liberal learning man-reading-TGJ.00-420x420Just what is the business of a liberal arts college?  Is it to make well-rounded young adults, to equip the next generation with job skills demanded by a work-a-day world, or perhaps to train up Constitution-toting citizens in the ways of republican civic-mindedness?  Or is it something even more ambitious–making saints or saving the world?   On the other hand, might it be much simpler and a bit more crass?  Perhaps the aim of the college should be a fun-packed four years in residence at an activity-laden day-care center for pre-mature adults?  And yet, perhaps the business of a college properly considered is something else altogether.This essay explores a number of issues related to the real business of liberal learning. First, it considers the business and definition of a college as an institution devoted to the liberal arts.  It proffers an ideal of what liberal arts learning has been and ought still to be. Along the way it highlights potential risks and possibilities. There are things that can prevent the attainment of liberal learning’s benefits, among them, sloth (evagatio mentis or “uneasy restlessness of mind”) or alternatively, treating the liberal arts as a means not an end in themselves. Further, there are things that liberal education can do (make gentleman) and there are things a liberal education cannot do (make saints). One ought not ask of liberal education what it cannot give. Neither ought one treat liberal learning in a way that renders it impotent and unable to confer its natural blessings.

A former president of my college used to describe our school to newcomers as “a nineteenth-century College.” I suspect he meant to conjure numerous wholesome images by such a reference. One might still inquire, “What was the ideal of collegiate education in antebellum America to which some still look admiringly?” One expert on the history of education has offered this:

[In the American college,] all knowledge whether secular or religious was seen to be united in a coherent and integrated whole, and it was the purpose of higher education to cultivate an understanding of the various elements of knowledge in their relationship to one another . . . There was no sharp distinction to be made between moral and empirical knowledge, and both were to be employed in the service of individual character formation.[1]

This vision stressed the unity of knowledge and knew that all truth was God’s truth, that science and religion, reason and revelation, indeed all knowledge that deserved the name, was woven into a single integrated fabric. Such truth, when taught properly, formed the character as it furnished the mind.  Educators hoped, not always realistically, that it would cultivate Christian virtue, foster practical moral judgment, and nurture social wisdom, fitting the student for the worthy life of a citizen leader and launching him upon a lifetime of learning.

Perhaps the best American articulation of this educational ideal surfaced in the context of a curriculum brouhaha at Yale College begun in 1827 when a committee was charged “to inquire into the expediency” of altering the curriculum “as to leave out . . . the study of the dead languages,” i.e. Greek and Latin.  The result of the investigation–a lengthy report–appeared a year later and came to be known as the Yale Report. It was “the first major effort to spell out both a philosophy and the particulars of an American system of higher education.”[2] President Jeremiah Day (1773-1867), Yale’s teacher administrator whose towering influence spanned his sixty-nine-year formal connection to the college, was the document’s principal author. Day opened the report by posing the fundamental question lurking behind any serious curricular deliberation: “What then,” he asked, “is the appropriate object of a college?” It is first and foremost, he asserted, an exercise in intellectual and character formation, not a business of professional training or equipping of students with a set of vocational skills. Permit Day to speak for himself and, therefore, for me to quote him at some length:

So there is a glimpse at the historic ideal, what liberal education is and is not. It is, in short, a foundational disciplining and furnishing of the mind which yields a symmetry and balance without regard to practical application.

What then is the appropriate object of a college? . . . Its object is to lay the foundation of a superior education . . . The two great points to be gained in intellectual culture, are the discipline and the furniture of the mind; expanding its powers, and storing it with knowledge. . . .

[S]uch branches are to be taught as will produce a proper symmetry and balance of character. We doubt whether the powers of the mind can be developed, in their fairest proportions, by studying languages alone, or mathematics alone, or natural or political science alone. As the bodily frame is brought to its highest perfection, not by one simple and uniform motion, but by a variety of exercises; so the mental faculties are expanded, and invigorated, and adapted to each other, by familiarity with different departments of science. . . .

The course of instruction which is given to the undergraduates in the college, is not designed to include professional studies. Our object is not to teach that which is peculiar to any one of the professions; but to lay the foundation which is common to them all. . . .

But why, it may be asked, should a student waste his time upon studies which have no immediate connection with his future profession? . . .  In answer to this it may be observed, that there is no science which does not contribute its aid to professional skill. “Every thing throws light upon every thing.” The great object of a collegiate education, preparatory to the study of a profession, is to give that expansion and balance of the mental powers, those liberal and comprehensive views, and those fine proportions of character, which are not to be found in him whose ideas are always confined to one particular channel. . . .

Is a man to have no other object, than to obtain a living by professional pursuits? Has he not duties to perform to his family, to his fellow citizens, to his country; duties which require various and extensive intellectual furniture? . . .

But why, it is asked, should all the students in a college be required to tread in the same steps? Why should not each one be allowed to select those branches of study which are most to his taste, which are best adapted to his peculiar talents, and which are most nearly connected with his intended profession? To this we answer, that our prescribed course of study contains those subjects only which ought to be understood, as we think, by every one who aims at a thorough education. . . . So in a college, all should be instructed in those branches of knowledge, of which no one destined to the higher walks of life ought to be ignorant. . . .

The object . . . is not to give a partial education, consisting of a few branches only; nor, on the other hand, to give a superficial education, containing a smattering of almost every thing; nor to finish the details of either a professional or practical education; but to commence a thorough course, and to carry it as far as the time of residence here will allow.[3]

The Yale Report was neither the final nor best word in defense of classical liberal education. John Henry Newman (1801-1890), one-time fellow of Oriel College, Oxford, and former vicar of the University church, St. Mary the Virgin, was called in 1851 to preside over the new Roman Catholic university in Dublin, Ireland. The following year as rector-elect in Dublin, he delivered a series of lectures on the nature of a university.  After expansion and revision, these lectures would become widely recognized as “the most important treatise on the idea of the university ever written in any language.”[4] The book, The Idea of a University, has proven itself a timeless classic and made Newman “the greatest theorist of university life.”[5]

Among the many achievements of The Idea of a University stand Newman’s explication of the liberal arts, what they can (and cannot) accomplish, and the place of theology among the “sciences”–a term Newman used generically for any organized body of knowledge. His definition of liberal education is widely accepted and deserves quotation as well:

This process of training, by which the intellect, instead of being formed or sacrificed to some particular or accidental purpose, some specific trade or profession, or study or science, is disciplined for its own sake, for the perception of its own proper object, and for its own highest culture, is called Liberal Education; and though there is no one in whom it is carried as far as is conceivable, or whose intellect would be a pattern of what intellects should be made, yet there is scarcely any one but may gain an idea of what real training is, and at least look towards it, and make its true scope and result, not something else, his standard of excellence; and numbers there are who may submit themselves to it, and secure it to themselves in good measure. And to set forth the right standard, and to train according to it, and to help forward all students towards it according to their various capacities, this I conceive to be the business of a University.[6]

This process of intellectual discipline presumes that “all knowledge forms one whole” and that all branches of knowledge “belong to one and the same circle of objects.” The process of liberal education, then, is the proportioned study of each branch of knowledge and the consequent bringing of each branch into right relation with the other branches of knowledge. Success in this endeavor results in what Newman called a “philosophical habit of mind.”[7] Permit Newman to speak for himself:

Though [students] cannot pursue every subject which is open to them, they will be the gainers by living among those and under those who represent the whole circle. This I conceive to be the advantage of a seat of universal learning, considered as a place of education. An assemblage of learned men, zealous for their own sciences, and rivals of each other, are brought, by familiar intercourse and for the sake of intellectual peace, to adjust together the claims and relations of their respective subjects of investigation. They learn to respect, to consult, to aid each other. Thus is created a pure and clear atmosphere of thought, which the student also breathes. . . .  He profits by an intellectual tradition, which is independent of particular teachers, which guides him in his choice of subjects, and duly interprets for him those which he chooses. He apprehends the great outlines of knowledge, the principles on which it rests, the scale of its parts, its lights and its shades, its great points and its little, as he otherwise cannot apprehend them. Hence it is that his education is called “Liberal.” A habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom; or what . . . I have ventured to call a philosophical habit.[8]

Newman insisted that the philosophical habit of mind is its own reward, that “knowledge is capable of being its own end [and] . . . its own reward.”[9] Accordingly, he drew out the distinction between liberal arts and servile arts by explaining that the liberal arts are free, that they are liberal, because they are not for the sake of some exterior practical utility. He steadfastly maintained, “Things, which can bear to be cut off from every thing else and yet persist in living must have life in themselves; pursuits, which issue in nothing, and still maintain their ground for ages, which are regarded as admirable, though they have not as yet proved themselves to be useful, must have their sufficient end in themselves, whatever it turn out to be.”[10] He insisted, nevertheless, “if a liberal education be good, it must necessarily be useful too.”[11]

But its usefulness was never to be elevated in such a way as to treat liberal arts learning as a mere means to a practical end. For if it is done that way, then the end might not be realized. Thus we must distinguish between, on one hand, the natural consequences of liberal education, and the necessary ends or goals of liberal education, on the other. Herein is what I call the paradox of liberal learning. Liberal learning may produce cultivated, civilized men and women endowed with the faculties of mind necessary to a free society. It may form people capable of continuing to educate themselves, people endowed with the necessary intellectual frameworks, curiosity, and methods to pursue a life of learning. These are normal consequences of a liberal education. But they are consequences, not ends or objects or explicitly sought goals. When they become the ends or objects of the educational effort, when the liberal arts are rendered servile (even if servile to noble or great goods such as these), the attainment of these consequences commonly fails. The liberality of the learning will have been lost. In short, the liberal arts must be their own end if one hopes to accrue the proper consequences to liberal learning. Make the consequences the objective, and they will not be realized.

A further point should be added. If the goal of liberal education is the discipline of the mind for its own sake and the consequent acquisition of a philosophical habit, Newman demanded that such an end could only be achieved by the proper inclusion of all branches of knowledge.  “The systematic omission of any one science from the catalogue prejudices the accuracy and completeness of our knowledge altogether, and that, in proportion to its importance,” he explained.[12] This vision of liberal learning had direct implication for the teaching of Christian theology. His argument was simple logic. If a university professes to teach universal knowledge and if theology is a branch of knowledge, then, he concluded, it is logically inconsistent to exclude Theology from the number of its studies.[13] Newman attacked head-on those who denied his minor premise, those who asserted “that Religion is not the subject-matter of a science.”[14] Such a view that relegated religious doctrine to the category of mere opinion, taste, or preference, Newman denounced as “a form of infidelity of the day”; and this was well before the sloppy scientisms of Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens arrived to catechize and evangelize with their theological naiveté. Newman’s point, although made with great care, was simple enough. Liberal education, to be worthy of the name, could not exclude Christian theology from the curriculum; for it is part of the circle of knowledge. To pretend otherwise invites the imperialistic invasion by other disciplines, despite their own incapacity to adjudicate theological matters. Thus the branches of knowledge are rightly proportioned only when all are admitted to the curriculum and properly adjusted to one another. When the curriculum reflects this ideal, the result for the student is a philosophic habit of mind.

But one might now suspiciously inquire of liberal learning, with its inclusion of theology, with its high aims of moral uplift, character formation, and even–as the Honor Code of my college promises–personal rising to “self-government,” what sort of “saint” does a liberal arts college honestly seek to manufacture? And it is at this point, that despite all our high praise for liberal learning, despite all our warm regard for the furnished and disciplined mind, and despite what Edmund Burke called our “sensibility of principle,” Newman insistently asserts that “liberal education makes not the Christian . . . but the gentleman.” “Knowledge is one thing,” he explains, “virtue is another; good sense is not conscience, refinement is not humility, nor is largeness and justness of view faith.” If liberal arts colleges impart knowledge, good sense, and refinement, they do not in their capacity of educational institutions cultivate virtue, conscience, humility, or faith. Newman expounds upon this point:  “It is well to be a gentleman, it is well to have a cultivated intellect, a delicate taste, a candid, equitable, dispassionate mind, a noble and courteous bearing in the conduct of life; –these are the connatural qualities of a large knowledge; they are the objects of a University . . . but still they are no guarantee for sanctity or even for conscientiousness, they may attach to the man of the world, to the profligate, to the heartless,–pleasant, alas, and attractive as he shows when decked out in them.”[15]

In fact, Newman goes on to explain, a true gentleman is indeed attractive when decked out in the ordered trappings of liberal learning, so much so in fact, that he seems “able to fulfill certain precepts of Christianity more readily and exactly than Christians themselves.” This is because “the world is content with setting right the surface of things; [while] the Church aims at regenerating the very depths of the heart.” When “taken by themselves,” Newman explains that the gentlemanly trappings of the liberally educated “do seem to be what they are not.”  That is, “they look like virtue at a distance.”[16]

Now I do not mean for a minute to demean the liberal arts by suggesting that their pursuit does not lead to the gates of heaven. The benefits of gentlemanly liberal learning are much in need today. Civility is the social lubrication that permits serious discourse of high ideals and pressing matters. When it is absent, discourse descends rapidly into the ill-mannered, boorish, and vulgar tirades that characterize the debauched vocabulary of certain talk-radio personalities–personalities who reveal by their ungentlemanly incontinence the fact that they have yet to enjoy their first meaningful encounter with liberal education. So liberal education can make a gentleman. It can temper and elevate the student and equip him to navigate with decorum the vicissitudes of life’s messiness. But how robust a capacity for self-government should it promise? Who is the self-governed man? If he exists, how did he get that way? For surely he is one who has tamed the passion and pride that lurks in the sinful heart of every man. Can liberal education, for all its high and fine qualities, boast self-government as among its fruits? Newman thinks not: “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 against those giants, the passion and pride of man.”[17] Human knowledge and human reason, however refined by the powers of the liberal arts they may be, remain keen and delicate instruments. Real self-government draws power ultimately from a sanctified soul. For this one must turn neither to the liberal arts college nor the U. S. Constitution, but only to the doors of the Church.

There is one final caution that I would address to the fans of liberal education who see in it the hope for some vaguely imagined thing called “well-roundedness.” Unhappily, many colleges urge upon students a sort of frenetic quest for unending busy-ness through membership in clubs, activities, extra-curriculars, sports, Greek life, and so on. I recently received a lengthy email message from a distraught parent of a college student on this point.  Here is part of it:

There are certainly many distractions that can cause students to fritter away the very few, precious hours, weeks, and semesters of their college years in a breathless pursuit of something called well-roundedness [and] lines on their résumés. But should not a Liberal Arts education produce sharp, discerning human beings, not well-rounded, socially-acceptable, servile kids who avoid open and spirited consideration of First Things. Students should not waste this remarkable time of their lives. There is no other time like college years, when undergrads can fully give themselves to the leisure of study while guided by wise and learned professors. There ought to be time to read great texts (even those outside of course loads), coffee to drink and spill on old pages, and paths to walk in long, leisured hours of conversation about ideas. Time to argue, think deeply, and learn to write and speak with precision and grace.

This parent had a point. And there is a further worry that he did not mention. The student who runs from class to meeting to meal to activity to class to activity with little time in between is in a perilously illiberal mode. If, like too many, that student moves between appointments immersed in his private technology of ear-buds & iPods, texting & tweeting, web-surfing & Face-booking, she will perfect the art of being anywhere but where she is, and will reveal a strange and slothful incapacity to be alone with herself or be still–a stillness which is the starting requirement for the exercise of contemplation. As the philosopher Roger Scruton once said to the person who would pursue leisure of the sort needed for liberal learning:  “Don’t just doing something: stand there!”[18] And so I conclude as I began. The real business of a liberal arts college is not to make well-rounded, job-trained, patriot citizens. It is not to save the world or make saints. Even less is it to be a four-year play-ground for overgrown adolescents frightened by adult obligations. It is the serious business of forming, disciplining, and furnishing the mind for its own sake and in response to the God-given image that human persons bear. The fruit of this enterprise is good, very good indeed. Even if that fruit is not the beatific vision, we ought not imperil it by servile attitudes or by the frenetic inactivity of the hyperextended resume builder.

Books on the people and topics in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.


1. Russell K. Nieli, From Christian Gentleman to Bewildered Seeker:  The Transformation of American Higher Education (Raleigh: John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, 2007), 6.

2. Frederick Rudolph, Curriculum:  A History of the American Undergraduate Course of Study Since 1636 (San Francisco: Jossey Bass Publishers, 1977), 66-67.

3. Jeremiah Day, “Report of the Faculty, Part I,” from “The Yale Report of 1828,” in Richard Hofstadter and Wilson Smith, eds., American Higher Education:  A Documentary History, Vol. 1 (Chicago:  University of Chicago Press, 1961), 278-284, passim.

4. Jaroslav Pelikan, The Idea of the University:  A Reexamination (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992), 9.

5. Quoted in ibid., 6.  See also A. Dwight Culler, The Imperial Intellect:  A Study of Cardinal Newman’s Educational Ideal (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1955); and James W. Sire, Habits of the Mind:  Intellectual Life as a Christian Calling (Downers Grove:  InterVarsity Press, 2000), 29-70.

6. John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University:  Defined and Illustrated In Nine Discourses Delivered to the Catholics of Dublin In Occasional Lectures and Essays Addressed to the Members of the Catholic University, ed. Martin J. Svaglic (Notre Dame:  University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), 115.

7. Ibid., 38.

8. Ibid., 76.

9. Ibid., 77.

10. Ibid., 80.

11. Ibid., 124.

12. Ibid., 39.

13. Ibid., 14-15.

14. Ibid., 290.

15. Ibid., 91.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. Roger Scruton, “Introduction,” in Josef Pieper, Leisure:  The Basis of Culture (South Bend, St. Augustine’s Press, 1998), xi.

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