Monthly Archives: August 2016


Russell Kirk’s Needful Words

Here is an excerpt from the rich and profound article “The Conservative Purpose of a Liberal Education” by Russell Kirk. The article is from Kirk’s book Redeeming the Time. I commend the entire article, which can be found at the web address below. Kirk captures the essence of a classical education, needful for our culture now more than ever.

Our term “liberal education” is far older than the use of the word “liberal” as a term of politics. What we now call “liberal studies” go back to classical times, while political liberalism commences only in the first decade of the nineteenth century. By “liberal education” we mean an ordering and integrating of knowledge for the benefit of the free person—as contrasted with technical or professional schooling, now somewhat vaingloriously called “career education.”

Liberal education is conservative in this way: it defends order against disorder. In its practical effects, liberal education works for order in the soul and order in the republic. Liberal learning enables those who benefit from its discipline to achieve some degree of harmony within themselves. As John Henry Newman put it, in Discourse V of his Idea of a University, by a liberal intellectual discipline, “a habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom; of what… I have ventured to call the philosophical habit of mind.”

The primary purpose of a liberal education, then, is the cultivation of the person’s own intellect and imagination, for the person’s own sake. It ought not to be forgotten, in this mass-age when the state aspires to be all-in-all, that genuine education is something higher than an instrument of public policy. True education is meant to develop the individual human being, the person, rather than to serve the state. We tend to ignore the fact that schooling was not originated by the modern nation-state. Formal schooling actually commenced as an endeavor to acquaint the rising generation with religious knowledge: with awareness of the transcendent and with moral truths. Its purpose was not to indoctrinate a young person in civics, but rather to teach what it is to be a true human being, living within a moral order. The person has primacy in liberal education.

Yet, a system of liberal education has a social purpose, or at least a social result, as well. It helps to provide a society with a body of people who become leaders in many walks of life, on a large scale or a small. It was the expectation of the founders of the early American colleges that there would be graduated from those little institutions young men, soundly schooled in old intellectual disciplines, who would nurture in the New World the intellectual and moral patrimony received from the Old World. And for generation upon generation, the American liberal-arts colleges (peculiar to North America), and later the liberal arts schools and programs of American universities, did graduate young men and women who leavened the lump of the rough expanding nation, having acquired some degree of a philosophical habit of mind.

If all schools, colleges, and universities were abolished tomorrow, still most young people would find lucrative employment, and means would exist, or would be developed, for training them for their particular types of work. Instead, a highly beneficial result of liberal education, conservative again, is that it gives to society a body of young people, introduced in some degree to wisdom and virtue, who may become honest leaders in many walks of life.

From http://newsletter.gw.edu/archive/FeaturedArticle/76


The End at the Beginning

Here at the beginning of a new school year – the start of another year, the beginning of a never-to-be-repeated moment in your child’s life – it is good to talk about the end. Not the end of this year, which will be here in just a couple of ticks of the clock. The end of the year – as in, the purpose of the year. We begin another year, and what is the end of the year? Why are you educating your children? I’m not asking merely about your immediate goals for your children (learning how to read, getting a high SAT score, seeking a career, earning money, etc.). I am asking about ultimate motivations. Why educate at all?

Over seven hundred years ago, Bernard of Clairvaux taught that love is the greatest motivation for education. “There are many,” he suggested, “who seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge: that is curiosity. There are others who desire to know in order that they may themselves be known: that is vanity. Others seek knowledge in order to sell it: that is dishonorable. But there are some who seek knowledge in order to edify others: that is love.”

St. Paul wrote, “Through love serve one another” (Gal. 5:13). This is to say that to love your neighbor is to serve your neighbor. If our children will be educated in order to edify and serve others in love, then service should be just as much a part of the curriculum as reading, writing, and arithmetic. Students should be trained to serve their fellow students, their teachers, their families, and ultimately their community. Their training in service will habituate them to look beyond themselves and their own narrow concerns to the concerns of others. This is what our Lord modeled for us in His life and commands us in His Word.

Author David Hicks wrote in his classic work Norms and Nobility that “the purpose of education is not the assimilation of facts or the retention of information, but the habituation of the mind and body to will and act in accordance with what one knows.” Knowing is not enough; knowing needs to eventuate in doing, in serving others, whether that service is holding the door open for a fellow student or raking the school’s lawn or entering the U.S. military or becoming an architect.

Peter H. Vande Brake, in an article titled “Cultivating the Affections,” wrote, “If we want students who will be servant leaders, then we need to train them through a liturgy [a practice that shapes our habits] of servant leadership. We need to give them the opportunities to serve others. We need to find ways to help our students practice humility and instill a strong work ethic. We need to give students the chance to lead their peers in authentic ways. In order for students to act in accordance with what they know, they must be trained to know how to act. This involves the mind, but it also involves the will and the body. If our schools are only interested in training the minds of our students, then we are cheating them out of the most important facets of an education.” I hear a warning in that last sentence: beware chopping education down to a merely intellectual endeavor, but instead see true education as affecting the whole person: body, mind, soul.

Poet John Donne famously wrote that “no man is an island” and warned that each of us is “involved in mankind,/And therefore” we never need ask “for whom the bell tolls” because “it tolls for thee.” As human beings, bearers of the divine image, and children of God in Christ, each of is joined to each other. Our children are being educated in a community – a web of relationships – where they will be taught how to respect authority, develop friendships, show compassion, use wise words, contend for the truth, and learn humility. These things are the things that matter most.

So as we begin this new year, join me in pondering the end of the year. What is your vision for your children?