Last week the Integritas program met for its first seminar, "The Value of an Education in the Liberal Arts." The seminar was led by Greer Hannan, director of the program, and it explored such questions as: What is the enduring value of a liberal arts education? What sort of preparation for living do the liberal arts provide? What does it mean to learn “how to think?” How is a Christian education unique? What vision of the integration of scholarship, spirituality and service does Pope John Paul II offer us?
The students read three texts in preparation for the seminar: Ex Corde Ecclesiae by Pope John Paul II, Go with God, an article by Stanley Hauerwas, and David Foster Wallace's Kenyon College commencement address, delivered in 2005 and recently published as This Is Water.
The students debated how a Christian college education should be different from that of a great secular university that also values the search for truth and the ways in which it can bear fruit in service to others. They located the difference in the emphasis that Christians place on protecting and advancing human dignity which we all bear since we were made in the image and likeness of God. Pope John Paul II provides a comprehensive vision for what a Catholic university should be in Ex Corde when he says, "Every Catholic University, as a university, is an academic community which, in a rigorous and critical fashion, assists in the protection and advancement of human dignity and of a cultural heritage through research, teaching and various services offered to the local, national and international communities."
Several students raised the question of whether the sort of formation that a liberal arts education is supposed to provide can only be received at a university, or whether life in the wide world can be an equally good school. They concluded that such formation can be found outside of a university, but that the ultimate challenge is to see the world with greater complexity and imagination, and that a university in a unique way can provide both complexity and integration through its various discipline and extended intellectual interrogation of ideas. David Foster Wallace expressed education as a quest for freedom: "But of course there are all different kinds of freedom, and the kind that is most precious you will not hear much talk about much in the great outside world of wanting and achieving... The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline, and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty, unsexy ways every day. This is real freedom. That is being educated, and understanding how to think. The alternative is unconsciousness, the default setting, the rat race, the constant gnawing sense of having had, and lost, some infinite thing."
Solipsism came up several times during the discussion, and the idea that a liberal education is liberal enough to give a person a wider view, as it helps one to imaginatively step outside oneself and truly see a problem from other perspectives. Undertaking an education in the liberal arts challenges our unreflective experience of the world, that "everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realest, most vivid and important person in existence....It is our default setting hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of," as David Foster Wallace puts it.
Although sometimes students worry that the indulging in the luxury of four years of college is itself a selfish and solipsistic undertaking, Stanley Hauerwas speaks of education as a calling and as intended for the benefit of the community, rather than just an individual's ambitions. He says, "By all means honor those who are serving the Church in the ordained ministry, or through social action, or through spiritual direction. But remember: You are about to become a student--not a pastor, a social worker, or a spiritual director. Whatever you end up doing with your life, now is the time when you develop the intellectual skills the Church needs for the sake of building up the Body of Christ."