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  • Joseph Bergan

The Liberating Arts

John Paul II Junior College is an institution imbued with the liberal arts. What does the "liberal" in liberal arts mean? The root meaning is "free." The liberal arts are free because they are slaves to no higher purpose but simply have worth in themselves. They are their own masters. The liberal arts focus on contemplation of truth for its own sake. The liberal arts ponder such questions as: "What is happiness? What does it mean to be a good human? How is the world ordered? What is beauty?" These questions are worthwhile not because the answers are useful but because they matter. They are good and beautiful in themselves and wonderful to behold.

Girl Reading by Charles Edward Perugini

The liberal arts are not only liberal, but liberating. It makes man free because it requires the contemplation of truth, which brings about the perfection of man as man, as a good in himself. By nature, man is called to be free. He is "the only creature on earth which God willed for itself" (Gaudium et Spes 24). God, the Source and End of all things, ennobled man with the very imprint of His Being. He endowed him with the gift of reason, the ability to perceive and embrace the goodness, beauty, and order in creation, and ultimately in God Himself. Man has inherent dignity and worth because of this sublime calling and end. The purpose to seek and find the truth is imprinted in the very nature of man and is the way by which man achieves his perfection and happiness. Because it cultivates the love for truth, liberal education can guide the human person toward the fulfillment of his nature. In contrast to knowledge for its own sake stands knowledge at the service of useful results. This could include anything from computer programming to carpentry. This kind of education may ask: "How do I complete a project according to the standards of this field? How do I amass and organize information so that it is useful? How do I produce this or that product with the most efficiency?" Obviously, knowing how to do things well is necessary to live in society and contribute to the common good as well as to achieve a reasonable level of material happiness and stability for oneself. However, a serious threat emerges when servile knowledge about doing things becomes the sum total of education and how one views humanity. When this happens, man's native purpose to seek and know the truth is slowly replaced by unnatural purposes concerned with usefulness. An education based solely on servile knowledge is not only slavish, but enslaving. This kind of education embodies a worldview in which man is no longer an end in himself but a means to an end. He is seen as a tool that must achieve purposes that are not inherent to his nature. A man is good not because he is good as man, but because he is good as a tool performing some useful function imposed from the outside. Slavery is the condition of not being able to act for one's own purposes and goals, but only for those imposed from the outside by a master. Similarly, an education devoid of the highest and freest truths enslaves man by imposing designs and purposes that are alien to man's nature. Just as a hammer is made to drive nails, a rosebush is made to produce roses, and an eagle is made to fly, man is made to know the truth about God and His creation, including himself. He cannot be happy and free unless he seek this truth and, upon finding it, embrace it and live in accordance with it. However, the modern world has rejected the classical tenet that man has inherent purposes that he must fulfill to be an excellent and happy human. While promising the power to be whatever one wants and do whatever one wants, this new version of "freedom" actually leads to oppression. On the personal level, man subjects himself to a kind of slavery whenever he assents to do what is contrary to his rational nature, because he is allowing an alien purpose to be imposed on himself. For example, if someone lies in order to gain some material benefit, he is letting the desire for material gain usurp the natural purpose of human communication, which is to preserve the truth. In this way, his freedom is diminished. On the social level, one must ask, "Once the moral framework of man's natural ends has been rejected, what is to take its place?" Without these inherent ends being safeguarded, man is in danger of becoming a mere pawn in the game of politics and social planning. Instead of an active and free agent in society, he becomes an object of others' designs. One's "goodness" becomes dependent on how he or she measures up to the standards and policies of the latest social program. This situation is ripe for corruption, lack of accountability, and exploitation. Unless he defends his natural ends, man becomes the victim of whatever ends and purposes imposed on him by those with power.

A Young Man Being Introduced to the Seven Liberal Arts by Sandra Botticelli

What is the role of philosophy in this precarious and vulnerable condition of modern men and women? The paradox is that even though philosophy is sought for its own sake and has no practical use, it is far from being irrelevant or esoteric. Philosophy is critically important to the well-being of society. By gazing at the stars, philosophers are free to keep sailing straight amid the chaotic waves and winds of conflicting interests and the fight for power. It is philosophy that enables the soul to see the order of the universe. It is philosophy that forms the soul to be docile, calm, and receptive enough to perceive the truth and receive it, to contemplate and desire it. It is philosophy and not science that can ask the question "Should we?" and not just "Can we?" because it is philosophy that gazes into the order and beauty of creation and of man's soul, and discerns therein a higher order that must be obeyed and followed. Liberal arts students are challenged not to be limited by the status quo, nor comfortable with business as usual. They are formed to have a passion and a taste for transcendent truth. They are invited to discover that there is a higher order our actions must aspire to. They are challenged not to be confined by what is safe, respectable, and convenient. Formed by the highest and freest knowledge, liberal arts students are empowered to question how things are in light of how they should be. First of all, they are free to question themselves: "Are my thoughts in line with the order and consistency of logic? Am I living up to the ideal of excellence for which I am created?" Also, they are free to question society: "Is this government law in line with the natural law? How is my community providing what is necessary for human flourishing? Are the business practices of my company ethical?" To question requires some standard that transcends the party, movement, or group one is a part of. Otherwise, one will blindly follow and rest on man-made standards and human authority. To question in this way liberates the human person from error and enables him to fully live out his inherent purpose to know the truth. As a teacher at John Paul II Junior College, I have hope that our students will grow and flourish as free and responsible persons. I have hope that our students will become capable and active agents of their own future and the future of their country. I have hope that their freedom will be a freedom for truth.


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