Catholic Liberal Education Today

Kevin Aldrich

Wisdom and virtue

The term Catholic liberal education means an education that is (1) Catholic, as defined by the Catholic Church, and (2) liberal, as in in the liberal arts tradition, the tradition of most Catholic education from the beginning.

The two words which together most fully describe the goals of a Catholic liberal education are wisdom and virtue.

Wisdom is the power to understand and evaluate the being, truth, goodness, and beauty of everything we experience, within their proper hierarchy. The aim of wisdom is living a good and happy life. For the Christian, the ultimate criterion for evaluating everything is God and his will and the ultimate happiness is communion with God now and in heaven.

What about virtue? According to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, “human virtues are firm attitudes, stable dispositions, habitual perfections of intellect and will that govern our actions, order our passions, and guide our conduct according to reason and faith. They make possible ease, self-mastery, and joy in leading a morally good life. The virtuous man is he who freely practices the good.” (CCC 1804) For the Baptized, human virtues are ordered by the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity. These make it possible for us to live as God’s children in a right relationship with the Holy Trinity, so as to merit eternal life. (CCC 1812-1813)

In brief, wisdom is the power to know the truth and virtue is the power to live by it.

This educational tradition is called liberal because it is a human formation appropriate to a free person who can lead himself and others. It is the opposite of the merely practical training given to a servant or slave who only carries out tasks. A person with this formation can be a good citizen of earth now and of heaven later.

There is a kind of good tension within liberal education from the time of the ancient Greeks. We can call the two points of friction the Socratic and the Isocratic strains of liberal education. The great philosopher Socrates stands for the love of truth so strong that one will abandon one’s own errors and even society’s when truth is found. The less famous Greek teacher Isocrates stands for the conservation of the truths that have already been discovered and the cultivation in youth of civic virtue so citizens can live well together. The tension between these strains are good because Socrates demands you abandon what is not wisdom and virtue and Isocrates demands you hold fast to received wisdom and virtue when they really are.

Why is this liberal educational tradition Catholic?

We Catholics inherited this tradition, really a treasure, from the Greeks, Hebrews, and Romans, and we have developed it, so we can say our educational tradition is much older than our Faith. This Catholic liberal education tradition dominated Western education until it was irrationally rejected in the educational iconoclasm of the late 1960s. We are now in a period of rediscovering it, so we are in a new springtime of classical Catholic education, just as it is a springtime of the New Evangelization.

What is Catholic liberal education today?

Just as a good Socratic discussion begins with a good question, there are very good questions we can ask about a Catholic liberal education today. Here are five.

  • What conviction does Catholic liberal education today begin with?
  • What are its goals?
  • What is the process of such an education?
  • What are its methods?
  • Finally, what are its fruits?

The following five points—answers to these questions—are indebted to Dr. Andrew Seeley. Dr. Seeley is a tutor at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, California, and the founder of the Institute for Catholic Liberal Education. Any faults in the presentation are my own.

First, Catholic liberal or classical education today begins with the conviction that to be wise tomorrow, we must begin today to learn the wisdom of yesterday. This means we embrace the rich and wise tradition given to us by the Socrates’ of the past and conserved by the Isocrates’ in our history. To be wise tomorrow, we study, as Matthew Arnold, the nineteenth century poet, educator, and cultural critic, put it, “The best that has been thought and said.” This was his definition of culture.

Second, the goal of Catholic liberal education today is graduates and faculty who are nourished, inspired, and equipped by our Christian culture. This is the realization of the conviction just mentioned. Both teachers and students in such schools become ever more human. We do this through feeding on (as it were) every authentic product of our culture. This culture is our inspiration. Such an immersion in our culture gives us the resources to live this fully human life. As Catholics we can say this is so because our Christian culture includes the Sacraments, which are the means of grace God provides.

Third, the process of Catholic classical education today is (as it has always been) integral formation. To form the human person, you have to know what a human being is, and this is necessary in order to know what to integrate. Only the Church, assisted by competent Catholic philosophers, can provide for us an adequate anthropology.

The process of Catholic education is complex. A number of things are going on at every moment, all at once, all working together. Here is my own paraphrase of what the Church is saying the process consists of—and maybe enough context has already been provided to make sense of it:

The Catholic liberal arts school is a scholarly educational institution which provides an integral human formation through the communication of culture oriented by the Catholic Faith by direct and personal contact between students and teachers.

Fourth is the method of Catholic classical education today. The method begins with wonder in two senses. There is the sense of awe and joy in coming into contact with reality—with the true, the good, and the beautiful. And there is the sense of inquiry that arises from awe. It is where we begin to question, with questions like, “I wonder why?” and “I wonder how?”

The method also includes the first three traditional liberal arts of the trivium: grammar, logic, and rhetoric, which enable one to master the uses of language. It also includes the quadrivium’s mathematical subjects, which enable one to think about reality in terms of quantity, form, relations, and movement.

In its updated form, as indicated by Dorothy Sayers in “The Lost Tools of Learning,” the liberal arts can also be thought of as the facts and information to be learned in any subject (grammar), how to think properly in any field of study or inquiry so as to find the truth (logic), how to communicate effectively in the various subjects (rhetoric), and all the modern subjects of study—mathematics, history, the natural sciences, and religion (the quadrivium). Many Catholic liberal arts schools also include an intensive study of the Latin language.

The method also includes wisdom studies: philosophy, the handmaiden of theology, and theology itself, the queen of the sciences. These wisdom studies are only touched on in K-12 but are properly left for college and beyond.

Finally, fifth are the fruits of Catholic classical education today. One fruit is communities rejoicing in the truth. A school united in the pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty is a happy place. The opposite is the school which sees itself as a means to an end, such as higher test scores, or a way to get its students into a good college, or to prepare students to enter the workforce.

Another fruit of Catholic liberal education today will be twenty-first century leadership and innovation. Anyone who is grounded in objective truth and lives by objective morals has a solidity which makes it impossible to be a mere follower and to be fooled for very long. The way the world usually wants to go will create opposition in such an educated person. Therefore, intentionally or not, he will be a light to others.

And who can innovate? Only the person who has lovingly mastered a body of material can create new things with it or extend it.

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5 thoughts on “Catholic Liberal Education Today”

  1. “This educational tradition is called liberal because it is a
    human formation appropriate to a free person who can lead himself and others.
    It is the opposite of the merely practical training given to a servant or slave
    who only carries out tasks.”

    “The opposite is the school which sees itself as a means to
    an end, such as higher test scores, or a way to get its students into a good
    college, or to prepare students to enter the workforce.”

    An accurate description of Bill Gates Common Core Curriculum which too many dioceses have partaken of.

    1. Precisely, @BillinJax:disqus. The diocesan schools do care about Catholic identity but they don’t notice something must be amiss about standards which never mention truth, goodness, or beauty.

  2. Pingback: Buy a Shirt Help Mid East Christians -

  3. Kevin this is an excellent article! I did not know about the Greek influence, and I especially appreciate you discussing the five points and how they should be worked out in or through our Catholic culture. Thanks!

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