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St. Augustine, Liberalism, and the Defence of Liberal Education

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  01 January 2024

Ryan N S Topping*
St. Thomas More College, 1637 College Dr., Saskatoon, SK, S7N OW6, Canada


Failure to attend to the claims of theology as a public form of discourse has made us blind to the true causes of our attachment to the university. In what follows I want to explore why it is that liberal societies continue to value the university but increasingly find it difficult to articulate coherent reasons for its defence. I shall argue that any plausible defence of the value of the university within Western societies requires the concomitant recognition of two propositions: first, of the moral value of the search into the meaning of human freedom and, secondly, of the certainty that human freedom can only properly be exercised in obedience to the objective order of truth. I shall further argue that, for all its strengths, Liberalism as a political doctrine cannot conceptually unite these two propositions because of its commitment to a voluntaristic interpretation of freedom. As a modest proposal for constructive progress in this debate, in my concluding remarks I suggest three ways that St. Augustine's early educational thought makes more intelligible our own educational ideals than do major competing accounts.

Original Articles
Copyright © The author 2008. Journal compilation © The Dominican Council/Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

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1 Newman, John Henry, The Idea of the University (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1923)Google Scholar, Discourses VII, 10 and V,9, and Preface.

2 One may be tempted to say that Newman's idea never was the leading one. If we take John of Salisbury's description of Bernard of Chartres’ teaching aims and methods as illustrative (cf. Metalogicon 1.24), then we should, perhaps, look to Chartres and 12th century Cathedral Schools more than to the universities if we are wishing to discover a period in medieval history when institutions of higher education consistently sought to unite both the moral and intellectual aims of education that Newman celebrates; cf. Southern, R.W. Medieval Humanism and other studies (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1970), pp. 6185Google Scholar and Dales, Richard C. Intellectual Life of Western Europe in the Middle Ages, 2nd ed. (Leiden: E.J. Brill: 1992), pp. 155168CrossRefGoogle Scholar. The sixty or so universities of the Medieval West varied widely in the composition of their curricula, their social functions, and their intellectual orientations. One need only contrast the curricular aims of 13th century Paris with the curriculum of the University of Bologna, the one, more speculatively oriented, focusing on theology, the other turned to the affairs of commerce and politics through law; cf. Verger, Jacques, ‘Patterns’, in Rüegg, Walter, ed. Universities in the Middle Ages (Cambridge: CUP, 1992), pp. 4752Google Scholar.

3 Flexner, Abraham, Universities: American English German (Oxford: OUP, 1930)Google Scholar. Flexner's is an early sociological study treating the university as an institution shaped by and capable of acting upon society.

4 Canadian political philosopher George Grant argued, for instance, that the late modern ‘multiversity’ is the institutional outcome of the theoretical relationship established between faith and modern science during the early modern period: “Reason as project, (that is, reason as thrown forth) is the summonsing of something before us and the putting of questions to it, so that it is forced to give its reasons for being the way it is as an object. Our paradigm is that we have knowledge when we represent anything to ourselves as object, and question it, so that it will give us its reasons … . The limitations of the human mind in synthesising facts necessitates the growing division of research into differing departments and further subdivisions. This paradigm of knowledge makes it therefore appropriate to speak of the multiversity.” See his essay ‘Faith and the Multiversity’ in Technology and Justice (Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 1986), pp. 3637Google Scholar.

5 Clark Kerr coined the neologism ‘multiversity’ in his The Uses of the University, a series of essays written between 1963–2001 (based on his Godkin Lectures delivered at Harvard University) 5th edition, (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 2001), p. 14Google Scholar.

6 See Pieper's, Joseph Leisure, the basis of Culture[1948], trans. by Malsbary, Gerald, introduction by Scruton, Roger (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine's Press, 1998)Google Scholar, especially pp. 44–79, and Derrick's, Christopher Escape from Scepticism: Liberal Education as if Truth Mattered[1977] (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2001)Google Scholar.

7 This does not mean the arts were equally studied at every university. 13th century Oxford, for instance, placed more emphasis on the quadrivium, excelling in mathematics and optics, than did the University of Paris; cf. Leff's, Gordon Paris and Oxford Universities in the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Centuries: An Institutional and Intellectual History (Huntington, New York: Robert E. Krieger Publishing Company, 1975), pp. 139142Google Scholar.

8 As Newman explains: “In some [a liberal arts education] will have developed habits of business, power of influencing others, and sagacity. In others it will elicit the talent of philosophical speculation, and lead the mind forward to eminence in this or that intellectual department. In all [liberal education] will be a faculty of entering with comparative ease into any subject of thought, and of taking up with aptitude any science or profession.”Idea of a University, Preface, xviii.

9 The Didascalicon of Hugh of St. Victor: a medieval guide to the arts, trans. with introduction and notes by Taylor, Jerome (New York: Columbia University Press, 1991), 3.3Google Scholar.

10 Cf. Song's, Robert Christianity and Liberal Society (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997), pp. 4048Google Scholar.

11 For a defence of this view see O'Donovan, Oliver Desire of the Nations: Rediscovering the Roots of Political Theology (Cambridge: CUP, 1999)Google Scholar, especially pp. 243–252 and Nichols, Aidan O.P. Christendom Awake: On Re-Energising the Church in Culture (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1999), pp. 7189CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12 Democracy and Education: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education (New York: Free Press, [1916] 1966)Google Scholar.

13 Peters's, R.S. Ethics and Education[1966] (London: George Allen and Unwin Ltd., 1970)Google Scholar, see chapter 11 ‘Democracy and Education’ and especially pp. 313ff.

14 Dewey's belief in progress correlated with his utter disinterest in the history of educational thought and caused him to purport at numerous points false claims about that history which were subsequently repeated by others. The lack of engagement in the study of the history of educational philosophy has remained a marked feature among major educationalist scholars of the previous 30 years (such as R.S. Peters, P.H. Hirst, and John White). For illustrations of this see Muir, James R.Is our History of Education mostly wrong?: The case of Isocrates’, Theory and Research in Education 3:2 (July 2005), pp. 169171CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

15 I understand the promotion of cultural pluralism to be synonymous with the promotion of multiculturalism, which Brian Barry defined aptly as cultural relativism and accommodation of culturally distinctive groups” in ‘Second Thoughts – and Some First Thoughts Reviewed’, Multiculturalism Reconsidered, ed. Kelly, Paul (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2002), p. 230Google Scholar.

16 Nussbaum, Martha, Cultivating Humanity: a classical defence for reform in liberal education (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997)Google Scholar. In chapter eight Nussbaum treats these two ‘Religious Universities’ under the headings ‘The Study of non-Western Cultures’, ‘Ethnic and Racial Minorities’, ‘Women's Studies’, and ‘Homosexuality’, to determine how successfully they promote genuine liberal education as she understands it.

17 See Haldane's, John Faithful Reason: Essays Catholic and philosophical (London: Routeledge, 2004), pp. 5974CrossRefGoogle Scholar and Dulles, Avery S.J., The Craft of Theology: From Symbol to System (Dublin: Gill and Macmillan, 1992), pp. 105118Google Scholar for good discussions of the nature and extent of academic freedom in relation to sources of ecclesial authority.

18 De Beata Vita 2.10.

19 In his introduction to Martianus’ work William Harris Stahl notes, “Martianus was himself such a gentleman, living in an age when the victory of Christianity over paganism was not yet complete. Longstanding rivalries between Christians and pagans, and the more recent successes of Christianity, had intensified the desire of pagans to undertake, as a social responsibility, the preservation of classical culture” in Martianus Capella and the Seven Liberal Arts Vol. I (New York: Columbia University Press, 1971), p. 5Google Scholar.

20 On this see Popkin's, Richard H., The History of Scepticism, second edition, (Oxford: OUP, 2001)Google Scholar.

21 Cf. The Gay Science, no.125, Beyond Good and Evil, 1.1, On the Advantage and Disadvantage of History for Life.

22 A mistake that I attribute to Alan Bloom – even though much of what he argued for in the Closing of the American Mind remains compatible with Augustine's educational thought.

23 This view was made popular by Matthew Arnold; cf. his lecture ‘Literature and Science’ (1882) in Vol. X of The Complete Prose Works of Matthew Arnold ed. Super, R.H. (Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press, 1974)Google Scholar.

24 This idea is developed in Alasdair MacIntyre's chapter Reconstituting University as an Institution and the Lecture as a Genre’ in Three Rival Versions of Moral Enquiry (London: Duckworth, 1990), pp. 228230Google Scholar.

25 On Catholic Universities (Ex Corde Ecclesiae), (Vatican City: Liberia Editrice Vaticana, 1990)Google Scholar, 1. Although many Catholic universities have begun to initiate the institutional renewal called for in Ex Corde Ecclesiae, David Ruel Foster has perceptively argued that it is actually Fides et Ratio which has and will continue to have the most dramatic influence upon the reform of Catholic higher education. Where the first is directed toward administrators the second, because of its challenge to the philosophical scepticism which was presupposed in many of the institutional decisions taken by Catholic institutions during the 1960's, is directed toward faculty; cf. The Implications of Fides et Ratio for Catholic Universities’, in Foster, David Ruel and Koterski, Joseph W. S.J., eds., The Two Wings of Catholic Thought: Essays on Fides et Ratio (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 2003), pp. 109112Google Scholar.

26 Given on 4 October 1965 and quoted by John Paul II in VS, 4.

27 I would like to thank Prof. Carl Still and Fr. John Saward for their helpful comments on an earlier draft of this essay.