Catholicism and Liberal Education


Several critiques and defenses of the value of a liberal arts education have found their way to my desk and computer screen in recent days. First is the 2013 report composed by the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences (“The Heart of the Matter”) concerning low enrollment in the humanities. This report came amid the increasingly vocal questioning of the value of a liberal arts education by public figures, our own president included. More recently, in an Inside Higher Ed book review of Michael Roth’s Beyond the University, Glenn Altschuler (Cornell) addresses many of the common criticisms one hears concerning the liberal arts.

In his analysis of Roth’s book, Altschuler states that “Roth does not specify how liberal learning might ‘pull different skills together in project-oriented classes.’ Nor does he adequately address ‘the new sort of criticism’ directed at liberal learning. A liberal arts education, many critics now claim, does not really prepare students to love virtue, be good citizens, or recognize competence in any field.  As Roth acknowledges, general education, distribution requirements, and free electives are not effective antidotes to specialization; they have failed to help establish common academic goals for students.  And, perhaps most disturbingly, doubt has now been cast on the proposition that the liberal arts are the best, and perhaps the only, pathway to ‘critical thinking’ (the disciplined practice of analyzing, synthesizing, applying, and evaluating information).”

Against this critique, a number of defenses of the liberal arts have also appeared recently. The NY Times’ David Brooks, a member of the aforementioned commission, has defended the value of the humanities in pieces which range from explicit advocacy (“The Humanist Vocation”) to subtle leitmotif (“Love Story”). Elizabeth Corey (Baylor) has also written an excellent piece in First Things (“Learning in Love”) which emphasizes the affective dimension of a liberal arts education both in relation to the material being studied and the guide (professor) one encounters. “I am convinced,” Corey writes, “that the personal element in liberal learning cannot be valued highly enough.”

Apropos of this debate, I am currently reading – in free time which I do not possess – a book which recounts a seasoned writer’s adventure of going back to school and re-reading the classic canon of Western Literature by taking two Humanities classes at Columbia University (David Denby’s Great Books). Almost immediately, in the first chapter of this book, the author senses a conflict, a conflict which emerges over how to read these texts. On the one hand, one can read them from an intellectualist perspective; i.e., these texts do indeed form an intellectual canon and in order to be an “educated person” one has to be familiar with the words and thoughts of these “wise men.” On the other hand, one can read these texts from a post-modern perspective; i.e., these texts form a canon because people with the power to establish a literary canon have said “let it be” and it has been so. There is no greater or lesser value to these texts written by dead white males than any other texts, but one should be familiar with them – if for no other reason – than they have shaped the culture in which we now live.

There is, however, a third way of understanding education, and liberal education in particular.

In a lecture originally delivered to the Buenos Aires-based Christian Association of Businesspeople (“Educating in the Context of Culture”), Pope Francis proposes a vision for education “in which the fundamentals remain, and which remains foundational. Truth, beauty, and goodness exist. The absolute exists. It can, or rather, it should be known and perceived.” In other words, at the heart of liberal education is the pursuit of transcendental realities. A truly liberal education strives to lead the student towards his/her fulfillment by fostering a desire and capacity to attain perfections which cannot be divorced from their source. The third way of liberal education, therefore, is an ordering of the human person towards the transcendent.

WIndowIt is increasingly apparent today that universities without fidelity to an expressly Christian mission simply cannot provide this foundation. They are caught up, as the above author demonstrates, with either an intellectualist or post-modern perspective towards liberal education. At Catholic colleges and universities we have the privilege of building upon the foundation about which Pope Francis speaks. Preparing students to pursue virtue, to seek wisdom, and to love beauty can only take place from within a context which acknowledges their existence. If virtue, wisdom and beauty are merely ideas, then they are no more inherently worthy of pursuit – and perhaps far less so – than an economically rewarding career, the esteem of one’s peers, and the immediate satisfaction of one’s appetites.

A ‘liberal education’ means, quite literally, ‘to lead out’ (educere) to ‘freedom’ (libertas); not a freedom which is simply the multiplication of choices, but a freedom which allows one to pursue excellence. Those of us who are fortunate to teach from within the context of a Catholic education ought to be mindful of this great gift. The gift of being able to share, with our students, this journey towards authentic freedom and the transcendent source of all virtues.

Anthony Coleman teaches theology for Saint Joseph’s College Online.


Joy and Suffering: Living with ALS

In January 2011 I was giving a presentation on bioethics at my parish, and just after the presentation started a man hobbled in on a cane. A few months later I was giving another presentation on the same topic, and a man entered the room in a motorized wheelchair. I puzzled for a few moments because it looked like the same man. As I continued with the presentation I realized that it was indeed the same man. It was rather unnerving to be able-bodied, in good health, and speaking about ethical issues so closely related to the suffering of the sick, while this man, who was clearly suffering from a debilitating disease, was there listening intensely. I couldn’t help wondering what it was like to be grappling with these issues “from the inside”—so to speak.

Marty and I met soon afterwards. We discussed our common interests and goals: we were both striving to be good husbands and fathers. Marty recounted stories of work and play around the horse farm where he and his family live. He spoke about arranging horse jumps for his daughter Cecilia, clearing brush from the woods behind the house, laying up firewood for the winter, cleaning out the horses’ stalls, and myriad other chores. In our discussions about bioethics he drew upon his medical expertise, built up over eleven years as a successful, interventional radiologist.

Marty was also interested in my literary and theological background. He asked me to read the rudiments of his spiritual autobiography. I asked questions that prompted him to think more deeply about the meaning of the joys and sufferings he was experiencing. At times I felt as though I was giving him “work” to replace the professional life lost to ALS. And what a “worker” he has been! His spiritual autobiography, Joy and Suffering: My Life with ALS, was dictated through an iPhone into emails, initially, and then into a document that was edited by Christian Tappe of St. Benedict Press.


Photo of D’Amore Family at Lou Gehrig’s Disease – ALS website

In many ways, Marty is a typical American guy, but there is definitely something special about him. He is inspired by the meaningful lives other people lead, for example, by the doctors who first showed him the beauty of a medical career and motivated him to pursue it. He has been given given plenty of natural intelligence and talent, and as a young man he struggled to discover and develop himself. He worked hard at his profession, marveled at the good he could do with it, and reaped its rewards. He has been wildly successful—by American standards—in his profession, family, and lifestyle.

More importantly, Marty demonstrates a kind of spiritual excellence. Not the spiritual excellence of the great ascetics of history, who master temptation with an iron will honed through self-denial. Rather the spiritual excellence of one who has prayed with a child’s trust for a good life, lost himself in the confusion of growing up, found the way his talents could lead to success, and finally, as he achieved success, recognized something missing even before detecting the first symptoms of ALS. ALS focused his heart and mind on another kind of success: developing spiritual maturity. By slowly eliminating his physical mobility, ALS forced Marty to find new ways to love his wife, children, and friends. His book offers Marty’s explanation of what he has learned in the hope that his family can discover, with him, some joy within the tragedy that has befallen them all.

Spiritual conversion is the stuff of great literature and epic poetry, but we are not usually given the privilege of a guided tour of this process unfolding in the lives of our neighbors and friends. We all change profoundly as we move through life, and know that our neighbors change in similar ways, but rarely do we get the opportunity to understand that change from the inside. In Joy and Suffering: My Life With ALS, Marty describes the experience of suffering with ALS, depicting not only the intricacies of the disease but also the hard-won meaning of the suffering it has brought him and his family.

This blog post was adapted from the Foreword to the book Joy and Suffering: My Life with ALS by Martin J. D’Amore.

Grattan Brown teaches Ministry with the Aging, Sick, and Dying for Saint Joseph’s College Online.

Update: Marty D’Amore died on January 28, 2015 surrounded by friends and family.  He was laid to rest in Belmont Abbey monastery cemetery, a few 100 yards from the chapel where he often prayed.