Liberal Education vs. Liberalism

At St. Benedict Center in Cambridge, Massachusetts, our forefathers had a saying that epitomized their apostolate in the academic circles in which they moved: “We are against liberalism in religion, but we are for liberal education.” This was in the 1940’s. At the time, the Jesuits were parting drastically from the traditional ratio studiorum of their institutions of higher learning, modeling them instead after those universities they were sending their young scholastics to, like Harvard. The Jesuits’ educational system was evolving from a classical “liberal” one to its opposite, a “servile” education. The preservation of a Catholic Education worthy of the name was an important goal of the Center in Cambridge, so Father Feeney and his followers were anti-liberal in religion and authentically liberal in education. By contrast, the Jesuits — at least at the institutional level — became educationally illiberal and dogmatically ultra-liberal.

What does it mean to say that we are “against liberalism in religion” but “for liberal education”?

To answer that, I’ll begin with the con and move to the pro.

Most of us regard liberalism as an evil, and so it is as a philosophical and theological construction.“The basic concept of liberalism is liberty, taken as emancipation and independence of man, society, and State, from God and His Church.” Readers may consult Liberalism: An Evil Defined for a fuller explanation. Liberalism of this philosophical and religious nature is something we execrate as an error. In fact, Liberalism is a Sin.

I invite readers to study that above-cited definition carefully. Many of us garner our understanding of liberalism from the partisan politics of the day; therefore, we have a poor understanding of it. Much of what passes for “conservative” in our nation is really old-fashioned liberalism. And this is not a mere matter of preference; it concerns truth versus error.

What is this good kind of liberalism — this liberal education? We can summarize it in this wise: man educated as man; that is, man’s rational faculties brought to their perfection by acquiring the habits that lead him to contemplation, the summit of human happiness. This is contrasted with servile education, that schooling that makes man into a servant: a carpenter, a lawyer, a dentist, a bus driver. Note, I mixed up blue collar with white collar jobs. It matters not: both are servile; both are functionaries in society. By contrast, liberal education educates a free man. Brother Francis explained this kind of education in several places, two of them being his Plato and Liberal Education and this brief excerpt from the first volume of his Philosophia Perennis:

The seven Liberal Arts — divided into the three disciplines of Trivium and the four disciplines of Quadrivium — form part of the traditional wisdom which has been handed down from the ages of Faith. These arts work in harmony with scholastic philosophy (Philosophia Perennis) to give the man who would be wise his basic intellectual formation. Liberal education is contrasted with specialized or professional education, the latter being that which prepares a man for a craft or profession whereby he may render a service to society and thus earn a living. Without diminishing the nobility of service, from the Catholic point of view there is implied in the attribute “liberal” another great value: namely, the education of man as a free person; as a value in himself; and for his own perfection and happiness. A person being educated liberally is truly treated as a prince or princess.

In contrast to liberal education we may talk of servile education, which we may also call ministerial education. Both are necessary, noble and can make us virtuous. For this reason Christians do not despise service. Man is meant in this life to serve, and especially to serve his fellow men. This is why we call the Order of the priesthood ministerial. Our Lord taught us this value when he said to his disciples: “The kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and they that have power over them, are called beneficent. But you not so: but he that is the greater among you, let him become as the younger; and he that is the leader, as he that serveth.” (Lk. 22: 25,26)

When a man seeks training to be a dentist, he does so because he is going to take care of his fellow men’s teeth and somehow make his living doing it. This is training him for a service. When a man is trained to be a smith, this is also to do some service — some human need for which he is going to provide. It is technical knowledge, and it is acquiring skills that are useful to society. The kind of good that is aimed at in non-liberal education is the useful good, also called utililty. Utility is truly a good, but it is not the highest good. This last statement cannot be emphasized too much, because somehow one of the biggest fallacies that exists today is the fallacy of utilitarianism. This fallacy can be simply defined: It is the exaltation of utility over all else. This fallacy has reached such a critical state that utility is the only good about which most of those we call “thinkers” actually think.

One of the prophets against utilitarianism in America was Henry David Thoreau. Thoreau said that this country’s biggest problem is preoccupation with means; we never think of ends. People in America are so excited because they have connected Maine to Texas by wireless, but what if Maine and Texas have nothing to say to each other? We build roads and bridges. People are rushing to the right and to the left, rushing everywhere. And where are they going? They are not going to, they are going from. They just want to move. This is a country of means, one of utilities, and one of efficiency. The most pointed way to say it is this: Efficiency has taken the place of wisdom, and utility has come to be the highest good.

When a man is educated liberally, he is being prepared to be a value in himself. He is being prepared for the joys of knowing for the sake of knowledge, for contemplation, for being perfect. This perfection is not moral perfection but ontological perfection to be developed according to all the potentialities in him.

While they must reject the evil of religious liberalism, Catholics dedicated to tradition ought to encourage a liberal education for their children. Why? For one thing, it’s traditional! Read the lives of the saints. So many times, we come across lines like this: “after receiving his liberal education at [name of city], he went on to take degrees of doctor of philosophy and theology at [name of city/university].” Besides, in giving man critical thinking abilities, a liberal education also has the practical value of helping him to make proper distinctions, to appreciate current events in a broader setting, to navigate his way through the sound bites of the moment and be governed by higher principles. Too many of us lack critical thinking abilities and shoot from the hip. In religious matters this can be dangerous, subjecting us to all manner of error.