How to get a great education

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Engage critical thinking skills.

Every time I say or write that, someone is enlivened by the very idea, probably because we don’t hear it much or see it exhibited often in social discourse. With a glut of information traveling at light speed, we just scan more than we process, react more than reason. Intellectual inquiry, critical thinking skills arent exactly in danger of extinction. But it’s an exceptional university these days that dedicates its curriculum to a classical liberal education and the Great Books.

Which gets back to an earlier post here on higher education and some mail that makes for great conversation. First, Anne wrote that she’s very interested in what constitutes ‘a well-educated mind’, and wants to pursue a self-directed study of some readings that would be included in a classical liberal education. She wanted either a list of the Great Books, or some of the “definitive authorities” to read.

My answer: There’s such a wealth of resources on logic, metaphysics, ethics, philosophy, literature, the arts… being eager to engage them is a great motivation to devote the time.

There’s of course, Aristotle, (Nicomachean ethics, for one), Augustine, Aquinas, John Henry Newman, G.K. Chesterton, Dostoevsky, Alexis de Tocqueville, Christopher Dawson…

For anyone who doesn’t want to tackle the Summa, philosopher Peter Kreeft has A Shorter Summa at Ignatius Press.

I asked a few friends for their recommendations for Anne and others….

Matthew, a young man with a great literary mind, said it can appear daunting to tackle the above, but look at it this way:

In his work entitled The Idea of a University, John Henry Newman suggests that one best pursues education not by trying to gather in trivia about a great many things, but by doing “a LITTLE well.” On the face of it, that might seem like an argument FOR specialization not a well-rounded classical education, but it really isn’t. In practice, it means taking a given thing – say, a particular work by a particular author – and knowing it well via those universally applicable skill sets: the 7 liberal arts. By the end of such an endeavor, one finds they understand the particular work not in isolation but in its place in the web of ideas.

In short, one sees how the thing is trying to get at the Truth, the only proper specialization for any education. As an example, in chapter 4 of the second part of Newman’s book, he relates a somewhat humorous scene in which an examiner for a university entrance exam tries to tease out what the candidate knows about grammar by asking him questions about a certain work of Greek literature. It turns out that in the simple expression “the assent” is contained a whole host of related ideas about etymology, geography, and history.

So, when embarking on the project of a classical education, I would recommend you read whatever you can get your hands on, but do not try to do it all at once. Find something and read it thoroughly. Know its author. Know the context of its composition. Know the style with which it is composed. Be able to chart the logic of its arguments or the principles of its art. Be able to name its related works and motivations. Was it a response to something? Did something later respond to it? If you attempt to tackle just one question in the Summa like this, or one book by Chesterton, or one essay by Dawson, you’ll find you have a great jumping off point for all sorts of intellectual adventure.

Wow, great advice, Matthew.

Dr. Phil Sloan, is a long-time professor in the Program of Liberal Studies at Notre Dame, Notre Dame’s “Great Books” program. He’s also retiring president of the Association for Core Texts and Courses, an association anyone interested in classical liberal arts education should know about (www.coretexts.org). You can get information on several programs from that website, and get to their reading lists. Sloan’s own program can be accessed at www.nd.edu/~pls.

Other than pointing you there, he had this advice:

The most important thing to do to get going on this is to find a group of likeminded people who would be interested in discussing these books. The Great Books Foundation in Chicago has long had teaching aids and other materials for such groups.

Mark Randall, a friend and colleague, has just moved into a new position with a relative new school that makes this curriculum its focus. Their mission and vision statement speaks for itself.

And like Matthew, Shawn has an exceptional mind, a great love of learning and an impressive knowledge of the classics. Another ‘well-educated mind’. He says this:

I would also add the works of Etienne Gilson and Jacques Maritain (particularly the latter’s “The Degrees of Knowledge”). Alasdair MacIntyre’s “After Virtue” should really be read as well.

Spiritual writers sometimes get lost, but especially if you are interested in deepening your prayer-life, I would add: Athanasius’s, “The Life of St. Anthony”; St. John of the Cross, “The Ascent of Mount Carmel” and his other writings (a very helpful text to go along with this would be Fr. Leonard Boase, S.J.’s “The Prayer of Faith”), and St. Ignatius of Loyola’s “Spiritual Exercises” (a good series of texts to assist with this reading would be Fr. Timothy Gallagher, OMV’s “The Discernment of Spirits” and “Spiritual Consolation.”).

Happy reading!

One thought on “How to get a great education

  1. Many years ago I made a thirty-day retreat. My director advised me to read The Prayer of Faith. In the foreword of that book Father Thomas Green, S.J. said that if he had to select one book to read over and over again it would be this one. I, without be conscious that I was following his advise, have read this book over and over and over again, each time with a deeper appreciation. His quote, “I did not have to swallow the sea. I could relax and let the sea swallow me,” was just what I wanted to do. The Prayer of Faith has done this for me.

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