Skip to content

Hard and Heavy Questions from Pseudonoma

April 25, 2009

I’m still considering these questions that relate to the small constellation of quotations in my post below, but thought they deserved a post of their own meanwhile. I’ve been thinking towards a response along a number of potentially fruitful lines. In the mean time anyone else equal (more or less) to the challenge is welcome to step forth:

“How is equality in any ways to be associated with liberal education? Does it characterize the manner in which such an education can be received? Is it an expectation to be set upon the availability of such an education? Does it refer to the manner in which the fruits of such an education are to be distributed or attained? Or is it because liberal education has been all too readily associated with equality that it finds itself yoked with the misbegotten task of rescuing culture, or embarrassingly handed over as an ornament to a political purpose?

I do not intend a merely rhetorical flippancy here, but it seems that what is sacred in this world of its own accord constellates a hierarchy among those who would receive it. Otherwise it is given in a way that this world as such does not yet recognize.”

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Cerfer permalink
    April 26, 2009 10:23 am

    Natural justice will always assert itself in liberal arts education. Some wax can receive more of the imprint than others (our inequality comes from our varying degrees of perfection when it comes to the intellectual virtues), but whether deep or light, the image can always be seen and recognized, because the liberal arts provide a permanent education. Philosophy will never go the way of investment banking.

    Equality in education is rooted in ontology. Think of the parable of the sower. We all possess the equality of soul that enables us to become friends with God, but it’s not up to us to determine whether or not we give forth fruit 30-, 60-, or 100-fold. Our concern should be to avoid being choked with brambles, or to avoid falling on the road and not growing at all. Stretching the parable a bit, as the latter two examples attest, we can refuse to be liberally educated, opting instead for a vocational, “how-to” degree.

    The intellectual virtues, like the life of prayer, are grown in secret–and with considerable effort. Insofar as all of us can develop and perfect these virtues, so equality in education exists. Pseudonoma, it is a hierarchy, but because we all possess inestimable dignity, it’s a hierarchy in which each of us can (and is called to) participate.

    Hard and heavy questions for sure, but absolutely essential ones for everyone to consider.

  2. lykos permalink
    May 9, 2009 9:51 am

    “Equality in education is rooted in ontology. Think of the parable of the sower.”

    I’ve been accused of losing some of the mental acuity that I was reputed to possess in the past, so it is perhaps my fault that I am unable to fully understand the quick transposition between ontology and the parable of the sower. Maybe it is just a sign of what I presume to be large differences in our intellectual backgrounds, but I personally do not think that we can forge a strong connection between the universal offer of salvation that Christ offers in the parable and the idea of liberal education and intellectual virtues. At the risk of asking someone to elucidate the obvious, I would like to ask Cerfer what he means by a “liberal arts education,” since it is apparently something that offers a fitting analogy to the gift of saving Word the parable speaks of.

    For my part, I am presently of the opinion that this is not the case at all. I am of this opinion because I believe that our current concept of a “liberal arts education” is an image of the truth of education and not the idea of education itself. As such, I believe it necessarily lacks the universality that the parable speaks of. As an obvious sign of this, we see the fact that even (and indeed, especially) the simple and uneducated were those to whom Christ’s message was preached, whereas the educated ones were all-too-often those who opposed Christ.

    As a proud recipient of a liberal arts degree I would be the first to say I think it is a worthy course of studies, but I’ve also seen that it can cause enormous damage to the unprepared and that, unlike the salvation of Christ, it is at best a perilous gift. It is a gift that I, for my part, would not want too widely diffused.

    I’m also perplexed by the presence of the word ontology here, but regrettably ontology is not my strong suit so that line of inquiry is shut off to me.

    I look forward to your response.

    Regards,
    Sebastian

  3. Cerfer permalink
    May 19, 2009 5:46 pm

    Thank you for your thoughtful post; I’ve not seen it until today. When the post prior to this one came up, it made me think of the current usage of the term “equality” in American academia (solid SLAC’s not included). In general, equality in that context is in reference to “equality of access” to education. As equality has overshadowed liberty as the dominant American virtue, understandably, the meaning of the word has changed. Or to be more accurate, those who define the word has changed. A poll-obsessed politician is not quite a philosopher.

    Ontology is not my strong suit either, but it’s the only term I could think of that would allow me to look at equality in terms of natural justice as opposed to looking at equality as the “creation of a level playing field.” You and I (and every human being) were born with rational souls that needed their intellectual virtues developed and perfected. The best way to develop these virtues is through a liberal arts education.

    You’re stretching my words beyond what is written when you suggest that I’m pitting a liberal arts education against salvation. You are welcome to reject my analogy, but as I see it, each of us will develop different levels of perfection in the intellectual virtues, just as each of us will develop different levels of perfection in the theological virtues.

    I would like to comment on the following paragraph:

    “For my part, I am presently of the opinion that this is not the case at all. I am of this opinion because I believe that our current concept of a ‘liberal arts education’ is an image of the truth of education and not the idea of education itself. As such, I believe it necessarily lacks the universality that the parable speaks of. As an obvious sign of this, we see the fact that even (and indeed, especially) the simple and uneducated were those to whom Christ’s message was preached, whereas the educated ones were all-too-often those who opposed Christ.”

    I think we disagree here. Certainly, the Gospel narratives concur with what you say. However, Luke was a doctor, and Paul, a master rhetorician, was highly educated. As Pope Benedict noted in his Regensberg Lecture, the kerygma was/is intimately intertwined with Hellenism. Figures like Augustine and Aquinas placed their significantly developed intellectual virtues at the service of their theological virtues, and vice versa.

    Perhaps the root of our disagreement lies in the secular/political understanding of equality. I’ll assume that we mean the same thing when we say “liberal arts education” (here I think that Thomas More College [prior to the administrative changes of the past three years, which seem to have been much more Machiavellian than Burkean, but that’s another conversation] can be our example). I think that everyone should have a classical liberal arts education. I’m not as aware as you are of the damage it can do. However, I am aware of the damage that soulless vocational degrees and politicized liberal arts degrees do.

    Unlike you, I want a solid liberal arts educations diffused as widely as possible. To withhold such an education suggests an elitism that chafes against my love of liberty. Grace builds upon nature; I see nothing wrong with a robust building up of that nature to the greatest extent possible, which will necessarily be a different degree for every person.

    If Rimwell’s excellent post is any indication, then words like “ontology” and “equality” serve as little more than red herrings, and for that, I am regretful.

  4. May 20, 2009 12:52 pm

    Just a thought to add on this part of Sebastian’s post:

    “I personally do not think that we can forge a strong connection between the universal offer of salvation that Christ offers in the parable and the idea of liberal education and intellectual virtues.”

    I think the connection that is to be forged here has to do with the way that “friendship”–understood, I think, in the way that Rainscape has often used it (and also in Cerfer’s original post)–and “contemporaneity” interact in relation to the nearness of the sacred (which is at issue both for salvation and liberal education). Love hides a multitude of sins. Friendship draws different knowers closer to the meaning of knowing.

  5. lykos permalink
    May 21, 2009 6:34 pm

    Cerfer,

    Your expansion of your position is appreciated; I believe I’m beginning to detect the central point where we seem to stand opposed.

    Your argument runs something like this:

    Man has a rational soul
    A rational soul is best developed by a liberal education
    The development of the rational soul is a good for all men
    Therefore, liberal education is good for all men

    There is no problem in the flow of your logic, but I find myself absolutely unable to accept the neo-Aristotelian beliefs that underlies your whole argument, and for the following reasons:

    1) Aristotle doesn’t agree with the conclusion

    It is clear from the Philosopher that there are persons simply incapable of achieving certain kinds of goods. We may speak of this incapacity in two ways: in the first way, we have those who are constitutionally incapable of performing certain actions. Being a fast runner is no doubt a good of the body, but there are many who are prevented by disability from running at all. In the second way, incapacity manifests itself as a lack of desire: I, for instance, would rather like to have a better grasp of Aristotle, but ultimately lack the drive to study his writings more deeply.

    The Philosopher happens to be of the opinion that there are those who suffer from the former kind of incapacity as regards their rational faculty and consigns such people to the state of natural slaves. While I disagree with Aristotle’s desire to enslave those who do not possess a “rational faculty,” I do not disagree with him that such people exist, and such persons ought not study the liberal arts. Also, just to be clear, we are not speaking here (nor was Aristotle) about those who are now called mentally ill.

    2) Plato doesn’t agree either

    This is a difficult point, since on one hand Socrates seems keen on attempting to educate everyone in sight. However, I think, were he to be presented with what is being called now a “liberal education,” he would recognize that it is not meant for all men. Consider the profound danger he discovered in writing itself–and what do we do in our liberal arts schools but read books! Also, consider the fact that Republic specifically notes that there are certain individuals who do not seem to have the capacity for real education. These people are not (necessarily) evil, but any attempt at educating them would be fruitless. This is good, because if it wasn’t for these people, the city would be missing the majority of its carpenters, weavers, tailors, bakers, and the like.

    3) The liberal arts are not necessarily good

    You protest that there have been many educated Christians. I don’t disagree, but that doesn’t answer the objection I raised. Every Christian is also a human and as such is the possessor of any number of attributes and abilities which they can use in the service of Christ. But these attributes and abilities can still be dangerous things. The zeal that served Paul so well in his preaching also led him to hold the cloaks at the stoning of Stephen. Christ didn’t say that the rich man couldn’t enter the kingdom of God, but he did make it out to be rather difficult. Liberal learning develops certain powers of the mind that people may or may not be ready to use responsibly, and to recommend the universal education of all persons in this method would bring peril to many.

    My conclusion would be that I believe our biggest disagreement centers around your assertions involving the rational soul. You seem to think that a rational soul is such a thing that its highest good is to be liberally educated. I don’t believe in the existence of anything I would call a rational soul, but, to avoid an underlying philosophical clash that will stray from the topic, I would suggest that the rational soul is not as simple as you seem to think it is. If I were to speak of a rational soul, I would say that there are those whose rational souls would be best developed in a manner rather different from the study of a liberal arts education.

  6. Cerfer permalink
    May 22, 2009 12:17 pm

    Rimwell, I like your use of love and friendship. I think that’s exactly what the common ground is in this conversation. The study of the liberal arts in common strengthens both friendship and love.

    Sebastian, perhaps you are right about the difference between us being the rational soul. You know much more about ontology than your original self-deprecating post indicated; I used the broadest term possible so that I could make my point about developing the intellectual virtues. For the record, I don’t think that its highest good is a liberal education, but I do think that a liberal education is very important in achieving its highest good.

    I have had discussions about Kirkegaard with farmers, Homer with nurses, De Tocqueville with building contractors. It’s not exactly at the level of an academic conference or the classroom, but it’s made our time more contemplative than laborious. We should expect much more from ourselves than Plato’s one man, one trade.

    I suppose that I am much more open-ended about the subject because I don’t have the capacity to discern who deserves to be educated and who does not. Many will choose to not be educated in this way. Many cannot do it. That’s why I spoke about natural justice in my earlier posts. But I’m not afraid of a liberally educated populace (“Liberal learning develops certain powers of the mind that people may or may not be ready to use responsibly”), and I can’t believe that it will be more threatening to culture (and civilization) than what we have now.

    You sound like one who has seen the light outside of the cave, and rather than going back to free the others, you have chosen to remain in the light because you cannot control its effects on others. You obviously identify yourself as part of the elite who has the capacity to experience and contemplate the light, but your distrust of others prevents their sharing in it. In my understanding, light, like rain, falls on the just and the unjust alike. I was not put here to hand out sunglasses and umbrellas.

    As it turns out, our disagreement isn’t over ontology or equality or terminology like “rational soul”–it’s over who should be liberally educated and who should not. Your argument is similar to many gun control advocates: We cannot allow gun ownership because someone might be shot. I suppose I advocate responsible liberal education ownership.

    Rainscape, I appreciate your graciousness in allowing my comments to be posted. As the sidebar between Sebastian and myself wraps itself up, I look forward to reading more of your posts this summer.

  7. lykos permalink
    May 24, 2009 12:58 pm

    Let’s backtrack a moment.

    I feel that I’m being interpreted incorrectly now. This may be partially my own fault.

    I have been arguing that the liberal arts, conceived as such and therefore placed within the confines of the field of education, are in fact less important than I believe you are painting them to be. Or at least, that’s what I thought I was attempting to argue.

    However, I seem to find myself understood as taking the position of Ivan Karamazov’s Grand Inquisitor and offering to be the arbiter of who is given the secret gnostic fire that will make them part of the shadow elite who pull the strings behind the scenes.

    This is not my position.

    My principle objection was against what I felt was the incorrect connection being forged between the Christian religion and the liberal arts. I further believe that this objection has not been answered, nor, I believe, can it be answered.

    The idea of a liberal arts education is an image of the idea of education itself, in its proper and original sense, and it must be taken as such. This is why I strongly disagree with your statement: “The best way to develop these [intellectual] virtues is through a liberal arts education.”

  8. Cerfer permalink
    May 24, 2009 5:04 pm

    I’m not sure where I equated liberal education with gnosticism, but there are political ramifications for arbitrarily qualifying persons to receive such an education. And as I said in my original reply, you are welcome to reject the analogy/metaphor I presented.

  9. lykos permalink
    May 27, 2009 7:58 pm

    I feel like we got nowhere here. I can only hope that someone comes along who is capable of untying the knot into which we’ve tied ourselves here.

  10. jsumner permalink
    July 7, 2009 2:26 pm

    Adam,

    It just occurred to me that I would really enjoy reading your paper on the Wasteland. Would you mind emailing it to me? jsmith@udallas.edu Thanks.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: