The misery will have to become more sharply unbearable, the suffering personal and yet wide-spread, before people begin to run after a real teacher, seize him by the hem of his overcoat, and beg him to take charge of their children. Let us not say that then it will be too late. It may be too late for some of us…

Let us put before our inner eye five young men in the process of being educated: a teen-age Australian aborigine, a fifth-century Athenian youth studying with Hippias the Sophist, the same youth after he later had become a disciple of Socrates, a young Russian intellectual in the first half of the nineteenth century, and his great-great-grandson, in our century. What in each case is happening, and why? The Australian boy is being initiated into manhood by instruction in all that grown men know about the higher forces or powers or beings that either cause or govern birth and death, growth and decay, fertility and barrenness. This knowledge makes him a full-fledged member of his society, the order of which consists in myth, symbol, ritual, and lore. The Greeks, in the course of two astonishing centuries, “discovered the mind,” opening the possibility of truth that transcended the traditions of society. It immediately gave rise to two approaches: that of “enlightened” Hippias who saw the mind as an instrument for the pursuit of private utilitarian ends of power and wealth, and that of Socrates who “desired knowledge” from a sense of wonder, thinking himself ignorant and philosophizing in order to escape from ignorance, and not for any utilitarian end. (This sentence is practically a copy of Aristotle’s words in 982b, 11–27.) Francis Bacon turned his back on this “free science” by taking from Renaissance “white magic” the objective of power and declaring it the chief end of knowledge; Thomas Hobbes sought so to define his terms that he could manipulate men into a society centered on power; and less than three hundred years later the Russian intellectual pursued this very aim by means of studying Fourier, Hegel, Proudhon, Bakunin, and Marx. The emphasis now was no longer on understanding the world but on changing it, and this teleology of education was not confined to revolutionary ideologies but characterized the approaches to natural science, psychology, and sociology. The product of this kind of education is the modern self, characteristically split into self-pity and self-deification or magnification. The sequel to these three hundred years is another phase of education exemplified at present primarily by the modern totalitarian regimes but lagging yet in the major societies of “democracy and capitalism,” an education designed to produce docile instruments useful to the totalitarian rulers alone. It may be that these five types exhaust the possibilities of educational variety, in the same way in which the Christian heresies of the first four centuries of our era have set patterns that recur again and again in later periods.

The picture still includes another feature, which, born out of the concept of “free science” (Aristotle, Ibid., 982b 27), has been embodied in an enduring type of institution, the Western-type universities. Born at the height of medieval Latin Christian culture, they were and are unique in human experience, functioning as centers of learning that were in large degree free from requirements of utility, either private or collective. Such institutions could occur because at the time of their founding there were available large bodies of knowledge not relative to, or dependent on, any given political society, its power and needs: Greek science in the form of philosophy, Roman law, and the doctrina Christiana. Moreover, there existed an equally non-relative set of “tools of learning” defined, in the medieval syllabus, as grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric. At the universities, young men learned “the structure of language—a language, and hence of language itself—what it was, how it was put together and how it worked. Secondly, he learned how to use language: how to define his terms and make accurate statements; how to construct an argument and how to detect fallacies in argument (his own argument and other people’s). “Dialectic, that is to say, embraced Logic and Disputation” (Dorothy Sayers, “The Lost Tools of Learning”). All tools, and the handling of tools, were useful. The utility of the medieval trivium had probably the widest spread of any hitherto known human skill, a skill useful to knowledge which in itself was free from utilitarian limitations.

The new departure linked to the names of Bacon, Descartes, and Hobbes brought forth also its own mental tool, “analysis,” the taking apart and putting together again of reality in one’s own mind. It was conceived in close connection with mathematics, which in turn appeared no longer as the paradigm of eternal verities but rather as a powerful instrument useful to dominate nature. Henceforward, human reason lost its character of the “discovery of the mind” by the great Greek philosophers and came to be conceived as a practical and useful faculty, an instrument of human power. Bacon and Descartes envisaged the conquest of nature as man’s “chief and great end,” the practical justification of all endeavors of theory. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle looked on reality in wonderment, and their wondering included the very reason by which man could participate in divine transcendence. Descartes, in order to launch his new enterprise, first “closed” his mind in systemic and absolute doubt. That, in turn, entailed a systemic suspicion of “prejudices,” i.e., anything not having been produced by the instrument of reason in the form of “clear and simple ideas.” From there arose a new notion of “free science,” or liberty defined as “stripping away” whatever had grown or had been known or believed on past authority, replacing it with what one had made oneself. From this beginning, in turn, came the later growth of positivism, the dictatorship of a single method, as a quantitative approach of the physical sciences was declared the sole permissible key to all kinds of knowledge. Hence this exclusivity of one method governed relevance, the object, truth, and even reality itself. It bred the fact-value dichotomy and the exclusion of value from the realm of knowledge, entailing the replacement of philosophy by the supposedly positive science of sociology.

These developments occurred within the institutions of learning, which, since the Middle Ages, had been dedicated to “free science” in Aristotle’s sense, “which alone exists for its own sake.” The instrumental view of reason, however, imposed on science an inescapable utilitarian goal, the utility being conceived as either private or social, either as pragmatism or as the revolutionary remaking of reality. Greek and Christian philosophy were at the same time rejected as “uncertain sciences,” and philosophers planted the claim of certainty as their distinctive banner, culminating in Hegel’s Phenomenology of the Mind. The quest for certainty entailed the removal of the doctrina Christiana and exclusive reliance on the positive sciences or pseudo-sciences. Education began to lose its core of unity, as universality was replaced with multifariousness. The ideal of a liberal education lived on, but in the curiously meaningless version of a wide collection of as many specialized disciplines as possible. Where philosophy could not be replaced by sociology, it gave way to the history of a subject. Thus, there are taught the history of ideas, the history of culture, the history of literature, the history of art or music. The more smatterings of such information, the broader and better an education was supposed to be. This wine-tasting approach entailed a necessary neglect of any widely applicable tools of learning, so that the dropping of the medieval trivium was followed by the decline of, the study of language, of logic, and finally even of reading and writing. In the midst of highly efficient technology and social organization, one can thus observe a rapidly increasing barbarism. As one contemporary teacher reported:

The students are woefully undereducated, and before I can discuss philosophical theories I usually have to explain the meanings of basic English words. The number of students who have some idea of what the Incarnation is remains at the normal level of approximately one per class (i.e., one out of fifty). The number of students who find it incredible that anyone could ever have believed the utterly ridiculous ideas put forth by Plato and Aristotle seems higher.

Entire chunks of knowledge drop into oblivion. People of today cannot communicate anymore with the people even of the previous generation. Allusions are no longer understood. Language shrinks in scope and power of differentiation. Still, the modern barbarian is no savage since he is not privileged to the savage’s education in myths, ritual, skills, and lore. He is more dangerous than the savage because of his well-nigh unlimited gullibility which puts him at the disposal of any charismatic Anti-Christ. Hence the misery of education redounds to the advantage of the demagogue, the feasibility of terroristic enterprise, the power of mobs, and the disposition for dictatorship.

In that kind of situation, one might even wish for a return to a previous age, one without colleges, without high schools, one in which education at a mother’s knee and by a father’s example sufficed for an ordered human life, in which the feats of heroes and the competence of master craftsmen served as measures of excellence, and decency came with proverbs. No such return is possible or even desirable. From the level of complex technology, an all-engulfing bureaucratization, specialization of all jobs, computerization replacing human labor, there is no falling back on earlier versions of self-sufficiency. Since the education we have pushed millions into barbarism, and since barbarism no longer possesses any redeeming primitive order for us, we cannot evade the task of re-winning what it was that made meaningful education possible.

A cat learns, a bird learns, a wolf learns. Is human education, then, essentially nothing more than what occurs between animals? An animal is prodded into imitation, but instinct supports the learning process. Instinct holds together the complex societies of ants or bees. Are we to infer that human order, too, is basically instinctual? The question should be raised, since it comes close to the hidden premise of anarchism, and, in our time, libertarianism. Many sociologists have taken to establish animal models for human education. Men, too, learn to some extent by imitation. Still beyond this, there extend the vast reaches of education dominated by human self-reflective consciousness. Man is aware of himself as a learner as well as a teacher, and most learning is the subject of disciplines articulated in language and communicated by concepts as well as by example. Human consciousness not only orders that which is to be taught, it also overflows the formulae of discipline and points beyond it, and beyond the teacher, by virtue of its capacity for infinity. Thus the work of civilization is an artifact not merely of things but also of human beings. “Man is made” is the phrase used by Werner Jaeger (Paideia xxxiii).

This phrase may be confused with the saying of Karl Marx, “man makes himself,” meaning emphatically that man is nobody’s creature but the “creator” of his own life. The difference between Jaeger and Marx is a watershed of worldviews. Jaeger’s central concept, paideia, is not so much a “making” but a bringing out of a given essence, out of the potentiality into actuality. The Greeks looked on education as a process of “becoming what you are.” The Latin world educare is akin to ducere, thus carrying the notion of “leading out.” Marx, by contrast, saw human history as a process of “coming-to-be,” an emancipation from non-being, the emancipation conceived as man’s own enterprise, unaided, uninspired, and unguided.

A third view implying “making” is that of Giambattista Vico: “In the night of thick darkness enveloping the earliest antiquities…there shines the eternal and never failing light of a truth beyond all question: that the world of civil society has certainly been made by men, and that its principles are therefore to be found within the modifications of our human mind.” (The New Science, #331) Vico obviously uses “making” not in the sense of “producing,” like “making a clock,” but rather in the sense of “emerging in the stream of human actions,” using the latter term with Aristotle’s meaning of “acting” as contrasted to “making” (Nicomachean Ethics VI, 4). If history is the “making” of men in that it consists of “the modifications of the human mind,” education is properly concerned with this latter subject. That places Vico on the opposite side from Marx who denies that consciousness has a history (The German Ideology, “Feuerbach”). If education is the bringing out of something that is already given, then Marx cannot see anything like human nature, order, or cosmos as given. The place of education is taken by revolution, the “changing of the world.” Nor can Marx see anything like Heraclitus’s koinos, that which people have in common: “To those who are awake, there is one ordered universe common (to all), whereas in sleep each man turns away (from this world) to one of his own.” (Diels-­Kranz, fr. 89) Again, if the realm of the common is not yet, but is merely a coming-to-be, there could be no subject of education. Aristotle made it clear that men have in common a “desire to know” which in turn he traces back to the experiences of “seeing” the cosmos as a whole. This “seeing,” this sense of wonder without any admixture of utilitarian cupidity, is the core of a freedom predicated of science as well as of man. Here is the concept of liberal education, the education of free men in the setting of a “free science,” subject to nobody and to no passion. Without a “free science” there can be no liberal education, as without the “desire to know,” which is a common trait of all men, there can be no koinos, no reality experienced as essentially common, something that it would be the task of education to “bring out.”

These considerations should have thrown sufficient light on Werner Jaeger’s phrase, “man is made,” to ban every confusion with Marx’s superficially similar utterance. It is precisely the experience of a reality common to all men, an experience had in the process of “discovering the mind,” which accounts for such concepts as paideia and “free science.” Today, Aristotle’s language in the first chapter of the Metaphysics is either forgotten or has moved beyond the scope of common understanding. We have inherited the institutions of liberal education but cast away its premises and its spirit. Under the circumstances, the institutions will operate but not to the end of freedom, either of science or of man. Their effect will be disorder rather than order, asphalt barbarism rather than culture, dissociation rather than community. Still, as the name of democracy keeps before us an ideal which men will, again and again, try to realize, the name of liberal education will also maintain some sense of obligation that will refuse to die. Given the history of the last three hundred years of Western civilization, are there still any possibilities of regaining an education that deserves the predicate “free?” Putting it differently, one may assert that regardless of college catalogs and curricula, a school of liberal education, as soon as it opens its doors, makes to the student an implicit promise, even though neither students nor teachers may be explicitly conscious of it. Still, the promise is grasped by the student retrospectively, in his maturity, when he tries to sum up what his education has given to him. He may wonder what help his education has been in his endeavor to recognize the possibilities of life, along with the requirements for making good use of them. He will rummage through the sediments of his education, looking for tools to help him discern the character of the time in which he lives. Most often, though, mature alumni will ask what visions their college has opened for them regarding the meaning of the whole. Any thinking person needs purpose and insight. If his mind remains unprepared to cope with such questions, it has simply failed him.

This inquiry we have just conducted demonstrates that humans cannot engage in any project, least of all education, without beliefs that cannot be proved right or wrong. All the same, they can be discussed and criticized, and there is a discernible distinction between beliefs rational and beliefs irrational. Prominent scientists have written histories of science showing that all great advances of sciences have relied on beliefs and would not have occurred without beliefs. Whatever one thinks about positivism and quantitative methods, then, its categorical exclusion of beliefs from critical examination is not only untenable but demonstrably most harmful. Educators who are resolved to protect students from this harm, therefore, must make room in the curriculum for courses dealing seriously and critically with beliefs. One need not go to the opposite extreme of banning any courses using the empirical approach, and even courses dealing with human problems through quantitative methods. Quantitative research will always have its usefulness. Its error lies in the tyranny with which it makes that method into the sole criterion of relevance. That kind of criterion of relevance can in no way be empirically established: it, too, is a belief that cannot be falsified, thus does not belong to science, and as a belief is irrational in that it claims scientific rank in an area where no positive science applies. Thus, the exclusion of beliefs from the liberal arts curriculum is a part of positivism which should be vigorously resisted by deans of arts and letters. As beliefs are once again carefully and systematically examined in education, it becomes useful to distinguish between beliefs that are hypotheses and other beliefs beyond proof or refutation. These latter, “transcendent beliefs,” are the really important ones. They transcend man’s subjectivity, both personal and collective; they also transcend nature and history. They regard the whole of which we acknowledge ourselves to be a part. Assuming that we are part of a whole is an integral part of our thinking. Witness, for example, the recurring attempt of the great physicists of our time to sketch a portrait of the universe as a whole; witness also the acknowledged need of astronomers for a concept of that within which the ultimate processes of this universe of galaxies occur. The whole, then, has no context: there is no place beyond on which we could stand, even in imagination, to look on the whole as if it were an object. Our wonderment about the whole, therefore, can have no end. The whole has inescapably the character of a mystery, and our place in it likewise must remain mysterious. Questions concerning it cannot be answered by way of experiment, nor can they be silenced by any compelling proof. If there were such proof our questioning would be stopped once and for all; we would be enclosed by a confining wall of “fact” imprisoning us beyond endurance.

Against this latter possibility, “You must submit because twice two…that’s mathematics. Just you try to find an objection,” Dostoevsky rebelled in the name of human freedom. His rebellion took an indeterminate, even dangerous, form: “I agree that twice-two-is-four is a very fine thing; but, after all, twice-two-are-five is rather nice, too.” Let us not forget that Dostoevsky puts these words in the mouth of the “underground man,” the man produced as a result of modernity, with its claim to “the tower of Babel,” “the Crystal Palace,” and “the Man-God.” Dostoevsky’s own work, however, makes clear that he in no way asserted that any belief would suffice if it only averted the prison of sheer fact. We are creatures endowed with reason. The inescapability of beliefs in our thinking and action does not require the silencing of the intellect. Tertullian’s credo quia absurdum (I believe because it is unreasonable) was superseded by Augustine’s credo ut intelligam (I believe that I may understand). Beliefs must not be confused with contempt for experience. Arguments about beliefs testify to the seriousness of the believer, and to the compatibility of beliefs with rational critique, always bearing in mind that there are also those kinds of critique which in themselves root in irrational beliefs. Liberal education, then, must focus its main efforts on thinking about and examining our beliefs, studying them not as if they were alien objects, but rather from within, the beliefs as well as their study being seen as an integral part of the “serious play” of life in which we are involved.

That brings us to a second requirement of re-founding liberal education in our day and age. This one has to do with the historical past, both in the narrow sense of “handing down the tradition,” and in the wider sense of history as the symbolic form of our consciousness. When “tradition” is mentioned, the modern mind associates the term with past “quaintness,” with primitive mentalities, characters, and ideas, with crudity in manner and feeling. This is the kind of prejudice generated by The Whig Concept of History, (the title of a seminal book by Herbert Butterfield), the view that history resembles an escalator, moving steadily upwards, so that its apex is identical with the present for which all the past has been nothing but an unavoidable preparation. The Whig concept of history is only one variety of the “stopping or freezing” of history (Eric Voegelin, From Enlightenment to Revolution, 84) which means the fallacious establishment, in history, of a point or age to which absolute validity is attributed. This became the hallmark not only of Marx’s view of history, but also of Auguste Comte’s, and it is this latter version that dominates our thinking about history and engenders the prejudices characteristic of it. Here we have an example of a critique based on irrational beliefs. Thus deans of arts and letters must be able to find teachers of history who are aware that history has meant not only growth, but also, at times, decline, decay, and perversion, so that “later” does not automatically mean “higher.”

Life, in a sense, is indeed a movement toward what is new, but no innovation occurs in empty space. A dimension of our environment is the past, the public memory, the tradition. All newness is a renewal. Human beings are members of one another, not merely in the plane of the present (roughly what we mean by the useless cliché of “humanity”) but also in the dimension of past and future. Every new religion has deep roots in an older one which are not only modified but also preserved in their newness. Every scientific progress relies on work already done and appropriated. Every moral action is taken in the presence not merely of contemporaries, but also of our fathers and our descendants. He who believes he can cut himself off from tradition is not a free man but rather a naked and isolated “self,” drifting in icy solitude, debarred from any signposts of direction or hints of possibilities. The New Yorker once published the cartoon of a clock which, instead of numbers, only had twelve spots, each saying “NOW!” Rebellious movements of our age have embraced a critique based on irrational belief, a critique elevating that “NOW!” to a substitute for history. As they thought to destroy the past, they also destroyed the future, ending up in nihilism.

Thinking, as many eminent philosophers have pointed out, is largely memory. No memory is purely subjective and individual. What is more, tradition is a public memory, replete with signs and symbols, a memory that undergirds a common culture and political order. Therefore, the passing on of tradition is not an exercise in nostalgia but a solemn obligation of parents, schools, colleges and universities, churches, governments, and judges. As in the case of beliefs, tradition must be transmitted not blindly but critically, being imperceptibly changed in the process of examination. This must not be perverted in an invidious, rebellious, and hostile undertaking. Rather, the critical task must be performed in the spirit of ancient Roman pietas, reverently, “as one approaches the wounds of a father,” to use Burke’s words. Nor must that “piety” be confused with bigotry. Rather it manifests respect, love, and loyalty for everything that bears a human face, for all human questing for the ground, the end, and the way.

This brings us to a third requirement of liberal education regained, and this one most controversial. It concerns the place of Christianity in liberal studies. In a sense, the transmission of the tradition cannot avoid dealing with Christianity. Beyond that, however, there must be courses available that teach Christianity not merely in the context of literature, art, politics and past culture, but in its own right. In other words, such courses must embrace Christianity in its fullness and study it “from within.” Such studies must embrace the body of Scripture, the proclamation of the Gospel, dogma as well as kerygma, the developing of the liturgy and of theology, the errant movements of heresy, and constructive ones of monasticism, the mystics, and the doctors of the Church, its institutions of moral discipline and its enterprise of mission.

One can readily hear the objections: “Why just Christianity? Why not religion in general, if at all?” “All right, if Christianity is to figure in the curriculum, equal time must be given to other religions, including atheism.” “Since Christianity claims to be the true religion, how can you avoid dogmatic indoctrination?” “No, better risk loss of truth than chance of error” (this latter being William James’s description of the skeptic’s position). To which one may respond as follows: a) “religion” as such is no subject matter; at most it is a branch of psychology which, however, has had great difficulty in grasping what religion is; b) as for comparative religion, it is a legitimate subject, and an important even though very difficult one. It may well be added to Christian studies, but it will not do as a substitute because Christianity has been the source and center of our culture, the ultimate truth that has shaped our past and is still shaping our present, regardless of what attitude to it particular persons may have. We cannot realistically step out of this truth into “another one,” we cannot in truth become Hindus or Buddhists. Western civilization came into existence through the unifying impulse of Latin Christianity, and no other religion has played a similar role among us. The historical metamorphoses of our culture can be understood only in their relation to their Christian origins, even where these metamorphoses have emerged as bitter enemies of Christianity. The Hegelian and Marxian systems are nothing if not perverted schemes of the Christian salvation. Finally, as for the skeptic’s option, “better risk loss of truth than chance of error,” one can put against it the believer’s option, “better risk chance of error than loss of truth,” but in any case this is a decision which cannot be made in the context of class assignments, tests, and grades, but only in the solitude of each person’s heart.

Another objection might point to the traditionally secular concept of the liberal arts college. This may well be granted, but in spite of this admitted secularism, Christian studies have formed, up to the end of the last century, not only an integral part but the crowning part of liberal education. The objection, then, will, in fact, come from contemporary hostility to Christianity, a hostility which is effective also against liberal education as a concept. All the same, it is a fact that students entering a liberal arts college today come with a different intent than those seeking a Bible college. In some cases, this intent is interpreted by the faculty as a kind of general taboo of even the word “God,” which, if mentioned by someone in conversation within the college, may lead to an abrupt change of subject or of the conversation itself.

Thus, the introduction of Christian studies into the liberal arts curriculum requires a most careful effort of justification. It must be vigorously defended against the fallacious view that sees transcendent beliefs as a denial of thinking. That defense can hardly be successful until the Cartesian concept of reason itself can be shown false. Fortunately, there is much first-class contemporary philosophy that will support such a demonstration. Even then, however, there remains the limitation that the character of liberal education prohibits the offering of Christian studies with a proselytizing intent. One may ask, however, whether that is a limitation of liberal studies or does not really belong to all studies proceeding by means of lectures, recitations, tests, and grades. Some time ago, the dean of one of the foremost Anglican seminaries addressed a parish meeting at my church. Our director of religious education rather heatedly assailed the dean’s talk with the demand that religious education should have as its subject “experience.” The dean, with great firmness, replied: “Life, indeed, consists largely of experience, but the subject of education is tradition.”

Let us say, then, that Christian studies in the framework of liberal education are part of the handing down of tradition. Our entire culture with all its works of art and artifacts bears so much testimony to the Christian religion that without knowledge of what Christianity is about it can never be understood. Beyond this, however, there is another reason for Christian studies; one may also classify it among the utilitarian reasons. Ours is a culture of life in tension. Between time and eternity, nature and transcendence, the world and heaven, the sacred and the profane there are experiential tensions which cannot and should not be resolved. They are the hallmarks of our civilization. Our time is fortunate in the sense that a number of great scholars have brilliantly understood these tensions and have furnished us with a vocabulary for the philosophical articulation of the attendant problems. One who is not even aware of the problem easily becomes the prey of demagogic leaders who collapse the tension into a fallacious identity of God and man, salvation and politics, religion and revolution. Hence the multitude of movements in our time which enlist mass support by holding out the promise of a heaven on earth, a perfect social harmony, an identity of political power and authority. No positivist can grasp the nature of these movements and their totalitarian regimes since he has barred his mind from understanding transcendent beliefs in general, and the Christian religion in particular. Likewise, the student shaped by a liberal education that knows nothing of Christianity, faith, mysticism, and “words adequate to God” (St. Basil’s definition of theology), will remain unable to grasp the nature of our time and its political pitfalls.

As one looks at the curricula of our colleges and universities, and the patterns of thinking of our educational leaders, one realizes that the kinds of changes proposed on these pages are not easy to come by. Even the skeptical reader, however, cannot help grudgingly admitting that all three, or even one of them, would go far to restore to liberal education the core of meaning which the cafeteria-type curriculum is lacking. There is also the evidence of small colleges who have boldly set out to devise their own education around a core concept, be it Greek philosophy, or Christian religion, or the great books—all three, incidentally, parts of the grand tradition which educators have a sacred duty to pass on. There is also the evidence of the recent attempt to restore some modicum of liberal education at Harvard College. These are manifestations of a “great refusal,” if one may dare to baptize a concept of unholy intent, a refusal to put up any longer with the muddle that today passes for education in so many institutions. In all probability, the misery will have to become more sharply unbearable, the suffering personal and yet wide-spread before people begin to run after a real teacher, seize him by the hem of his overcoat, and beg him to take charge of their children. Let us not say that then it will be too late. It may be too late for some of us. But Augustine, finishing the City of God in a town besieged, and eventually conquered, by Vandals, was not completing his work “too late.” Nor was his master, Jesus of Nazareth, abandoned by his disciples and rejected by his compatriots, crucified “too late.” Our civilization has lived in the knowledge that “the future is open, and it is God’s.” There is no “too late.”

Reprinted with the gracious permission from the Intercollegiate Review (Fall/Winter 1982). 

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