The Value of a Catholic Liberal Arts Education


Rather than seeing Catholic education as merely the addition of a religion course to the usual academic subjects," we want our students to make Christian sense out of what they learn in their natural science, math,"and history courses, in their study of art, music, and literature.

Like any Catholic school worthy of being called Catholic, we want our students to make Christian sense out of what they learn in their natural science and math courses, in their history courses, in their study of art, music, and literature. Emphatically, Christian sense does not mean that Christian faith interferes with or overrides the methods proper to the various academic disciplines, or that it has us reject the legitimate contributions of non-Catholics; it means rather that these disciplines, while being fully respected according to their proper autonomy, should, as the nature of each allows, be brought into relation to Christian revelation. And in the encounter with human knowledge Catholic faith not only gives but also receives; consequently our students' faith becomes real and embodied in such a way as to be deepened and enriched.

This unity of truth, which is the essence of a Catholic education and which distinguishes the Catholic habit of thought from others, has never been fully realized in American Catholic education, even though it was the ideal of Catholic education in America from its very beginning. Writing in the 1860s, the famous American convert to Catholicism, Orestes Brownson, wrote: “Catholic education must recognize the catholicity of truth under all its aspects, and tend to actualize it in all the relations of life, in religion and civilization.” [1] Brownson complained even back then about Catholics' timidity in acting on the expansive vision of education that was their rightful patrimony. We at Aquinas Academy are dedicated to achieving the great, mostly unrealized, ideal of Catholic education: “the formation of an open Christian culture which is sufficiently conscience of the value of its own tradition to be able to meet secularist culture on a secure and equal footing.” [2]

...In a recent article entitled “The Present Opportunity for Catholic Education, “Professor (Louise) Cowan argues that, notwithstanding the seemingly hostile contemporary culture in which they live, there lies waiting within most young people today an unawakened “sense of the right order of things.” And what is needed to awaken this innate sense is the “right kind of education.” Professor Cowan along with her husband Donald Cowan established the famous and rigorous undergraduate program of liberal arts at the University of Dallas, a university in the Benedictine tradition. She writes that students' vision of order “cannot be awakened by direct didactic methods alone or by a constant perception of being measured.” On the contrary, the transformative education she has in mind “requires a vision...a sight of an ordered whole, a glimpse of beauty and truth that implies a possibility for noble human achievement.”

Professor Cowan profiles our ten-to-twenty-four-year-olds with a sense of interest tempered by lament. Generally speaking, she says, they live guided more by their imagination than by reason and intellect. They are ignorant of Western history and literature, but they are far from stupid. “We see among them a rejection of mechanical form: a disregard of rules and regulation, a distaste for organizations and bureaucracies, and instinctive rejection of formal codes of manners and of hierarchical states of being.” We perceive in them, writes Professor Cowan, a movement away from analysis (the breaking apart of things) and toward synthesis (putting them together), “a tendency to think toward totalities instead of parts and hence a yearning for community,” and a retreat from the American overemphasis on individualism. supposedly “expanded” by “television, video games, tapes, and CDs, MTV, personal computers and the Internet,” which excite their senses with fantastic images and sounds “that have forged firm cultural bounds among them” and usually “set them at odds with their parents and the official world.” Finally, thanks to the information revolution, the young are singularly unimpressed by facts, for they can access them on the world wide web and elsewhere with unexampled ease. “What the rising generation wants is not more data but meaning.” What it seeks desperately is a way to make sense of it all.

The dark side of Professor Cowan's profile is, among other things, that those born between 1972 and 1985 have little respect for parental and religious authority, they use drugs and alcohol at ever younger ages. (Heroin is now the drug of choice among ten-year-olds). A greater number of them are unwed mothers, and more of them commit suicide than any other preceding generation.

Yet these bleak statistics ought not to be the cause of our despair. In the words of Professor Cowan “we have let ourselves be persuaded into thinking that these figures indicate a generation of barbarians and we fear for our time-honored values.” The lamentable condition of this generation point to something that we ignore or misinterpret at our great peril, namely “a search for meaning, of a longing for the heroic, of an intense and passionate quest for love and human kindness, of an influx of spirit.”

What is needed to educate the new generation to lead the very new society which they will inherit from us is an education in the liberal arts—“those paths to learning that have shaped the different intellectual disciplines.” Accordingly, and above all, Catholic educators must resist the strong forces in American education today that encourage more specialized and technical education at earlier and earlier stages of a student's schooling. Technical know-how must build on a broad, humanizing liberal arts education, grounded in a Catholic vision of man and the world. Or else we face the terrible prospect of a new technological world order built upon either no moral sense or the wrong moral sense. A Catholic liberal arts education, which is rigorous and well-grounded in the permanent things, and not enslaved to the secular educator's cult of method, offers today's students the intellectual and moral formation they need to make firm moral judgments in the face of new situations, and to recognize new manifestations of the eternal verities.

Professor Cowan concludes her recommendations for Catholic education by pointing to what I developed during the first part of my talk: the indisputable importance of providing students with a vision of the whole. She too invokes Cardinal Newman as an unrivalled champion of this vision of an ordered whole which he conveyed vividly by way of metaphor. If one leads students to the top of a mountain so that they see all the surrounding territory, then when they return to their special work at some particular spot in the valley, they take with them the view from the mountaintop, and all of their work will have reference to the whole landscape.


  1. Orestes Brownson, “Catholic Schools and Education,” in Volume XII of The Works of Orestes A. Brownson, 196-514. Back to text.
  2. Christopher Dawson, The Crisis of Western Education. Steubenville: Ohio, Franciscan University Press, 1989, 188. Back to text.




Aquila, Dominic. “The Value of a Catholic Liberal Arts Education” unpublished paper excerpted from a talk given by Dominic Aquila to the Board Members and parents of students of Aquinas Academy, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on October 3, 1997.


Dominic A. Aquila is Vice President of Academic Affairs at the University of St. Thomas in Houston Texas. Dr. Aquila is on the Advisory Board of the Catholic Education Resource Center.

Copyright © 1997 Dominic Aquila

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