The ends of higher education are the acquisition of wisdom and virtue and the serious pursuit of knowledge and truth. Reading the Great Books helps us to get to these ends. Informed by the wisdom, the beauty, the goodness, and the truth we encounter in Great Books, we can responsibly and humanely practice our vocation in life…
Today’s offering in our Timeless Essay series affords our readers the opportunity to join Michael Jordan as he considers how the Great Books promote the good, the true, and the beautiful, and thus man’s purpose in life. —W. Winston Elliott III, Publisher
Generally speaking, there are two major philosophies of education: an older model which addresses moral and spiritual concerns of the mind and heart of man, and a newer one which trains us to manipulate and control the material world for the good of the body. The older model prevailed in higher education from around 400 b.c. until the mid-nineteenth century, when it began to be replaced by the newer, utilitarian model. Since the 1960s, the utilitarian model has competed with a modern version of the older model, one that usually features either ideological or trivial studies.
The older model of education centers on the study of serious literature, essentially classical and Christian in content, and requires the acquisition of intellectual skills (critical reading, thinking, and writing skills) as a means to reach its moral and spiritual end: the acquisition of wisdom and virtue and the capability to pursue knowledge and truth seriously. The modern, utilitarian model cultivates the same skills to improve man’s physical estate. It generally applies these skills in service to professional and vocational interests in business, industry, and entertainment, in science, technology, and medicine. Both models intend to improve man’s estate, and both are worthy and important. Nevertheless, insofar as modern colleges and universities have narrowed their focus to vocational, technical, and professional training, they have yielded to the devil’s temptation. The devil challenged Jesus to turn stones into bread. Jesus’s reply (“Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God”—Matthew 4:4) indicates that man’s education should not concern merely his material well-being. Material well-being is not the chief or highest end of man; moral and spiritual development is more important.
The older model of education, designed to make us better and more complete human beings by tending to moral, spiritual, and epistemological realities, should not be abandoned or replaced by the newer model’s utilitarian aim of improving man’s physical estate. Indeed, we need the older model of education in order to orient modern utilitarian education properly.
The Means and Ends of Education
The opening of the Book of Proverbs urges the young to acquire intellectual skills so that they can “understand a proverb and a figure, the words of the wise and their riddles.” With critical reading and thinking skills, they will be able to “know wisdom and instruction, understand words of insight, and receive instruction in wise dealing, righteousness, justice and equity” (Proverbs 1:2, 6). Solomon correctly identifies the means and the aims of higher education: it is an intellectual means to an ethical and spiritual end. By grappling with the grammar, logic, diction, and rhetoric of texts, students develop intellectual skills that enable them to reach the aims of higher learning. These foundational means (acquiring critical intellectual skills) and ends (discerning spiritual, ethical, and epistemological realities) are readily addressed in reading and studying Great Books.
By Great Books I mean those works of literature generally recognized as having formed the Western world’s understanding of man’s nature and destiny. They are found in a variety of genres (sermon, dialogue, drama, epic, lyric, autobiography, essay, short story, and novel) and disciplines (biblical studies, theology, philosophy, ethics, history, and literature). Although I have mentioned specific academic disciplines, I should emphasize that Great Books are transdisciplinary: they help us to see the relationships between the disciplines—they help us to reflect upon the whole. And while these books have shaped Western man’s experience of religion, politics, morality, and other forms of cultural identity, they have a universality about them that makes them transcultural and transtemporal: although they are Western texts written at specific moments in time, they are not “foreign” texts to readers from other cultures.
In order to get at the wisdom and truth these books contain, one needs skills. One needs the ability to read and write—to understand precisely and use skillfully words and sentences. In “The Lost Tools of Learning,” Dorothy Sayers tells us that the medieval trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) supplied the medieval student with these tools of learning. However the student obtains these skills—in home school, in conventional schools, in college; in language and literature classes; in thoughtful reading and workouts with the dictionary, the syllogism, and a grammar book—he will need them to understand the Great Books and to give an intelligent account of what he has read. And we must emphasize that carefully studying the Great Books is the best way to exercise and develop intellectual skill.
With any text one can attend to the nuances of words, the logic of sentences, the relation of the parts to the whole. One can analyze and synthesize the ideas in a newspaper article or editorial. But one finds greater sophistication and complexity, deeper mysteries and more refined beauties in the Great Books. Reading them, the student can more readily understand the literary conventions of metaphor, parable, allegory, and riddle (Solomon again). He can comprehend the utterances of God’s prophets (“I spoke to the prophets; it was I who multiplied visions, and through the prophets gave parables”—Hosea 10:1). He will have the ears to hear the parabolic teaching of Jesus. If the student is attentive in his study of great literature, he can be a Timothy, “rightly dividing the word of truth” (II Timothy 2:15).
Whether one seeks the truth in sacred or secular writings, he must have literary training; he must have skill. Marion Montgomery puts it this way in Liberal Arts and Community: “The truth of things, which must be our concern always, is revealed through words rightly used and rightly taken. That revelation is the art of all liberal arts.” If one aspires to get at the truth of any academic discipline, he had better have critical reading and writing skills. I might add that the same is true of professional and technical disciplines: the student of law, medicine, divinity, computer science, business, or aeronautics will have to have some mastery of the use of language to succeed in his chosen field.
Augustine can be our guide in this discussion of the means and ends of education. Let us look to his Confessions, one of the greatest of Great Books and probably the most famous autobiography of all time. In his boyhood Augustine was forced to study rhetoric and literature so that he would be provided “with a reputation among men and with deceitful riches”—the unworthy ends coveted by worldly men throughout the ages. Like many a schoolboy, he was reluctant to learn and occasionally inattentive in his studies. But as he advanced in his schooling, he grew to love reading, and he also began to excel in memorizing and declaiming passages from Virgil’s Aeneid and other classics. But in hindsight he tells us that the earlier study, acquiring skill with words, was better because more useful than the “empty studies” pertaining to the Trojan Horse, the wanderings of Aeneas, and Dido’s death. Later still, following the usual course of studies, he reads Cicero’s Hortensius, an exhortation to philosophy and defense of intellectual cultivation that changed the course of his life.
This encounter with a Great Book gives Augustine “different ambitions and desires.” As he confesses to God: “Every vain hope suddenly became worthless to me; my spirit was filled with an extraordinary and burning desire for the immortality of wisdom, and now I began to rise, so that I might return to you.” His reading of Cicero moves him to read the Bible, which at the time “seemed unworthy of comparison” with Cicero. Continuing the account of his spiritual and intellectual odyssey, in Book VII he relates that the Platonists he is reading tell him many of the same things about God that he has read in the Gospel of John and in the Apostle Paul, though the philosophers do not mention the Christian teaching on the Incarnation, the Atonement, and the virtue of humility. A final, decisive turn in his life occurs in the famous garden conversion scene when he takes up the Bible again—in particular, he reads a specific verse from the book of Romans (Romans 13:13). Here he finally finds the Word of Life that enables him to turn from sin and convert to the Christian faith.
Classical and Christian Learning
In the Confessions (completed around the year 400), we have Augustine’s early remarks about the means and ends of education. He defends the utility of acquiring skill with words, not because it brings honor and deceitful riches but because it is a doorway to the truth of things. He scorns the empty trifles and errors of the poetic imagination, and he is moved not by Cicero’s eloquence but by his wisdom, for it opened the door to higher things. Augustine discovers much compatibility in Platonism and Christianity (both tell him of the immortal, immaterial nature of God the Creator)—Athens, he discovers, is not so far from Jerusalem. And it is his reading of Scripture that brings him into the Christian fold.
But even in this early work, one clearly sees that Augustine has profited from his studies of Greek and Roman epics (fruits of the poetic imagination) and Cicero’s eloquence. Immersed in the works of great writers and trained by imitating them, he memorably and masterfully uses the scheme of antithesis, denouncing “the insatiable desires of that wealth which is poverty and of that glory which is shame” and describing himself as “so small a boy and so great a sinner.” In describing his adolescent sexual desires in Book II, he uses a cluster of cloudy, dark, hot, and restrictive images to paint a convincing picture of bewildering and enslaving lust. These images of lust are contrasted with the luminous and white light of love and friendship. In Book VIII Augustine presents a moving dramatic representation of the battle for his soul as he stands between his former mistresses and “the chaste dignity of Continence.” Both the mistresses and Continence solicit him, but Continence does so honorably, and she is the fruitful mother of joys. On nearly every page of the Confessions, we see Augustine’s debt to his literary and rhetorical training. This training helped him to be eloquent and persuasive himself in his most famous work.
Later, in On Christian Doctrine (426–427), a more mature Augustine explicitly and forcefully defends the study of rhetoric and the pagan classics. A chapter title tells why: “whatever has been rightly said by the heathen, we must appropriate to our uses.” Christians, Augustine says, should be like the Israelites in the Exodus, plundering the Egyptians, his term for accepting and using classical learning in a Christian curriculum. While he still decries the “false and superstitious fancies” of some pagan books, he emphasizes that “they contain also liberal instruction which is better adapted to the use of the truth, and some most excellent precepts of morality; and some truths in regard even to the worship of the One God are found among them.”  Like Augustine, other Church Fathers such as Clement of Alexandria, Origen, Basil the Great, and Jerome made classical learning (Great Books in rhetoric, philosophy, epic, and drama) a staple of higher learning in early Christendom. Later theologians and men of letters such as Aquinas, Erasmus, Luther, Calvin, and Newman did the same.
G. K. Chesterton, J. R. R. Tolkien, and C. S. Lewis, among other Christians in our own time, have likewise “plundered the Egyptians” and “sanctified” pagan learning. They tell us that pagan myths, the fruit of the moral imagination, are not to be scorned, for these myths offer glimpses and shadows of universal and transcendent truths. The pagan poet no less than the Christian writer is made in the image of God: both use the God-given moral imagination to craft stories that reveal truths about man, God, and the universe. C. S. Lewis offers this illustration:
The old myth of the Dying God, without ceasing to be myth, comes down from the heaven of legend and imagination to the earth of history. It happens—at a particular date, in a particular place, followed by definable historical consequences. We pass from a Balder or an Osiris, dying nobody knows when or where, to a historical Person crucified (it is all in order) under Pontius Pilate. By becoming fact it does not cease to be myth.
In other words, the pagan myths point to the true “myth”: the Incarnation—“God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself” (II Corinthians 5:19).
Truth is truth, wherever it comes from: it may be glimpsed by the poet’s moral imagination, observed by the scientist’s investigation of nature, discerned by the philosopher’s reason and intuition, revealed in Scripture by God’s appointed prophets and evangelists, or embedded in the traditions of a school, the state, or the Church. But to get at this truth, one must have intellectual skill. To share this truth effectively, as Augustine has done, one must have some mastery of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. And finally, the wisdom one gains in his encounter with the prophet, the scientist, the poet, the dramatist, and the philosopher will instruct him in the proper use of his intellectual skills—not to promote vanity, pride, and avarice, but to get at the truth of things.
The Place of the Bible in Education
In a discussion of Great Books and higher education, one should not forget the Greatest Book, which used to be a major pillar in Western education. In “The Pearl of Great Wisdom: The Deep and Abiding Biblical Roots of Western Liberal Education,” David Lyle Jeffrey notes the impact of Scripture on the academy and the culture from the era of the Church Fathers until the nineteenth century. Augustine’s “pedagogical stratagems for the disciplines” in On Christian Doctrine, Jeffrey writes, “helped to make the Bible not only the historical foundation for humane learning in the West, but also the procedural and methodological basis of nearly all scholarship in the humanities, including textual criticism, philological analysis, poetics, language theory, narrative epistemology, historiography, anthropology, positive law, and natural law.” Furthermore, Jeffrey notes that from the time of Boethius (a.d. 480–525) “onward to the nineteenth century it is difficult to find a major European humanist whose intellectual formation was not in some way grounded in study of the sacred page.”
More than any other book, the Bible taught Western man how to think about the three great themes of theology: God, man, and the universe. When it was not formally studied in higher education, it still supplied the background for all other studies. Its stories, themes, images, symbols, and figurative language were des données, part of the educated person’s basic knowledge and quite familiar to the uneducated as well. This was so because Western men believed the Bible to be the revealed Word of God. They also believed that Christ was the Word of God incarnate and the Savior of the world. In short, they believed that the truth of things was most clearly revealed in the Bible, the greatest of Great Books.
From the Bible we learn the major outline of human history and destiny: Creation, Fall, man’s Redemption through the Incarnation, Atonement, and Resurrection of Christ, and the Judgment to come. Scripture clearly and unequivocally presents physical, moral, and spiritual truths about God, man, and the universe. God is Creator, Lawgiver, Judge, and Redeemer. The person is body and soul, “intellectual soul incarnate,” in Marion Montgomery’s appropriation of St. Thomas (thus the dualism of Platonism and the naturalistic anthropology of modern times both miss the mark). All men are fundamentally equal in that they are made in God’s image, yet fallen, prone to a host of vices and sins.
When God made the world, he pronounced it good and placed man in it to exercise stewardship and dominion over nature (stewardship and dominion should always be linked together). Men invariably trespass, fail to honor the God who made them, fail to love one another. This calamity leads us to the most important truth in all the world: the Gospel message. God was in Christ lovingly reconciling sinful humanity to himself. Christ is the wisdom, truth, power, love, and justice of God. He is the way to knowledge and wisdom, the door to righteousness and salvation. And He is most fully revealed in the Bible.
Over time, many Western writers incorporated these basic beliefs and assumptions into their own Great Books. Thus Scripture puts much of the Western world’s literature and culture into perspective. A wide variety of writers from Augustine and Chaucer to Erasmus and Milton to Mark Twain and Robert Penn Warren knew the Bible and filled their own writings with biblical themes, allusions, and images. Warren once told aspiring writers, “All novelists, budding or otherwise, should read and mark their Shakespeare, also their Bible. These are the two greatest founts for writers.”
Just how much of a fount the Bible has been for English authors is evident in the nearly thousand pages of A Dictionary of the Biblical Tradition in English Literature. In the preface to this now essential reference work—essential because modern readers are ignorant of the Bible—general editor David Lyle Jeffrey notes “that for literature in the English-speaking world no text has continued to exert a more formative influence than the Bible, and . . . that the fading recognition of biblical narrative, especially in the second half of the twentieth century, has shadowed into nearly intractable obscurity many of the greatest secular texts in our literary heritage.” We cannot understand English (and European and American) authors unless we have some understanding of what they assume and incorporate into their work.
The Bible has influenced much more than Western literature: much of the art and music and many of the laws, principles, beliefs, customs, and institutions of people from the Middle East, Europe, England, and America are derived from the Bible. In his autobiography (the section titled “The Dynamo and the Virgin”), Henry Adams tells us that “four-fifths of [Western man’s] noblest art” owes its inspiration to the Virgin Mary and the fruit of her womb: the beauty and power of transcendent love, mercy, and suffering is reflected in countless works of architecture, sculpture, and painting, not to mention literary works. If Stanley Jaki, R. Hooykaas, Peter Hodgson, and Eugene Klaaren are correct, even Western science owes its birth to the Bible, which posits a rational God who created both a good, orderly cosmos and rational men made in His image commanded and equipped to exercise stewardship and dominion over nature. In short, the Bible is the wellspring of Western literature, art, and science. To ignore this Great Book in our studies is a pedagogical crime, an act of spiritual and cultural suicide.
Revolutionary Changes in the Focus and Philosophy of Education
For more than two thousand years the Bible and other Great Books were the basis of education and the development of thought and culture in the West. The grammar-school lad, the young scholar, and the collegian spent much of their time reading Great Books, memorizing and declaiming selected passages, and imitating in their own compositions passages noted for eloquence in style or potency in theme. These books gave them a way to see beauty and goodness, to come to terms with such concepts as love and liberty, and to understand historical, economic, and political events. They gave the student an intelligible picture of the world.
But revolutionary changes in the focus and philosophy of education have altered the curriculum. Beginning in the nineteenth century, scientific and utilitarian studies have gradually replaced study of the Great Books in colleges and universities. The old core of the liberal arts college (humane studies in theology, ethics, literature, philosophy, and the fine arts—largely the study of Great Books in these disciplines) shrank as students elected to take specialized courses in specific disciplines, usually those that had practical ramifications in terms of career certification and cash. With the elective system (or the cafeteria-style curriculum), the student is not exposed to the best that has been thought, said, and made (to adapt Matthew Arnold’s phrase) but elects to take what interests him from a host of marketable degrees.
Perhaps the most famous nineteenth-century debate about these revolutionary changes in the means and ends of education occurred in the 1880s, with Thomas Henry Huxley arguing for the utility of a scientific education and Matthew Arnold championing humane letters. But we find some earlier discussions of these matters in literary figures no less famous than these. Almost thirty years earlier than the Huxley-Arnold debate, Charles Dickens in Hard Times (1854) offers a sustained and severe criticism of a system of education devoted to the accumulation of “ ‘Facts, sir; nothing but Facts!’ ” for utilitarian ends. Mr. Gradgrind’s scheme of education is long on science, logic, and mathematics, and bereft of song, romance, and fiction. As a result, his children, Tom and Louisa, are morally and emotionally scarred.
Another damning critique appears nineteen years later in John Stuart Mill’s Autobiography (1873): Chapter 5, “A Crisis in My Mental History.” Influenced by his father’s utilitarian philosophy of education and adopting Jeremy Bentham’s utilitarian approach to improving the world, Mill finds himself growing increasingly despondent, even suicidal, for he is empty of desire and hope, unaffected by pleasure or passion. One might more readily call his mental and emotional breakdown a spiritual crisis. Mill finds relief from depression and renewal of interest in life when he reads J. F. Marmontel’s Mémoires and William Wordsworth’s verse. He therefore emphasizes the importance, even the necessity, of cultivating the feelings, the emotional part of our nature. By his own testimony, this healing cultivation of the feelings comes from reading nonutilitarian books: “Wordsworth’s poems [were] a medicine for my state of mind.” Great literature has the capacity to enliven and orient the feelings, often nurturing the intellect at the same time.
Perhaps the most damning assessment of a life of study that ignores the humanizing influence of the liberal arts comes from the most influential scientist of the past two centuries, Charles Darwin. In his autobiography, published three years after Mill’s, Darwin acknowledges that up until the age of around thirty, he derived a great deal of pleasure from reading poetry, viewing pictures, and listening to music. But as he turned his attention to investigating and collecting scientific data, his imagination began to atrophy. He tells the story best himself:
My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone, on which the higher tastes depend, I cannot conceive….If I had to live my life again I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week; for perhaps the parts of my brain now atrophied could thus have been kept active through use. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.
The Logos and Great Books
Darwin, Mill, Dickens, and Arnold, all writing at a time when the Great Books are beginning to be supplanted by utilitarian, vocational, and scientific studies, emphasize the central role that poetry, romance, and song play in developing character, morality, and the aesthetic sense. On the personal level, they address the deleterious effects of neglecting humane letters and the restoration of moral and spiritual health that comes with reading the same. Other critics address the damage done in the larger, cultural arena.
In The Idea of a Christian Society (1939), T. S. Eliot describes the consequences of the elective system in America’s secularized, utilitarian colleges: when students no longer study the same subjects and read the same books, they have no sense of “continuity and coherence in literature and the arts,” they have no shared “body of knowledge.” Consequently, “the idea of wisdom disappears, and you get sporadic and unrelated experimentation.”
William Butler Yeats describes a similar effect of the loss of intellectual and cultural cohesion in “The Second Coming” (1919). As the old European order of Christendom disintegrates, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; / Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.”
Eliot again, in opening lines from his Choruses for The Rock (1934), describes the deracinated education and culture of modernity:
The endless cycle of idea and action, Endless invention, endless experiment, Brings knowledge of motion, but not of stillness; Knowledge of speech, but not of silence; Knowledge of words, and ignorance of the Word. All our knowledge brings us nearer to our ignorance, All our ignorance brings us nearer to death, But nearness to death no nearer to God. Where is the Life we have lost in living? Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?
This declension from wisdom to knowledge to information results when we ignore the Word (both the Bible and Christ, the Incarnate Logos) and a common heritage that addresses crucial moral and spiritual matters. Some sort of center is required for information to rise to knowledge, and for knowledge to rise to wisdom. Great Books, especially the Bible, for centuries supplied this center, this orientation: a moral compass, a sense of the common good, an understanding of what it means to be human.
Here I should emphasize that recent critiques of higher education offered by Allan Bloom (The Closing of the American Mind—1987) and E. D. Hirsch (Cultural Literacy—1987) do not adequately address our educational woes. While both critics would have students read the Great Books, neither provides or recommends a moral, religious, or metaphysical framework that puts the books into perspective. The ordered, Christian approach I am advocating has been described and defended very effectively by Christopher Dawson in The Crisis of Western Education (1961).
Dawson emphasizes that Western civilization is essentially a Christian civilization, that classical literature and Christian learning (biblical and theological) were the basis of Western education until the modern era, and that over time the secularizing intellectual revolutions of the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries put science, rationalism, and utilitarian technological studies in place of the study of Great Books. This has created a crisis in Western education, since there is no longer anything that orders, unifies, and integrates human experience and learning. Thus Dawson argues that Christianity, historically the basis of education and civilization in the West, should be the “integrating factor,” the “higher spiritual principal of co-ordination,” the means to keep the powers of reason and technology under moral restraints. In his concluding chapter, Dawson summarizes his argument:
All the great religions of the world agree in confessing this truth—that there is an eternal reality beyond the flux of temporal and natural things which is at once the ground of being and the basis of rationality.
The Christian faith goes much farther than this. It and it alone shows how this higher reality has entered into human history and changed its course. It shows how a seed of new life was implanted in humanity by the setting apart of a particular people as the channel of revelation which found its fulfillment in the Incarnation of the Divine Word in a particular person at a particular moment of history.
Dawson was addressing the crisis of Western education in 1961, before continuing revolutions in higher education added yet more chaos to confusing college curricula. Now, in addition to the proliferation of college courses and degrees and the accompanying emphasis on scientific research and innovation, on technology and business, we have institutionalized contemporary and anti-Western impulses. Increasingly, contemporary literature replaces the classics in literature courses, presumably because the modern is more relevant than the old. Most colleges have joined the 1989 Stanford revolutionaries who chanted “Hey, Hey, Ho, Ho, Western Culture’s Got to Go!” Thus trivial, multicultural, relativistic, sexual, and politically correct studies (Marxist, Freudian, feminist, homosexual, postmodern, ecological, and popular culture—with courses on topics such as hair, food, pornography, and comic books) supplanted what had been a focus on the Western tradition.
These modern studies, a new version of the historical model we have been discussing, are late-born fruit of the Enlightenment and French and Bolshevik Revolutions. They attempt to treat man and his quest for social justice and happiness, but they are cut off from history and from the transcendent. Studies in a vacuum, studies without a transcendent underpinning, yield information without hierarchy or order (actually, misinformation), economics without ethics, law without justice, medicine without charity, history without norms or a view of human nature. Once again, we see the importance of Dawson’s emphasis on Christian education, on the Divine Logos, who is the ground of being and the basis of rationality and morality. Christ puts all things and studies into perspective.
Ironically, the guiding lights of the Enlightenment—Nature and Reason—have gone out, largely because “Enlightened” thinkers have abandoned a God-centered humanism derived from classical and Christian texts, becoming like Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver in their pride and madness. Infected with a merely man-centered humanism, they also are much like Swift’s Houyhnhnms in their irreligion and callous, joyless rationalism. Notably, the “grand Debate at the General Assembly of the Houyhnhnms” in Gulliver’s Travels focuses on “whether the Yahoos should be exterminated from the Face of the Earth.” We have seen the result of this debate in the Russian death camps, the Third Reich’s gas chambers, and the extermination of millions upon millions of unborn children in the United States and worldwide in less than half a century.
Nature and Reason, foundational sources of order and genuine enlightenment for the Christian Humanist, become meaningless when they are severed from the author of Nature and the embodiment of Reason and Love in human history. “In the beginning was the Word [Logos], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. . . . All things were made through him. . . . And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” (John 1:1–2, 14). This is the orthodoxy that underpins Christian Humanism. And this is the orthodoxy that confers dignity upon man and fructifies reason and the study of nature, enabling us to discern a companionable relation between reason and faith, and helping us to make the practice of science humane. Without this orthodoxy, as Allen Tate memorably puts it in “The New Provincialism,” technology is “barbarism quite simply.”
The gutting of the classical/Christian curriculum; the reduced core curriculum; the superficial exposure to popular, multicultural, and postmodern studies; the emphasis on pragmatic, utilitarian training; and a man-centered humanism—this is what one would expect of a secular, utilitarian, and pragmatic system of education. But these changes in the focus and curricula of education make us what Allen Tate calls provincials in time. Cut off from our classical/Christian heritage, we lose our “origins in the past and its continuity into the present, and begin every day as if there had been no yesterday.” Cut off from the past, familiar only with the present, we see in “material welfare and social justice the whole solution to the human problem,” and forget the role that “honor, truth, imagination, human dignity, and limited acquisitiveness” should play in any social order. Without the Great Books and the Logos who puts them in perspective, we are cut off from tradition, from reason, and from norms connected to transcendent order.
Higher education may legitimately address itself to the comfort, security, sustenance, and healing of the body, the improvement of man’s physical welfare. We should use knowledge and skill to improve the human condition. We have a biblical mandate to be good stewards, properly dressing and keeping the garden, exercising dominion over nature for man’s common good. Jesus Himself, in his ministry to man, improved man’s physical well-being by healing the sick and feeding the hungry.
But properly to apply this knowledge and skill (in business, law, economics, politics, medicine and every other discipline and vocation) requires wisdom and virtue. Without wisdom and virtue the businessman and economist won’t be humane, attentive to the common good; the lawyer won’t be ethical but sophistical; the politician will be a mere functionary, demagogue, or ideologue, not a statesman; and the physician will violate human rights and dignity.
Let me give several cases in point. Our brave new world of reproductive and genetic technologies needs the moral and spiritual compass provided by Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” and Hawthorne’s “The Birthmark.” The economic projector in Swift’s fable regards one-year-old children as consumer products, no different from cattle. The scientist Aylmer in Hawthorne’s fable is not content with the good that he has but wants perfection. In his attempt to achieve perfection, he destroys his wife, Georgiana, and hence his own happiness. With the intellectual skills acquired in reading these works of literature and the ethical discernment obtained therefrom, one can recognize the deceitful manipulation of language in the feminists’ and abortionists’ credo: every woman has a basic right to “reproductive freedom”—the astonishing euphemism for a mother’s “right” to kill her unborn child.
The ends of higher education are the acquisition of wisdom and virtue and the serious pursuit of knowledge and truth—these are the aims of the older model of education. Reading the Great Books helps us to get to these ends. It is a good means to good ends. Informed by the wisdom, the beauty, the goodness, and the truth we encounter in Great Books, we can responsibly and humanely practice our vocation in life. Exposure to great literature forms our heart, mind, and soul. It enriches the moral imagination; it plants judgment, right reason, wisdom, and humility in the mind; and it opens the heart and soul to higher things, “the weightier matters of the law, justice, and mercy and faith” (to quote Jesus in Matthew 23:23). Human nature being what it is, we need all the help we can get. The student needs insight, wisdom, and virtue to love and serve his fellow man. Let us not deny him the effectual means to this good end, an end that has bearing on his citizenship in both this world and the world to come.
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Editor’s note: The featured image is a detail representing the Erythraean Sibyl, from the Sistine Chapel, painted by Michelangelo.
- Dorothy Sayers, The Lost Tools of Learning (New York: National Review, 1947).
- Marion Montgomery, Liberal Arts and Community: The Feeding of the Larger Body (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1990), xi.
- Augustine, Confessions, trans. Rex Warner (New York: New American Library, 1963), 26.
- Ibid., 32.
- Ibid., 56.
- Ibid., 57.
- Ibid., 30.
- Ibid., 180–81. It is possible that Augustine’s style and dramatic sense are influenced by his reading of the Bible as well as the pagan classics. See the Book of Proverbs for the use of both parallelism and antithesis. See also Proverbs 7 and 9 for dramatic representations of the seductively appealing harlot and of wisdom, who invites the simple to forsake the loose woman and instead to come to her table. It is interesting to note parallels between Augustine’s spiritual odyssey in the Confessions and Aeneas’s wanderings in Virgil’s The Aeneid. Sexual temptations in Carthage distract both men from their destiny, and God calls both men back to the true way by means of his messengers.
- Augustine, On Christian Doctrine, in The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to Be an Educated Human Being, ed. Richard Gamble (Wilmington, DE: ISI Books, 2007), 225.
- Ibid., 226.
- Gamble’s Great Tradition presents readings about these and many other instances of this Christian appropriation of pagan learning.
- C. S. Lewis, “Myth Becomes Fact,” in God in the Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, ed. Walter Hooper (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans , 1970), 66–67.
- David Lyle Jeffrey, “The Pearl of Great Wisdom: The Deep and Abiding Roots of Western Liberal Education,” Touchstone, October 2007, 27–28.
- Marion Montgomery, “The Temptation of Provincialism,” Convocation Address at Hillsdale College, October 15, 1998; later published in First Things, October 1999, 17–21.
- Quoted in Randall Stewart’s Regionalism and Beyond, ed. George Core (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1968), 263.
- David Lyle Jeffrey, general ed., A Dictionary of Biblical Tradition in English Literature (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1992), xi.
- Henry Adams, The Education of Henry Adams (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1918), 385.
- Stanley Jaki, The Savior of Science (Edinburgh: Scottish Academic Press, 1990) and The Origin of Science and the Science of Its Origin (South Bend, IN: Regnery, 1978); R. Hooykaas, Religion and the Rise of Modern Science (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1972); Peter Hodgson, “The Christian Origin of Science,” Lecture at Corpus Christi College, Oxford, March 21, 1995; Eugene M. Klaaren, Religious Origins of Modern Science (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1977).
- Huxley’s “Science and Culture” (1881) and Arnold’s “Literature and Science” (1882), The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 7th ed., vol. 2, ed. M. H. Abrams (New York: Norton, 2000), 1545–66.
- Charles Dickens, Hard Times (New York: Penguin Books, 1961), 12.
- John Stuart Mill, Autobiography, in The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 1166–73.
- Charles Darwin, quoted in Charles Dickens, Hard Times: A Norton Critical Edition, 2nd ed., ed. George Ford and Sylvere Monod (New York: Norton, 1990), 310–11, emphasis added.
- T. S. Eliot, Christianity and Culture (New York: Harcourt, 1948), 33.
- T. S. Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays (New York: Harcourt, 1971), 96.
- E. D. Hirsch Jr., Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1987); Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1987).
- For a detailed critique of what is lacking in Bloom’s and Hirsch’s “Great Books” approaches, see R. V. Young’s foreword to Christopher Dawson, The Crisis of Western Education (Steubenville, OH: Franciscan University Press, 1989), xi–xvii. See also R. V. Young, “The University Possessed,” The Intercollegiate Review 42 (2007), No. 1, 3–9.
- Dawson, The Crisis of Western Education, 154, 159, 194.
- Ibid., 201.
- Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels, in Jonathan Swift, Gulliver’s Travels: A Norton Critical Edition, ed. Albert J. Rivero (New York: Norton, 2002), 228.
- Flannery O’Connor makes this point clearly and forcefully: “The Aylmers whom Hawthorne saw as a menace have multiplied. Busy cutting down human imperfection, they are making headway on the raw material of good. . . . In the absence of [the Christian faith] now, we govern by tenderness. It is a tenderness which, long since cut off from the person of Christ, is wrapped in theory. When tenderness is detached from the source of tenderness, its logical outcome is terror. It ends in forced labor camps and in the fumes of the gas chamber.” “A Memoir of Mary Ann,” in Flannery O’Connor: Collected Works, ed. Sally Fitzgerald (New York: The Library of America, 1988), 830–31.
- Allen Tate, “The New Provincialism,” in Essays of Four Decades (London: Oxford University Press, 1970), 539.
- Ibid., 542, 545.