The Purpose of Higher Education

Guest post by Dr. Jeff McLeod

Outward Appearances and Inward Capacities

This is a rare occasion in which I would actually like to introduce a straw man argument. I do so because I can think of no better way to illustrate the point I would like to make than by way of the wickedly clever script writers of the Hollywood movie, The Wizard of Oz.

Most of us know the story. After sending Dorothy and her companions on a harrowing mission to retrieve the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West, the Wizard implies that the Scarecrow already knows everything he needs to know. He just lacks a diploma. So the Wizard deigns to grant a diploma to the Scarecrow, whose lifelong dream was to have a brain. The Wizard grants the Scarecrow an honorary Th.D., a “Doctor of Thinkology.”

Overcome by inspiration, the Scarecrow strokes his chin, furrows his brow a little, and blurts out: “The sum of the square roots of any two sides of an isosceles triangle is equal to the square root of the remaining side. Oh joy, rapture! I’ve got a brain!”

Epic fail.

That’s right. There is no such theorem in mathematics. What Scarecrow said is utterly incoherent. Even if he had said right triangle rather than isosceles triangle, he would still be wrong. He did not already know everything he needed to know, as the Wizard had promised. The writers were having fun at our and the Scarecrow’s expense.

I have always thought there was a serious lesson hidden in this scene, and I’d like to identify it in an effort to express my hopes for what a Catholic education should be, by recognizing what education must not be.

What I see in this scene is recognition that the Wizard was unfortunately an astute observer of human nature: we place inordinate value on the outward signs of education with virtually no concern anymore for what education is really for. The diploma, the ability to use elevated language, the appearance of thoughtfulness or depth (stroking the chin, appearing rapt in deep thought) – these are not proofs that a person is educated. These are dramatic elements, but not a single one of them is essential to what it means to be educated. Many of the smartest people I know are plain spoken and lack the formal credentials of education.

Being educated is to develop a set of inner capacities.

Some may say it’s obvious that education is to develop inner capacities of one sort or another. But is it obvious? We don’t always act like we believe this. We hail the man from the Ivy League school, with the letters after the name, and the polysyllabic speech, and so on, even if we know nothing about the school, the program of study, the learning experience, or the person’s character. We are often bewitched by these outward appearances and in being thus bewitched, we become susceptible to letting ourselves be subordinated to a cult of experts, i.e., of con men, Scarecrows, and Wizards.

We have a responsibility to guard against subjection to a cult of experts because we are created in freedom; there is dignity in seeking the truth for ourselves. How do we do this? We do this precisely by developing the inner capacities through true authentic education. I’d like to briefly say what I believe these capacities are, because these are the capacities that I believe a Catholic Education must cultivate.

Personal Knowledge. All knowledge begins and ends as personal knowledge. We rely on our experience to frame the important questions in life and science. And we consult our personal experience to test our experimental predictions. Catholic Education should develop a keen sense of such personal knowledge through experience. By way of offering a starting point, Blessed John Henry Newman referred to such personal knowledge in connection with the illative sense. It is the feel of reality when you grasp an abstract idea fully, in terms of your experience. One can assent intellectually to the dogmas of faith, but we also prove these dogmas in our lives by a personal encounter with the grace of Christ.

Creative Insight. We learn our profound truths not through inductive or deductive reason, but rather through acts of creative synthesis. St. Thomas Aquinas referred to understanding through abstraction from phantasm. This is a clumsy expression, but the underlying reality is familiar to all of us. It is the sudden recognition of the solution to a puzzle, the punch line of a joke, or a scientific discovery arrived at by imagining, for example, travel at the speed of light. Catholic Education must teach us the creative aspects of reason through contemplation of nature.

Critical Judgment. We don’t quit with the creative insight. We ask ourselves if we really found the right answer. In mathematics, this is “checking your answer” by plugging it in to the equations. In ordinary life it is asking around for additional information. Seeing if things fit together with everything else we know about the world. Being cautious rather than going compulsively along with the herd.

Responsible Action. Having attained knowledge and tested it against other relevant facts, we act confidently in the world, and we are willing to commit ourselves to being responsible to the effects of our actions. This requires the traditional virtues such as courage, but also love.

We safeguard ourselves from the tyranny of experts by relating all facts and knowledge to our personal experience. By contemplating alternate hypotheses vis a vis the received view. We do so by checking our work, and asking, is the answer true? And we do so by committing ourselves as responsible people to the consequences of our actions based on reason. To develop these capacities requires virtue, both intellectual and moral.

Some readers might recognize the gist of what I’m prescribing as similar to the work of Fr. Bernard Lonergan, the very insightful interpreter of St. Thomas Aquinas for the modern age. This would be accurate. I myself was fortunate to learn Lonergan’s system in my undergraduate theology studies. I think his ideas have stood the test of time, and are a worthy standard for what Catholic Education might embrace.

Finally, we mustn’t forget that Catholic Education is a moral pursuit. Using our God given intellectual capacities, we come to know not just what is true, we also come to know the truth about ourselves. One of the great growth experiences of college is coming to see oneself differently. This comes through academics, but also through genuine friendships, where by the light of our love, we see more in our friend more than what they see themselves. In loving our friends, we are behaving in the image of God. A loving friend helps the beloved see their latent possibilities, the friend who loves sees just a touch more. Through love, genuine love, God touches us and draws us nearer because God is Love.

And there is hope. We must recognize that even a con man like the Wizard of Oz, though his philosophy of education was radically lacking, was open to the promptings of the Holy Spirit. In the end, the love that he witnessed between Dorothy and her close friends moved him. Didn’t it? He was moved to tears by their love, and this encounter eventually made him to face the truth about himself, and search for higher things.

Jeff McLeod has a PhD in quantitative psychology from the University of Minnesota, where he studied under some of the brightest philosophical minds from the Minnesota Center for the Philosophy of Science. He is an adjunct professor of psychology in the graduate school at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. His full time job is that of a psychometrician and research statistician in the standardized testing industry. He comes from a very large Catholic family. He and his wife of 20 years are grateful for their two extremely talented boys.
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