Graduating high school students recently received their acceptance or rejection letters from the colleges. Local newspapers write up successful applicants. Parents anxiously inquire about what goes on in such schools. Rumors are not always encouraging. “What kind of an education should our child look for?” “Does it make any difference where Julie or Sam attends college?” “What about ‘political correctness’?”
The American schools put all programs under the same roof. Students graduated with the same degree but different “majors” and “minors”.
A “core” curriculum meant that some things were basic to all. This notion was once at the heart of all collegiate specialties. We are all human beings together. Education looked at what we are as human beings. All read attentively writers like Plato to focus our attention on the essential issues of our kind.
Human beings are in the peculiar position. They were born human, with both spiritual and animal features uniquely woven together in each person. Through no choice of our own, we are born into this world as human beings, not gods.
Will we accept or reject being what we are? Is there any content to being what we are? This long process of deciding and knowing what it is to be a human being is what “education” is about. If we get it wrong, most things in our lives and society will go wrong.
Higher education today often has a bad name. It is expensive. We do not much need colleges or their libraries anymore. Any fact we need to know is usually found quite quickly online. But the purpose of “a liberal education” was to teach us “how to think”. If we knew “how to think”, we could go from there. We distinguished between “how” to think and “what” to think.
We cannot think at all unless we think about something, unless there is really something out there to think about. We think to figure out whether what we think is true or not. If everything is equally true or equally false, it makes little difference whether we go to college or not.
The first “college” professors were said to be sophists, wise men. Plato did not like them. They were expensive to consult. They did not stand for anything. They made what was false seem to be true and vice versa.
Sophists were what we call today “relativists”. Their view of education was not to seek what is true. Education was a method to show that no truth was possible. The sophist debunked certainties. He did not to lead a student to them. The reason for the nuttiness among college students today, a friend holds, is this: They never confront the really important things of human living.
Allan Bloom, in “The Closing of the American Mind”, made two memorable points: 1) Every professor entering a classroom can assume that most students are already relativists or think that they are, and 2) The unhappiest people in our country are students attending the most expensive universities. Why? Being smart, they soon realize the incoherence of the relativism being taught. But how to escape it? They were supposedly already in the best place. Where else could they turn? They seem trapped by a supposed excellence and come to despair our very human condition.
So what is the alternative? A “liberal” education means it ought to free us from our desires and bad habits to encounter the important things. Only in so confronting them will we know why they are important.
About a quarter-century ago, I wrote a book entitled, “Another Sort of Learning”, a book about what to read when we realize that our college education is not dealing with the important things. We must take charge of our own education. We cannot simply “be” educated without our own active input, principally through reading.
Samuel Johnson once remarked that “the best thing that you could do for a boy was to teach him how to read.” Once we know how to read and read carefully, we have a chance, whether we be in the best or the worst university. Once we know how to read, we have a chance, whatever the curricula of our chosen school.
Education happens when a young person finds a book of, say, Plato, Aristotle, or Augustine. None of them is an easy read. But suddenly, with diligence and attention, the student’s mind wakes him up. He realizes in a flash that what is being read is important. He is not fully sure why, but still he is sure. When this happens, the task of education really has begun. The student’s task must be to then find other books in which the truth is encountered.
On leaving high school, we need to be sure that we can already read and read carefully. This one capacity alone, more than any other, will free us to find out something more than facts.
One further caveat needs to be noted. The French philosopher, Yves Simon, remarked that there was no way to protect a young scholar from giving his soul to an unworthy professor. And, alas, there are such unworthy professors.
A good teacher, however, can lead us to what is important faster than we can get there by ourselves. What is to be learned, the truth of things, is not something “owned” by either professor or student. Both are on the same path, to a reality that neither of them “made”. They seek something that both of them encounter, usually through books that they carefully read together.
Education consists in students who want to know finally finding someone who will help them know what both should know and want to know, namely, how things are.
The Rev. James V. Schall, S.J., author of “A Line Through the Human Heart: On Sinning & Being Forgiven,” is professor emeritus at Georgetown University. His latest book is “The Universe We Think In,” published by The Catholic University of America Press.