31 December 2003

A liberal education

I wrote something three days ago that I realized later sounded anti-intellectual, and I am writing this in part to correct a misimpression left by that earlier post.

To begin with, there are certain kinds of reductionisms that only the highly educated are prone to fall into. For example, there is a crude Marxism that reduces the complexity of human social relations to a simplistic conflict model pitting oppressors against oppressed. Or a Freudian approach that traces all motivations to psycho-sexual dynamics. The average farmer or handyman is unlikely to buy into these -- unless, that is, he is deliberately subjected to "consciousness raising" by the Marxist, Freudian, &c. In this respect, the nonintellectual may be more attuned to the genuine complexity of human experience in a way that the ideologue, who is forced by her theory to suppress this experience, is not.

That said, education can and does open up vistas to the person pursuing it. This is not the sort of education that quickly narrows the focus, thus seeing the student concentrating so heavily on a single pursuit, e.g., engineering or quantum physics, that she loses the larger picture. It is an education that attempts to give students a sense of who they are and where they are situated within the flow of their civilization. Such an education aims truly to educate and not merely to train in some technical skill. Students who are broadly educated should be conversant in the works of the great philosophers, the literary giants, the great composers, the seminal scientists, the important theologians and so forth. They should have a sense of how the various academic disciplines interconnect and how similar issues are raised within a number of them. And, as Gideon Strauss would put it, they should learn to ask big questions.

My first semester as a university undergrad I took introductory courses in both psychology and philosophy. I remember the excitement I felt at noticing the relationships between the two fields. The readings in each course raised issues that were taken up in the other, albeit in a slightly different way. Thirty years later I can no longer recall why this was such a revelation to me. At the time I did not know I was heading towards an academic career. But in retrospect I think I was coming to understand the coherence of God's world and that this very coherence pointed to him as the principle of unity.

In the US in particular there are scores of christian liberal arts colleges and universities. The adjective christian is not just an add-on to the liberal arts. In fact, I am inclined to think that studying the liberal arts inevitably tends to point students beyond themselves and their studies to the principle of unity behind the disciplines. This is why I am so committed to what we are doing at Redeemer University College. Redeemer is an unique institution here in Canada for a variety of reasons. But when all is said and done, I venture to say that we are more likely than the provincial universities to produce the sorts of renaissance men and women that Mr. Greydanus writes about.

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