Editor’s Note: This essay was originally given as a talk to participants in Wyoming Catholic College’s PEAK camp.
I hope you all enjoyed your summer camp at Wyoming Catholic College, what we call PEAK (Powerful Experience of Adventure and Knowledge): stimulating classes on dialectic, astronomy, theology, humanities, and philosophy; wonderful outdoor adventures repelling and horseback riding; Catholic Olympic games, adoration, and liturgy; good food and fellowship. A peak experience, in the general sense, is a “moment accompanied by a euphoric mental state often achieved by self-actualizing individuals.” Well, I am not sure who these self-actualizing individuals are exactly, but in any event, peak experiences are intense, and usually quite rare. But what if I told you that you could have a peak experience that lasted four straight years? Of course, you couldn’t survive that! But a WCC education is, in a sense, Peak writ large, and I’d like to talk to you about why I think four years at WCC would be good choice for you if you enjoyed Peak.
“I have a degree in liberal arts—do you want fries with that?”
“I attended a liberal arts college. I graduated with a Bachelor of Unemployment degree.”
“Liberal arts major: will think for food.”
The implied message in these jokes is that the purpose of education, including liberal education, is, whatever else it might offer you, to get a well-paying and secure job. Education as job training. How many of you think this is more or less the truth? Be honest now, and don’t just answer how you think you should answer. There’s good reason that people think this way, especially nowadays, about college education. If you spend money on something, a tool, the tool should work and be worth the investment. College is the place where young, dependent adults become older, independent adults, and independent means, among other things, the ability to make a living and raise a family, and this takes a job. Lastly, college is the only formal, official, and universal rite of passage our culture possesses for becoming a self-sufficient and productive member of society and builder of community—a good American. And this requires, or at least is much more attainable, with a well-paying and stable career.
I think all Americans are in agreement, for various reasons, but specifically economic reasons, that everyone benefits from a college education and therefore should go if he can. All Americans are not in agreement, of course, that everyone benefits from a liberal education, and there is not much agreement about what a liberal education even is. And just about no one in America—well, except for a very small percentage of Enlightened souls!—believes that everyone would benefit from a Wyoming Catholic College liberal education. I’d first like to enlighten all Americans why a liberal education is necessary for everyone, particularly in today’s culture, and then the harder sell: that a WCC liberal education, or something much like it, would be best for everyone. If I am correct, then we will need to have thousands of WCC’s all throughout America. How we shall accomplish that will be the topic of next year’s talk, but perhaps it will already have been accomplished by then! Miracles can happen.
Why is a liberal education necessary for everyone today? You have all heard the standard arguments—the liberal arts teach you how to learn, think, and communicate effectively so that you can succeed in every career. They make you cultured and teach you that there is more to life than pleasure and money. They help you to get a sense of who you are as an American by teaching you the influential ideas, works of art, personages, and events of Western culture, inviting you to participate in the Great Conversation. Just being immersed in the Great Books expands your mind and heart and imagination, making you a better person, more informed, more cultured and cultivated.
These are all great truths about and persuasive arguments for liberal education, but they are not always convincing to everyone. Can’t I get all that culture and those skills on my own with a private reading plan, perhaps along with others in a book club, or on the internet for free? Can’t I spend much less money with an online great books program? I’ve already studied all this on the high-school level in my homeschool—and my mom was really smart—or at my trivium/classical school. Why repeat it? I’ll get all this later in my life, will I not, when I have the time—right now, I need to get job training for a career.
The short answer to all these objections is—no, you really can’t and you really won’t. And the short reason for this short answer is that the liberal arts are a complex craft. No one would trust a doctor who educated himself online or in a “medicine reading club.” To learn a craft, one needs a guild, a community devoted to excellence in the craft, with masters and apprentices and tools. In the case of education, we have a curriculum set by a tradition, of which the masters are the custodians and master craftsmen. Education is a form of cooperative inquiry, and so it can’t be done on one’s own, and it takes more than an informal book club. There’s needs to be an institution that supports and governs and protects the community. Also, to gain a liberal education that forms one’s body, mind, imagination, and spirit takes many years, certainly more than four years of high school, and actually, more than four years of college. But that is all we have, and if the education is done right, it enables the student to go on to complete his education on his own because it renders him an independent inquirer and learner, always, of course, with Christ as the main teacher.
But all of this is common fare. I’d like now to describe liberal education in another way not so common. It’s a different and, I think, more fundamental reason than all the others, though it involves and builds upon the other reasons. C.S. Lewis in his great Abolition of Man exposes the poison of relativistic and scientistic education, where truth is subjective and where nothing exists except mindless matter in motion, and where education aims at power over the meaningless mass under nothing but the human will. Lewis says that this education produces “men without chests,” meaning, I think, men with no hearts. But then he says this: “The heart never takes the place of the head: but it can, and should, obey it.” Well, the heart should obey the head when the heart is behaving irrationally, when it is caught up in some sort of sentimentalism, but I think it’s better to say, ultimately, that the head must obey the heart. Why? Because the heart is the core of our being, as Dietrich von Hildebrand put it: “the most tender, the most inner, the most secret center in man.” It is where God comes to meet us, and it is the choices that come out of our heart, not out of our head, for which we shall be judged.
Liberal education, according to Blessed Cardinal Newman, is primarily formation of the mind enabling it to seek, know, and contemplate truth, which is the good of the intellect and which prepares us to know fully and love fully the One who is the truth. But I do not think education of the mind is sufficient. Just as a specialist education in one field or skill should not come before a generalist and integrative education in the principles and mindset of all fields, education of the mind alone or as foremost is imbalanced, and can lead to extreme deformations in the soul, such as hyper intellectualism, an inability to act decisively, and a lack of emotional intelligence and integration. In addition to the mind, there must also be an education of the body in endurance and long-suffering, the imagination in beauty, and the will in the good. All this is to say that a proper education is an education of the whole person, but the person is neither his intellect, his will, his imagination, his memory, nor his body. He is, rather, his heart. And the heart is what WCC educates best.
Why is the heart so important? In a word, God. God makes His presence known in our hearts, and we see God with our heart, not our eyes, and not even our intellects. But the synthesis of all our powers at the very core of our being. The heart is supernaturally educated by grace, the sacraments, the life of Christian charity, and the teachings of the Catholic Church, but the heart needs a robust natural education in order for the supernatural formation to take root and bear fruit. How can the heart be educated? Only by a “curriculum of the heart,” one that forms and perfects all our powers in different disciplines: humanities, the moral imagination; the fine arts, the aesthetic sense; the outdoors, the will, the senses, and our character; math and science, our powers of observation and interpretation; philosophy, our critical and questioning powers, our dialectical mind; and theology, our contemplative essence.
But many liberal arts colleges have all these components, and teach them very well, but they tend to go to two extremes: They either have specialists in each discipline, and they and the disciplines they teach remain aloof and even hostile to each other; or they have theologians, humanists, or philosophers teaching all the disciplines, and so the distinctiveness of each discipline is underplayed, and one actually gets an education in only one uber-discipline, with the other disciplines stretched on its Procrustean bed.
And the heart is not just educated by a curriculum, even one that forms more than the intellect. Although WCC’s outdoor curriculum feeds the heart viscerally with hands-on wisdom, and emboldens and encourages the heart, it is the community life here, ordered by and toward the true, the good, and the beautiful, with myriad small, intimate, personal, heart-to-heart—not screen-to-screen—interactions, and suffused with natural beauty and humour that truly nourishes the heart and gives it a place to expand. Joy is the language of the heart, and joy means being happy to be in each other’s presence. God is happy to dwell in our hearts, and because we know and feel this, we are happy to dwell with each other. The best curriculum would be nothing in the absence of joy, and we have all the ingredients here at WCC for joy.
But even more important than all this, the heart is the seat of action. It’s the source and root of not only our goals and dreams and loves, but the innumerable decisions of a lifetime that get us these. In short, the heart is the place of prudence, knowing the good deed or word to do or say right here and right now, and doing or saying it. No human being can teach another prudence, but she can serve as a model to imitate, and great literature can have a wonderful modeling effect. Odysseus, Dante, Don Quixote, Pip, and Huck Finn can instruct us in prudence—or the lack of it! A well-ordered community can also provide safe but challenging opportunities for the development of this virtue.
Prudence is the virtue par excellence that enables one to become an independent practical reasoner, which enables one to be the master of his own decisions and character development, dependent ultimately on God alone in supernatural prudence and counsel, along with the right and the good that he can accurately discern in creation and situations and people. Prudence produces leaders that can know what to do in the moment in new, uncharted territory. Needless to say, our outdoor program provides these prudential opportunities in spades, but your entire four years here in a variety of situations and contexts will be a training ground of prudence. And prudence is all about how to act in the face of evil, of danger, without succumbing to fear, acting out of it, and avoiding that counterfeit of prudence called cunning in which we manipulate the situation and others to get what we want, not what is good for us and others. Listen to Dr. Glenn Arbery, our President:
Because the things that most deepen us and rouse us are dangerous. The attempt to abolish all dangers turns us into what C.S. Lewis calls ‘men without chests.’ An appetite for the real good means being willing to face danger, and the whole point of the liberty we celebrate is that we learn to handle danger, to face it responsibly, with care and virtue. How many things in our culture, from contraception to gun control, stem from the fear that liberty will lead to our ruin? What we need is an education in the powers and dangers that come with our full participation in being human. Our real powers need liberty as fire needs air.
I suggested before that a WCC education of the heart is particularly essential for our culture today. Why? To put it bluntly, our culture is becoming more and more godless, and thus, heartless. Our public life is more and more focused on money and pleasure and prestige. And the media and mainstream academia are becoming one big propaganda machine. Listen to Josef Pieper:
That the existential realm of man could be taken over by pseudo-realities whose fictitious nature threatens to become indiscernible is truly a depressing thought. And yet, the Platonic nightmare, I hold, possesses an alarming contemporary relevance. For the general public is being reduced to a state where people are not only unable to find out about the truth but also become unable even to search for the truth because they are satisfied with deception and trickery that have determined their convictions, satisfied with a fictitious reality created by design through the abuse of language.
“A fictitious reality created by design through the abuse of language.” That’s a definition of propaganda, which is the cultural indoctrination of a populous in lies. Usually lies come in the form of half-truths and unexamined myths that flatter us and keep us looking but never seeing, reading but never understanding, judging but never judging right, for never in the light of truth or goodness. The Christian sociologist Jacques Ellul put it this way:
To the extent that propaganda is based on current news, it cannot permit time for thought or reflection. A man caught up in the news must remain on the surface of the event; he is carried along in the current, and can at no time take a respite to judge and appreciate; he can never stop to reflect. There is never any awareness—of himself, of his condition, of his society—for the man who lives by current events. Such a man never stops to investigate any one point, any more than he will tie together a series of news events…Propaganda addresses itself to that man; like him, it can relate only to the most superficial aspect of a spectacular event, which alone can interest man and lead him to make a certain decision or adopt a certain attitude.
The formation of the intellect in truth, the imagination in beauty, the will in the good, and emotions in joy that WCC provides is an indispensable bulwark against the overwhelming seduction of propaganda, which molds our souls to make decisions and adopt attitudes that are not in line with God’s will, but the will of a ruling class that has only its own selfish interests in mind. In other words, propaganda, when not actively counteracted and unmasked, makes us slaves. Here’s a quote from a recent article by James Kalb, “For the Restoration of Reason and Reality.” His prescription for doing so points I think, if you read closely, to a little college in Lander, Wyoming:
What do we do in such a setting? How do we restore ourselves to reason and reality in a world that has turned human choice into a divine principle? We hope ultimately to do the same for our fellow citizens, but must start with ourselves. Since the problems go so deep we need to turn around the whole way of life into which almost all of us have been educated. One basic necessity is independence from an insane culture. Instead of going with the flow, turning on the tube, and keeping up with what people are talking about, we should drop pop culture, media addiction, and the sayings of pundits. Most of it’s illusion and distraction, junk food and opiates for the soul made even more unhealthy by its propagandistic and manipulative dimension. Instead of all that we need to attend to things that better connect us to the world and human life: real history, with people and events that don’t fit the mold of current fantasies; good literature—there’s some for every taste—to expand our imaginative grasp of persons, events, and ways of life; actual science, so we can know what it says and does not say; and music and other disinterested joys that focus and illuminate instead of deaden. No man is an island, and it’s hard to pull ourselves up by our bootstraps, so we also need to surround ourselves with living influences that pull in the right direction.
We need citizens of the Church and our country with big, God-sized hearts: compassionate, courageous, articulate, faithful, willing to embrace whatever crosses with which God gifts them, and willing to suffer for the poor and defenseless, the deluded and ignorant, the apathetic and despairing—to instruct them, hopefully, but perhaps to die for them if necessary. We need men and women with warrior-hearts. WCC’s education is practical and will enable you to succeed in a career. It provides an incomparable opportunity for growth in self-knowledge and virtue. It is a place where you can learn the art of joyful living. We are commanded to love others as we love ourselves, and loving ourselves meaning giving ourselves the greatest gifts we can, not money, prestige, or success, but God-loving hearts. Now, only God can give us such hearts, but we can cooperate with God in disposing ourselves to receive them and then developing them according to His grace.
WCC is small Catholic liberal arts college, and there are a good number of other ones that can give you a great education. But I know of no other college that aims all its educational artillery beyond body, mind, soul, and spirit—to the heart that encompasses them all. WCC is a heart guild, a heart-making guild, and I daresay we have produced some beautiful master craftsmen and women in our nine years.
Our world desperately needs heroes, but not Avengers. We need forgivers, lovers, healers, saints. Will you join us and become the warrior-hearted heroes of love God calls you to be?
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Editor’s note: The featured image is by Natalia_Kollegova from Pixabay.