commencement speech given at Geneva Academy in Monroe, LA
I enjoy visiting with the Geneva community because it reminds me of the much larger community at work in classical Christian education, particularly in Louisiana; it is an exercise in brotherhood, so thank you for this opportunity. And thank you for your ongoing faithfulness to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the implications of that Gospel as we see it in classical Christian education. Lauren and I are thankful you invited us to share this evening with you.
What does a person DO with a liberal education? Well, it depends on the person. But this is the question for this evening. What does a person DO with a liberal education?
In the summer of 2012, Lauren and I were moving from Fort Worth, Texas to Baton Rouge. We were starting a classical Christian school in Baton Rouge, and I was simultaneously going to attend some doctoral classes in comparative literature. I went one afternoon to pick up the moving truck, and in the midst of the quiet office the worker asked, “So why are you moving to Baton Rouge.” His eyes fixed on the computer screen as he scrolled, typed, and logged in my information. He looked at me.
“We are starting a school and I’m going study literature,” I said.
“Very cool,” he said. “Study literature? What are you going to do with that?”
The man’s question was honest, and this was his shot at practicing a bit of customer courtesy. I believe he was genuinely interested in what I was going to do with that, and this makes the question that much more intriguing. Consider the question for a moment. Consider how often we have asked it about nearly everything, especially in education. Let’s call this question “The Utilitarian Question.”
You’re at a family Christmas party and your niece says to your brother, her uncle, “I’m majoring in fine arts, Uncle Tommy.” Your brother Tommy gives a disregarding snort and returns, “What are you going to do with that?” Because Tommy is an electrician and that’s all he thinks about, and because your niece likely hasn’t thought about it much, she fumbles as she attempts to boost the 21st century art industry and all the new start-ups who she thinks may be looking for fine artists. She plays right into Uncle Tommy’s Utilitarian Question. “To each his own, I guess,” Uncle Tommy replies.
Or imagine you are with some friends and someone asks you where your grandchildren attend school, and you are a bit sheepish to tell them the answer, because, let’s face it, telling your friends that your grandchildren attend a classical Christian school may require explanation and perhaps even some apology that your daughter and her husband don’t really know what they’re doing. You decide to go through with it. Gulp. “Geneva Academy,” you say, half smile and eyes wide, communicating that you would choose a simple affirmation over a simple interrogation from your friends. “Ah, isn’t that the classical school in town?” your other friend asks. “Yes, it sure is,” you say, hoping that will be the end of it. “And they learn Latin, and logic, and read all those old books,” your friend responds. And then you wait for the question. “What are they going to do with that?”
It’s The Utilitarian Question, and if you are in classical Christian education long enough, you will hear this more than any other question. The Utilitarian Question, like all questions, is loaded with assumptions. Bu this question is loaded with utilitarianism. It is loaded with assumptions about human beings, about learning, about school, about religion, about society, about individual learning, and about the good life. And the majority of these assumptions are wrong. The Utilitarian Question, at its core, assumes that education is something to be used, that an education is judged by how practical it is for gainful employment, for how well it holds up to current industry standards. The Utilitarian Question is about how the individual student will use their education.
But imagine asking the Utilitarian Question in other situations:
Students, imagine you are well out of high school, and perhaps your father would say well out of your twenties, and you are finally on your first real date. The waiter places a dessert in the middle of your table. It’s a molten chocolate cake with a scoop of homemade vanilla bean ice cream on top. And your date asks, “What do we do with that?”
Ladies, imagine if when you tell your best friend you had found a suitable spouse, that you had found a husband, your friend responds, “What are you going to do with that?”
Men, imagine if your best friend of twenty years cruised into your driveway with a new Corvette, 2018 even. Newer than new. He knocks on your door. Smiles as he sees you look at the car, and then he says, “Let’s go for a spin.” And you say, “What are you going to do with that?”
Think back for a moment in Chronicles of Narnia, particularly the movie, when Lucy gives her hand to Mr. Tumnus, the first time she meets him at the lamp post. He looks at it. Awkwardly. She says, “Oh, you shake it.” He responds, “Um, why?” And Lucy replies, “I don’t know. People do it when they meet each other.” Tumnus then gives an awkward, end of the fingers rattle, the kind we must teach our boys not to give if we intend for them to be men.
We ask the Utilitarian Question when we don’t know what something is. Mr. Tumnus didn’t know what a handshake was. And that’s why the scenarios above are silly, why it doesn’t make any sense to ask The Utilitarian Question in those situations. The Utilitarian Question concerning food or romantic relationships or a spin in a Corvette is silly, because we generally know what those are. But we have lost our way when it comes to education. We don’t know what education is anymore. We don’t quite know what it’s for, and so therefore we must ask that question concerning nearly every part of education. What will one do with logic? What will one do with rhetoric? Latin? What will one do with diagramming sentences and memorizing poetry? These are genuine questions, but they are the mark of confusion, a confusion that must be put aright.
There was a time when we knew the church would not be strong, faithful, and intelligent unless her people were strong, faithful, and intelligent. There was a time when we took for granted that a healthy democracy required healthy citizens, and healthy citizens are not formed in a vacuum. These times are no longer. The Utilitarian Question assumes that education, and consequently everything in the world, is for our use, we may even say for our consumption. But consider for a moment if education is much more than that, if education is about our enjoyment or delight. Consider if education is about our academic and aesthetic formation more than it is about credits which eventually lead to college, and a job, and retirement, and who knows what after that. Consider that education is for our understanding the world and God, for reading Scripture with more joy and clarity, for loving the sacraments more faithfully, and whether education is for our sanctification and that would be enough.
The Utilitarian Question isn’t a dangerous one. It’s a sobering one. It’s a sad one. When asked first, it’s a question which reveals the ignorance of our day. It’s a question that should drive us to compassion for our neighbor and for resolve to make it clear once more why a liberal education is not just useful but good and true and beautiful, why a liberal education is an important part of freeing us from, as St. Thomas Aquinas said, the twofold darkness into which we were born: sin and ignorance.
But I don’t want to be mistaken. This education is, in fact, quite useful. All things good, true, and beautiful are simultaneously practical, and they are more practical than anything the pragmatists can devise. In an essay due out in a few weeks in the 2017 CLT College Guide, contemporary author and scholar Louis Markos says that a liberal arts education is a “higher utility.” Markos states,
In Dublin in 1852, [John Henry] Newman delivered a series of nine discourses—later published as The Idea of a University—meant to lay down principles upon which a classical-Christian liberal-arts Catholic university was to be built. After conceding that British educators insist on utility/usefulness as their watchword, Newman goes on to broaden and enlarge the definition of utility:
I say, let us take “useful” to mean, not what is simply good, but what tends to good, or is the instrument of good; and in this sense also, Gentlemen, I will show you how a liberal education is truly and fully a useful, though it be not a professional, education. “Good” indeed means one thing, and “useful” means another; but I lay it down as a principle, which will save us a great deal of anxiety, that, though the useful is not always good, the good is always useful. Good is not only good, but reproductive of good; this is one of its attributes; nothing is excellent, beautiful, perfect, desirable for its own sake, but it overflows, and spreads the likeness of itself all around it. Good is prolific; it is not only good to the eye, but to the taste; it not only attracts us, but it communicates itself; it excites first our admiration and love, then our desire and our gratitude, and that, in proportion to its intenseness and fulness in particular instances. A great good will impart great good. If then the intellect is so excellent a portion of us, and its cultivation so excellent, it is not only beautiful, perfect, admirable, and noble in itself, but in a true and high sense it must be useful to the possessor and to all around him; not useful in any low, mechanical, mercantile sense, but as diffusing good, or as a blessing, or a gift, or power, or a treasure, first to the owner, then through him to the world. I say then, if a liberal education be good, it must necessarily be useful too. (Discourse VII, Section V)
But in what sense are the liberal arts good? They are good because they cultivate the student’s intellect in such a way as to promote and diffuse that which is “beautiful, perfect, admirable, and noble.” And, by so doing, they equip him to spread that which is “beautiful, perfect, admirable, and noble” to others. That is why the good is prolific in a way that utility is not. Utility might get a student into the college of his choice, but a good training in the liberal arts will help shape him into someone who is not only successful in monetary terms, but who both embodies and spreads goodness.
Still, even with the practical successes of a liberal education, gauging something merely on its usefulness is not helpful after all.
The question concerning education, and all things for that matter, is not “What am I going to do with it.” The better question is “What is it going to do with me?” We may even ask this in a more communal spirit, “What is it going to do with us?” This is the question we ask when we care about our doctrinal, intellectual, and aesthetic formation, and this is the question we rarely ask anymore.
What is it going to do with us?
The best things in life aren’t merely or even primarily useful, in the modern sense of the term. But modernity judges all things according to its idols. The god of this age is Self, and self-pleasure is the greatest devotion we can give to this god. Therefore, children are not useful to worshipping this god Self. The liturgical calendar isn’t useful to worshipping Self, especially Lent. True, sacrificial friendship isn’t useful to worshipping Self. And a good liberal education, classical Christian education, is most certainly not useful in worshipping Self. Quite clearly, classical Christian education is the antidote to worshipping Self. Not only does this kind of education place before you the one true God; it places before us all men and women who are way smarter than us, more virtuous than us, more worthy of our time and attention than the man in the mirror.
So, what kind of question must we ask to gauge the health or importance of an educational model? This depends on how we answer other questions: What is the world and what is wrong with the world? In a world made in the image of pure mechanism, the Utilitarian Question is the perfect question. In a world where capitalism and democracy are the greatest social bonds, the Utilitarian Question is necessary, and it is the only important question. If you think global warming is what’s wrong with the world, the question you ask on education will be Utilitarian. If you think the lack of democracy is what’s wrong with the world, the question you ask regarding education will be utilitarian. If you think money is in the wrong hands and that’s what’s most wrong with the world, the question you ask regarding education will be utilitarian. But what about a world where the main problem is the soul of man, the heart of darkness, the mind numbed away from sound thinking, the heart and mind which loves what it ought not to love and hates what it ought not to hate? In a world made in the image of the Triune God, the utilitarian question is misguiding. This is a Trinitarian world, made in the image and mutual love of the Three Persons in the One Being of God. And because the three Persons of the Trinity do not “use” one another, neither do we in this world.
Therefore, as grandparents, aunts and uncles, parents, students, and ministers, we must first ask the Trinitarian Question concerning education, a question not about usefulness but about delight, about love.
Students, avoid The Utilitarian Question, because I know this is where our sophomores, juniors, and seniors at Sequitur are being heavily influenced by the world. I teach your kind down in Baton Rouge. When considering whether you should lean into your classes at Geneva or you are considering what you should go study when you graduate here, avoid the Utilitarian Question. Instead, here are some other questions you should ask:
How will this education help you best communicate the grace and mercy of God?
How will this education help you best beautify your city?
How will this education help you build and mature your local church?
How will this education make you humble before God and man?
How will this education allow you to see your vocation, who God is calling you to be?
How will this education allow you to best serve your parents when they are old?
How will this education make you a better friend?
How will this education allow you to better love and read Scripture?
How will this education equip you to avoid mistakes others have made?
If you are called to be a mother or father, how will this education allow you to provide financially, emotionally, and spiritually for your family?
The Utilitarian Question is important. It’s just one of the least important of all the questions concerning education. And it is ultimately a question only God can answer. What are you going to do with this education, with any education? I don’t know. Neither does anyone else. Trust God and study. This education is a gift. And gifts aren’t to be used; they are to prompt us to gratitude and joy; they are to be sacramental in their bringing us to the face of our Triune God, and eventually we either give a gift back to God or we give it to our neighbor in hopes our neighbor will be brought to God by it.
Parents and grandparents, avoid The Utilitarian Question until we have asked and answered the more important ones. Ask not what your children and grandchildren can do with this education. Rather, ask what this education will do to them. Ask not how this education will prepare your child for jobs which don’t yet exist; ask how this education will prepare your child for a Church which doesn’t yet exist. Ask not how this education will prepare your child for college; ask how this education will prepare your child for marriage. See what kind of men and women it will make them, and watch them soar as they use their gifts in a particular vocation.
So, what does a man do with a liberal education? A liberally educated man does plenty and he is more equipped than the pragmatist to do more, but the most important thing is what a liberal education does to a man. A Christian liberal education brings man time and again face to face to the one who alone can liberate, to the one true God, whose service is perfect freedom.