The real purpose of liberal education

by Ben Brown

I would like to offer a few comments on Susan Fischer’s and Peter Cole’s responses to Dr. Martin’s issue 4 article on liberal education. I will begin by noting that Mrs. Fischer makes several good points, the principal one being that non-humanities majors may very well graduate with a good liberal education—an education which is vitally important for liberating them from the merely technical and which can only enhance their own profession. On the other hand, they may not; and I would venture to say that many from FUS do not. Even worse, I agree with Dr. Martin’s observation that many humanities majors also graduate from here without really being educated. That is not, however, the issue that I want to address here.

The criticism that I have of Mrs. Fischer’s article is that it betrays a not-uncommon confusion between intellectual formation and moral formation. She says that “education is the formation of the whole man,” but I think that makes education out to be more than it is. Education is the formation of the whole mind, not the whole man. It has to do with the intellect, not with the will. Some of the best educated people ever have been horrendous sinners, while on the other hand, some of the greatest saints were completely uneducated.

In The Idea of University, Newman takes pains to explain that “Liberal Knowledge” has nothing directly to do with moral virtue, and, in fact, that “it is as real a mistake to burden it with virtue or religion as with the mechanical arts.” “Knowledge,” he says, “is one thing, virtue another.” He clarifies that everything has its own perfection, and “liberal education, viewed in itself, is simply the cultivation of the intellect.” This cultivation of the intellect, Newman says, is “as intelligible as the cultivation of virtue, while, at the same time, it is absolutely distinct from it.” In one of his most powerful and well-phrased lines, Newman writes: “Quarry the granite rock with razors, or moor the vessel with a thread of silk; then may you hope with such keen and delicate instruments as human knowledge and human reason to contend with those giants, the passion and the pride of man.” He is not in any way denigrating moral excellence or subjugating it to intellectual excellence, rather he is trying to place each in its proper sphere.1

Please don’t misunderstand me. Newman would be the first to admit that the assistance of the Church is absolutely necessary in order for education to do its job properly. “The Church,” he says, “is necessary for its [the university’s] integrity.” The function of the university is education, the cultivation of intellect, and not the cultivation of will, but “the Church steadies it in the performance of that office.”2   Education, Newman says in Discourse VIII of The Idea of a University, can be a great aid to religion, but taken by itself, the type of person it produces is quite different from the one produced by religion. Education on its own produces “gentlemen,” i.e., people who have a good sense of decency and honor, good taste, and an abhorrence of excesses and baseness. All these qualities are quite in accordance with Christian virtue, but they are not themselves Christian virtues. They are attitudes and sensibilities which tend towards the development of virtue, but which without the proper assistance of religion, will actually undercut that virtue towards which they seem to tend.3   Chesterton makes a similar point in chapter three of Orthodoxy, as does John Paul II in Fides et Ratio: reason divorced from faith turns in upon and destroys itself.

The human person needs both kinds of formation for a proper development. My whole point though, and Newman’s, is that we must not, in our admiration for liberal education, obscure its true purpose and meaning. We must not make it more than it is. We must recognize both its merits and its limitations. If we fail to do this we will be forever looking for solutions in the wrong places—for instance, trying to morally reform society by enhancing the “educational opportunities” of all Americans.

Following Newman, then, we could say that Mrs. Fischer may very well be right to contrast the obtuseness and insensitivity of the technical-degree nurse with the courtesy and respectfulness of the nurse who had a liberal core. However, I do not think that the contrast is as stark as she paints it. It is not as if education automatically confers such moral values, or as if it is necessary for them. It can certainly help develop them, but in itself it neither intends to nor necessarily does so. I think that it is more accurate to attribute the caring attitude of FUS nurses both to their faith and to the nursing program (i.e., a professional program) which has tried to instill such care in its students.

I do not deny the role that liberal education plays in such virtue formation, but I think that it is by far secondary. That is, education without religion would be of little effect in developing virtue, and religion itself is certainly capable of instilling such caring attitudes in its adherents without the help of education. With the already existing foundation of true religion, however, a good education can do much to assist the development of virtue. And at the same time, leading a virtuous life should enable one to have a more accurate and complete vision of reality. I do not want to artificially separate the intellect and will; they are faculties of a single person, and they necessarily work together and influence one another. Nevertheless, we can still distinguish them and recognize that certain things such as education are directed to one and not the other aspect of the human person.

For Mr. Cole I have some harsher criticisms. Though he speaks of the value of liberal education, I cannot help thinking that he does not really know what it is and what it is about, because throughout his letter he treats education in a utilitarian fashion. In his opening paragraph he says that “the role of the liberal arts education ... must not be underrated.” Why? Because it is useful and necessary for success in “corporate America.” He also thinks that a key part of the purpose of education is “to secure a better job in the work place,” and he seems to attribute this idea to Newman. He finds it interesting that Dr. Martin makes no mention of “computer education.” The reason for this ‘omission’ is that there is no such thing as computer education; there is only computer training. Mr. Cole implies that only by providing proper technical training do we prepare students well for “the reality of life.” But if an integrated and systematic vision of the whole of reality (i.e. liberal education) does not prepare a person for “real life,” then I don’t know what does.

Mr. Cole is not alone in his view. The utilitarianism his letter displays pervades our culture, and few of us, even at FUS, can avoid being influenced by it. It is in the very air we breathe, and I often catch myself allowing it to frame my own thinking.

An important distinction needs to be made between education and training. Education is something good-in-itself; whereas training is concerned only with developing the skills necessary to accomplish a specific task or group of tasks. One does not need to be educated to design bridges or fix computers; for those, one only needs to be trained. These days, with the enormous proliferation of published material, training is something that one can do on one’s own. Education, however, is not generally something that a person can get through his own efforts. It requires an already educated person to educate another; one just cannot get a holistic vision of reality by reading books, even the best books. There are, of course, exceptions, but they are few and far between. Virtually every great thinker in the last 3000 years had one or more great teachers.

The above paragraph, I think, is part of the backdrop for Dr. Martin’s article. The reason that liberal educators cannot omit such things as Homer and Shakespeare is because they are foundational to a proper education, which one cannot get on one’s own. One cannot fully grasp and appreciate and learn from Shakespeare by oneself. And that is also precisely why such things as resume-writing do not belong in a college English class, especially at a liberal arts university. Any educated person can learn on his own how to write a resume, if he needs to, but he cannot learn Shakespeare. There are far more important things to do in English class than train someone to do something that he can easily learn on his own. FUS is a liberal arts institution, which means that its purpose is to educate its students. This is the primary goal and nothing must supersede it. The moment anything does, we fail to be a university.

That does not, however, mean that there is not a legitimate place for training on how to write a resume or work with a word processor. FUS has ample opportunities for both, whether students take advantage of them or not. My point is that they do not pertain to education and so do not belong in English Lit. class. I agree with Mr. Cole when he says that no student at the end of the twentieth century should receive a BA without being computer literate; such ‘literacy’, however, should not be in virtue of his degree, but rather in virtue of his being at the end of the twentieth century. Computer literacy is just as imperative for the high school dropout. It is a good and necessary thing, but it simply does not pertain to education.

Finally, I would like to cover my back by saying that my defense of a proper understanding of liberal arts education is in no way intended to denigrate professional training. We simply have to be careful to keep everything in its proper place. When I said earlier that all the education in the world does not make someone a morally good person, I expect that no teacher was offended. In the same way, when I say that all the computer skills in the world do not make a person educated, I expect that no computer science professor is offended. And no one can accuse me of pridefully and prejudicially looking down on other disciplines, for I myself am a computer science major.

Computer programming knowledge and skills are very important, as the Y2K problem more than amply demonstrates. They are much more useful than a liberal arts education for a great deal of things, but they are not good for their own sake. Computer skills are good only for working with computers. Education, on the other hand, is good in itself, for it is perfecting and fulfilling of the human person in a way that technical knowledge and training can never be. Therefore, the humanities (which, I think, should also include parts of mathematics and natural science), because they pertain to education, are higher in the hierarchy of knowledge. A university is dedicated to educating its students, so let us put first things first without excluding the proper and important place of all the other disciplines.

Ben Brown, Senior, mathematics/computer science/theology major

Ben is the president of the Franciscan University Student Forum, and a Contributing Editor of the Concourse.

  1. The Idea of a University, Discourse 9: “Knowledge Its Own End,” section 9. ↑
  2. The Idea of a University, Preface. ↑
  3. The Idea of a University, Discourse VIII: “Knowledge Viewed in Relation to Religion, section 8. For a fuller explanation, I direct the reader to Newman himself, as I do not have space to elaborate. ↑

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Same issue

Same topic: core curriculum

I,1 Shouldn’t we have a real core curriculum at Franciscan University?, John F. Crosby I,2 What is a ‘real’ Catholic education?, Kathleen van Schaijik I,2 Core curriculum (1), R.J. Convery I,2 Core curriculum (2), Jim Fox I,3 Core curriculum (3), Katherine Kemmis I,4 Core curriculum and anti-intellectualism, Adam Tate I,5 Core curriculum and critical thinking, Joseph A. Loizzo I,6 Core curriculum (4), Regis Martin I,7 Making ‘the connection’: A Steubenville education, Regina Schmiedicke I,7 A defense of a diversified core, Mark Fischer II,1 In reply to Mark Fischer’s defense of the present core curriculum, John F. Crosby II,2 More on the curriculum debate, Mark Fischer II,3 Last words on the core, John F. Crosby IV,4 What liberal educators may not omit, Regis Martin IV,5 Dr. Martin does it again, Joanna K. M. Bratten IV,5 FUS needs to get more practical about education, Peter Cole IV,5 Why non-liberal majors need a liberal core, Susan C. Fischer IV,7 The will and the intellect are inseparable, Martha L. Blandford IV,7 Preparing students to compete in the global economy, Peter Cole IV,7 Education not limited to the mind, Susan C. Fischer IV,7 According to the Tradition, education aims beyond the intellect, Matthew Fish V,1 More on the aim of education: Ben Brown replies to his critics, Ben Brown V,2 Preparing FUS graduates for the modern world, Jason Negri V,3 Liberal arts and professional programs: a reply to Jason Negri, Ben Brown V,3 Let’s improve our stats, Sofia Genato V,3 The ideal of perfecting the mind is timeless, Michael Houser V,3 Cultivating the intellect, Anne Schmiesing V,5 The eternally practical liberal arts, Timothy J. Williams V,5 Computers and liberal learning, Ben Brown V,6 Liberal arts with professional training: the best of both worlds, Thomas E. Kelly V,7 Education is not primarily about preparing to evangelize in the workplace, Ben Brown V,7 The God gap in the workplaces of the world, Peter Cole V,8 Arrogant idealism, Jason Negri IV,7 Newman, education and context, Kathleen van Schaijik

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