Annotated Bibliography on Liberal Education

Louise Cowan. “The Necessity of the Classics.”

  • Main Point: Cowan argues that the classics are necessary, because “To remake oneself in the image of something that calls to greatness demands a heroic tradition displaying heroic models.” 
  • Structure: After tracing the history of the words ‘classics’ and ‘poetry’, Cowan discovers the Greek and Hebrew roots in the American tradition; then she defines the canon of classics in the Greco-Roman tradition and attributes the notion of ‘heroic’ to them; after which she argues that “our poetic heritage gives imperishable form to the heroic aspiration”; and finally she points to the loss of the classics in modern curricula as a loss, not of cultural literacy, of the full breadth of the human spirit and sensibility.
  • Insightful Quotation: She most insightfully points out that “when the Greeks spoke of poetry, they meant not so much a graceful polish of style, an artful use of language, as an entire cast of mind. Poiesis was considered to be a making process governed by mimesis, the envisioning, or imagining, of fictional analogies, a kind of knowing different from philosophy or history and yet occupying an irreplaceable position in the quest for wisdom.”
  • Relevance to the Liberal Arts: This essay is relevant to the liberal education because she defines the end goal of the liberal education as “to give form to this creative impulse in human culture.”

Russel Hittinger. “Integrated Humanist.”

  • Main Point: Hittinger diagnosis the flaws of American higher education, especially the early specialization in college and high schools and the lack of formation required for the study of the liberal arts.
  • Structure: After showing that American high education is in a disastrous state, he diagnosis two problems through the lives of two humanists: specialization and a lack of moral and emotional formation that are prerequisites for the liberal arts; and he concludes by suggesting an integrated education is not possible at a fractured university, but it may be possible on a smaller scale school.
  • Insightful Quotation: When diagnosing the lack of moral formation, Hittinger points out that Plato’s gymnastics and music prepare one for a liberal arts education: “The first art [gymnastics] assists our natural inclination to gain control over the external senses of the body; the second [music] aims to integrate the internal senses, which are the seat of emotions.”
  • Relevance to the Liberal Arts: Hittinger shows what is required for a liberal education, namely, an integrated curriculum where all the parts work in harmony and a moral and emotional formation from gymnastics and music.
Dorthea Sayers. “The Lost Tools of Learning.”
  • Main Point: Sayers claims that an adapted medieval curriculum will provide modern students with the tools of learning that modern education lost.
  • Structure: After pointing out many of the modern educational mistakes, Sayers outlines the medieval curriculum of a liberal arts education, then proposes an adapted syllabus for modern times.
  • Insightful Quotation: She concludes her address: “What use is it to pile task on task and prolong the days of labor, if at the close the chief object is left unattained? It is not the fault of the teachers–they work only too hard already. The combined folly of a civilization that has forgotten its own roots is forcing them to shore up the tottering weight of an educational structure that is built upon sand. They are doing for their pupils the work which the pupils themselves ought to do. For the sole true end of education is simply this: to teach men how to learn for themselves; and whatever instruction fails to do this is effort spent in vain.”
  • Relevance to the Liberal Arts: Sayers both highlights the importance of the Trivium for the cultivation of the mind and maps the development of the Trivium with the development of a child’s capacities.
Thomas Aquinas College. “A Proposal for the Fulfillment of Catholic Liberal Education.”
  • Main Point: This document that founded Thomas Aquinas College contains an articulate exposition of the means and ends of a Catholic liberal education.
  • Structure: The structure of this proposal begins by diagnosing the crisis in the Catholic college; then asks if Faith can illumine understanding and what is academic freedom, both of which help to define a Catholic education. Next it explores who is the Catholic teacher and what liberal education is as a whole and the order of its parts. Lastly, it connects the liberal education to the Christian Faith, asserts that there is a present need for a genuine liberal education, and outlines the Thomas Aquinas College curriculum.
  • Insightful Quotation: “To be sure, in modern times, liberal education is usually identified with the liberal arts, but traditionally they are distinguished. Liberal education names the whole procedure of the philosophic life, including the study of wisdom itself; liberal arts, on the other hand, properly names seven introductory disciplines which though intrinsically of lesser philosophic interest are “certain ways by which the lively soul enters into the secrets of philosophy.” (Hugh of St. Victor)
  • Relevance to the Liberal Arts: This document shows the dangers of specialization for an integrated education and also shows a path to unify education by ordering the study of disciplines toward wisdom, with Catholic theology having the best insight.
Jacques Maritain. “The Aims of Education.” Education at the Crossroads.
  • Main Point: Maritain’s main point is to define the aims of education based on a philosophical-religious understanding of man.
  • Structure: After defining the philosophical-religious understanding of “man as an animal endowed with reason, whose supreme dignity is in the intellect; and man as a free individual in personal relation with God, whose supreme righteousness consists in voluntarily obeying the law of God; and man as sinful and wounded creature called to divine life and the freedom of grace, whose supreme perfection consists in love”, then distinguishing between “personality” and “individuality”, Maritain goes on to define the primary aim of education as “the conquest of integral and spiritual freedom to be achieved by individual person, or, in other words, his liberation through knowledge and wisdom, good will, and love” and the secondary aim as “[s]haping man to lead a normal, useful,and cooperative life in the community, or guiding the development of the human person in the social sphere, awakening and strengthening both his sense of freedom and his sense of obligation and responsibility”, and continues to identify who educates in the educational spheres (the family, school, state, and church) and the extra-educational spheres (work, friendship, customs, law, behavior, art, poetry, and liturgy). Throughout the essay, Maritain identifies seven common misconceptions of education, from pragmatism to intellectualism, from scientism to voluntarism.
  • Insightful Quotation: Maritain distinguishes between the personality and the individuality of man so that education can address both. He says, “Now it should be pointed out that personality is only one aspect or one pole of the human being. The other pole is––to speak the Aristotelian language––and individuality, whose prime root is matter. This same man, the same entire man who is, in one sense, a person or a whole made independent by his spiritual soul, is also, in another sense, the material individual, a fragment of the species, a part of the physical universe, a single dot in the immense network of forces and influences, cosmic, ethnic, historic, as laws we must obey…. I should like to observe now that a kind of animal training, which deals with the psychophysical habits, conditioned reflexes, sense-memorization, etc., undoubtedly plays its part in education: it refers to material individuality, or to what is not specifically human in man. But education is not animal training. The education of men is a human awakening. Thus what is of most importance and educators themselves is a respect for the soul as well as for the body of the child, the sense of his innermost essence and his internal resources, and a sort of sacred and loving attention to his mysterious identity, which is a hidden thing that no techniques can reach. And what matters most in the educational enterprise is a perpetual appeal to intelligence and free will in the young” (9-10).
  • Relevance to the Liberal Arts: Maritain’s essay lays the philosophical foundation of a liberal education, namely who a liberal education liberates and for what does a liberal education liberate for.
Jacques Maritain. “The Dynamics of Education.” Education at the Crossroads.
  • Main Point: Maritain maintains that an education must begin with the developing dynamisms of the child that a teacher must cultivate in a developing way.
  • Structure: After emphasizing that education is an art, the teacher an artists, and the student the object, Maritain points out that education is awaking a student not the force-feeding knowledge––therefore, education adapts itself to the developing dynamisms of personality and individuality; then he outlines five dispositions to actively foster in education (love for the truth, justice, existence, work, and others); and finally he establishes four fundamental rules for the teacher (foster the fundamental dispositions, center attention on the inner depths of personality and its preconscious spiritual dynamism, foster internal unity of the working of the hands, the head, and the heart, and give the student mastery of reason over the things learned before moving on).
  • Insightful Quotation: “Encouragement is as fundamentally necessary as humiliation is harmful. A mere prohibition of evil-doing is less affection than illumination about the good that this evil-doing will spoil. The real art [of teaching] is to make the child heedful of his own resources and potentialities for the beauty of well-doing” (39).
  • Relevance to the Liberal Arts: Maritain outlines an education that liberates toward their proper end the basic dynamisms of a child through the active fostering of dispositions by the teacher.
Jacques Maritain. “The Humanities and Liberal Education.” Education at the Crossroads.
  • Main Point: Maritiain attempts to outline a liberating education from childhood to graduate school that develops according to the development of a person.
  • Structure: After making Beauty the central object of a childhood curriculum, he makes Truth the central object of adolescent studies (not specialized truths to be memorized, but rather the truth and beauty of the meaning of a liberal art); and  lastly, he addresses the university’s universal teaching and the higher institutes of learning’s specialization.
  • Insightful Quotation: “I would like to add That beauty is the mental atmosphere in the inspiring power fitted to a child’s education, and should be, so to speak,The continuous quickening and spiritualizing contrapunctual base of that education. Beauty makes intelligibility pass unawares though sense-awareness. It is by virtue of the allure of beautiful things and deeds and ideas that the child is to be led and awakened to intellectual and moral life” (61). “The object of education is to see to it that the youth grasps this truth or beauty [of the meaning of learning the liberal arts] by the natural power and gifts of his mind and natural intuitive energy of his reason backed up by his whole sensuous, imaginative, and emotional dynamism” (63).
  • Relevance to the Liberal Arts: Maritian’s treatment of the liberal education highlights that a liberal arts education is not a specialized education in the humanities, but a general education in the human condition through the lenses of the arts and sciences, which shows the truth and beauty of the meaning of each discipline, rather than the technical knowledge of each discipline.
Aristotle. Politics. XII.13-XIII.7.
  • Main Point: Aristotle claims that a liberal education, studies not only for utility but for itself, fits the freeman and remedies the faults of nature.
  • Structure: After discussing education in general, such as the means, ends, and effects, Aristotle explores the subjects of education, namely reading, writing, drawing, gymnastics, and music (poetry).
  • Insightful Quotation: “There can be no doubt that children should be taught those useful things which are really necessary, but not all useful things; for occupations are divided into liberal and illiberal; and to young children should be imparted only such kinds of knowledge as will be useful to them without vulgarizing them. And any occupation, art, or science, which makes the body or soul or mind of the freedman less fit for the practice or exercise of virtue, is vulgar; wherefore we call those arts vulgar which tend to deform body, and likewise all paid employments, for they absorb the mind. There are also some liberal arts quite proper for a freeman to acquire, but only in a certain degree, and if he attend to them too closely, in order to attain perfection in them, the same evil effects will follow” (1337b4-18).
  • Relevance to the Liberal Arts: Aristotle’s criteria as to what counts as a liberal art is, although its study may be useful to achieve some end, it should be studied as an end in itself, because it is an exercise in moral and intellectual virtue.
St. John Paul II. Fides et Ratio.
  • Main Point: JPII’s main claim is that faith and reason, religious revelation and secular learning, theology and philosophy, are not opposed, but rather are united and give valid access to the truth of reality.
  • Structure: After distinguishing the different methods and contents of faith and reason and comparing the similar interest in the “path of life”, JPII acknowledges the limitations of reason’s access to the truth and faith’s unlimited access, then he runs through the history of philosophy and theology’s ever-increasingly intimate relationship, which culminates in St. Thomas Aquinas’ philosophy and theology and is damaged by modern philosophy; next he defines the Church’s corrective and directive engagement with philosophy; then he addresses the modern “crisis of meaning” where philosophers no longer ask what is the meaning of life; next he lists the most prominent philosophical errors, like nihilism, pragmatism, and scientism; lastly he applies everything he has said to practices of specific groups of people, such as theologians, philosophers, and educators.
  • Insightful Quotation: “Faith and reason are like two wings on which the human spirit rises to the contemplation of truth; and God has placed in the human heart a desire to know the truth—in a word, to know himself—so that, by knowing and loving God, men and women may also come to the fullness of truth about themselves” (1); “The segmentation of knowledge, with its splintered approach to truth and consequent fragmentation of meaning, keeps people today from coming to an interior unity” (85); “I believe that those philosophers who wish to respond today to the demands which the word of God makes on human thinking should develop their thought on the basis of these postulates and in organic continuity with the great tradition which, beginning with the ancients, passes through the Fathers of the Church and the masters of Scholasticism and includes the fundamental achievements of modern and contemporary thought” (85).
  • Relevance to the Liberal Arts: St. John Paul II shows how both theology and philosophy seek the same “path of life”, but theology seeks through faith and philosophy through reason. Together, they give unique and mutually helpful insight into the Truth. Thus, a full liberating education will not neglect the two paths that lead to the truth of the Creator and His creatures, and that truth will set the students free.
Sister Miriam Joseph. “Chapter 1: The Liberal Arts.” The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric.,%20Grammar,%20and%20Rhetoric%20-%20Sister%20Mirriam%20Joseph.pdf
  • Main Point: Sister Miriam Joseph defines the liberal arts as intransitive, that is, regardless of their usefulness, they are desirable for their own sake and increase the worth of their possessor because their study provides the knowledge and skill to read, write, speak, listen, and think, which are all necessary for a liberal education.
  • Structure: After defining the liberal arts as “the seven branches of knowledge that initiate the young into a life of learning,” she distinguishes between the trivium and the quadrivium; then she distinguishes between the useful arts seeking useful goods, the fine arts seeking pleasurable goods, and the liberal arts seeking valuable goods; next she shows how a in a true liberal arts education “the student is to relate the facts learned into a unified, organic whole”; lastly she explains that the trivium provides a “discipline of mind inasmuch as mind finds expression in language.”
  • Insightful Quotation: “Rhetoric is the master art of the trivium, for it presupposes and makes use of grammar and logic; it is the art of communicating through symbols ideas about reality” (9).
  • Relevance to the Liberal Arts: Sister Miriam Joseph recovers for a modern classroom the classical model of the liberal language arts. She is original in her discovery of how grammar, logic, and rhetoric educate one in writing, reading, speaking, and listening.
Fr. James Schall, S.J. “A Student’s Guide to Liberal Learning.”
  • Main Point: Fr. James provides sound advice to the collegiate learner who seeks not passing opinions, but what is; his concrete advice, if followed, surely will set a student onto a path of life-long learning.
  • Structure: Fr. James orders his article around two prerequisites to a liberal education is a modern university: self-discipline and personal library.
  • Insightful Quotation: “The best place to begin for any young man or woman today can be stated in two steps: 1) the step of self-discipline and 2) the step of a personal library; both of these together will yield that freedom which is necessary to escape academic dreariness and to discover the wonder of reality, of what is. Even at its best, of course, learning means we need a lot of help, even grace, but we are here talking about what we can do ourselves.”
  • Relevance to the Liberal Arts: Fr. James shows in a simple manner the moral foundation that true learning requires and the intellectual wisdom that is found in the great books. He presents the liberal education as a lifelong process, only begun in college.

St. Bonaventure. Retracing the Arts to Theology. 

  • Main Point: Bonaventure shows how theology permeates and illuminates all the other arts with Divine light, and, is the highest kind of light, and how God ordained all the branches of knowledge for the knowledge of Scripture
  • Structure: After citing St. James epistle on the perfect gifts of God, Bonaventure examines how Sacred Scripture reveals the source and purposes of external light (mechanical skills and arts), lower light (sense perception), inner light (philosophical knowledge), and higher light (grace and Sacred Scripture).
  • Insightful Quotation: “And thus it is clear how the manifold Wisdom of God, which is revealed in Sacred Scripture, lies hidden in all knowledge and in all nature. It is clear also how all divisions of knowledge are handmaids of theology and it is for this very reason that theology makes use of illustrations and terms pertaining to every branch of knowledge. It is likewise evident how wide is the luminous way and how in everything which is perceived or known, God Himself lies hidden within. And this is the advantage of all the sciences, that in all faith is strengthened, God is honored, character is formed, consolation is derived from union of the spouse with her beloved, a union which takes place through charity, to the attainment of which the whole purpose of Sacred Scripture, and, consequently, every illumination descending from above, is directed–a union without which all knowledge is vain because no one comes to the Son except through the Holy Ghost who teaches us all truth, who is blessed forever and ever. Amen” (468-9).
  • Relevance to the Liberal Arts: In this short yet wise work, St. Bonaventure shows how the liberal arts and liberal education find their true source and true end in theology, while at the same time he outlines the order of all the arts and the most essential aspects. This work should be read by every classical and Christian educator

C. S. Lewis. Democratic Education.

  • Main Point: Lewis claims that an education that will preserve democracy must be aristocratic, must be for the few boys who can and want to learn.
  • Structure: After showing the deviations of democracy and a democratic education, Lewis shows the kind of boy that will flourish in a democratic education and preserve a democracy.
  • Insightful Quotation: “A truly democratic education — one which will preserve democracy — must be, in its own field, ruthlessly aristocratic, shamelessly “highbrow”. In drawing up its curriculum it should always have chiefly in view the interests of the boy who wants to know and who can know (with very few exceptions they are the same boy). The stupid boy, nearly always, is the boy who does not want to know. It must, in a certain sense, subordinate the interests of the many to those of the few, and it must subordinate the school to the university. Only thus can it be a nursery of those first-class intellects without which neither a democracy nor any other State can thrive.”
  • Relevance to the Liberal Arts: Lewis’s claim shows the difficulty and the necessity of the liberal education in a democracy.

St. Basil. To the Young on How to Profit from Pagan Literature.

  • Main Point: St. Basil critiques and defends pagan literature for the benefit of the Christian.
  • Structure: In the ten parts to his letter, he begins with why he offers his advice, what are the true goods that eye of the soul can see; then he compares pagan teachings with biblical teachings; next he gives practical advice on how to benefit from pagan literature; lastly, he summarizes all the teaching that the pagans offer.
  • Insightful Quotations: “So we also must consider that a contest,12 the greatest of all contests, lies before us, for which we must do all things, and, in preparation for it, must strive to the best of our power, and must associate with poets and historians13 and orators and with all men from whom there is any prospect of benefit with reference to the care of our soul” (II). “It is for this eternity that I would exhort you to acquire travel-supplies, leaving no stone unturned, as the proverb has it, wherever any benefit toward that end is likely to accrue to you” (X).
  • Relevance to the Liberal Arts: For the Christian wondering whether it is beneficial to read pagan poets, historians, and orators, who instruct the young in the liberal arts, St. Basil not only encourages this kind of study, but even suggests that it is a necessary training for the young’s faith to be strong. The examples and exhortations from vice to virtues are worth studying.

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Brann, Eva T. H.  Paradoxes of Education in a Republic.  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

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Einstein, Albert.  “The Common Language of Science.”  In Out of My Later Years: Essays, 119-21.  New York: Philosophical Library, 1950.

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