Review: A Student’s Guide to Liberal Learning

A Student’s Guide to Liberal Learning  (ISI Guides to the Major Disciplines), James V. Schall, S.J. Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2019. (Link is to free e-book download from publisher).

Summary: A pithy little guide on pursuing the liberty that comes in the pursuit of truth and how one might devote oneself to liberal learning.

In this pithy booklet, James V. Schall, S.J. makes the case for the classic ideal of liberal learning that he believes lost in the post-modern setting of contemporary higher education. Liberal education believed that the pursuit of truth, goodness, and beauty freed one (liberated one) to pursue the well-lived life. He writes this booklet to the student who has the sense that there is something more that might be pursued in her education that what is on offer. He also observes, with Augustine and Aristotle, that our actions more than our words reveal what is true, and that our moral failings may prevent us from seeing truth, something rarely, if ever, heard in the classroom.

Where then does one begin. For Schall, he urges two things. One is self-discipline, that is self-control of our passions, fears, dreams, and thoughts, and honesty about our failings in these areas. He writes: “The person who was most free was the one who had the most control over himself.” It is this that allows us to focus on the things of greatest importance.

The second thing is to build a good personal library. Schall doesn’t believe this requires many books–early pioneers often had only Shakespeare and the Bible, and much of what was important in life could be found here. I loved Schall’s commitment to not assigning books that he did not think worth keeping. And this leads to a guiding standard–our libraries should consist of the books we would read again (a standard I use more and more as I cull books from my shelves).

Schall also advocates that we need good guides, holding up Samuel Johnson as an example. A good guide is one who helps the student test ideas by reality. One of the most beautiful lines about teaching is this:

We begin our intellectual lives not with need, nor less with desire, but with wonder and enchantment. A student and teacher read together many books they otherwise might have missed. Both need to make efforts to know the truth of things, the ordinary things and the highest things, that the one and the other might have overlooked had they not had time, serious time, together.

And so Schall concludes by discussing the matter of time, invoking the unusual authority of Louis L’Amour whose The Education of a Wandering Man makes the case for finding the time to read in a busy life. Schall urges students to take time beyond their classes to read, to find great works that aren’t taught in the used bookstores. What books, you may ask? One of the delights of this book are Schall’s recommendations interspersed in the text as well as an Appendix of “Schall’s Unlikely List of Books to Keep Sane By,” a list of twenty titles–only half of which I’ve read. While some are found on “Great Books” lists, many are not.

My only objection is that they are all by white Euro-Americans. I think we may also grow in liberal learning by reading W.E,B. DuBois, Frederick Douglass, and Langston Hughes as well as African, South American, and Asian writers. One of the most profound works I’ve read is Shusaku Endo’s Silence.

That said, this is a delightful little work. For many students, the idea of “liberal learning” has no room in the curriculum. Schall proposes that, sad as this is, the perceptive student will find the room on his or her own and find good guides and books along the way. And this “Guide” is a good beginning.