Literate, engaged citizens

I’m sharing one more excerpt from Archbishop Charles J. Chaput’s “Strangers in a Strange Land:

A friend of mine is a well-known economist at a leading American university. He’s also the gatekeeper for an elite doctoral program in his field. Asked once what he valued most in candidates for his program, he said, “an undergraduate degree in Classics.” Homer and Virgil, of course, have very little to do with things like debt-deflation theory. But my friend’s reasoning is, in fact, quite shrewd.

Since economics is a human (i.e., social) science, its practitioners should first know how to be actual human beings before learning their specialized skills. A formation in the classics or any of the other humanities is an immersion in beauty and knowledge. It has no utility other than enlarging the soul. But that achievement—the ennobling of a soul, the enlarging of the human spirit to revere the heritage of human excellence and to love things outside itself—is something no technical skill can accomplish.

As Leo Strauss once wrote, “liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.”18 A liberal education—a balanced experience of the humanities, art, music, mathematics, and the natural sciences—is designed to form a mature “liberal” adult; liberal in the original sense, meaning free as opposed to slave. Thus for Strauss, “liberal education is the counter-poison … to the corroding effects of mass culture, to its inherent tendency to produce nothing” but specialists without vision or heart.

Scholars like Anthony Esolen, Allan Bloom, Neil Postman, Matthew Crawford, and Alasdair MacIntyre, each in his own way and for different reasons, have all said similar things. For all of them, the point of a truly good education, from pre-K to graduate school, is to form students to think and act as fully rounded, mature, and engaged human beings. In other words, as adult persons of character.

As Matthew Crawford puts it, “Education requires a certain capacity for asceticism, but more fundamentally it is erotic. Only beautiful things lead us out [of our addictive self-focus] to join the world beyond our heads.”20 But the dilemma of postmodern life is that we can’t agree on what a fully rounded, mature “human being” is—or should be. The fragmentation in American culture runs too deep. Recent battles over imposing gender ideology in school curricula and rewriting and politicizing civics and American history textbooks simply prove the point. So does the “progressive” intellectual conformism in so many of our university faculties.

Meanwhile, as American student skills decline in global comparisons, more and more stress is placed on developing STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) competence at earlier student ages. There’s nothing wrong with this in principle. Technical skills are an important part of modern life. But as we’ve already seen, American trust in the promise of technology is robust and naive to the point of being a character flaw. And a real education involves more profound life lessons than training workers and managers to be cogs in an advanced economy.

We tend to forget that “everything that human beings are doing to make it easier to operate computer networks is at the same time, but for different reasons, making it easier for computer networks to operate human beings.” We also tend to forget that our political system, including its liberties, requires a particular kind of literate, engaged citizen—a kind that predates the computer keyboard.

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