Chronological Snobbery: A reminder of the importance of a Liberal Arts Education

This is a guest blog post from a talented educator, Mr. Brendan D. Towell. I hope you enjoy his insights and perspectives as much as I did. We are lucky to have him on our faculty. 

By: Brendan D. Towell (Theology Department)

At the end of each academic year, the student body of St. Augustine Prep has an opportunity to anonymously review their teachers. I am not so sure if the Administration ever gets reviewed by the students… but that’s a question for another day! Regardless, our reviews can be quite illuminating. I will spare you the minutia of how the process works, yet I will say that the comment section is by far the most revealing and helpful for me as an educator. I have found that affording a teenaged boy the opportunity to anonymously comment on one of his teachers results in a brutal form of honesty more helpful than any peer evaluation.  Through this unfiltered honesty, I have come to find that one recurring point was how genuinely surprised the boys were to find that Theology class could actually be relevant in their lives today.

A common assumption from many in my classes is that because subjects like Theology or Philosophy have been around for centuries, they are not as trustable as some of the more modern scientific disciplines.  The content is seen as irrelevant, unprovable at best, and untrue, at worst. Students have been intellectually and culturally conditioned to believe that unless something can be scientifically proven, it likely cannot be “known” and certainly cannot be true. This is not just an issue for theological studies, but for the Liberal Arts as a whole. C. S. Lewis, arguably the most influential Christian writer in the 20th Century, called this bias “Chronological Snobbery.” In his autobiographical work, Surprised by Joy, Lewis goes on to define this prejudice as “the uncritical acceptance of the intellectual climate of our own age and the assumption that whatever has gone out of date is on that count discredited.”

If this all sounds a bit abstract, I assure you it is not. Think for a moment of the student who asks, “But what does learning this have to do with me now?” Sound familiar, fellow educators? This line of questioning is inevitable, but what I have found striking was hearing feedback from upperclassmen who showed a gradual, logical maturity beginning to take root. I read more student comments which indicated to me that a partiality for the modern was not as widespread as I had assumed.

The adage “out with the old and in with the new” is still very influential in certain educational circles and popular among many students who have been brought up according to that mindset. While arguments can be made for this line of thinking in certain areas of education (the use of technology comes to mind), it is certainly untrue in other areas – especially the realm of ideas and moral values, two of the bedrocks of a strong Liberal Arts education.

We must remind our students that although modern sciences and new technologies have provided us with monumental breakthroughs and discoveries, there are many scientifically unprovable truths we can all reasonably hold to. We must remind our young people that although science can tell us the type of paint Michelangelo used on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, it cannot tell us why it is beautiful. Science can give us the breakdown of the elements of the parchment and ink which constitute the Constitution, but it cannot tell us what freedom and liberty mean to the oppressed. Science alone cannot draw ethical distinctions between consensual sex and rape. We can observe, hypothesize, test, and draw conclusions about the biological and socioemotional changes that occur whenever human beings interact, but we cannot explain, in strictly scientific terms, what it means to love someone.

Plato taught us long ago that there is more to our reality than simply the empirical sciences and the physical world; there is a metaphysical reality which can be both understood and articulated through the Liberal Arts. To become Chronological Snobs in education would be to follow only the latest fads and favor only those subjects which we are told are “on the cutting edge.” In so doing, we would be denying our students the richness of so many ancient disciplines, thinkers, and ideas. Poetry, art, music, theater, language, philosophy, history, and theology are legitimate paths to knowledge. In the spirit of our patron, St. Augustine of Hippo, let these paths to knowledge, paired with all that technology and the sciences have to offer, lead our students to wisdom and truth.