the basis of a BA in Liberal arts. It is also true that a highly specialized career, for instance becoming a surgeon, requires so much specialized training that it renders a four year liberal arts degree a waste, simply by virtue of the time it takes. On the other hand if you have a supernatural view of the meaning of life (kind of a given if you’re a Catholic) it only makes sense to be more concerned about your vocation from God than the particular way you plan on paying the bills.

But neither really seems to get at the issue: What are the liberal arts?

First of all, the liberal arts are not the opposite of the conservative arts. The phrase “liberal arts” comes from the Latin “artes liberales” which were the three arts considered an essential part of a freeman’s education. In order to be considered a citizen of Rome, you were expected to have a firm grasp of logic, grammar, and rhetoric. In the middle ages mathematics, geometry, music and astronomy were added. Nowadays it is pretty much a catch-all phrase for any degree program or course of study focusing heavily on the humanities without a specific occupational application. Which definition brings us well away from the roots of the phrase. This is unfortunate. The idea of liberal arts is rooted in freedom. It is ironic that in the classical world general knowledge and education of the whole person was the mark of a freeman, while specific, focused training was considered fit only for slaves. Originally liberal education was rooted in the idea of civic freedom, the citizen doing his duty to the city, which I should think still has broad application to the modern world. It is in the best interest of any authentic democracy or republic to have a citizenry of well-educated people who can speak correctly, logically and convincingly of whatever they are most passionate about. We might call this humanist liberal arts, or civic liberal arts for those who don’t like the “humanist label.

Catholic Liberal Arts takes this one step further. In addition to the civic liberty of the citizen of a free nation, we add the concept of the authentic freedom of the human person. The knowledge that each and every human person is uniquely willed in an eternal thought of the Blessed Trinity is a radical notion which should completely reshape how we educate. Under this new light (new for the last 2,000 years) we see that the individual takes precedence over the State, for the simple reason than the State will only be around for a few centuries or so, while the person is destined to last forever. In that light the waggish quote at the beginning of this blog can be seen as not being too far from the truth. The freedom of Catholic Liberal Arts includes the freedom to value this world and its goods at their proper worth, that is, as passing things. Nice to have, but we ought to be prepared to do without them.

But true freedom goes deeper than that. Freedom is not the full end of human existence. Jesus Himself teaches us, “Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am meek and humble of heart.” Even Jesus “learned obedience.” The deepest call of the human person is not to the lonely self-sufficiency of our modern individualistic vision of freedom. In the end, the only freedom that matters is the freedom to surrender our freedom. Or to put it another way, until our free wills are freely united with God in their totality, they are not free.

The catch is that this is something that only the individual can do. My will is the only will that can surrender that will to God. This leads me to my biggest critique of the more conservative forms of Catholic education, namely that they do not have this freedom in mind. I am thinking of one Catholic College in particular, where the staff and faculty are, I think, overly concerned with enforcing “Catholic Standards.” Whether or not the standards are, in fact, Catholic or even sensible is neither here nor there. My point is that this, in essence, turns the school into an extension of the students’ parents, primarily trying to make sure their children behave a certain way. Correct behavior, conforming to an external norm, becomes the sole criterion of Catholic identity, for the simple reason that it is the only criteria we are able to see.

This enforcement of standards is perfectly appropriate for children. College students are not children. In their late teens and early twenties, these are, or ought to be, young men and women. In a society of adults there should be no place for supervision. Faculty ought to be leaders, mentors, counselors, companions on the journey of learning, guides even, but never supervisors.

I have no experience going to college. I know several Catholic college alumni, and have spent a great deal of time in a Catholic college town, but I have never been to college myself. What I do have experience with is leading young men. It has been my experience that the more rules you enforce, the less they abide by those rules. I have seen firsthand what greatness young men are capable of under the right circumstances, and I have also seen how catastrophically they can fail. All of my leadership experience has led me to believe that young people, and people in general, can never be pushed to their full potential. You must simply let them go. Give them your perspective (which ought to be broader, if you have the benefit of experience) and then let them make their own choices. Then let them face the consequences of those choices to some extent.

In Afghanistan I was the junior squad leader in the platoon. The other two squad leaders, both Staff Sergeants while I was only a Sergeant, sat down and parceled out the men while I was not around, and I got all the “undesirables”.One in particular was a whiny, loud mouthed, disrespectful, absent-minded private I’ll call JP. He acted like he was two years old, even though we were the same age. He continued to act like that until I put him in charge of driving the buffalo, which was my vehicle. Suddenly made responsible for the maintenance and operation of a million dollar, 25 ton vehicle he began to show initiative. The other quad leaders thought I was crazy (so did I, sometimes) for letting him drive in that monstrous vehicle up and down narrow, treacherous mountain passes. There have been times I have looked down from my window and the nearest piece of ground I could see was two or three hundred feet below me. But I made a choice not to criticize his driving or try to backseat drive him. I was literally trusting him with my life, and he rose to the level of that trust. He became one of the finest soldiers I ever worked with, and is now a sergeant himself.

That encompasses some of what I am trying to say with regards to liberal arts. It is only if teachers, professors and mentors give their charges the freedom to fail, and even to fail spectacularly and with life shattering consequences, that they will have any real freedom to grow, to succeed, and to change the world.

Isn’t that what God does for us?

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info]Ryan Kraeger is a cradle Catholic homeschool graduate, currently serving as an Army Special Forces Medical Sergeant, stationed on the West Coast. He enjoys reading, thinking, and conversation, the making and eating of gourmet pizza, shooting and martial arts, and the occasional dark beer. His website is The Man Who Would Be Knight and he blogs at[/author_info] [/author]

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About the Author:

Ryan Kraeger is a cradle Catholic homeschool graduate, who has served in the Army as a Combat Engineer and as a Special Forces Medical Sergeant. He now lives with his wife Kathleen and daughter Evelyn near Tacoma, WA and plans on going to school to become a Physician's Assistant. He enjoys reading, thinking, and conversation, the making and eating of gourmet pizza, shooting and martial arts, and the occasional dark beer. His website is The Man Who Would Be Knight.