Education for freedom

There is a gulf between an idea and its realization in form. A similar polarity is suggested between the Greek use of light as metaphor for divine wisdom and the Hebrew notion of rock as truth’s fullest expression. What is the relationship between the light of philosophy and the rock of practice? How is Christ realized in the stuff of persons and Church? These are really the same question. What is it that connects and weaves together our ideals and their realizations? Education addresses this middle ground, where man’s becoming is accomplished.

An excellent education develops the sort of persons who can realize ideals, or respond to reality. For it is response that is needed—not a fill-in-the-blank, or even an essay answer to a test question.

The practice of poesis—of creative response—is an education for freedom. Through it, what Cardinal George calls the “analogical sense” is cultivated, supporting a critical dimension of human freedom. Catholic education takes much that is excellent from classical insight, but perhaps could teach this: that form-making must not be left to experts, college graduates, or “artistes,” but is needed all along the way of growth as the means for fully realizing the free human person. Through poesis, the informed judgement becomes act, and the man in the middle is realized.

The truth of things—reality, set in right relations—forms a continuum between “light” and “rock.” The prepared mind moves freely up and down on this ladder of relationships, works in words and metaphor to build it, and plays imaginatively on and in the geodesic infrastructure of wisdom. The movement between man and reality becomes, itself, a substantial reality, or context. The Way is woven by the action of God and the free acts in which personhood is realized. Like the atmosphere, this invisible context provides a critically necessary pressure, perfectly suited to human being.

The student’s co-operation keeps the educative context vibrant. Liberal arts provide excellent content, and our conversation, community life, and collaboration build that content into a generative context for the further support of human development. A context of classrooms, traditions, libraries, and fellow students signifies and amplifies the living, moving life of person-making within, but dare not substitute for, or still that movement.

The exitus-reditus of response and appropriation forms the student in freedom—develops in him the capacity to take in more, to be capax omnium, to generate newness of life, clear judgement, and true creativity. In The Intellectual Life, A. G. Sertillanges puts it this way: “Work creates its instrument for itself.”

The liberal arts—content and context for a labor by which the laborer is made—help expand his capacity for analogical ascent from material to meaning and for descent from high values to concrete forms and acts. Through lived encounter with works of literature, poetry, history, and other arts of freedom and by the work of forming a personal response, students cultivate correspondence to the unbroken continuum between Father and Son, Significance and Sign, God and Creation—filling that interior matrix with the affirmation of being in which true celebration and praise of God are rooted.

Active formation in the liberal and fine arts builds the interior (intellectual and affective) and the exterior (communital and normative) structures by which more nutritious content may be appropriated. The rich get richer.

A danger looms in the temptation to stop short of the realization of ideals. If we do not develop greater power to turn beauties, ideals, and wisdom into art forms, actions, and responses of our own, we are weakened. Dwelling on the mountaintop of imagined experience, contemplation of transcendentals, or analysis of abstractions, we may fail to incorporate the goods through our own work of poesis.

If education merely fills a student’s mind with lists, plots, formulas, and points of great books but does not develop in him a capacity to be affected and to respond, to appropriate and incorporate, to inhale and then exhale his own small words, forms, and acts, then the professions will fill with more flat men than free. If education smothers the earliest phase of poetic development, frustrates the student’s movement toward poetic response, or forgets to call him down from the heights of accomplishment to place his gifts at the service of the Man at the center of human being, then it fails him.

The liberal arts can too easily become mere content; can become stepping stones to superiority, credentials, and position. Cardinal John Henry Newman warned that they may lead to idolatry and indolence if the connection between feeling and acting atrophies. C.S. Lewis spoke of the difference between using and receiving a work of art. Both the premature attempt to evaluate a work before one has adequately experienced it and the lack of capacity to surrender to and be genuinely affected by the work cause weakness or collapse of man’s metaphoric dimension. The process takes time. It involves interior and exterior attention—tension that must be borne to be resolved creatively. It is very like the process of art-making, yet that practice is often ignored as “extracurricular.”

One may appreciate art merely sentimentally, pass tests in art theory and analysis, or memorize the facts of art history, but without experience resolving the tensions of positive and negative space, melody and harmony, poetry and prose, character and plot, form and frame, may miss the crucial contribution made by poesis to interior spaciousness, emotional resilience, and creative resourcefulness.  Poesis is the movement by which content becomes interior infrastructure, and then richly supported interior capacity becomes the stuff of culture and community.

Josef Pieper speaks of art as the middle term in a golden proportion between verbal formation and festal, sacramental experience. To form ideas in words, wood, paint, or clay is to converse, to weave what Pieper calls the “context of truth.” Truth does not exist in a vacuum, as a mere mental construct, or as an un-tapped rock, but as a living, moving reality that provokes and inspires our response.

The attraction of collegial conversation draws us into this work as a form of recreation, and leisure grants us time to practice using powerful verbal constructions in collaborative play with ideas. People who have no real interest or have not been affected by content have no impetus to converse. People who have experienced the wound of beauty or the in-stress of reality’s touch are avid to speak together about it if allowed the leisure to choose.

If the liberal arts are instrumentalized, learned without living conversation, imbibed without the struggle to re-present and emulate, they become a thin context for being in which students develop reduced capacity for freedom. Characteristic of such an environment is the attitude that art and poetry are superfluous, that contemporary culture has nothing to teach us, that life in community is beneath us, that tension and dialogue are dangerous, that leisure is slothful, and that only dead artists are safe to study. To educate for freedom we must fight these attitudes, which are reactions against errors instead of proactive responses.

Response-ability and free action generate a well-integrated human being capable of heart-hospitality, self-management and magnanimity. Free persons possess a refreshing capacity for responsiveness to whatever realities they face. The sciences are calling for inter-disciplinary teamwork more and more as the problems they address increase in complexity. There is a great need for integralists in this age of narrow specialization—people with a capacity to make connections and to move analogically, intuitively, between disciplines. In business, the innovator or creative problem-solver is in great demand primarily because such skills are largely un-teachable. They arise from contextual absorption, poetic engagement with reality, excellent education, and lived experience of movement beyond the discomfort of tension into resolution at a higher plane.

How can we cultivate freedom?  We need poesisthe practice of art (even badly), excellent reading of fewer texts, more conversation, Sabbath-keeping, more service and less imagined virtue, courtesy and letter-writing, less propaganda, more integration and beauty of content. To the extent the liberal arts become a shared context promoting conversation, collaboration, new forms for ancient verities, acts of virtue and creativity and also for liturgical and festal receptivity, they expand the capacity of persons thus embraced to be at leisure, to be free.

CHARLOTTE OSTERMANN is the author of Souls at Rest and Souls at Work. She offers a poetry workshop, sings polyphony, welcomes conversation, and lives just north of Lawrence, Kan.

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