Convivium - Faith in our common life

Convivium Volume 1, No. 4


Great Books, Great Questions, Great God

by Ryan Topping

Dr. Ryan Topping delivered this text, titled God and the Great Books: Why Only Religion Can Save the Liberal Arts in Canada, at the national conference on Great Books education—Great Books, Great Questions—at King's College in Halifax last June.


Education is not a thing. It is a method. Educo means to instruct or to draw out. It is a process by which potentiality is reduced to an act, by which a boy or girl becomes a man or a woman. As a method, education—even a liberal education in the Great Books—takes its lead from other masters, from higher sciences. "Education" can no more act on its own than a hammer apart from a hand. This is to say nothing against a hammer. It is only that where it should strike, how it should pull or when it should stay is derived wholly from the mind of its master, from the plan of the builder. So when we teach or study, what do we intend to build? That is easy: man. To teach is to shape a human being. What is a human being? Here is where the conflict begins.

If we are to speak intelligently about the revival of liberal education in our time, we will have to divest ourselves of a lazy mental habit so common in the academy: the wish to avoid the question. If you are a Christian or a Jew, you have an answer. A man is a child of God. We are free because we are intelligent, responsible because free, impaired because of sin, glorious because of redemption. The Great Books are good to study not because they uncover history, though that is important; nor is it because they can teach a student how to read with care, though that is essential. The Great Books are worth reading because they can lead us to truth. And most important of all truths is that man was made for happiness in God.

I am quite aware that Buddhists, atheists and others will take other views on this matter. My only point here is that, as a teacher, you have no choice but to choose from among competing visions of the good. Education is and always has been a battle between the gods. And we do well to recognize fundamental disagreements over the curriculum for what they are. On disputed questions, high-school teachers have been taught to say that they wish children to explore their own values. When pressed, university professors for the most part go along with the same conceit. This is cowardly. Teaching is violent.

Every act of instruction is an incursion upon a living organism that you hope to change through the encounter. Whether your school preaches multiculturalism or militarism, whether you wish boys to be tolerant or tough, you cannot avoid preaching your cause. In short, to educate is to act, and to act is to work from the basis of some principle, stated or implied. For unlike monkeys and spirits, or rocks and stars for that matter, neither Mary nor Peter nor Tiffany nor Mohammed contain within themselves all that is needed for their perfection. Homo sapiens is almost endlessly malleable. The same cradle that swings saints and citizens can beget monsters and tyrants. The boy or girl, and to a lesser extent the college freshman, is, we might say, still half-formed. Without God we cannot form wisely.

This marks the first year that universities across Canada experience the effects of population decline. Public universities rely upon two primary revenue streams: tuition and government grants. The majority of the roughly one million undergraduates in Canada are between the ages of 18 and 21, a cohort set to shrink 10 per cent over the next decade. At the other end of Canada's demographic, adults aged 65 and older will double by 2030 even while the working-age population increases by a mere eight per cent. The calculus is not complex. With fewer students and more pensioners, colleges and schools—like other publicly funded institutions—are bracing themselves for the new era of austerity and soul searching.

For universities, this is not entirely bad news. Scarcity can throw us back to the essentials. Administrators and faculty will be forced to reconsider their core competencies even as taxpayers demand a clearer account of return for their money. It is reasonable to ask why a full professor should make upward of $150,000 for teaching only two or three classes a term. Again, when the largest fields of study are now business, management and public administration, do we really need universities to offer programs that a community college could teach more economically? Among academics, at least, the standard reply to such questions is that universities offer more than a technical training. A university offers not only specialized skills but also a broad curriculum; as they say, a liberal education.

This claim was once credible. The ideal of a liberally educated gentleman, such as Cardinal Newman described in his Idea of a University (1859), a man who could speak to philosophy and politics as much as to Mozart or Saint Paul, has passed. To justify the contemporary university on the grounds that it imparts a liberal education is to involve oneself in an equivocation. Not that memory of this tradition has fully passed. Universities hold tenaciously to a "core" that might include an Introduction to English, maybe a course in World History and, say, Biology.

Beyond these fragments of advice, students are left to their own devices. For two generations now, public universities have given up on the idea of providing a liberal education as this was commonly understood for over 2,000 years of Western practice, and replaced it with vocational training. The Greeks and Romans called their method ofeducation liberal because it suited the freeman—the man capable of directing his own affairs. To study requires leisure. But whether one is a natural slave or not depends, for Aristotle and Plato, more upon the quality of your mind than upon the condition of your estate. By exercising the intelligence upon these disciplines, the ancients thought the mind could be set free. Not to roam, but to discover truth.

By the Middle Ages the liberal arts were seven: grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. The trivium, the first three, held pride of place. Through grammar the student was immersed in a literary culture. Logic clarified the methods of thought; rhetoric, the means of persuasive argument. The arts were "liberal" because their study would train the mind to think not merely about means, but also ends. Culture, contemplation and civic speech: these were the gifts that the Christian tradition of liberal education imparted to European civilization.

Today we do not reach so high. Instead of a common curriculum, colleges offer course selections. Where once familiarity with the Bible and Shakespeare could be assumed, today an illiterate class is passionate about Facebook; psychology and kinesiology substitute for philosophy and science. Rather than learn how to debate at high school and college, students are encouraged to express their feelings. What we do not offer is a liberal education. In its place the curriculum is a menu, the college a cafeteria, and the professor a butler who serves up selections for which students have paid in advance. In this country, George Grant brought into currency an American usage that describes the name for such a place: the multiversity. The new name reflected the reality of what universities had largely become by the mid-20th century: a temple of learning to unknown gods.

My aim is not to address the viability of the university in general but only the health of the liberal arts. In Canada these survive best within Great Books programs. And if they are to thrive, both for theoretical and practical reasons, they cannot carry on without God.

It was Charles Eliot, longtime president of Harvard University (1869-1909) who first introduced to North America the elective course system, imported from Germany. Historicism, along with the prestige of the expanding natural sciences, turned universities away from teaching and the arts toward specialized research in technical applications. Not everyone applauded.

In an effort to renew the older European liberal arts model, John Erskine at Columbia and Robert Hutchins, president at the University of Chicago, launched the Great Books movement, and not without success. The greatest decade of expansion for the Great Books movement followed immediately after the close of the Second World War. As a bulwark against barbarism, educational reformers called for a return to the roots of Judeo-Christian civilization, with its love for freedom and rational defence of moral truth. Hutchins, along with Mortimer Adler, Allan Bloom, Christopher Dawson, John Senior, and others argued that without solid training in the liberal disciplines, without a return to the first principles of philosophy—as embodied in the literature of the West—education would devolve into careerism. As these reformers cautioned, without the pull of the liberal arts, nothing could stop the university from transforming itself into an expensive laboratory. Democracy would be left without defence against totalitarian regimes. Institutional expressions of the Great Books movement took a variety of forms. In the United States, private funding always made the collegiate system more resistant to standardization. St. John's College (Annapolis), in 1937, was the first to introduce an all-Great Books curriculum. The Program of Liberal Studies at Notre Dame was born in 1950, and other schools, such as Thomas Aquinas College (California) and Thomas More College (New Hampshire), followed in their wake. North of the border the need for such a reform was less acutely felt, at least at first. Canada prior to 1945 identified much more closely with France and England. In secondary and tertiary education, this meant that John Dewey's progressive ideas originally had less traction here than in America. The now looming presence of the Charter and the apparatus of the Welfare State can cause us to forget that prior to 1960, Canada, like Holland, was more conservative in outlook than our restless southern neighbours. Our cities were less violent. We were more often in church (in the mid-'50s, 88 per cent of Quebec's Catholics attended weekly Mass). In the academy, a disproportionate number of faculty were either imported from England or had studied there.

Of course, over the post-war years in Canada as elsewhere, the university scene has made an about-turn. Whatever particular European traditions remained alive in Canadian colleges prior to 1960 were rudely brushed aside. In terms of curricular revision, large universities such as the University of Toronto were quick to follow the lead of their American counterparts. Out were courses in Western Civilization and Austen and Dickens; in their place were Women's Studies and classes on Social Justice. Faculty no longer agreed on a common syllabus. So decisions were thrown back to the 18-year-olds.

Significant, too, in this decline was the closure of religious colleges. Catholic institutions in particular had always offered an alternative to the big public schools. The remnants of scholasticism provided a passable coherence to the curriculum well into the post-Vatican II era. Some Catholic institutions, such as Pontifical Institute for Mediaeval Studies in Toronto, were truly worldclass. But this diversity did not survive. In 1965, English-speaking Catholics boasted some 57 colleges or universities. By 1985, either by closure or through government takeover, that number had dropped to 17.

In Canada today, one Catholic college in Barry's Bay, Ont., claims to provide a classical liberal education. King's College in Halifax, St. Thomas University in Fredericton, the Liberal Studies Major at Vancouver Island University, Arts One at UBC, and only a handful of other scattered programs in between make any pretence of keeping the Great Books tradition alive.

Can such programs survive? I think most cannot. I leave to the side whether Great Books programs retain market viability. My claim is that, without God, we have no reason to wish them to survive; for without God in the order of their curriculum they will have already ceased to serve the goods of culture, contemplation and civic engagement that made them valuable to begin with. In the end, a liberal arts education is worthwhile only insofar as it leads us to knowledge of truth. As Aristotle remarked, the wise man seeks not only secondary causes but also ultimate explanations. Inasmuch as teachers and their curricula ignore God, the cause of causes, the Great Books programs will not only fail to impart wisdom but will also cease even to excite their students.

Let me consider the alternative thesis. What types of arguments are open to committed secularists who wish to perpetuate our civilization's devotion to liberal learning? What justifications are open to those who reject metaphysics, who say there is no knowledge of God? Can a Marxist or a Nietzschean, for instance, or even a garden variety agnostic, credibly defend the liberal arts?

The first two alternatives can be treated together, and appear not to offer much promise. Marx and Nietzsche, whom I take to be the most influential of the modern atheists, are both gravediggers of reason. For the one, thought is epiphenomenal. Ideas are not discovered but caused by your social and economic conditions. For Nietzsche, likewise, philosophy is not a lady to be adored but an idol to be smashed. Reason is a bloody belch. Cut through the rhetoric of wonder and inquiry and what you expose is the naked will to power. Now, certainly, a theist could accept much of this postmodern critique of reason. Many of our ideas do float into our heads simply because our parents told us so, or simply because they justify our lusts, or simply because we watched a lot of Homer Simpson. As the metaphysical poet John Donne beautifully put it:

I like an usurp'd town to another due… Reason, your viceroy in me, me should defend But is captive, and proves weak or untrue.

Nietzsche is partially right: reason is wounded. And Nietzsche's term willer zur macht (the will to power) is not far from what Saint Augustine earlier had named the libido dominandi (the lust for domination). It seems to me, however, that such critics are rarely critical enough. Nietzsche and Marx—and their disciples—never seem to be sceptical of their own scepticism. Surely our idols need to be exposed. Even so, these insights into the often depraved conditions of our thinking, penetrating as they are, need hardly lead us to reject reason. What they point to, rather, is our need for discipline, for purification.

As Aristotle long ago observed in his Metaphysics, we cannot escape the use of reason; even to abandon universal truth, you must evoke it. After all, the Marxist who believes truth is culturally conditioned clings at least to one truth, the truth that all thought is conditioned. The Nietzschean who asserts that ideas are masked expressions of the will to power must assert at least one truth, namely, that all thought expresses the will to power. No, the mind cannot help itself: as the eye is made for light so intelligence seems fitted for truth. Those who counsel despair merely reduce themselves to silence, or perhaps to rage and ceaseless revolution

How about the sceptic? Can a professor or his Great Books offer a credible defence for learning without claiming to know what learning is for? From the point of view of the classical Christian tradition, from which I pluck Saint Augustine as my representative, here there is more potential. But we require a distinction. Socrates in The Apology disavowed, after all, any knowledge of ta megista (the most important things). So there is a nondogmatic, nondestructive way of being a sceptic. In fact, in book five of The Confessions, Augustine tells us that it was the sceptical application of reason that freed him from the prejudices that so long had kept him from the openminded study of religion.

"I doubted everything," recounted Augustine, "and in the fluctuating state of total suspense of judgement" decided to abandon even dogmatic doubt. Richard Dawkins is not so selfcritical.

As professors know, the best students often arrive at university in this condition. They are full of innocence and good will, even open to intellectual conversions. One characteristic that distinguishes North American from European undergraduates is precisely this aura of innocence that our students can carry into their first year of college. In Canada it is possible for a 17-year-old to leave high school without bumping up against Nietzsche or Kant, without ever having heard an argument for God's existence, without having listened to a symphony, played the piano, prayed in church or read Shakespeare, except in translation. At college, this can work to their advantage. After suffering under years of soft censorship and a dictatorship of relativism, a first encounter with Aristotle or Dante can evoke all the passion and wonder that they deserve. So there is a kind of scepticism that remains open to the claims of reason, wherever that might lead. The problem is: few of us have the nerve for this kind of suspense. Few of us remain so innocent.

The second type of scepticism, in my experience more common at universities, let me call dogmatic. By this I mean the conviction that beyond the senses no knowledge is possible. This sort of sceptic holds that the moment you step past the rugged peaks of science, you stumble headlong into the dark valley of opinion with nothing to differentiate between the bog and the grass, the true and the false, the silly and the sublime. It takes a student of rare spirit who can set aside the prejudices of their world-weary professors. In the Jewish and Christian and Muslim view, dogmatic scepticism is a fall from innocence and, at bottom, a failure of will. Truth is hard to find; the noble will die looking.

Another problem with scepticism is that it usually is not very consistent. Where educators adopt such a view, invariably the classroom becomes a platform for politics. This is curious. Sceptics might tell you that good and evil and God can never be known and yet, somehow, for these same moderns, morality keeps slipping in through the back door. Imagine for a moment the fate of many freshmen across the country this fall as they stumble into their classes: on Monday in BIO 101, they learn that values are the product of genetic evolution (hence objective morality is not credible); on Tuesday in Intro to Psych, they hear that mind is reducible to matter (so freedom becomes laughable); on Wednesday in Criminology, their professor explains that systems not sinners cause crime (we are not responsible); on Thursday in Religion class, the news is broken that God is a creation of primitive myth (thus we are not accountable). Finally, to round off the week, on Friday the students are told in Economics class that shale gas is bad and that universal medicare is good. Does your head hurt?

No wonder so many students drink Friday evening away to oblivion. Think of it: if ethics are subjective, if religion is a prejudice, if freedom is an illusion, by what right does some prickly environmentalist tell me that I have to recycle my beer bottles? (Which I do, for the record.) Let us be clear: the modern world is full of crusades. We have abandoned morality; we have not ceased to be moralists. The steady stream of campaigns for everything from tree rights to turkey rights never lifts from us the oppressive tax required of citizens of a global, pluralistic, enlightened age. It is just this sort of cultured, moralising scepticism that Nietzsche derisively called the morality of "the last men." And once institutions fall into their hands, liberal education, it seems to me, is beyond recovery.

And so to my conclusion: I offer both a theoretical and a practical reason why only religion can save the liberal arts. I start with the theoretical. The Great Books need God because without Him, without openness to seeking and finding ultimate explanations, the study of the past will find no exit from history. Is reason free to discover truth that is universal? Or, like Plato's prisoner, are we staring only at shadows, condemned, like Sisyphus, to the agony of watching all our efforts crumble back on us? Without openness to knowledge of God, without taking seriously the claims of metaphysics and theology, Great Books programs will become little better than an exercise in museum studies. An important field to be sure but not one worth dying for, or draining the public purse.

The second reason follows from the first. History needs to be interpreted. Apart from knowledge of the first things, we have no principled way to order decisions about secondary things. The rejection of theology as the ruling science has unfortunately left students without defence against the fetishes of their teachers. In a godless universe, who is to say that Zombie Studies are not as interesting as Renaissance Studies or that Fat Studies should not one day shove to the side Classics and Art History? In fact, there is no one to say. The secular academy has no equivalent to an ecumenical council. So which books are read, for how many weeks and with what intention are decisions professors must make and, I think, should make, by appeal to more than their own fickle fancies.

Having claimed this much, I expect that some of my university colleagues will see gain where I register loss. For, to admit the antecedent (there is no knowledge of God) does not imply that you regret the consequent (the democratization of the disciplines). What some call chaos in the curriculum others may choose to describe as destructive creativity. Be this as it may, honesty requires at least this admission:

As God recedes, a void aches to be filled. With religion off our back, we have not freed our shoulders from the burden of following authorities. It is only that we have made room for other idols, politics, the market, tenure and promotion committees, and the like. Professors who grimly accept a de-Christianized liberal arts curriculum have purchased for themselves a new freedom, but at the cost of owning other masters. Preferences vary. Still, without God the liberal arts will be ordered according to the values of lesser creators—Derrida or Foucault or Strauss—or whomever it was in the 1980s that one's grad school recognized as the latest inductee into the academic pantheon. And this, it seems to me, is to adopt much more nearly the posture of slave than the pose our religious grandfathers wore.



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About Ryan Topping

A native of Saskatoon, Ryan N.S. Topping earned a doctorate in theology from the University of Oxford, and is Fellow at Thomas More College of the Liberal Arts, New Hampshire. He previously held the Pope John XXIII Chair of Studies in Catholic Theology at St. Thomas University in Fredericton, Canada. His most recent book is a study of St. Augustine's theology of education titled Happiness and Wisdom (Catholic University of America Press, 2012), and Topping has forthcoming a work of cultural apologetics, Lazarus Rising: The Catechism and the Renewal of Catholic Culture. He and his wife enjoy chasing their five young boys.