Wonder, Delight, Celebration: The Uses of Liberal Learning

by Sister Kristin Malloy, September 5, 1990

Fifty-one years ago this week I was a freshman in this college. No one was less prepared than I to meet the ideas in John Henry Newman’s definition of a liberal education in Sister Mariella Gable’s creative writing class. We read parts of his Idea of a University, the classic definitions of liberal education. I learned that “knowledge is its own end,” worth acquiring even if I never used it. My teacher drew a pie on the board (we called it Newman’s pie); she divided it into 8 or so pieces, each representing a division of subject matter. I would learn in order to know, and gradually I would discover that all knowledge is one; all parts of that circle throw new light on every other part. (If I ignored theology and philosophy, for instance, I would be just a victim of bad theology and bad philosophy).

Liberal learning takes place when we suddenly see a new connection between what we’ve known before and what we’ve just learned. Such AHA moments of illumination, of vision, of seeing afresh, emblazen themselves in our minds. That is liberal learning. That is a tradition here.

Breaking the term liberal education into its Latin root meanings helps us see what it offers. Liber, of course, means to be free and gives us also the verb liberate. The prefix e- in educate means out, and the duc means to lead. To educate, then, is to draw out certain capacities, the very capacities that make us human, the ability to know and the freedom o choose. All of us pursue this learning all our lives, no one achieves it. No, you will not have completed a liberal arts education when you earn a diploma.

We learned at once what some of the rewards would be: Liberal education liberates. It would free us from superficiality, from prejudice, from haughtiness, from the need to control, from fragmentation, from boredom -from the risk of passively settling for opinion. It would make us intellectually competent, able to think, to ask questions, to examine assumptions, to see errors in our reasoning.

I learned that liberal learning springs from wonder; we’re startled to it, surprised. Sister Mariella got a biology teacher to take us for walks to learn the precise characteristics of the many kinds of evergreen needles to guarantee would be concrete in our writing, that we say “southern pine” or “jack pine” and never again write “evergreen tree.” After the next rain, look at a drop of water nestled among the needles of almost any pine you pass. The wonder of what you’ll see will be vivid all your life. Last week I kept seeing monarch butterflies as they fluttered in a group as if they knew where they’re going. (They’re called a rebel when they travel together, as geese are called a gaggle); so are news reporters. We watch them every year, marveling as they cluster on a tree in our cemetery so heavily that the tree becomes rust colored. As if at a signal, they take off for Mexico. Flying 12 miles an hour, they will land there in November, only to set out again next February to retrace their path to our campus. If I live to be a hundred, I can never see the monarchs without being dazed by a sense of wonder at creatures so fragile, so durable, and so full of a sense of goal and direction.

We began to learn how to learn, how to crack open and penetrate any subject matter. The biologist’s techniques and procedures differ totally from those of the philosopher and the historian; neither of these can look at lab specimens under a microscope. Each of them is different from the way I get at a poem or a story. Twenty percent of what we learn as facts in any one year is proven untrue within five years. The faculty regrets that they don’t know which 20% is is: but knowing how to learn stays with us forever. We always knew we could be whatever we wanted to be!

Liberal arts education helps us integrate what we know, much as catching on to what we have been blind to always expands and corrects our view of what’s out there. Get yourself to the top of the IDS center (the tallest building) in Minneapolis on a clear day or night. (Is it 51 stories?) The view will leave you breathless as you see for the first time where each of the Twin Cities lies in relation to the other, where familiar landmarks, even suburbs, actually are. Last week I saw on a map that Fargo, North Dakota lies north of St. Joe and hardly west at all: I grew up in North Daokta! All my life I’ve known: you get to Fargo by going straight west of here. These overviews show how parts relate to a whole serve as good analogies for the way our discovery of one truth throws light on a neighboring truth. Some of you must have tasted excitement like mine when, as a student here, what I learned in my Dante class suddenly lit up what I had just learne din medieval philosophy. Those moments of discovery stay with us.

Il earned that all my life I would pursue answers to four questions: 1. What is nature, in all its fragility? 2. What is more than nature? (divinity), 3. What is a person? What does it mean to be human? and 4. What relationship can or should obtain between humanity, nature and God? The whole liberal arts curriculum would yield the answers.

The illumination of mind that is a synonym for liberal learning requires hours, days, months, even years of intense study. That moment when we can say I see: comes when we discover the connections between and among the apparently but not really separate parts of the world we’ve been looking at. Those moments of sudden flaring out of truth, those epiphanies, keep wonder alive in us.

What lifelong habits does liberal learning requite, traditions you will find here? The hunger to know, the ability to sit still until we see clearly what we’re examining, the patience to put into words what we think we begin to see. Liberal education drives or pulls all of us in a search for what Newman calls “enlargement of mind, for that “perfection of the intellect….which is the clear, calm, accurate vision and comprehension of all things, as far as the human mind can embrace them….”

Living the meaning of liberal education in the freshman year has been a tradition at this college for a long time. This leading the mind to do what it does best -to know; this effort to perfect the intellect and the senses -occurs in every good liberal arts college. It also includes a development of one’s sensibilities and feelings for form, tone, shape and color so that we know that some things we see and hear are inexpressible except as images and tones. These are exemplified in our liturgies and in the plays, concerts and art exhibits in this Benedicta Arts Center all year -and in spectacular sunsets.

On this campus we find our liberal learning supported by traditions and values that can indeed educate our hearts. Let us look at several traditions and values that are special to this campus. Each of those habits and values is a consequence of our being not only on this Benedictine campus but of our being intimately related to this resident community of monastic women vowed to a communal life that is fifteen centuries old. Many of you looked at those values when your Symposium class considered The Rule of Benedict, this tiny document. You also learn Benedictine values by observation and osmosis. You’re surrounded by Benedictine women here. Benedict asks us to “Listen carefully…with the ear of your heart” to “this advice from a father who loves you.” His advice can indeed educate and “mend” our hearts.

These Benedictine traditions nurture and promote our deepest hopes for ourselves. What do we long for, what do we need in order to become the person each of us can become? We need to know that we are loveable, that we are with persons who will in fact  love us, each one, and reach out to us no matter what our infirmities may be, that we can belong to others and need never be isolated again, that we know how to work with them and no longer need to compete, that we can reach out to those around us in their need and build them up, that we can be counted on not to stand idly by but to spend our selves for others, that we can make a commitment and be constant in living it, that we can celebrate the vision, the success, the growth of others, whoever they are.

Looking back to my student days and to all my days as a teacher here, I have identified the four Benedictine values likely to be the most vital in your lives: prayer, hospitality, community, and moderation. Though prayer is the highest value in our lives, I will consider those traditions in the order in which you likely experienced or will experience them.

Hospitality is probably the first Benedictine value you experienced when you arrived. I am a Benedictine. For us hospitality means that you are our guests. We welcome you as Christ, showing you “all the courtesy of love…every kindness” (I am quoting St. Benedict’s Chapter 53). The day you arrived here, you became a part of our extended community. We belong to one another. All your life we’ll care for you and support you with our friendship and our prayers. A good number of you, including students, are Benedictine oblates, lay persons who want to live the Gospel as fully as you can and see that the Rule of Benedict and our community cab can help.

The tradition you will find alive in the classroom is moderation. St. Benedict also calls this common sense. He reminds us to keep a balance in our lives, a rhythm established by regular times for work, study, prayer, rest and leisure. St. Benedict urges: Let there be nothing harsh or burdensome; (here he’s talking to administrators and faculty): don’t break the bruised reed or scour the rusty vessel too hard. Treat one another gently, tenderly, lest the one a fault become discouraged.

Community is next. Ours is an intentional community. Each of us came here seeking God. What do we commune about? About the goodness and graciousness of God, about the mystery of our redemption and our “confident expectation of future glory” (that’s the definition of hope). We commune about the weather and each other. Though the structure of our lives in this community has changed somewhat, we still do almost everything together: live, pray, eat and work. My sisters rarely tell me that my habits and mannerisms drive them crazy. That’s because Benedict urges us to “support with the greatest patience on another’s weakness of body or behavior, never to pursue what I judge better for myself but instead, what I judge better for someone else.” We try to be quick to forgive, to acknowledge our faults and make peace. We try never to diminish another but instead to build one another up. Our vow of stability means that we live together in this community all our lives. You’ll notice that we laugh a lot and enjoy one another. We celebrate one another at every chance. That’s community: that is what you now share.

Here’s a charming little story: when geese are flying south or north, if one goose is weak or sick and another goose notices, all the geese fly back to encourage it until all can leave together. If a young goose rebels and refuses to fly further, the whole flock or gaggle has been heard gabbing, persuading the rebel to stay with the group. Those natural analogies of religious community fill me with wonder.

These days, perhaps, Benedictine tradition of opening and ending the day with prayer touches your lives only later. Since the sixth century Benedictines have gathered several times a day to pray and read aloud. St. Benedict calls this “the work of God” and urges us to prefer nothing to it. We gather at 6:30 in the morning, at 11:45 and at 7:00 in the evening, always in the oratory right under the Gathering Place, next to the chapel. We invite you to join us. Some students and faculty do so often. By tradition Benedictines are contemplatives. We regularly free ourselves to do what seems wasteful, useless: we sit quietly, alone, centering ourselves, giving God quality time, renewing our deepest selves, just appreciating God.

These Benedictine traditions and others have marked this liberal arts college from its beginnings. These habits let us encounter ourselves on a deep plane than the one that so easily fragments our lives each day. They help us build an inner space to be at home in. A major unspoken tradition here is this: someone is always reaching out to you in friendship. We have the habit of smiling at one another and letting each other know when we need the support of each other’s prayers. We are one loving, learning and praying community. By our sense of wonder, our delight, and our celebration together, we free one another to become the human person each of us can become on our spiritual journey in this world. Dante describes heaven in terms wonderfully fitting for us in this liberal arts college: heaven is “light intellectual, full-charged with love, love of the true good, full-charged with gladness, gladness which transcendeth every sweetness.”