Last August, I moved to Belize to teach humanities at a liberal arts junior college. It would be natural to assume that my decision, coming on the heels of four years of studying history at Hillsdale, arose from my confidence in the value of liberal arts education.
That assumption would be wrong.
If there’s any message a liberal arts college wants you to believe, it’s that the education it’s selling is worth your time. Four years of reading foundational works of philosophy, theology, history, and literature–of thinking alongside the greatest minds of Western Civilization–will set you free to become a man or woman of intellectual virtue and self-government, or so the claim goes. And of course, we buy in, because no one wants to think they spent four years and $120,000 on anything less than an education that will permanently deepen and enrich the core of their being.
Maybe that’s too cynical, a take too beleaguered by the pragmatic concerns which, apparently, sully the liberal nature of intellectual inquiry. Maybe we buy in because we find that discussing the questions which have preoccupied humanity for all of recorded history really does awaken us to new dimensions of human experience. Maybe we buy in because Aristotle, a thinker in that much-maligned category of dead white males, really did speak for humankind when he asserted that all men by nature desire to know. Regardless of race or nationality or sex or gender or religion or socioeconomic status or any of the other labels we slap onto people to excuse ourselves from the metaphysical demands of universal human nature, we desire to know.
Although just as dead as Aristotle (and probably whiter, given his Polish rather than Macedonian descent), Pope St. John Paul II looked at a world globalized beyond anything Aristotle could have conceived and made the same assertion. A deep understanding of non-Western traditions, John Paul II claims, only cements our certainty that the desire for truth is, in fact, a human rather than a Western characteristic. In his encyclical Fides et Ratio, he writes that
in different parts of the world, with their different cultures, there arise at the same time the fundamental questions which pervade human life: Who am I? Where have I come from and where am I going? Why is there evil? What is there after this life? These are the questions which we find in the sacred writings of Israel, as also in the Veda and the Avesta; we find them in the writings of Confucius and Lao-Tze, and in the preaching of Tirthankara and Buddha; they appear in the poetry of Homer and in the tragedies of Euripides and Sophocles, as they do in the philosophical writings of Plato and Aristotle. They are questions which have their common source in the quest for meaning which has always compelled the human heart.
Immediately, these claims that posit the universality of the desire to know should call forth an objection grounded in our own experience. What about those people with whom we have been acquainted—perhaps even looked at in the mirror each morning—who don’t desire to know? The assessments of Aristotle and John Paul II seemingly disregard those who vehemently scorn or, perhaps worse, apathetically shrug off the notion that the pursuit of knowledge somehow lays claim to them.
The beauty and peril of being human is that those capacities which set us apart from other creatures are easily deadened. In the case of our “desire to know,” this can be perhaps better understood through Dietrich von Hildebrand’s term for this core disposition: “awakedness.” He vividly describes the wakeful man as one who enters into relations with many spheres of life, the beauty of nature and art, the earnestness and dignity of knowledge, the charm of the world of vital values…life in its many-colored and multiform aspects speaks loudly and clearly to him. He lives a full life in a state of openness, readiness, and deep spiritual receptiveness.
As a student, I found Hildebrand’s description to be a vision of what I hoped to be and was not. How many times have we allowed our attentiveness to beauty and truth to be drowned by a deluge of apathy brought on by too little sleep, too much caffeine, and rapidly-approaching deadlines? How many times have we missed an early Hillsdale Saturday morning, the rosy-gold glow of sunny fog turned to a cloud of glory transfiguring branches dark with damp, because, prostrate with slumber, we did not deem it good to be there? The intellectual, aesthetic and spiritual awakedness that should characterize us is not a given.
Liberal education purports to be, on the one hand, an organic outgrowth of this awakedness, and, on the other, a coal by which it may be rekindled in those in who it has begun to die out. Such education is not fundamentally, in the words of Leon Kass, the adding of new truths to the world, nor the transmission of old truths to the young, but the cultivation in each of us of the disposition actively to seek the truth and to make the truth our own. More simply, liberal education is education in and for thoughtfulness. It awakens, encourages, and renders habitual thoughtful reflection about weighty human concerns, in quest of what is simply true and good.
Because it is informed by the principle that reflection on the truth is an inherently worthy pursuit, liberal education short-circuits our attempts to instrumentalize truth. Kass’s reflection is a lovely development of this idea, well worth reading in its entirety. In fact, if you’re a Hillsdale student reading the Forum, perhaps you have a magnetic attraction to essays expounding the glories of liberal education and put Kass’s essay on your mental to-read list even before I recommended it.
That’s the point. If you were willing to read this far into my essay, then, at some level, you’ve already bought in. If there were any place where it would be difficult to know whether the desire to know is really universal, it would be a liberal arts college with a culturally and economically homogenous student body, self-selected by its members on the basis of having recognized within themselves some kind of desire to know. It would be a beautiful community, no doubt, but not exactly one that could really challenge Aristotle’s assertion. That realization might be just enough to push a senior, four years of life and tuition later, to the point of existential crisis. Four years is a lot of time to spend just to be able to throw around quotes from Aristotle, John Paul II, Dietrich von Hildebrand and Leon Kass like a bloated mass of woke conservative intellectualism—a skill that could also be had, to quote Matt Damon in Good Will Hunting, “for a dolla-fifty in late charges at the public library.” Four years might have done their job if a disjunction between experience and intellectual authority produced an urgent need to interrogate the validity of those authorities’ claims.
When I moved to Belize, I knew my experience would test everything I’d been told about liberal education. Belize makes America, diverse as she is culturally and economically, look homogenous. In a country one-tenth the size of Michigan with one-twenty-fifth the population, its citizens speak various combinations of English, Spanish, Mandarin, Kriol, German, and Maya. Many families’ yearly income amounts to what any hard-working Hillsdale student with a minimum-wage job could make in a summer. Few students study history. None studies philosophy.
As I prepared for the job, my doubt deepened. My students do not have time or money for superfluities. Unless you’re a tenured literature professor, reading Homer does not put bread on the table. Reading Aquinas may provoke wonder in someone who has already been awakened, but I distrusted its ability to effect such awakening. Although reading the “Great Books” had changed my life, I wasn’t sure such encounters would occur for students whose first language was not English. Before meeting my students, I figured that their situation would prove, if ever a situation did, that liberal education loses its meaning in the face of a manifest need for job preparation.
But I moved to Belize, and, still skeptical, began the torturous process of teaching Dante in triple-digit classroom temperatures. We read Scripture together. We read Homer and Aquinas. We memorized poetry together as a class. And I prayed—oh, how I prayed!—that this education would work in my students what it had wrought in me.
And slowly, my skepticism changed to wonder.
A student in my ancient humanities class wrote me an essay on the relationship between faith and philosophy, based on an understanding of Jesus as logos incarnate. After reading Descartes, one young man wrote an essay on the dangers of unexamined assumptions. Sitting on top of Mayan ruins in the December sun, another began asking about the objectivity of beauty and how to evaluate art. A few weeks ago, one young lady came to me requesting that we memorize poetry in class together this semester. Several students commented that reading Dante was their favorite part of class, and that whatever else I change about the class, I have to keep teaching the Inferno.
I could multiply examples like this. They happen every week, sometimes every class. I have seen students awakening before my eyes as we study and discuss ideas in class. They have never studied history or philosophy, never memorized poetry, but this seems only to sharpen their attentiveness to finding truth and beauty. I say that I moved to Belize to teach, but I see more every day that I ought rather to say that I moved to Belize to be taught—to rediscover that awakedness I have come, on too many occasions, close to forgetting. My relationships with those I call my students have become a true liberal education, as they remind me what it means to be human and what it means to be free.
Ellen Friesen is a 2019 graduate.