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Seven dialogues on the liberal arts and the classical learning tradition


Detail from « Children reading » (1916) by Pekka Halonen (WikiCommons)

Does the past offer any solutions to the contemporary crisis in education? Is there really such a sharp break in educational practices between the past and the present? And what is the role of the liberal arts in today’s world? The Love of Learning demonstrates that many forgotten or bypassed ways of teaching outshine recent pedagogical fads and practices, but also that many recent fads are actually borrowed from the past. The book puts the liberal arts at the center of learning.

Margarita A. Mooney, theology professor at Princeton, and seven leading educational scholars explore the classical learning tradition. This tradition can offer a great deal not only to humanities students, but also to those pursuing STEM subjects. Though well aware of the crisis in the classroom and in classical learning, the scholars interviewed in this book remain optimistic about what past educational practices can offer the present. They are also confident about the lifelong impact of the liberal arts on students.

Each dialogue begins with a brief discussion of how that professor became interested in the liberal arts. One major theme is that education needs to deeply impact the person instead of focusing so much on test results and college admittance. These opening dialogues also reveal the personal engagement of these professors with this learning. They often portray themselves as lifelong students. 

The humanities not only boost careers and status, but develop the mind, heart, soul, body, and community. Mooney in particular stresses the need for teachers and professors to make personal connections with their students. She cites Josef Pieper’s observation from Leisure: The Basis of Culture that a rewarding person-oriented education develops out of professor-student and student peer relationships.

The vital connection between the great books and contemporary life is repeatedly asserted. The study of these books prepares students to meet life’s challenges and to be more than mere technocrats. The dialogues give the strong impression that a liberal arts education is meant to help us confront the present world and its problems, not run away from these. A classical education is concerned foremost with the present and future well-being of the student. Problem-solving skills are key. 

The conversations refer to many leading educational theorists, both Catholic and non-Catholic. These include the secular thinkers John Dewey and Paulo Freire, and the Catholics Luigi Giussani and Jean Leclercq. Dewey is not judged in a one-sided manner, but evaluated for his strengths and weaknesses. Giussani is a major inspiration of Mooney because he shows education’s role in developing our psychological and spiritual sides. 

The conversations address how modern education often impedes this development. In his conversation with Mooney, Timothy O’Malley notes Dewey’s significant shortcomings, which reflect the shortcomings of modern education as a whole: “Dewey … eviscerates a good chunk of the interior life. Everything is lived in the exterior; our mind isn’t an interior part of ourselves in any way, shape, or form. There’s no soul or interior work of memory and imagination. All we are as humans gets reduced exclusively to interactions with the physical, tangible world.” This encapsulates the concerns of many of these thinkers.

One notable weakness in A Love of Learning is the lack of reference to specific problems affecting public education today, such as political correctness, overbearing teachers’ unions, and the pluses and minuses of homeschooling. Yet had the discussions gone in this timelier direction, perhaps the book would date faster. As it is, the discussions will be relevant for years to come. 

Another potential and related disappointment for some readers will be the scant references to a specific curriculum or to specific teaching methods and techniques. What books should be read, and at what age? Should the trivium and quadrivium be prioritized? And, if so, how? A deeper discussion of these topics would have clarified things for readers who are unfamiliar with them. One downside to having such wide-ranging dialogues is the lack of depth in any one topic. Readers often don’t come away knowing a great deal more about the liberal arts themselves, other than the impact of certain books on these academics.

One subject that is delved into in a somewhat detailed sense is music. This conversation explores the importance of so-called soft skills for personal development and even for real-life success. The study of music can take us along a more spiritual, less frantic or materialistic path because it points us heavenward: “music is ordered to a higher end that transcends the aesthetic itself.” In other words, “music is more than just the pleasurable sensations one might feel at a moment in time” according to Mooney. This conversation underscores why classical education is not elitist, but is for everyone. The study of such subjects can benefit our personality development, which is helpful for any future job.

The authors observe that the pursuit of the liberal arts is a spiritual or religious undertaking. The appreciation of beauty can play a key role in spiritual growth. George Harne notes: “It is important to approach beauty not as an experience of consumption but as an experience of contemplation. One of the critical things that we can do to overcome the possibly deceptive dimension of beauty is to cultivate an attitude of listening and seeing that is fundamentally contemplative and open to the fullness of being” (129).

Given the centrality of contemplation in a liberal education, the conversations tie this learning to Catholicism. The Benedictines, for instance, both shaped and were shaped by this education. Carlo Lancellotti reminds us of John Henry Newman’s characterization of Benedictine education: “Newman writes of poetry as a form of knowledge, one which is essentially symbolic. It’s not grasped primarily through intellectual elaboration. It’s not that the Benedictines do not value reason, but they do not consider it the highest priority.”

A liberal arts education cultivates an open mind because of the questioning that it produces in us out of the search for the truth. Robert. P. George gets to the heart of the reason for the liberal arts: “when you’re really committed to truth-seeking, you don’t know where this inquiry is going to lead. You don’t know who you’re going to be at the end of it.” The study of the liberal arts is a spiritual undertaking because it changes who we are, especially if we are humble and ready for challenge.

Overall, The Love of Learning offers much food for thought for readers who may be considering home schooling their children or sending them to private classical institutions. This book will likely prompt further reading in the field, such as Stratford Caldecott’s Beauty for Truth’s Sake or Christopher Dawson’s The Crisis of Western Education.

The Love of Learning: Seven Dialogues on the Liberal Arts
By Margarita A. Mooney
Cluny, 2021
Paperback, 211 pages


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