Sam Rocha is an internet friend and fellow writer at First Things online. He also happens to be a fellow North Dakotan by virtue of his teaching post at the University of North Dakota in Grand Forks, where he serves as assistant professor in the educational foundations and research graduate program. Sam has now written a little Primer for Philosophy & Education aimed expressly at students, but others (parents, educators) would benefit from reading it too.
My former institution, Wheaton College, is a serious liberal arts institution. My current institution, the University of Mary, prides itself on training young people for service in the professions with a strong liberal arts base. And yet, even at institutions such as these, where liberal arts education is stressed, most students come in (and many leave) with the assumption that education is merely career preparation: having a college degree shows prospective employers you’re enough of a serious human being to have jumped through hoops for four years to secure a degree, and majoring in something should get you an interview for something in that field, or get you into graduate school in that field. And so many students are more concerned with passing classes with acceptable grades than really diving into the subject matter of a given course. I had that attitude in college towards many of my courses, such as my requirements in economics, math, and natural science. I did enough to get by and ran as fast as I could to my courses in religion, philosophy, and history.
Almost twenty years later, however, I wish I had paid more attention in the former courses, not merely for the sake of being a more educated human being but also for the sake of being a better exegete and theologian. I think I knew this back in college, but everything is connected, every discipline is interdisciplinary. Economics, psychology, the natural sciences, and so forth all affected (and are affected by) the Bible, theology, philosophy, and the practices of religion. And I do wish someone would have sat me down and forced me to read, say, Dorothy Sayers’ little piece, The Lost Tools of Learning, in which she contends that learning isn’t about mastering subjects but about cultivating the mind, about learning how to learn. Modern education makes drones to serve the modern technopolist, capitalist nation-state. Classical liberal arts education frees the mind and cultivates virtue to make free men and women capable of serving their families, the polis, and (in a Christian key) the Church. Modern education eradicates culture; classical education cultivates culture.
Sam has done something similar to Sayers in his little Primer. In its brisk but thick 45 pages, Rocha brings his student readers back into contact with a classical pedagogical tradition, in which education is not dispassionate mastery of certain facts requisite for worldly success but rather a cultivation of the mind in the pursuit of the love of wisdom and the development (yes) of virtue. Of particular interest are Sam’s discussion of education and philosophy as well as the relationship of philosophy and philosophers, given how different the classical and modern conceptions of each are. In short, I recommend it, especially for those starting college in (gulp!) about six weeks.