Saturday, January 23, 2010

The Vision, Part III

Catholic liberal arts education that integrates faith and reason in all of its disciplines...

To remind, I am commenting on the official 'Vision and Values' statement of OLSWA.

1. Liberal Arts. What is it? It originated in Antiquity, but was brought to us in its Christianized form. It is traditionally, primary education consisting of the grammatical disciplines - grammar, rhetoric, logic - known as the trivium, and the mathematical disciplines - arithmetic, astronomy, music and geometry - known as the quadrivium. The Medieval Church put philosophy on top of these 7 and then theology on top of it.

When people speak of the Liberal Arts today, they speak of the trivium and quadrivium only in the loosest sense. The Liberal Arts are also refered to as 'Classical Education' - a lot of people like to speak of a 'classical curriculum' today. What they usually mean is a heavy accent on the basics - reading, writing and arithmetic, good literature, with the addition of the languages (especially Latin, even Greek), theology, philosophy and music. It is an education, moreover, that eschews techne as its principal end - the anti-Francis Bacon, education aimed at harnessing the forces of nature.

What exactly does OLSWA intend by its committment to the Liberal Arts? It has the conviction that the Liberal Arts develop the mind in a way that a technical education does not. Technical education does have a more modest presumption: to equip one to manipulate a very small bit of space, time and matter. The goal of the Liberal Arts is, rather, to develop the mind, for it is within the mind that lies the whole universe, and, moreover, the divine likeness. Within this last sentence one can readily see why a Christian view of education has an affinity with the sort of thinking that gave rise to the Liberal Arts in the first place in Greece and Rome. The internal space maintains a priority over the external space - something for which Christianity is blamed, but for which, rather, it would be commended by every great thinker from Antiquity. I said there is a priority on the interior, but it is not a disregard for or antipathy towards the exterior.

2. Faith and reason. A consideration of their complementarity both completes the description of OLSWA's understanding of the Liberal Arts, and brings out a very important dimension of human life.

The claim here is a strong one: integrates faith and reason in all of its disciplines. There are at least two points to consider: how does theology, i.e. revelation, relate to the other disciplines, and, how can it be said in this way that these disciplines maintain their integrity as seperate sciences? Each science must operate according to its own methodology, but insofar as they relate back to man, this is where theology - the utter science of man - comes into play. Revelation does not dictate how one reads data, but how this data can or should be applied to life by man, that is, how it gains, or ought to gain, significance within the human community. A science violates its integrity when it presumes to address what exceeds its scope.

The great theologians have not all held the exact same view of the relation of faith and reason. But a Catholic position does emerge. It looks an aweful lot like St. Thomas' view. Thomas' position does need to be considered in the light of some difficulties he could never have anticipated: difficulties regarding Scripture, biology, and certain aspects of modern physics. The role of faith in modern academics is both modest and profound, depending upon your perspective. It is usually badly understood. The greatest temptation remains their segregation. It is one thing to insist that the depths of the mystery that is human life not be trivialized, that it does not, nor should it, to consider to admit of too easy comprehension. It is another thing altogether to assert ex hypothesi that they cannot be coordinated. I think one will find that, overall, Thomas' view really does appreciate the integrity, complexity and importance of the realm of reason. Catholicism includes confidence in reason and an appreciation of the essential service faith provides for man's knowing.

Fatih makes a contribution to every discipline, as I said, at the moment in comes into the service of man, but it does so in different ways according to the discipline. Determining that is the job of the academy as a role, established in the Faith of Christ.


  1. Ahem....Don't forget that ever since the Renaissance, history has been one of the most important of the liberal arts.

  2. Ha, ha. Well put. You are right: especially a study of Classical History, but not those nasty Middle Ages.