Liberal Arts Education: To self-Mastery or self-indulgence?

“One of the greatest symposiums this year.” Ben magazine

“By far a stimulating and enlightening experience. Professor George definitely shows he is a powerhouse in asking questions we always asked ourselves, but coming up with different answers.” Journal of Ben’s Discourses

Okay, so that was to get you to read this, hopefully these blurbs of well-published academic magazines did their jobs. What is the Liberal Arts Education intended to do?

One view of the LAE is to free the student from traditional social constraints and morals. It calls the old structures irrational, and deconstructs ancient, classical texts, calling some of them propaganda. Texts can be re-appropriated to subvert initial racist and sexist meanings. The question then, is what is the self to which being authentic should be true? The answer, in one view, we’ll call view A, is our desires, or natural inclinations. Accordingly, whatever impedes our desires is a mere hangup. Prof. George used his own university, Princeton University, as an example of how this is the prevailing view. There, compulsory Freshman academies require students to “sexual awakenings” if you will. Specifically, Princeton puts on a two hour play that delves into the sexual promiscuity that pervades our society, in an effort to promote it as breaking down the old traditions of religion and ethics.

This is one view.

The other in some ways is similar. This view is also a liberating one. The LAE is to free the student, but not to act on his desires. It is to LIBERATE US FROM THE SLAVERY TO OUR DESIRES. It promotes self-mastery, self control. This is done through the ability to reason. Reason is put at the helm, and our desires, though important, act inferior to our reasoning. Dr. George called it, a “well-ordered soul, where we have passions and appetites, but they are under the control of reason.”

“When reason is inferior to passion, reason will generate rationalizations for our behavior.” Isn’t this a little gem of a statement, folks? Sometimes, we convince ourselves that our desires and passions are justified, and then we try to argue our point because that’s what we want. THIS IS NOT REASON. This is rationalization, or justification for things we DON’T know to be true.

So, from this view, what is the good we get from a LAE? How does the LAE give us this reasoning ability, and this self-mastery?

Followers of the first view, such as Rousseau and David Hume, would argue that there is no soul. That true freedom of the will then becomes only in the fulfillment of the desires of the self. There is no rationalization, only release from bonds that previously barred us from what we truly want. “Reason is the slave to passions” as David Hume said.

Plato and Socrates were of the second school of thought. They were deeply concerned with the soul! We must have a soul, they argued, in order for reason to be able to domainate our passions.

The LAE helps us understand virtues. It helps us understand the great thinkers of civilization as they asked these questions. We don’t just read books with a LAE, we ENGAGE the thinkers and the ideas themselves. We argue and ponder both sides, in an effort to come to our own, distinct conclusion. Then, once we have decided the best way to act, we can discipline ourselves and our passions to become subservient to those virtues. This is how the LAE gives self-mastery.

Really, it’s about changing or not changing ourselves based on reasoning, and we obtain the ideas from our study of the classics in all disciplines.

An important clarification, is that reasoning involves argument for and against ideas, but it also involves eventually settling on one side, the side one reasons to be correct. Otherwise, the study of truth is antithetical.

One student asked, how do we know what is virtuous? There are two ways. Religious people believe God directly reveals what is virtuous. Another way is through reason: that natural law is accessible through reason, and that certain ideas and virtues are ends in themsleves. In other words, they are self-justifying.

This was such a great lecture, and I think it is some of the soundest reasoning I’ve heard. Let us all continue to become more disciplined.

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