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Liberating the Liberal Arts

Perhaps my favorite scene in children’s literature comes from The Silver Chair, to my mind the greatest of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia chronicles.  Many of you will remember the story.  Two children, Eustace Scrub and Jill Pole, are called out of our world by the lion Aslan to the magical land of Narnia, which is cruelly oppressed by an evil witch.  The witch is holding Prince Rilian captive by a spell which has so robbed him of his memory that he doesn’t know who he is.  The children have been sent to rescue him.  Accompanied by a doughty Marshwiggle named Puddleglum, their adventures eventually take them to a vast cave—into which many fall down and few return, Lewis tells us—that turns out to be the witch’s lair.  There they discover the prince and free him from the spell.  Just as they are about to set out for the land above, they are confronted by the witch, who likewise attempts to capture them as she had captured the prince by enchanting—or rather, disenchanting—them.  With a fragrant vapor that emanates from her fire and a constant thrum, thrum, thrumming noise that get in your brains and blood, she slowly begins to cloud their minds and to steal their memory to convince them that her world is the only real world, that there is nothing beyond the cave, and that the sky, the Overworld, Narnia—even Aslan himself—are all just fantasies, psychological projections, if you will, from the things in her realm.  The children grow drowsy; the spell is almost complete, and they are just about to give in completely, when Puddleglum bravely steps with his bare foot into the witch’s fire.  The pain of his burning foot and the unpleasant smell of burnt Marshwiggle break the spell, and Puddleglum defiantly declares that “even if they have only dreamed, or made up all those things—trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself,” they intend to set out into the dark looking for Overland and to live as like Narnians as they can.

If you know something of the history of Western thought, you will recognize this as Lewis’ Christianized interpretation of the allegory of the cave from Plato’s Republic, undoubtedly the most famous passage from the most important work of philosophy ever written.  Plato intended his allegory as an image of education:  the soul’s difficult and painful ascent from the dark realm of shadows, images, and lies into the light of unchanging truth and goodness.  He depicts this ascent quite dramatically as a process of liberation from captivity.  The denizens of his cave are in chains, unable even to bend their necks to look at the light.  They cannot escape the cave because they cannot imagine a world outside or conceive of another kind of life.  In fact, the very suggestion enrages them.

Plato’s vision would define the essence and purpose of education for nearly two thousand years, remaining essentially unchanged after the coming of Christianity.  True education liberates the soul to live the highest, most human, and therefore most divine kind of life:  a life which transcends the animal necessities we share with the beasts; a life free from enslavement to lies, to fashion, to our appetites, or to our vices, a life free for the contemplation of God, a life lived joyfully, courageously, even sacrificially in the light of his goodness and truth.

Lewis’s cave is likewise an image of education, positively in that he depicts the soul’s ascent to Overland as a daring, romantic—even heroic—adventure, negatively in what it implies about modern education and modern culture more generally.  You may have noticed that Lewis’s witch uses very modern arguments to dissuade the children from their quest.  And our culture is very much like Lewis’s cave.  We are beset on all sides and at all times by the constant thrum, thrum, thrumming of noise which gets in your brains and in your blood and makes it hard to think.  Wherever you turn, the noise tells us that there is nothing more to this world than buying and selling, politics and technology, sports and entertainment, nothing more to hope for than perhaps a comfortable life, or maybe the latest gee-whiz technological wonder.  And the educational system in our pragmatic, secular society exists, by and large, to enforce the enforce the idea that this world is the only world, that the cave is all there is.

It is little wonder then, that children often seem so lost by the time they get to folks like me in the university.  Not only do often they lack the basic skills which are the very point of pragmatic education, but they have no memory, no civilizational inheritance, and thus little knowledge of either past or present.  They don’t know who they are; apparently, they can no longer even be sure that they are really men and women.  And since they have neither great hopes nor great loves, they tend to be listless about their own education.  It is not their fault, they have learned what we have taught them.  They have asked for bread, and we have given them stones.

Let them have bread.  Let them have something better to love and something greater to hope for.  Children in their high school years are beginning to turn from home toward the world.  They are naturally full of important questions, questions that deserve to be honored by those who would claim to educate them:  Who am I?  What does it mean to be a man or a woman?  Is there a good life?  What is truth?  Who is God?  What difference does he make to the nature of things?  Let us help young people articulate these questions and to see that their questions are the questions that once animated our civilization, questions that have inspired the greatest and most beautiful achievements in art, literature, music, and architecture that human beings have produced.  As Edward will soon explain, the Saint Jerome institute is attempting to build a curriculum around these sorts of questions, to give students the intellectual and artistic patrimony that is their birthright as Catholics and as children of the West, to overcome the separation of faith and life and the false compartmentalization of the disciplines by integrating the study of science, mathematics and philosophy, and to overcome the listlessness and indifference of contemporary education by giving them something beautiful to love.

This curriculum is tailored to this moment in the lives of young people, the opportunities and challenges of the teenage years.  But it builds on the aspirations of the St. Jerome Academy Education Plan.  We want our children to know who they are and where their ideas come from, and to have the capacity to judge which are true and which are false.  We want them to understand that it is not wrong to be a man or a woman and that they are not enemies, that in fact they were made for each other, that their love is to be revered and embraced and that children are not to be feared or despised.  We want them to understand that true freedom, which is so important to teenagers, consists not in the absence of rule but in virtuous self-rule.  We want them to cultivate this interior freedom by liberating themselves from what Cardinal Sarah calls the “dictatorship of noise”, which requires a capacity for silence.  We want them to develop this interior freedom and this judicious eye so that the technology which now pervades everything and which is constantly overwhelming and transforming modern life may be their servant and not their master.  We want them to think scientifically and to do science without succumbing to the prevailing scientism that reduces reason to science, thinking to engineering, and truth to pragmatic success and without reducing nature or their own bodies to objects of technical manipulation and control.  We want them to see that nature, and indeed their human nature, is in fact creation, and thus beautiful and good so that they may integrate their scientific knowledge into the more comprehensive understanding once known as wisdom.  We want them to understand that if Christianity is true it profoundly affects the meaning of history and the nature of everything, and thus the question of God cannot be a matter of indifference or relegated to a private or irrational realm.   And we want them to have the courage and the confidence to hope for true happiness.

I know first-hand the anxiety all of us feel about our children’s education, especially in this time, when everything in this culture is up for grabs, and in this city, where achievement anxiety is an epidemic and children sometimes start building their college resumes in elementary school.  We all want our children to be successful and to have choices.  Students whose minds and souls are formed in this way will have skills.  They will be heirs to the greatest treasures of Western civilization:  they will know and be able to think about history, art, music, literature, philosophy, and science.  They will be able to read well, write, well, speak well, and think well, far better, I can assure you, than many of their contemporaries.  And so they will have choices.  In fact, I daresay they will be able to do whatever they want.  But our deepest hope is that after four years of searching for Overland, they will want more than the cave has to offer.

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