What Kind of Person Do You Want to Become? Education as Formation

1024px-Hortus_Deliciarum,_Die_Philosophie_mit_den_sieben_freien_Künsten

Philosophia et septem artes liberales, the seven liberal arts. By Herrad of Landsberg – Hortus Deliciarum, Public Domain

In his brief but extraordinarily helpful book, Basic Moral Concepts, the late German Roman Catholic philosopher Robert Spaemann defines education as follows:

Education is the name we give to the process whereby a human being is led out of the animal preoccupation with self to a state where he is able to be objective about his own interests and differentiate between them, in such a way that his capacity to experience joy and pain is increased.

For Spaemann, moral reasoning is fundamentally about “ordering one’s priorities into a correct hierarchy,” that is, being able to discern what we truly want out of life and making judgments between higher and lower pleasures based on objective moral truth. Making these kinds of value judgments however doesn’t come automatically; we must learn to “regard our own interests in an objective way.” And this is the role of education.

All this got me thinking about how far education—from pre-K through graduate studies—has strayed from this classical perspective Spaemann articulates. Just take a look (if you dare) at the reading lists in elementary and secondary schools, or colleges for that matter. Tweaking Spaemann’s definition, we might summarize the common educational philosophy of our own day as follows:

Education is the name we give to the process whereby a human being is led further into the animal preoccupation with self to a state where he is able to have the skills and competencies (especially those associated with the STEM disciplines) needed to maximize his earning potential, in such a way that his capacity for consumption and self-gratification are increased.

Maybe I’m exaggerating a bit. But then again, maybe not. Even leaders of the supposedly “conservative” political party in the United States have a bad habit of denigrating the liberal arts. And stories in the Chronicle of Higher Education about schools cutting liberal arts programs are far too frequent. To be sure, the STEM disciplines are hugely important for our society and economy, and many people find their own sense of calling in precisely those fields. But even these students need the formation afforded by the liberal arts in order to flourish optimally in those callings. Employers are increasingly coming around to this fact.

When I sensed a calling to ministry as a sophomore at Auburn University, I decided to switch majors from chemical engineering to history as a better preparation for seminary (I learned classical Greek and honed my skills at researching and writing). I will never forget my first meeting with my new supervisor in the College of Liberal Arts, the charismatic and immensely popular medieval historian, Joseph Kicklighter. Dr. Kicklighter was eager to correct any misconceptions I had about what I could “do with a history degree.” He complained that he got that question all the time from students (and parents). I’m paraphrasing, but he said something to this effect:

The liberal arts aren’t about what you can do with them; they are about what kind of person you want to become.

Indeed.