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The University according to the Liberal Arts

February 29, AD 2012 5 Comments

Warning: This is almost an excerpt from a highly thorough non-fiction book that I have yet to write. If that is not your cup of tea (or glass of wine as the case may be) then you are certainly welcome to stay, but just remember you were warned. Catholic Education is one of my passions.

My very own Catholic University.

In discussions concerning Catholic Universities (and believe me, attending the University of Notre Dame I have heard more than my fair share), the focus seems to be how to best promote the Catholic Identity of the University. In other words, what makes the University a Catholic one? Does it actively promote a healthy faithful spirituality? Does it hire orthodox professors? Is its mission to form its students in mind and heart? Does University policy conform to Catholic teaching both Social and otherwise?

These questions are essential to the reform of the Catholic University, however I think that not enough thought is given to curricular reform. At a small Catholic Liberal Arts college, it is very easy to only offer classes that fit into the a Catholic conception of an education, at least for those who are looking for a Liberal Arts degree. The question of whether this is for everyone or when the Liberal Arts ought to be taught is a topic for another post (and believe me, there will be another). The question I would like to ask is this: Is it possible for a University with a full range of majors in the sciences, arts, and humanities and extensive graduate programs with an emphasis on research to create for itself an integrated education for each of its students based on the Liberal Arts?

First of all, it must be clarified that in an intensely specialized field such as Microbiology with an Emphasis on the Protein Structures Present in Fruit-flies, the Liberal Arts do not play a major role, nor should they. The dialogue between these specialized disciplines is certainly possible through symposia about relevant mutual subjects, but a more direct dialogue is required if we are to create a University environment based on the Liberal Arts and a Catholic understanding of education.

The question should then arise (after reading that last paragraph) “What constitutes a Catholic understanding of education?”

Having a chapel attached is helpful. (King's College, Cambridge)

The purpose of a Catholic education is to bring students to a closer proximity to their fulfillment which is in Christ. To be fully human is to be Christ-like.We are currently discussing an intellectual education (there are other kinds…topic for another post) and so we must determine what can an intellectual education can do to make us more Christ-like. There are three areas of growth that not only build on one another but are also sometimes the same thing. They are knowledge, wisdom, and holiness. 

Today, I will focus on knowledge. Of what should our knowledge as members of the intellectual community consist in order to aid our path to God?  How should it be organized?

Or we could use the college system... (Trinity College, Cambridge.)

The immediate problem once again comes in the form of specialization. At a University such as the one we are considering, each student chooses a major, a specific field in which to study. If students are immediately thrown into a major and they start to work toward it, the possibility of losing the cohesive Catholic education is greatly increased. The depth of their knowledge in that specific subject may become great, but the breadth of their knowledge which leads to wisdom and holiness is left behind. If we are to have majors at a University (and I argue that we indeed should have them) then we need to have some way of connecting them to a broader picture: In short, we must make our education an full integrated education based on the Liberal Arts and the Truth.

Let us look for a moment at where each discipline falls in terms of these Liberal Arts. The seven Liberal Arts are the Trivium (Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric) and the Quadrivium (Geometry, Music, Arithmetic, Astronomy). The Sciences in general would fall under the Quadrivium (Astronomy mostly, which refers more to the study of the three-dimensional world than to mere star-study). Linguistic studies and Philosophical studies would fall under the Trivium for the most part. Representative arts would fall under the Quadrivium (Geometry and Arithmetic). Obviously this is a very brief overview, but it’s important. If we can place all these disciplines in relation to each other in this way, we can more easily create the educational structures we desire.

Is it enough to read the Great Books?

Considering a somewhat Utopian existence (if I’m not mistaken, it’s not unheard of) where the student was educated in the Liberal Arts in high school, the task of a University is to take that basis and point it toward a specific discipline. Thus, the biologist should learn not only how to experiment on life forms, but also to speak and write logically, grammatically and rhetorically about them. The linguist should learn not only how to speak and write logically, grammatically and rhetorically in languages, but also to understand the origins of language in a given society and culture. A painter should not just learn how to represent forms but also should learn how the forms work together in a logical or rhetorical way.

What the Catholic university needs, then, is a curricular structure that recognizes the inherent connection between these disciplines. Of course I am not saying that a painter should take as many logic classes as art classes, but his art classes should be based on logic (or rhetoric…or music for that matter). No student can be an expert at everything, but in order to be an expert at one thing, that one thing must be completed by this more integrated idea of knowledge.

Finally, all disciplines at a Catholic university must refer to the philosophical basis of the Catholic faith. In other words, they must all be taught with reference to the Truth–how the world works, what our place is in it and the existence of God as the source of all creation. It is not enough to say “You have to take this many theology courses, but it’s not really part of your major.” No, Theology and Philosophy are essential to understanding all disciplines in their essence.

Now what this exactly looks like is certainly up for debate.

We will cross that bridge when we come to it. (Queen's College, Cambridge)

In my architecture education, I’ve experienced the hints and potential for a theological and philosophical basis for architecture as well as the influence of grammar, logic and rhetoric. I have often asserted that architecture, being a manual art, a visual art, a language, a work in sociology and psychology, a work of geometry and a practical science of building encompasses the Liberal Arts better than any single discipline. Now, I’m not quite saying that everyone should learn architecture (although as a high school education in the Liberal Arts, it might not be bad…). What I am saying is that it’s possible to integrate philosophy, theology, science and art into an education. Why shouldn’t a pre-med student learn Euclidian construction? A better sense of space and the precision that the constructions require will not only help train the mind, but could also help in the practical training of medical school.

With an education in a specific discipline, the student can establish a clear relationship with God through the channels that that discipline offers. With the support of the other aspects of the Liberal Arts, that relationship can deepen not only because it gives a broader understanding of the Truth, but also because it helps the chosen discipline to show its particular view of God’s being.

This, then is where wisdom and holiness enter the picture. With the knowledge obtained through such an education, the wisdom to judge rightly comes more easily and the path to holiness becomes more apparent.

And I think that should bring that to an end. Anyone who got through that, I congratulate you. Tune in next time…..

(Feature photo: Peterhouse College, oldest college, Cambridge University)

[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info]Nathaniel Gotcher is a 19 year old architecture student at the University of Notre Dame. His architectural preference is the Gothic and also listens to anonymous 12th Century polyphony. However his listening habits are not merely medieval. He also enjoys Baroque music, 60s Rock and Christian Punk Pop. He is also an avid reader and a part-time philosopher. He is an idealist and also occasionally gives into his monarchist tendencies. He reflects on life at  and blathers on about important irrelevancies at The American Commoner.[/author_info] [/author]

About the Author:

is a 20 year old architecture student at the University of Notre Dame. His architectural preference is the Gothic and also listens to anonymous 12th Century polyphony. However his listening habits are not merely medieval. He also enjoys Baroque music, 60s Rock and Christian Punk Pop. He is also an avid reader and a part-time philosopher. He is an idealist and also occasionally gives into his monarchist tendencies. He reflects on life at and blathers on about important irrelevancies at