By RJ Snell, December 7, 2009 in Pedagogy and Teaching
All these virtues we need to live well—where do we get them?
They don’t come from argument. And they don’t come from theory. They come from imagination, or a certain kind of imagination which some have called “moral imagination.” They come from stories, theatre, images, symbols, ideals, character types and archetypes, and in an eminent way, from liturgy. From knowing the stories of David and Bathsheba, Samson and Delilah, Joseph and Potiphar’s wife.
They certainly don’t come from argument or theory when it counts. When a friend is in danger. When the temptation is strong. When greed or infidelity stalks. When afraid or tired. There’s an old saying that “Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton,” meaning, of course, that the virtues given to young men at play determined the ability and virtues of grown men at war and at government. During Waterloo, there’s no time to reason, to think, to ponder, to debate; one must act, and one must act from the habits one already has. Aristotle rightly teaches that the beginning given to a child when they are young doesn’t just make a difference, it makes all the difference, for the habits and imagination determine what will be done when it counts.
C. S. Lewis, in his wonderful little book The Abolition of Man puts it this way:
Without the aid of trained emotions the intellect is powerless against the animal organism. I had sooner play cards against a man who was quite sceptical about ethics, but bred to believe that 'a gentleman does not cheat', than against an irreproachable moral philosopher who had been brought up among sharpers. In battle it is not syllogisms that will keep the reluctant nerves and muscles to their post in the third hour of the bombardment.
Now, I’m hardly shy about my belief in reason, for I am very much committed to a variety of Christian Humanism which esteems and indeed privileges the the Logos wherever it is found, and it is found in all that is fair. But I’m equally convinced that rationality pure and simple, understood in a kind of coldly efficient logical and technical way, is unreasonable and not all that great an attainment.
Why are we educated? Anyone who values the liberal arts will suggest that it is not to attain a degree, make money, attain honor, avoid working with one’s hands, and so forth. But there is a mistake to avoid which is all too often embraced, namely, thinking that the liberal arts exist to form minds and intellects alone. There is an old notion in the West that what the human is most essentially is the intellect, and since the highest good of a being pertains to its most essential function, the highest good of the human is an intellectual good, namely the attainment of knowledge. Initially this knowledge was understood as contemplative, i.e., knowledge of things highest, first, and divine, whereas in our own rather tepid age such knowledge has been reduced to the merely useful, but in both cases the assumption is that education, if it is to serve the human good, is about the formation of knowledge and of intellects. But this assumes that what we really are is intellect.
As noble as such an activity may be, it certainly is not the highest way. Now before you think I’ve changed my allegiances, I remain fully committed to the life of the mind, to the pursuit of knowledge, to the Great Books, to all activities which are conducive to the Truth, and I still find fideism a scandal to men and women of good conscience. Yes, all of that, but the liberal arts exist to make free women and free men, and this freedom is most concerned with acting and living well. The Chancellor of Boston College, my beloved alma mater, puts it this way:
In Jewish and Christian biblical tradition, the measure of a man or a woman was never to be found in the magnitude of one’s intellectual attainments. That measure was to be found rather in how sensitively, how responsively, one exercised his or her freedom. . . . The final test of the civilizing process that is liberal education is to be found more accurately in the quality of choices one makes during life than in evidence of purely intellectual attainments. (http://bcm.bc.edu/issues/summer_2009/features/value-proposition.html)
Now we must be careful: Fr. Monan is in no way advocating anti-intellectualism, personal edification, activism, or unthinking and unceasing efforts at poorly understood social reprogramming. But we aren’t here to become specialists, or masters of a method, or researchers, or pedants of the arcane—we are here, as Monan puts it, “to educate for the enriching and constructive exercise of liberty.” That is, to become humans capable of wisdom; and wisdom is about good acting and living.