Catholic Education and the Love of Wisdom

The most fundamental of all questions was asked by Pontius Pilate when he uttered the Latin words, quid est veritas? This question, translated of course as “what is truth?”, is at the core of all good education. It is, however, a question which needs to be asked in the right way. In our culture of relativism it is asked, if indeed it is asked at all, with a shrug of indifference, signifying that it is a question which is ultimately unanswerable and therefore pointless. For the materialist, there is no such thing as truth beyond the purely physical things that can be measured quantitatively and empirically, whereas, for the less dogmatic relativist, any metaphysical truth which might exist is unknowable and therefore beyond the quest for knowledge. The modern secular academy is dominated by a combination of such dogmatic materialism and pragmatic relativism, ensuring that Pilate’s question is ignored at best, or ridiculed at worst.

This situation, bad enough in itself, is made much worse by the fact that many ostensibly Catholic colleges have also abandoned the quest for truth, replacing the love of wisdom with the utilitarian goal of training students to sell themselves successfully in the job market. Confronting these trends, the American Catholic Philosophical Association (ACPA) is seeking to raise awareness of the dangers inherent in the neglect of wisdom in the academy.

“Philosophy is essential to a well-rounded college education,” writes Francis J. Beckwith, ACPA President and Professor of Philosophy at Baylor University. “But it is especially so for academic institutions that claim to be custodians of the Catholic Intellectual Tradition.”

Professor Beckwith lamented that, over the past decade, it had become increasingly common for colleges and universities to change their core curricula to reduce the number of philosophy courses required or offered. Tragically some Catholic colleges and universities were succumbing to this trend, a manifestation of what G. K. Chesterton would have called the suicide of thought.

To raise awareness of this issue, Professor Beckwith’s predecessor as ACPA President, Thomas Hibbs, convened a committee “for the purpose of formulating and promulgating an official statement by the American Catholic Philosophical Association”. The three members of the committee, Gloria Frost (University of St. Thomas), Greg Doolan (Catholic University of America), and Chad Engelland (University of Dallas), have produced what Professor Beckwith describes as “a wonderful work that perfectly articulates the importance of philosophy in Catholic higher education”.

The ACPA Statement on the Role of Philosophy, to give the document its official title, addresses “the integral place of philosophy in Catholic higher education”.

The Statement seeks to go beyond the usual efforts by philosophers to justify their place in the modern academy. Such efforts endeavor to show how philosophy can help people learn the practical skills needed to sell themselves in the job market, thereby reducing the role of philosophy to being merely a handmaid of relativism and utilitarianism.

Acknowledging “the practical relevance of the skills inculcated through philosophical study … such as critical thinking, logical analysis, careful reading, problem solving, qualitative reasoning, consideration of alternative opinions, and ethical reflection,” the ACPA Statement insists that “philosophy provides much more”:

It cultivates the mind’s native capacity to understand the world and to approach life’s important questions with humility, courage, and balance. Among these questions are the following:

  • How can we find truth through reasoned discourse?
  • What is truly good for human beings?
  • How can we integrate the quantifiable world of the sciences with the qualitative world of the humanities?
  • What is the rational evidence for the existence and nature of God?

Having established the necessity of the crucial and foundational presence of philosophy in any reputable college curriculum, the Statement then addresses the place of philosophy in Catholic higher education in particular. Anyone working in Catholic education and anyone who is passionate about the preservation and restoration of Catholic colleges and universities should study this important work of articulate scholarship. The Statement has been posted on the ACPA’s website: http://www.acpaweb.org/acpa_ann.aspx?idt=103.

JOSEPH PEARCE is a senior fellow at The Cardinal Newman Society and editor of its journal. He is a senior contributor at The Imaginative Conservative and senior editor at the Augustine Institute. His books include biographical works on C.S. Lewis, Shakespeare, Tolkien, Chesterton, Solzhenitsyn and Belloc.

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