Readers of The Imaginative Conservative must frequently be tempted to throw up their hands in despair over the state of education today. How can we reinvigorate our culture with a sense of what is True, Beautiful and Good when our schools seem determined to douse the light of wonder that is natural to young people? It kills me everytime I see a bright, chatty kid I met during his little league years come out of junior high school seemingly without a spark of interest in life. The Left wants to undermine any connection of the young to our traditions; the Right wants to test them into conformity with the existing corporate and bureaucratic system. Very few place any importance on developing the hearts and minds of the young by connecting them to riches of our Western tradition.
Christopher Dawson saw the problem facing Western civilization through the loss of commitment to liberal education. Yet he also saw a great hope for change through developments in the Catholic parochial system, as he pointed out in The Crisis of Western Education.
…As education reaches a certain point of development, it opens up new and wider cultural horizons. It ceases to be a utilitarian parochial effort for the maintenance of a minimum standard of religious instruction and becomes the gateway to the wider kingdom of Catholic culture which has two thousand years of tradition behind it and is literally world-wide in its extent and scope.
The Catholic Church embraced classical education in the early Middle Ages, incorporating it into monastic, ecclesiastical and, eventually, secular life. In one form or another, from the Benedictine monasteries to the medieval universities to the Jesuit’s Ratio Studiorum, Liberal Education has traditionally been the core of Catholic education. The goals of classical education–perfecting the natural powers of the mind while embracing and developing a tradition–coalesced perfectly with the incarnational, traditional and pilgrimmatic understanding of Christian life.
Liberal Education occurs within a tradition of learning and culture. The Greeks learned Homer and the poets, the laws and the histories. These contained the best and most beautiful accounts of the good, the beautiful and the true. Becoming conversant with these texts made the young accustomed to the most noble and challenging of ideas; he became a fellow in the highest society, one fit at some level to listen to, question, and even develop these great men.
For Catholics, the Catholic Tradition is our tradition. Catholic educators aim to make their students conversant with our comprehensive theological, apologetical, philosophical, aesthetic traditions. Liberally educated Catholics develop an admiration for, a confidence in that Tradition, in its power to stimulate and satisfy the mind and heart, in its strength to foster, accept and patiently answer the most searching questions, in its wisdom that emphasizes the beauty of life without hiding its evils, in its dynamic humility, which accepts the truth from whatever source it is found.
Catholic Liberal Education is Catholic in its inspiration, resources and direction. It begins in faith and seeks understanding under the guidance of the Church’s Magisterium and through the rich patrimony of the Church’s intellectual, spiritual and cultural tradition. It is also Catholic in its willingness to learn, within the boundaries of faith, from any source of wisdom–Christian or pagan, ancient or modern.
The Institute for Catholic Liberal Education exists to help bring Dawson’s hope to reality, and we share his belief that a renewal of Catholic education will have a positive impact on the whole of society.
Books on Liberal Education may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.