Fr. James Schall Explains Liberal Learning at Christendom College

February 8, 2005


Renowned professor and author Fr. James V. Schall, S.J., delivered a lecture entitled "Liberal Learning"on February 7 at Christendom College as part of the College's Major Speakers Program.

Fr. James SchallFr. Schall, a member of the California Province of the Society of Jesus and a professor of political theory at Georgetown University, began his lecture by explaining what is "liberal" about liberal learning or liberal education.

"Liberal education has to do with what we think about," he began. "Liberal education exists in order that we might think about the important things, things we never thought of or thought clearly of by ourselves. But this emphasis on the highest things should not unduly prejudice us from noticing the little things, the things that may not count for much, but of which much of human life consists. A liberal education can ultimately be found only in our own souls. It does not exist apart from them."

He continued by explaining that, according to St. Thomas Aquinas, it is a better thing to pass on what we have contemplated than merely to contemplate it which reminds us that there is a certain inner urgency in what is, almost as if things are designed both to be and to be known. We are not "free" if we keep what is true to ourselves, even if it is ours and indeed intended for ourselves.

"What does this import for the ‘liberal' side of a liberal education?" asked Fr. Schall. "It means that the burden of finding the truth of things, of finding what does in fact make us free, may often require us to find it in channels other than those wherein we would expect to find it."

He then explained that what is "liberal" about liberal education is the awareness that our minds are measured by reality. "Truth is, as Aquinas said, the conformity of mind with what is. It is true that in moral, political, and artistic things, in their own way, things can be otherwise because that is their nature. To be aware of this variability is essential to the freedom and the truth inherent in practical things."

But behind practical intellect always lies theoretical intellect. "We live in an era in which mind has declared its freedom from things. The autonomous man is the man who claims a freedom based on the premise that there are no binding norms or measures to be found in things. Things are devoid of forms. We ‘create' the only norms there are; we do not discover them," he said.

The term "liberal" in liberal education must begin with the notion that the freedom of the intellect is precisely its affirmation of what is and the principles of being that follow from it, Fr. Schall contended. Freedom is not a power to make things, including ourselves, to be otherwise, such as restructuring the state, the family, or the inner soul. Rather it is the liberty to affirm and follow what we are wherein what we are is not something we make or define, but what we discover ourselves to be. It is, in short, the affirmation that we do not cause our own to be.

"The ultimate purpose of what is ‘liberal' in a liberal education is that we be free to acknowledge, because we have both virtue and mind, even what is obvious when no one else sees it or, worse, admits it," he concluded.




Share this story: