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Foley Discusses Modern Liberal Arts Education And Augustine

Heigths Staff

Published: Sunday, February 10, 2013

Updated: Sunday, February 10, 2013 22:02

What would St. Augustine say about a so-called liberal arts education in the 21st century?
This is the question that Michael Foley, an associate professor of Patristics in the Honors College at Baylor University, aimed to answer last Thursday night in an event sponsored by the Boston College Lonergan Institute.

Foley received his Ph.D. from BC in 1999. Before arriving at Baylor University, Foley taught at BC and the University of Notre Dame.

Foley’s lecture seemed especially pertinent to BC right now because the University is currently engaged in a reevaluation of its liberal arts core education—a topic that can generate a lot of smoke, fire, and animosity without a lot of reflection.

Before he even began his lecture, Foley admitted that though Augustine is the grandfather of the modern university, the celebrated saint is a rather odd and contradictory ancestor for the university.

“Augustine was a critic of the liberal arts,” admitted Foley. “He realized that there were significant moral, intellectual, and religious limitations to a liberal arts education.”
In Augustine’s time, the liberal arts were considered essential for what it meant to be educated. While the servile arts were taught to the working class for the purpose of gaining livelihood, the liberal arts were taught to the elite for the purpose of living life well.

Augustine knew, however, that the true order of the living involved a life of virtue, good friends, and a love of the true God. This order of living must precede the order of liberal arts.

“Without the ongoing accompaniment of the liberal arts with the true order of living, Augustine knew that any liberal arts education would fall on untilled ground,” Foley said.

Augustine himself admitted in The Confessions that after extensively studying the liberal arts, he was not successful from dislodging the material mindset that he was deeply mired in.

“Augustine realized that the liberal arts do not necessarily lead to morality and love of God,” Foley said. “They are disciplines directly concerned with facets of knowledge, not the foundations of knowledge.”
Augustine’s stress of the limitation of liberal arts reminds modern universities of the need to foster moral and religious excellence alongside academic excellence.

“In the contemporary context, this no easy task,” Foley said. “Official promotion of modesty on a college campus is sure to bring protest, but standardized unisex bathrooms in most college dorms won’t.”
Foley thought that if universities are serious about knowledge, they must find within themselves the ability to take seriously the moral condition of its students.

Augustine still held out hope for the liberal arts, however, so long as they were properly practiced.

“The habits of intellectual acuity that the liberal arts provide for gives one a sense for the false—a nose for nonsense, if you will,” Foley said.

Augustine believed that the liberal arts train and broaden the imagination. The liberal arts force students to construct images instead of blindly ingesting them through the media.

“The liberal arts are essential to getting to higher vistas—whether it be science or business,” Foley said.

Finally, Foley asked how all this is relevant to the modern university.

“Augustine’s assessment is relevant today because it bears upon the university’s most acute challenges,” Foley said.

Foley stated that a true liberal arts college will have one goal:
“The goal of a liberal arts college is not to earn meat, but to learn the aim of the life which meat nourishes.”

Foley urged the audience to think of this distinction with respect to career ambitions and plans for life.

“What are you going to do with the material conditions that your career provides? What is the real purpose of your life? Only the liberal arts can help you answer those questions.”

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