A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning / Edition 1

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781882926534
  • Publisher: ISI Books
  • Publication date: 6/28/2000
  • Series: ISI Guides to the Major Disciplines
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 54
  • Sales rank: 485,547
  • Product dimensions: 5.16 (w) x 8.02 (h) x 0.22 (d)

Read an Excerpt

A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning

By James V. Schall

ISI Books

Copyright © 2000 Intercollegiate Studies Institute
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4976-4506-6



* * *

Back in 1988, I wrote a book entitled Another Sort of Learning. The book was addressed to those students and ex-students who are quite aware that something is radically incomplete and wrong with formal higher education but are not quite sure why or what to do about it. The following was the none-too-pithy, somewhat brash subtitle: "How Finally to Acquire an Education While Still in College or Anywhere Else, Containing Some Belated Advice about How to Employ Your Leisure Time When Ultimate Questions Remain Perplexing in Spite of Your Highest Earned Academic Degree, Together with Sundry Book Lists Nowhere Else in Captivity to Be Found." That subtitle, I confess, even though I wrote it, has always amused me. It set the stage for exactly what I wanted to say, while, at the same time, preserving some of the winsome spirit in which I wanted to say it.

That lengthy subtitle addresses the condition of soul in which many, if not most, students and variously aging ex-students and professors find themselves in today's social climate. Something fundamental has been missed. A sense of intellectual loss or confusion is especially acute in the so-called prestige and most expensive schools, but it occurs almost everywhere in academia.

Here I will try to recount something of what I said in Another Sort of Learning, but the fuller discussion of what I recommend to students remains to be found in that original book with the long subtitle. The main words of its title, "another sort of learning," hint at a vast wisdom that is exciting and available if we only knew how to go about finding it.

In Another Sort of Learning, moreover, were found chapters on sports, personal libraries, grades, reading, intellectual life, lectures, teaching, evil, and devotion, all of which, however odd it may seem, are related to the pursuit and acceptance of the truth. Too, along with these topics, can be found "Schall's Unlikely List of Books to Keep Sane By"—a list that I will reproduce at the end of this essay, with some new additions more recently found. Scattered throughout this particular essay, I will include brief lists of books on a given topic or by a given author. These will be items that I think are particularly pertinent and insightful, indeed often stirring, in the pursuit of the goal that I have mainly in mind for this essay on what must be called "an intellectual life open to the truth."

The present account will take a counter-cultural position and hint that something really different is around and is worth taking a look at if we can only find it. No one should be afraid of using his mind, or as Bertie Wooster of P. G. Wodehouse fame used to say, of using his "old bean." Wodehouse, by the way, I recommend to any one at all interested in how sanity and wit belong together. Our intellectual faculties were given to us precisely to use, to use correctly.

The terms "intellectual" and "egg-head" are sometimes used in a pejorative manner. Just because someone is smart does not mean he is wise. Much of the serious disorder in the world can usually be traced back to some intellectual, very often to someone not in our time or in our place or in our tongue. We should remember, however, that the objection to the "intellectual" is not that he uses his brain, but that he uses it wrongly. "Can it be used rightly?" we wonder. One of the greatest intellectual works ever written, Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologiae, was written in the thirteenth century for beginning students, ones about the same age as most undergraduate and graduate students today.

Thomas wrote a brief three-point introduction to the Summa explaining to students just why they often found it difficult to learn and to come to a clear knowledge of the truth. The three reasons for the difficulty of learning are: 1) the baffling multiplicity of useless questions and arguments, 2) the things that we want to know are not treated according to the order of the discipline but only according to what is required for explaining some book or dispute, and 3) the frequent repetition of these questions causes confusion and boredom in the minds of the students. Tell me these same points do not hold today!

We do not "own" truth, however. We can copyright our words, we can register our inventions, but we cannot possess something universal as if it were our private property. The truth will not only "make us free" but it is itself free. We all come in fact to know the same truth, otherwise we could not communicate at all with one another. This is why the modern-day denial of truth is, at the same time, a denial of real human communication and, consequently, in place of truth, an exaltation of power. But if we are helped by others to learn something, of course we ought indeed to be grateful to them.

But for all of us, the truth comes from reality itself, from what is. Truth is our judgment about reality. The truth is, as Plato said in The Republic, to say of what is, that it is; and to say of what is not, that it is not (477b). This truth, which none of us "owns," is the spiritual bond that potentially unites us to all other members of our human race, as well as with whatever being, including the divine, that is the source of our reasoning powers. From the very fact that we have minds that work the way they do, on their proper objects, we realize that we remain receivers.

The subject matter of our thoughts and the power of thinking itself never come directly from ourselves, from our own creation or choice. In some paradoxical sense, we are gifts to ourselves, endowed with minds sufficiently subtle to realize that we cannot give ourselves such gifts. This is why the great German philosopher Eric Voegelin describes us as beings in search of our "ground," in search of the basis of reality we did not give ourselves. (The best book to become acquainted with Voegelin, incidently, is Ellis Sandoz' The Voegelinian Revolution).

Students see in their education and in the culture all too little of the pursuit of truth and of its relation to loving what is good and what is beautiful. However obliquely they are attracted in their souls to something noble, too many students no longer know what it means to be fully civilized or to be virtuous. As Aristotle taught us in his Ethics, if we do not have our lives in order, under the rule of right reason, we will simply not see the first principles of reasoning and of living (1095a2-11).

We rarely if ever encounter in universities or in our culture today attention to the whole, to how things fit together. To find some guide to such fundamental things, we are mostly thrown back on ourselves, on things that are not fashionable to read, on ideas that we find rejected all around us, and mostly, on examination, rejected on untested or contradictory principles.

Not only are the rational and metaphysical sides of our understanding and virtue neglected, but even more we cease to know anything accurate and true about the great revelational tradition. In spite of most of what a student will read on the topic, revelation seeks reason, is addressed to mind and fosters it. The Bible has profound things to tell us, things we clearly ought to know. We now have students in class, even those who have gone to church or synagogue all their lives, who have not the faintest accurate idea about what is said in Scripture, a work that almost every generation before this era has read carefully either to understand or to dispute or to live by.



* * *

E. F. Schumacher, in A Guide for the Perplexed, tells of going to Oxford as a young man, that is, of going to what was thought to be the greatest university of his time. He discovered that what was taught and discussed there bore little meaning and truth to him. Schumacher was forced to look elsewhere for some semblance of an education that dealt with the highest things, that took seriously the great philosophical and religious minds. He already felt issues pressing in his own soul that were never addressed in the great university.

The first and oft-quoted lines of Allan Bloom's disturbingly pertinent book, The Closing of the American Mind, began: "There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative" (p. 25). That is, unlike the young Schumacher, by the time they reach the universities, most students have already absorbed this dubious doctrine of relativism, the premises of which they have not intellectually examined for their validity. They are simply accepted as if they contained within themselves no contradiction. Contemporary students can assume that their professors in their hearts maintain and carry to further extremes mostly the same contradictory doctrine of relativism. Where does one go when the university and cultural system fail to be good guides and become instead sources of confusion and hindrances to truth?

Before anything can be done, however, the student must become aware that something is profoundly wrong or problematic with the content and spirit of the education he is being given, no matter how famous or how expensive is the university he is attending or has attended. This awareness is by no means an easy thing to come by. It will be looked upon as distinctly odd or wrong-headed by those who have come to accept in their lives such relativist principles. No doubt a young student will soon be in academic trouble if not careful about expressing doubt about university sanctioned public doctrine.

Admitting to oneself that there is a real problem with what one is being given to read, with the methods proposed to substantiate its conclusions, will often take an act of what can only be called intellectual honesty and courage. Many of history's greatest figures—Socrates, Cicero, Christ, Boethius, Thomas More—were not allowed to continue their work in the cities in which they lived; each was eliminated. Yet, they each stood for the truth that was made most graphic to us because they did not compromise or change the standards of mind or God that are the foundations of human well-being and order. Eric Voegelin, in his book on Plato, said that after the death of Socrates in Athens, philosophy fled from the city to the Academy. We live in a time evidently when truth is fleeing the Academy. And this is where the intellectually curious student finds himself.

When a student arrives at a university, he will probably think that what he is about to study will be the best that he can possibly come by. In any university or college—even the worst one—a student can meet new friends, have worthwhile, dignified, and memorable experiences. Many of the unhappiest individuals, however, are those who realize that what is thought to be of the highest prestige and fame is in fact shallow and mostly untrue. They discover that what they are taught or urged to do does not satisfy or ring true. Normally, beginners will have little to alert them to any problems with curriculum, to ideology contained within it, or to what is left out of a program.

Many students have no problem with the educational system or with what they are being taught. There are others, though, who either from their family, religious, or educational background or common-sense experience will begin to detect that all is not well in the academy or in the culture or, for that matter, in one's own soul. While uneasily following, probably for an eventual job, whatever curriculum he has selected or is given, he will nonetheless begin to look about on his own. He needs a certain practical good judgment. At a deeper level, he searches for some way to go; he must, in other words, find "another sort of learning."

What might this other sort of learning be? The first thing to remember is that most great changes, most great encounters with the truth, with what is good, begin in quiet, insignificant places. Oftentimes, small beginnings appear as if by chance, though even chance is subsumed into our calling. So what wakes us up might be what Aristotle called "wonder," a curiosity about what something means or what something is. It might be a love, an awareness that we are not complete in ourselves by ourselves. Even our knowing begins not with knowing ourselves, but with knowing something that is not ourselves, some other thing that is.

Some chance story that we read might unsettle us, something of Tolkien, perhaps his essay "On Fairy-Stories," or C. S. Lewis's Chronicles of Narnia, or it might be a lecture or conversation, a painting we saw in a gallery. It might even be a class or a classmate that alerts us to something we are missing. Music can do it, both for better and worse. Indeed, following Plato, music today may well be, as Allan Bloom wrote in his chapter in The Closing of the American Mind, the real educator of our youth.

What wakes us up might even be an evil, a horror that happened to us or we read about, or something we caused ourselves, something that aroused such perplexity in our souls that we must seek to place it in some kind of order. Perhaps we ran across the famous definition of evil as the lack of good, of what ought to be there and is not, and wondered what it meant. Indeed, what alerts us could be Shakespeare, now often neglected in the university for ideological reasons. Or it could be the Bible itself, something neglected even more in general academic circles, or it could be curiosity about the overt academic opposition to both.

St. Augustine's famous Confessions is a book directed to the very heart of each young person. No other book is quite like it. In it, Augustine excitedly tells us about his reading of Cicero's now lost dialogue, the Hortensius. At about the age of nineteen, Augustine's reading of this dialogue in a provincial town in Africa changed his life in the direction of philosophy. Many readers of these words will be themselves nineteen and wonder why they have not had a similarly mind-wrenching experience? At least one reason may be that they have never yet read Augustine or Cicero. By the time we are nineteen, it is indeed time to wake up, as Augustine's example teaches us. I myself remember being in the army at nineteen rather aimlessly wandering through the Post libraries looking for something to read, having little clue (Schall was "clueless"!) about where to begin or how to go about systematically finding some place to start, of finding something that would lead to the truth.

Cicero lived some five hundred years before Augustine. He himself sent his own son to Greece to study philosophy. Cicero wrote to his son a famous letter, the famous On Duties, which attempted to explain to young Marcus how and what to study, a letter that is still worth reading by anyone similarly perplexed. We are all, in this sense, Cicero's sons down the ages. That is to say, what provokes us, incites us, need not come from our own time. Indeed, our own time may be and probably is so disordered that it cannot really alert us to the truth, to what is. This is why books from another time are so precious to us and why we need to find them, read them. Someone who knows Aristotle, Plato, Cicero, Augustine, or Aquinas will never be too far from the truth, never out-of-date.

Augustine also recalls his reading by chance a passage of St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans. This passage told him that it was time for him to stop his carousing and dickering with life and to change his ways, to direct them toward God in sorrow for all the errors and abuses he had already embraced and committed in his own life. Augustine is an excellent guide for today's students and searchers. He tells them that living their lives in personal moral disorder—often the principal cause of intellectual disorder—will prevent them from seeing the truth. He tells each of us to be honest with ourselves, not to lie to ourselves in our own souls about ourselves, to describe accurately the real results of our choices and deeds, not to be blind to the results of our errors, sins, and defects.

In Conversations with Eric Voegelin on a familiar evening in Montreal in 1980, the influential philosopher spoke about contemporary students whose actions belie their theories about themselves. Even though they will claim to be agnostics or relativists, Voegelin observed, they act as if their lives have a purpose, a seriousness that cannot be substantiated by any of their own articulated theories:

I find that students frequently are flabbergasted, especially those who are agnostics, when I tell them that they all act, whether agnostic or not, as if they were immortal! ... They all act as if their lives made sense immortally, even if they deny immortality, deny the existence of a psyche, deny the existence of a Divinity—in brief, if they are just the sort of fairly corrupt average agnostics that you find among college students today. One shouldn't take their agnosticism too seriously, because in fact they act as if they were not agnostics (p. 6).


Excerpted from A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning by James V. Schall. Copyright © 2000 Intercollegiate Studies Institute. Excerpted by permission of ISI Books.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Introductory Note,
From Whence Did These Observations Come?,
Do You Have This Problem?,
Where Do I Begin?,
On Teachers and Teaching,
Where Do I Find Time for All This Liberal Learning?,
APPENDIX: Schall's Unlikely List of Books to Keep Sane By,

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