Liberal education and Christian truth

If one were to design a system by which to crush whatever is uniquely human in man, and therefore highest and most important, it would very closely resemble modern public education in the United States. While causation is difficult to discern, there is undoubtedly a correlation between the secular atmosphere in public schools and their obsession with technical training. When humans are stripped of their ability to ask the ultimate questions, the inevitable result is a reduction of man to the level of mere laborer; he is a beast of burden with slightly better planning abilities but significantly less strength. Vice versa, the beast of burden does not ask where he comes from, where he is going, and how he is supposed to get there. This is the state of crisis in which Christians find ourselves in the realm of education. How we respond to this modern challenge is of the utmost importance to the future of mankind. The answer, however, is not further innovation, which possesses the potential to lead us even further astray, but rather in a return to our foundations; the answer has already been bequeathed to us in the heritage we have derived from our earliest forebears and heroes in the Faith.

Pope Benedict XVI succinctly summarized both the problem and the solution in a homily given at the Cathedral of Munich in 2006. Addressing his remarks to teachers, he advised,

… it is no easy thing in schools to bring up the subject of faith. But it is hardly enough for our children and young people to learn technical knowledge and skills alone, and not the criteria that give knowledge and skill their direction and meaning. Encourage your students not only to raise questions about particular things … but above all to ask about the why and the wherefore of life as a whole. Help them to realize that any answers that do not finally lead to God are insufficient.

The sort of education to which Benedict XVI points here is a liberal education, the same sort of education pointed to by early Christians, and for precisely the same reason.

St. Clement of Alexandria, in his Stromateis, for example, calls upon Christians to learn philosophy which, he says, “is a useful guide towards reverence for God.” Clement believed that philosophy “is a preparatory process; it opens the road for the person whom Christ brings to his final goal.” Philosophy prepares the soul to encounter, understand, and give assent to the truths of Scripture. Later in the same work, Clement claims of philosophy and other elements of liberal learning that “in the course of these studies, the soul is purified from its sense perception and rekindled with the power of discerning the truth.” Rather than training the student to rely only upon his “sense perception,” as does technical training, thereby imbuing in him the presupposition that he is a merely sensual being, liberal learning instead directs him to the powers of the human mind and soul, powers which far exceed those of the sensual. Through the development of these faculties, the student learns to love and desire truth and is equipped with the tools by which to seek after it with zeal.

As Clement presents us with the theory of education necessary to a renewed Christian education in the modern world, the process of education used by Origen in the intellectual and spiritual formation of his students presents us with the practical model to be followed. In a speech address to his teacher, St. Gregory Thaumaturgus, a disciple of Origen, describes this process and the results to which it led him. According to Gregory, Origen “urged me to study the philosophy of the Greeks, and persuaded me by his own moral example both to hear and to hold by the doctrine of morals.” Through this steady regime of liberal learning coupled with demonstration of a life of virtue, Gregory was “won over” to Origen’s school and its ideas. Origen insisted that his students focus upon and attain to the famous motto of ancient Greek philosophy: “Know thyself.” Gregory continues, “while the soul is exercised in beholding itself as in a mirror, and reflects the divine mind in itself, if it is worthy of such a relation, and traces out a certain inexpressible method for the attaining of a kind of apotheosis.”

Origen’s system led his students through liberal learning to the truths of Christianity. If the purpose of an education is not to make beasts of burden, but is instead, as it should be, to make saints, the example of Gregory is the finest example from early Christianity of the sort of education we should seek to return to. It is an education in the highest thing which leads children finally to the Highest of all.

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