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Study the Permanent Things

The choose-your-own-adventure model of education is no education at all.

Notre,Dame,,In/usa,-,October,19,,2017:,Word,Of,Life
(By Ken Wolter/Shutterstock)

“Study Everything, Do Anything,” read the motto of my alma mater, Notre Dame’s College of Arts and Letters. No phrase better encapsulates the state of contemporary liberal arts education on university and college campuses. The modern university offers nearly limitless academic paths, clubs by the carload, and amenities galore. Students are prompted to drink deeply of all the options—to study everything—during their four years on campus. But even as the modern university offers a multitude of majors and minors, the abundance of options and the absence of any real guidance leaves students adrift.

The hard truth is that the contemporary university no longer knows what it means to be educated. Where the university was once able to articulate the telos of its activities—the cultivation of the good life or the formation of gentlemen, for example—today it can offer little more than vacuous statements about shaping students to enact meaningful change or empowering them to be a force for good. Focused on producing all-star consultants and future lawyers, universities devote little attention to true education, which is less the accumulation of knowledge and more the art of pursuing truth and understanding the human condition. 

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Pursued correctly, education relies upon community and relationship with others while enabling students to participate more fully in culture and society. Today, the university addresses not the student but the atomized will—a project that fails because its fundamental premise contradicts the actual nature of education.

Despite their professed mission statements, modern universities operate on the terms of expressive individualism, which conceives of the person as defined by her individual psychological core. American sociologist Robert Bellah, who first coined the term, explained that expressive individualism understands the purpose of life to be the social expression of that inner core, through which a person “lives her truth” and manifests her authentic self to the world.

This cultural focus on individual authenticity and self-expression has flipped what it means to be educated on its head, detaching the pursuit of truth and knowledge from any notions of relationship, responsibility, or community. By the logic of expressive individualism, relationships and social structures are only good if they facilitate the self-definition of individual wills. Higher education, then, cannot be good if it constrains or represses that pursuit of self-expression.

By this logic, the choose-your-own-adventure model of education, in which a student has nearly complete freedom to choose from a wide array of electives, makes sense. Most colleges retain graduation requirements, but these merely ensure that a student has selected elective classes across a handful of disciplines. Any robust core requirements that subject a student to authors like Plato, Aristotle, and Augustine hinder the self-direction of education. Perhaps a student will choose to read a few of the classics, but perhaps she will take a class on 20th century French feminist film noir. No courses are better or more worthwhile than any others when expressive individualism turns education into a four-year passion project.

This relativism is unlikely to relinquish its hold on our institutions in the foreseeable future. But within the world of higher education, students can still seek out true intellectual formation. For now, at least, students can still get an education in college.

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When I entered Notre Dame as a freshman, I was overwhelmed by the humanities offerings—35 majors, 17 supplementary majors, and 48 minors. The College of Arts and Letters offered little direction, encouraging me to “Study Everything!” (And worse, “Do Anything!”) As long as I pursued my passions and fulfilled a few cursory graduation requirements, I would walk across the stage four years later with my diploma. Mission accomplished!

Over several years, I realized the flaws inherent in the elite university’s prioritization of the atomized individual and the unfettered pursuit of one’s passions, but I wish I’d learned this lesson much sooner.

By a providential skepticism towards academic specialization, I started my freshman year with classes in the Program of Liberal Studies—Notre Dame’s only liberal arts major with a structured curriculum and no electives. Reading Homer’s epics, studying Greek tragedies, and making my first foray into Platonic dialogues completely changed my perspective on education.

It was intoxicating, reading the books that have shaped Western civilization and realizing the immense freedom found in studying a canon instead of blindly following my personal interests. It took me a few years to understand how to structure my course schedule so that I would receive a real education, but under the influence of the great books and authors stricken from once-required core classes, I began to fill in the gaps in my education.

Freed from the myopia of expressive individualism, education can be understood holistically—not only as a project of intellectual development, but also as growth in the capacity for the good life. By setting aside bromides about pursuing my passions and studying everything, I found a lodestar by which to navigate the endless menu of electives offered each semester: the relationships and duties to which I must attend.

As an American with duties to my country and my fellow citizens, I sought out classes on our nation’s history, government, and underlying political theory. And as a Christian, I have duties to God and to my conscience. To ensure the education of the heart alongside the mind, I took classes in moral theology and the Catholic intellectual tradition.

As a daughter, a sister, and someday a mother, I also have duties to my family. And while I have no obligation to devote my life to the humanities, wouldn’t it have been a shame if I had altogether neglected the art, books, music, and ideas that we have inherited from previous generations? If I could not someday pass on to my children at least a smattering of the good and beautiful produced by our civilization?

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