by Sara Breetzke, TCA Head of School
We’ve forgotten what it means to be free.
Yet a true understanding of freedom is the foundation for a classical education. An education in the liberal arts is, after all, an education predicated on liberty.
In a world where liberty has lost its meaning, it’s no surprise that modern education systems often produce students with no clear understanding of who they are, what it means to be free, or what a life of freedom would require. If we are confused about the goal, it’s no wonder that we don’t know how to get there.
Classical education, on the other hand, is clear about its foundations, its methods, and its ends. These can only be understood, though, through a clear definition of liberty.
PREMODERN LIBERTY: VIRTUE
In the premodern sense, liberalism - far from the progressive political views that this term may invoke - is the pursuit of self-control and rightly ordered desires that leads to increased virtue and, therefore, freedom.
A classical education - a liberal education - was one in which students learned how to live in the world God created. They saw the world as good and ordered. With a posture of humility before their Creator, they observed the truth, received inherited tradition and culture, and passed those truths on to the next generation.
A classically educated person could see the world rightly and live virtuously for the glory of God and the good of others. This was freedom.
Author Patrick Deneen explains: “To be free - liberal - was an art, something learned, not by nature or instinct but by refinement and education.”
MODERN LIBERTY: POWER
In the last 2,000 years, we have overthrown the idea of a good and ordered world that provides a template for rightly ordered desires, and replaced it with a godless, chaotic material world which presents no guide for how to live. Instead, nature is either a violent and alienating force, or a resource to be harnessed for individual power and ease. Thus begins the pursuit of a new kind of freedom.
This modern view of liberty is a life free from any undesirable constraint, including government, family, history, and nature. The relationships, traditions, and communities that served as a training ground for growing virtue are now obstacles in the way of a person’s ever expanding personal freedom.
The good life is no longer conceived of as the exercise self-control and virtue, but as self-transformation that gives increased power. This change in ideal is reflected in how we think about education today. Graduates hope for money, status, and intellect. We enter into the adult world believing our ability to control our surroundings will set us free.
Ironically, pre-modern thinkers would have considered this condition slavery, “in which we are driven by our basest appetites to act against our better nature.”* Our conscience may show us what is right and honoring to God, but a modern freedom suggests we are free to choose what will bring us glory: ambition, consumption, and power.
Instead of worshiping God, we end up worshiping ourselves. As one ancient thinker puts it:
“For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools,and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things.”
WHAT LIBERTY WILL WE CHOOSE?
As good as these modern goals sound, ancient classicists knew that “such liberation from all obstacles is finally illusory for two simple reasons: the human appetite is insatiable, and the world is limited. For both of these reasons, we cannot be truly free in the modern sense.”*
And so, before we become slaves to our appetites or despairing of a world that seems limited, perhaps it is worthwhile to consider the freedom found for our students in teaching them the wisdom and the self-control to order their desires rightly - and to recognize these irrevocable and permanent outcomes of education as a better kind of freedom.
In our current political moment, many feel the loss of a certain kind of freedom. And it may be true that liberalism is failing as a political project. But for those of us educating in a Christian and classical school, we have hope for a better future. Here’s why:
We have Christ in us. His Spirit teaches us self-control and challenges our notions of liberty again and again. We pray he guides us in a vision of the world that honors who He is and who He’s made us to be. We pray this vision will allow His Kingdom to be increasingly realized on earth.
We aren’t forgetting the past. A classical education gives our students familiarity with great thinkers. They will learn how their society developed, and they’ll have the knowledge, creativity, and self-control to devise new political and societal structures.
We are growing in virtue. In an era of consumerism and power-grabbing, we hope our students will have rightly ordered desires. This means they will be grounded in their communities and aware of their cultural heritage so that they might be culture creators, building communities that honor the humanity of others and glorify God.
*Deneen, Patrick. Why Liberalism Failed. Yale University Press, 2018.