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.

Review: The Idea of a University

The Idea of a University
The Idea of a University by John Henry Newman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is perhaps the classic work on the question of “what is a university for?” The book consists of two sections. The first is a series of nine “discourses” on University Teaching given on the inauguration of the Catholic University of Ireland, of which he was its first Rector. The second part is a collection of occasional lectures gathered under the theme “University Subjects”.

Newman’s summary in the last of his nine lectures on University Teaching summarizes the argument he pursues in these lectures:

I have accordingly laid down first, that all branches of knowledge are, at least implicitly, the subject matter of its teaching; that these branches are not isolated and independent one of another, but form together a whole or system, that they run into each other, and complete each other, and that, in proportion to our view of them, as a whole, is the exactness and trustworthiness of the knowledge which they separately convey; that the process of imparting knowledge to the intellect in this philosophical way is its true culture; that such culture is a good in itself, that the knowledge which is both its instrument and result is called Liberal Knowledge; that such culture, together with the knowledge which effects it, may fitly be sought for its own sake; that it is, however, in addition, of great secular utility, as constituting the best and highest formation of the intellect for social and political life; and lastly, that considered in a religious aspect, it concurs with Christianity a certain way, and then diverges from it; and consequently proves in the event, sometimes its serviceable ally, sometimes, from its very resemblance to it, an insidious and dangerous foe. (pp 162-163)

There is so much one could talk about in this summary (and Newman does so at length!) that I will simply observe that he gives what is probably the classic defense of liberal education, articulates a Christian vision for the unity of knowledge, and also articulates the friend/foe relationship in which the Church has often found itself with regard to higher learning.

The second part includes lectures on Christianity and letters, English Catholic literature, Elementary studies (the groundwork he sees as necessary for the perfection of the intellect), a lecture on Infidelity, University Preaching, several lectures on Christianity and the sciences, and a lecture on the Discipline of the Mind.

Two things stood out to me in these lectures. One was Newman’s wisdom as he explore what we call the intersection or integration of faith and discipline. Newman was all for letting each discipline pursue its own modes of inquiry so long as none of these presumed to intrude upon either other disciplines nor the theological enterprise of the church (and vice versa!). On the whole he believes that truth will out in the end and that we don’t have to force reconciliations at the expense of theology or other academic disciplines–better to work with mystery and ambiguity. The second thing was his telling comments on how easy it is to know much about many things but in a disordered way rather than to discipline the mind through grammar, composition, the classic languages and foundational beliefs. This might be a telling criticism for our day when university students and even “educated” adults have opinions about everything but cannot write clearly or develop a logical argument.

That said, while Newman writes with a mastery of language and argument, he writes as a Victorian, with dense and compound sentences. I found that I often had to read him allow to capture a sense of the flow of his ideas. In other words, there is much rich thinking in this work but it is heavy going that requires the reader’s full attention.

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