Today education is of great importance in western societies and debates frequently arise as to how to solve various problems in public or post-secondary schools. Seldom though, does the fundamental question get asked: what is the purpose of education? The answer: to lead one to Truth and Beauty. That is why a classical liberal arts formation is so needed, to fulfill the true purpose of education.
C.S. Lewis once wrote in The Abolition of Man, that “The old (education) was a kind of propagation—man transmitting manhood to men; the new is merely propaganda.” This statement still holds true today.
Explaining how modern education had become propaganda, Cardinal John Henry Newman outlined fundamental problems that modern schooling was disseminating with a modernist philosophy in opposition to objective truths. In The Idea of a University,Newman describes four of the greatest errors that undermine the transmission of objective truth in education: utilitarianism, fragmentation, secularism, and rationalism.
Education focusing solely on the practical produces a narrow minded, unbalanced, and unrefined man with an uncultivated intellect.
The fragmenting of disciplines loses the sense of place in the order of knowledge, becoming fruitless and inharmonious without philosophy.
Furthermore, secularism deprives the other disciplines of the fullness of Truth and they would overextend its capacity. This would actual lead each area further away from the Truth as reason without faith is blindness.
Therefore, the last fear of rationalism would set in with science and other fields dogmatizing supposed theological answers created by the minds of men using reason alone. Each discipline would compete with Divine Revelation in seeking to answer the fundamental problems of life.
Only by unifying faith and reason can one seek the fullness of Truth.
Peter Kreeft, in his foreword to The Liberal Arts Tradition by Kevin Clark, lists other errors of modern education such as skepticism, cynicism, subjectivism, relativism, naturalism, materialism, reductionism, positivism, scientism, and socialism. Modernity transmitted through today’s education system also promotes conformity rather than virtue. Embracing pragmatism instead of fostering wisdom is a common example, to which. G.K. Chesteron responded saying: “Man’s most practical need is to be more than a pragmatist.”
Similarly, the liberal arts are often falsely viewed as useless, leading to unemployment, indoctrination, and being anti-STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics). The fact is that educational institutions have come to hyperfocus on careerism. Even many Liberal arts programs are no longer truly liberal and are instead either indoctrination or practical arts. The abandonment of classical liberal arts and the competition with vocational career colleges has led to a rupture with time-tested tradition.
Since the times of the ancient Hebrews, Greeks, and Romans, schools developed to encompass the seven liberal arts: the trivium of grammar, rhetoric and logic, and the quadrivium of arithmetic, astronomy, geometry, and music. With time, classical languages, history, philosophy, theology, drama and art, literature, and even some social sciences were included.
The idea of a holistic education, found in the classical liberal arts, flourished with the ancient grammar schools, developing in medieval cathedral schools, and advancing with the first universities. A classical liberal arts formation forms the student as a whole person, providing the tools to think critically as well as teaching what is worthy of belief, the Truth. Only then would specialization occur at vocational schools. Thanks to this, western civilization has begotten numerous leaders, inventors, scientists, writers, philosophers, theologians, lawyers, doctors, and artists, of incredible achievement.
Through experiencing the transcendentals of beauty, truth, and goodness, these great men and women of history were aware, as Kreeft points out, that “(a classical education) assumes that the supernatural is not the enemy to the natural, that “grace perfects nature rather than demeaning it,” as light perfects all colors,” thereby allowing for spiritual development as well.
Furthermore, not only does a classical education teach knowledge about good and evil, it also instills essential habits which develop prudent judgment and criticism. A student at a classical liberal arts conference once said that “educational experiences that foster ethical habits of mind lead to a well-rounded, versatile individual prepared for challenging opportunities. Of course, a proficiency in ethical habits of mind also leads to more success in whatever field the individual chooses.”
According to the Association of American Colleges and Universities, a liberal arts education “helps students develop a sense of social responsibility, as well as strong and transferable intellectual and practical skills such as communication, analytical and problem-solving skills, and a demonstrated ability to apply knowledge and skills in real-world settings.”
While the practical skill is not directly applicable, the foundation is laid, as Cardinal Newman once said, that “(The purpose of a liberal arts education is to) open the mind, to correct it, to refine it, to enable it to know, and to digest, master, rule, and use its knowledge, to give it power over its own faculties, application, flexibility, method, critical exactness, sagacity, resource, address, (and) eloquent expression.”
As the SWC website notes, the words educare and liberareare the Latin roots of education and to liberate/free. These words alone give great insight into the purpose of a true liberal arts education. Through the liberal arts, one learns to love learning for the sake of learning and arriving at the Truth. Through the Truth, this education leads a person out of ignorance and forms him or her out of intellectual and physical slavery. The more one comes to arrive at and dwell in the Truth the more one frees oneself from the tyranny of ignorance and error. Ignorance and error hinder freedom, by blinding the intellect and dividing the human person. As the Holy Gospel according to Saint John says: “Veritas vos liberavit” – “the Truth will set you free” (John 8:32). Indeed by forming the whole person, body and soul, the image and likeness of God in each person becomes clearer still.
Through a revival of the classical liberal arts, man will be educated in the Truth and be free to develop his unique gifts, so as to foster a life-giving vocation. By freely living out one’s vocation in the Truth, Beauty will follow.