The Decline of Liberal Arts Education
Spectacular proof of the decline of the liberal arts is the simple fact that the only places in America where you can be sure you will get a liberal education, in the authentic sense of the term, are a few tiny little upstart crackpot islands of sanity like St. John’s, St. Thomas More, Magdalene, Christendom, Corpus Christi, St. Thomas Aquinas, Ave Maria University, Kings College, and Campion College. Whenever major secular universities like Kansas or USF relax the vigilance of their animus against Great Books programs and tolerate the creation of a classical liberal arts program (like the St. Ignatius Institute), two things always happen: It is spectacularly successful, and the university demands to murder it. That is why I called these universities “secular,” not “Catholic.”
The Decline of Sexual Morality
Whereas liberal education has declined so much that the term has become nearly unintelligible, sexual morality has declined so much that it has become nearly extinct. We do not need to define it, only to find it. Like liberal education, it can be found mainly in enclaves of eccentricity: mainly families (often unfashionably large ones) that believe the orthodoxy and live the orthopraxy of six religious traditions: Orthodox, Catholic, Jewish, Evangelical, Mormon, and Islamic. But its definition is not hard to find, unless you have a Ph.D. As a very simple, earthy neighbor of mine said when complaining about the elaborate “sex education” program in our local, very liberal high school, “They teach them everything except to keep their pants on.”
Though the graph of the decline of the two venerable traditions of liberal education and sexual morality is nearly identical, it would be the fallacy of “post hoc ergo propter hoc” to conclude that they are therefore casually connected. But we can see four clear connections, if we only look.
First, liberal education seeks truth…
First, liberal education seeks truth — that is, it seeks to know the truth for its own sake rather than as a means for the sake of anything else as an end. Aristotle called this “theoretical science” distinct from “practical” or “productive” sciences, since its end is knowing for the sake of knowing rather than knowing for the sake of practice or production. He ranked it highest because it perfects the most important power of the most important part of the self: the reason, that faculty of the soul that is naturally fit to rule the passions. “Practical science” perfects not quite our very selves but something almost as close: our lives, our activities. “Productive science” perfects only things in the external world that touch our lives.
The immense cultural, psychological, and scientific changes of the last 23 centuries have not diminished the validity of Aristotle’s ranking of these three sciences; in fact, they have made his point prophetic. For at the very beginning of the modern era, some four centuries ago, we find a nearly universal revolt against this fundamental ideal of liberal education, knowing the truth as an end that is justifiable, even noble, for itself.
Aristotle’s hierarchy is turned exactly upside down. Francis Bacon most clearly trumpets the new educational philosophy: “Knowledge for power,” for “man’s conquest of nature,” has replaced knowledge for truth. All the early classical modern philosophers agree with Bacon here, even Descartes (see chapter 6 of Discourse on Method). The goal of education suddenly becomes utilitarian, pragmatic, and instrumental.
This is a sea change far deeper and wider than can be confined to education alone; in fact, it is a radically new answer to the most important question one can ask, the question of the “summum bonum,” the greatest good, the meaning of life. As C. S. Lewis notes in The Abolition of Man, in the single most illuminating sentence I have ever read about the difference between modern culture and all premodern cultures:
There is something that unites magic and applied science (technology) while separating both from the “wisdom” of earlier ages. For the ancients, the cardinal problem of human life had been how to conform the human soul to objective reality; and the means were knowledge, self-discipline, and virtue. For magic and applied science alike the cardinal problem is how to conform reality to the wishes of the soul; and the solution is a technique.
In other words, truth is now a prostitute, bought and sold for the money of power over nature.
It does not require much of a stretch of the imagination to see the new relation to truth mirrored in the new relation to women. I speak only of men’s attitudes toward women, because I am a man. Probably everything I say about this would be duplicated by a woman writing about women’s attitudes toward men. But from a man’s point of view, it is surely no coincidence that Truth and Wisdom are almost always imagined as women rather than men. Both aletheia and sophia are feminine nouns.
The change is this: The old contemplative attitude of objectivity, wonder, and respect is replaced by a new activist attitude of conquest, use, and subjective satisfaction – in relation to women just as in relation to truth. The old poets used to sing of women as ends, as objects of admiration, awe, contemplation, and even worship; the new ones sing of them as means rather than ends, as objects of use (and, if we are to call rappers poets, of domination, rape, murder, and mutilation). We have transformed women from Beatrice to Barbie, from the Madonna to Madonna (what a difference a “the” makes!), from images of God to occasions for self-gratification. This is inevitable, for the subjective experience of the sexual “high” is our culture’s substitute for the mystical experience we were designed for. Aquinas says, “No man can live without joy. That is why, deprived of spiritual joys, he must go over to carnal pleasures.”
When I remember this, I also remember Machiavelli’s memorable image at the end of The Prince, the book that changed political philosophy forever. His formula for success is the conquest of fortuna (chance, luck, fortune) by virtu (prowess, control, force), and he says: “Fortune is a lady. It is necessary, if you want to master her, to beat and strike her.” This is not just about politics; it is about the whole world. It is as if he were to say, “What doth it profit a man if he gain his whole soul but lose the world?”
The fundamental change of attitude that I am trying to find a single clear definition for concerns not only education or women or politics but everything, life itself, certainly nature. “We must put nature to the [torture] rack,” Bacon says, “and compel her to reveal her secrets.” The result has been that the very concept of nature has been lost. Our culture no longer understands the most basic meaning of a term like “natural law” or “unnatural acts.” “Nature” used to mean “the intelligible principle [source] of characteristic activity from within any being.” But that is a metaphysical definition, and metaphysics has gone into the garbage can. Nature means now merely what we can kick or all that we can observe with our five senses or all that we have not yet turned into technology.
Second, we have become subjectivists…
But why do we love technology? To ask this simple question is to enter a second dimension of the new attitude toward nature, toward education, and toward sexuality. And the answer is, essentially, that we have become subjectivists. We love technology because it satisfies our desires. That is why we have forgotten the meaning of the word “nature”: because we approach nature mainly as raw material for the satisfaction of our own subjective desires—just as we approach women. The roots of the sexual revolution are not merely a new morality, a nonconformity to social law, but a new philosophy, a new “big picture.” As the quotation from C. S. Lewis shows, we have become subjectivists, egotists—in relation to matter, nature, the body, sex, and women.
And we have made the same turn in relation to truth. Postmodernism and deconstructionism are only the most extreme, last logical steps in the process. Nietzsche, the prophet of postmodernism, questioned the primal innocence that united all his predecessors, no matter how deeply they were divided from each other, when he asked what he called “the most dangerous question”: “Why truth? Why not rather untruth?” What Nietzsche questioned for the first time was what he called “the will to truth,” or what we might call the fundamental virtue of honesty, which had at least purportedly motivated all previous thinkers, no matter how deeply they disagreed about just what the truth was. When Jesus spoke of one “unforgivable sin,” it is likely that this is what He meant: deliberately refusing known truth, preferring darkness to light, unreality to reality, refusing the most fundamental virtue of all, honesty. For every other virtue presupposes this one. It is Heaven’s Lesson One; its absence is Hell’s Lesson One. The vice Christ denounced most vehemently was hypocrisy, which is dishonesty in its most harmful form.
Because of the priority of honesty, because the fundamental rule of moral goodness is Right Response to Reality — the three-R principle — the single most necessary requirement for morality, including sexual morality, is absolute honesty, standing in the light, demanding total conformity to reality, openness to the truth, practicing the presence of God, who is Truth, standing in the light. In other words, being sane. Sanctity and sanity are ultimately the same thing.
“Openness” is the liberal shibboleth. But in its fashionable form it means anything but openness to absolute, objective truth. It means openness to subjective personal opinions and desires and to socially fashionable ideologies; to society rather than to nature, that is, to man’s media rather than God’s, to what is designed by the Antichrist, the Anti-Logos, rather than what is designed by Christ the Logos.
Purity of life comes from purity of mind, thought, and heart. Solomon says, “Keep thy heart with all diligence, for out of it are all the issues of life.” Buddha says, “All that we are comes from our thoughts; it begins where our thoughts begin, it goes where our thoughts go, it ends up where our thoughts end up.” The poet says, “Sow a thought, reap an act; sow an act, reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, reap a destiny.” The apostle Paul says, “Bring every thought into captivity to Christ.”
Leon Bloy reminded us that “there is only one tragedy: not to have been a saint.” The first key to being a saint is perpetual honesty. Sin is always darkness and dishonesty; it cannot stand the light of truth that is let in by raising the shades. Two events in our lives raise the shades radically: prayer and death. Only the most appallingly depraved will commit deliberate sins on their deathbeds or while at prayer. But we are on our deathbeds now, if we only remember; we have been there since our birth. “We give birth astride a grave,” says Samuel Beckett in “Waiting for Godot.” Memento mori, St. Thomas More reminded us: “Remember death, and you will not sin.”
For sanctity is really sanity, the three-R principle. That is the justification for all morality, both the morality of honest education and scholarship (that is, nonaborted, nonraped, noncontracepted scholarship) and the parallel morality of honest sexuality.
Why is honesty such an absolute value for us? Because its object, truth, is an attribute of Absolute Reality, or God: Truth “goes all the way up.” There are only two sentences in Scripture that identify God without qualification with a noun. One is well known: “God is love.” The other is not so well known, though it is from the same epistle (1 John): “God is light.” God is truth. God Incarnate said, “I am the Truth.”
Subjectivism performs the blasphemous operation on both light, or truth, and on love, or goodness. It subjectivizes objective reality, it humanizes divinity, it relativizes the absolute. It refuses to do metaphysics—to think about being, about reality, about what really is. And therefore scholarship has become power, and sex has become pleasure. Both are now something you do. Sex used to be something you are Our culture has pretty much lost the very concept of sinning against the being, against the truth, of what we are, and against the very being of love, the nature of love, and against the very being of sex, the nature of sex, the objective meaning of sex. Sexual sins like sodomy, adultery, fornication, contraception, and masturbation are wrong not simply because the laws of the Church or society forbid them, or simply because they are not psychologically mature, and not even simply because they hurt other people (they always do, but sometimes it is easy to see how they do and sometimes it is not). They are wrong because they sin against truth, against being, against reality; because they lie about the nature of love, that is, about the nature of God, and about God’s image, man. They contradict the design of the Designer who created sex in His own image. Remember that Genesis 2:7, Scripture’s first mention of “the image of God,” immediately connects it with sexuality: “And God created man in His own image; in the image of God created He him: male and female created He them.”
Both truth and love are sacred because they are what God is. When the Word of God made man in His own image, He made man male and female and designed the sacred door of sex as the way He Himself would continually enter the world to perform His greatest miracle, creating new eternal souls. For an eternal human soul capable of marriage-like union with God forever is a far greater thing than all the galaxies, which are deaf and dumb and die.
And when the Word became flesh, He instituted another continuous miracle: the continuation of His own incarnation in the Eucharist. These are two continuing miracles by which God Himself enters our world. They are the two most sacred things in this world. They are sacred doors between Heaven and earth. The first one was instituted in a garden in Eden, the second one in an upper room in Jerusalem.
Both, in different ways, were subject to the divine command “Be fruitful and multiply.” When God gave man this first of all commandments, He did not mean “grow apples and do math.” And when God gave us His last commandment, “Do this in remembrance of Me,” He did not mean “I will not be with you always, even unto the end of the world, but you can perform this nice little symbolic play to remind yourselves of me, as a bereaved wife keeps a picture of her dead husband in her wallet to remember him.” Both commands deal with life, not death: the first gives bios, natural life from the holy flesh; the second gives zoe, supernatural life from the Holy Spirit. Through both doors, God Himself keeps coming to us again and again. Every baby that is born contains in his flesh a label from the Manufacturer that says, “I have not yet given up on humanity.” And every Eucharist has the same label, from the same Manufacturer.
Respect for the Eucharist and respect for sex naturally stand or fall together. They are both divine, miraculous sacraments of love. Education is a natural, human sacrament of truth. Love and truth are the two absolutes because they are the two things that God is. Our culture has become suspicious of absolutes, has subjectivized them. When we subjectivize truth, liberal education becomes deformed; and when we subjectivize love, sex becomes deformed.
Third, the rejection of absolutes…
Speaking in terms of the relative and absolute leads us to our third issue that connects liberal education with sexual morality: whether truth is relative or absolute; whether we should seek it with infinite passion or not; whether it transcends all ifs, ands, or buts; whether, when we touch Truth, we touch God. It would be difficult to justify the sacrifices of energy, time, and money that have been put into traditional liberal arts education if the answer were no. For the truths taught in philosophy, theology, English, history, and pure science, unlike those of economics, engineering, law, medicine, and computing, do not have payoffs that are immediate or obvious. And when they do have payoffs it is in their own spiritual coin, not in another, foreign coin like money, power, physical health, or efficiency.
Similarly, the patience, self-control, and sacrifices required by traditional sexual morality do not always have immediate and obvious payoffs. (Though in both fields, education and sex, the payoffs come, eventually, inevitably, and overwhelmingly.) Unless you believe that doing the right thing just because it is the right thing is an absolute, you are almost certainly not going to sacrifice doing the easy, immediately gratifying, enormously attractive thing for doing the right thing. All you have to do is take one little bite of the apple You don’t have to destroy the whole apple. Keep it, but make it relative to changing situations, subjective intentions, cultural expectations, individual personalities, and desires disguised as needs.
But when you do this, as soon as the camel of moral relativism gets his nose under the tent, the next part to enter is always the genitals. In fact, almost the only reason anyone in our society ever believes and teaches a philosophy of moral relativism is to justify sexual immorality. All the controversial issues in the culture war are sexual. How often have you heard arguments for moral relativism to justify nuclear war, or insider trading, or child abuse, or genocide, or racism, or even environmental pollution?
Fourth, the loss of conservation…
The fourth connection concerns time, and it is important because time is a dimension of all human experience, spiritual as well as physical. One question about time is: Should we give priority to the authority of the past or to the authority of the future? This is analogous to the more abstract ethical question of principalism versus consequentialism, or utilitarianism: Should our morality look back to principles or forward to consequences? But the question I have in mind here is more concrete than that. It asks whether conserving or progressing is our primary task. C. S. Lewis says that he is amazed that nearly everyone in our society assumes without question that it is better to attempt to create or discover some little new good that we do not yet have than to enjoy the many very large old goods that we already have—like a surfer never surfing the wave he is on because he is always looking for a bigger one, or like Alice, promised by the Red Queen that she can have jam tomorrow, but “tomorrow is always a day away.” Thus, Pascal says, it is inevitable that those who are always planning to be happy never will be happy.
I have always thought that the essential difference between a conservative and a progressive is simply that the conservative is happy and the progressive is unhappy. Why else would the conservative want to conserve something unless it made him happy, and why else would the progressive prefer to change a thing unless it made him unhappy? Thus, women are progressive and men are conservative about the placement of the furniture in the house, and men are progressive and women conservative about the placement of the furniture in the state. Thus, the obvious connection between liberal education and sexual morality is that both are “conservative,” or traditional.
A second question about time is whether or not there is any timeless, unchanging truth about human nature and human life. Our lives have changed very much in the past 1,000 years; some may think that human nature itself has changed in its essence and is still changing, as Marxism claims. What are the limits to change within humanity? If there is an unchangeable human essence, can we know it? “Know thyself” would seem to be a primary requirement for any wisdom. The traditional view of education that comes to us from both Greece and Israel (like two rivers feeding the same sea) says yes. The new view says no and, therefore, focuses on being up-to-date, culturally relevant, and sensitive to the latest purported movement of the Spirit, who is, of course, as fidgety and impatient and unhappy as His purported prophets.
Our culture has moved massively from the first philosophy to the second. That is why I have received more feedback from the few articles I have published in magazines than from the many books I’ve written. Ephemeral things — newspapers, magazines, movies, TV, music, fashion of thought as well as clothing — has displaced “the permanent things” in our consciousness and in our culture.
And the power that controls these airy ephemera is the airy media, which in turn are controlled by the Prince of the Power of the Air. The media are the most powerful educational force in our culture. They are also the most deeply antireligious, especially anti-Catholic, more especially regarding morality, and most especially regarding sexual morality. If you think this is an exaggeration, I think you must be either unforgivably ignorant of Catholicism or forgivably ignorant of our culture. I hope you have had a nice vacation on the moon.
The conservative emphasizes virtues that resist change, especially patience, self-control, and courage. The sudden disappearance of these three virtues from our culture in the Sixties was the catalyst for the sexual revolution. It was also the catalyst for the abandonment of liberal education, especially those old, dusty, irrelevant dead white European heterosexual males who wrote the so-called canon of so-called Great Books.
If you want to restore liberal education, restore sexual morality. And if you want to restore sexual morality, restore liberal education. The same virtues of honor, self-control, innocence, purity, respect, patience, courage, and honesty are cultivated in both places. They reinforce each other.
And so do their absences. Just as injustices provoke wars and wars provoke injustices, dishonesty with truth provokes dishonesty with sex and dishonesty with sex provokes dishonesty with truth. You can’t be a totally honest thinker if you are living a lie. Your lived sexual lie will make everything in your life a little lie-like. There will be a vague shuffling, a hiding, an escapist politeness that will come to settle on everything you say or do like a fog. You will not dare to speak out clearly lest you offend someone. You will begin to sound more like a bishop than a saint. You will be nice instead of being holy. And so you will miss the meaning of liberal education and of sex.
This article originally appeared in Crisis Magazine, April 2003 and is reproduced with the permission of the author.
Please help us in our mission to assist readers to integrate their Catholic faith, family and work. Share this article with your family and friends via email and social media. We value your comments and encourage you to leave your thoughts below. Thank you! – The Editors