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This essay is part of a RealClearPolicy series centered on the American Project, an initiative of the Pepperdine School of Public Policy. The project looks to the country’s founding principles to respond to our current cultural and political upheaval.

Since the founding, Americans have cared about preserving a tradition of liberal arts education because liberal arts education is key to a free society. But, characteristically, we have not always agreed about what a liberal arts education is or should be.

In his book, "Education at the Crossroads," written in the midst of the Second World War, the French philosopher Jacques Maritain offered a hopeful challenge to American educators:

I am convinced that if [America] frees itself from the background of an instrumentalist and pragmatist philosophy which is but a hindrance to its inspiration, and which takes the edge off the sense of truth in our minds, this profoundly personalist and humanist educational venture will push forward with renewed power to a new work of pioneering.

Only a “personalist and humanist” philosophy, Maritain argued, can provide the basis for education in a free society such as the United States. What is a “personalist and humanist education venture,” and why is it better than one based on instrumentalism and pragmatism?

Maritain’s thinking on education contrasts with two prominent thinkers who have shaped educational philosophy and policy in the United States: the pragmatist John Dewey and the Marxist Paulo Freire. Maritain helps us see the common flaw in those two thinkers — and thus the flaw in a powerful current in American education philosophy. We would do well to heed Maritain’s warning today, which remains as vital now as it was when he issued it over half a century ago.

The crux of the disagreement between Maritain and Dewey and Freire concerns the nature of the human person. According to Maritain, our rationality points to a transcendent reality beyond direct sensual perception, but revealed through our intuitions and desires for love and truth. Maritain, a convert from atheism to Roman Catholicism, held to a theistic view of the human person according which our inner nature has as its final end communion with God, who created and sustains us. For both Dewey and Freire, by contrast, the human intellect is essentially a tool for action in the world — whether that be problem-solving action (for Dewey) or fighting for revolutionary liberation (for Freire). Maritain does not disregard the practical ends of education, which Dewey and Freire both emphasize. But he argues that we best achieve these ends by keeping in mind that we are persons, body and soul — beings with an interior life.

According to the classical Greek conception taken up by the Judeo-Christian tradition, there is a transcendent reality, antecedent to our own existence, that is not subject to our manipulation. While our contemplative nature certainly influences our action, our inner dynamism, our senses, and our intellect are oriented toward the apprehension of this reality — and, ultimately, communion with God.

It is because the human person’s highest good is communion with God, Maritain thinks, that our intellectual nature cannot be entirely reduced to action, as in pragmatist views of education. Part of what educators must do, Maritain contends, is preserve the traditions that represent millennia of wisdom about who we are as human beings. Apart from a strong tradition that upholds a notion of a transcendent reality, education becomes merely a tool for intervention in the here and now — a tool that can be easily manipulated for evil purposes. Maritain pushes us to ask: What are we to do with this tool if we fundamentally misunderstand human nature and our final ends as humans?

Although Maritain wrote decades before the publication of Paulo Freire’s “Pedagogy of the Oppressed,” he knew well the impact of Marxist education on the Soviet Union and Fascist education in Germany. Maritain warned that the downstream impact of pragmatist, Marxist or any atheist or materialist philosophy that negates contemplative truth is that culture will end in a “a stony positivist or technocratic denial of the objective value of any spiritual need”. Today, when a “good” education is increasingly thought of only in terms of numbers, outcomes, rankings, or scores, is it not obvious that Maritain’s warning is still important for us to ponder?

But what does a personalist awakening in education mean for parents, teachers, administrators, educational policy makers and all who care about education?

In his book “The Risk of Education,” the Italian Catholic priest Luigi Giussani affirms that any educational method must ponder how to educate what is truly human in us — especially our human rationality, which is always open to the infinite. In the various courses I have taught on liberal arts education and Christian tradition, my students have found that Giussani’s approach synthesizes what is good about the pragmatist view of education with the personalist Catholic philosophical anthropology found in Maritain, which remains open to the infinite.

Curricula in educational schools should include courses in which students read important works in educational method, including debates about the nature of the human person, which informs these educational approaches. For example, how do different approaches to education understand teacher-student interactions? Is the role of a teacher only to pose problems that need to be solved or to raise consciousness about the political, social, and cultural forces that oppress us? Or should teachers act as guides in our journey of developing our inner dynamism to encounter tradition, ponder the infinite, and integrate the various different forms of knowledge into a personal identity and life project that balances contemplation and action?

Such questions are particularly important in American culture, where notions of tradition are generally weaker and identity more individualistic than in European countries. What Maritain helps us to see is that because America is a such a diverse society, education must be understood as a life-long endeavor in which schools are not the only agent of education. Of course, policy makers, schools, and educators make important contributions to the forming young people’s hearts and minds. But they need to acknowledge their interdependence on other social organisms, such as the family and religious institutions. Cooperation among these social organisms is vital to form integral human persons who are able to use their gifts endowed by their creator in unique ways for the common good of all.

Margarita A. Mooney is Associate Professor of Practical Theology at Princeton Theological Seminary and Executive Director of the Scala Foundation.

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