A Student's Guide to Liberal Learning - Intercollegiate Studies Institute

A Student’s Guide to Liberal Learning

The following is excerpted from Fr. Schall’s excellent little book A Student’s Guide to Liberal Learning.

In today’s world, when the topic of the defects of university teaching and curricula comes up, the most well-known alternative put forward is the “great books programs.” I take it for granted that we read what are rightly called “great books”—Thucydides, Plato, Aristotle, the Greek tragedians, Cicero, Marcus Aurelius, the Bible, St. Augustine, some Church fathers, St. Thomas, Shakespeare, and into the moderns.

In the modern world, Chesterton said, humility is misplaced; it is thought to be located in the intellect where it does not belong, whereas it is a virtue of the will, an awareness of our own tendencies to pride. We should not doubt our minds but our motives. The condition of not knowing should not lead us to a further skepticism but to a more intense search for truth. We should see in what sense a great mind might reveal something of the truth even in its error.

The best place to begin for any young man or woman today can be stated in two steps: 1) the step of self-discipline and 2) the step of a personal library; both of these together will yield that freedom which is necessary to escape academic dreariness and to discover the wonder of reality, of what is. Even at its best, of course, learning means we need a lot of help, even grace, but we are here talking about what we can do ourselves.


The notion of self-discipline is never an especially pleasant one. I would never pretend that it is. However, a minimum insight into ourselves teaches us that we are all in some sense fallen beings, to recall Genesis. Almost always, on reflection upon ourselves, we can find something in us, in our desires or habits or choices that would prevent us from confronting the really important things.

Josef Pieper, in his Anthology, recalls Thomas Aquinas’s discussion of the vice of slothacedia, in Latin. Is this such an unfamiliar vice? It does not mean just laziness, but a lethargy that prevents us from making the effort to look at what is really important in our lives or from taking any positive step that might make us aware of what we should know or do. Some experience of students over the years will make any perceptive teacher acutely aware that the major cause of students’ failure to learn anything in a class is related, on their part, to a lack of self-discipline, to their inability or unwillingness to rule their day, to decide what is important, how much time it will take, and then actually do what needs to be done.

Clearly, the notion of discipline, especially disciplining one’s own self, has to do with the systematic process by which we acquire knowledge or virtue or art. Discipline means instruction, especially organized instruction. When we add the notion of “self” to this instruction, we are indicating that we are ourselves objects of our own rule, of our own need to instruct ourselves.

Ultimately, no one else can do this ordering for us.

Our lives are ours to order according to some sort of principle or purpose. Our lives are also ours to leave in disorder or in an order that deviates from what it is we know we ought to be or do. We should not, moreover, underestimate the difficulty we confront in ruling ourselves. Christianity even suggests that most of us might need something more than ourselves properly to see and rule ourselves, some grace and some instruction.

This topic of ordering our lives according to some principle is really what the First Book of Aristotle’s Ethics is about. We are to look back reflectively on our deeds and our thoughts and see, if we can, that for which we act, that which we think to be most important, and that which governs all we do. No doubt we can mislead ourselves in this self-reflection. We can think we act for the noblest purposes, whereas in fact, as all our friends know, we act for money or pleasure or vain honors. It is difficult to see ourselves as we are, even if this inner “seeing” is one of the most important things we must do for ourselves. The famous Delphic admonition, “know thyself,” meant at least this honest inner-knowledge of our own implicit ends, in addition to knowing the kind of being we are by nature—our human being, something we did not give ourselves.

The student who first comes to the university is no doubt exhilarated by a kind of new-found freedom. He is still too young, as Aristotle had already intimated in the First Book of his Ethics, really to have acquired a good knowledge of himself or a firm capacity to rule himself. He will have many bad habits—too much time at television, or running about, at sundry forms of dissipation with which all high school and college students are familiar. Many young men and women no doubt have by the time they reach college already failed to discipline themselves. They have barely begun to acquire the habits and incentives necessary to figure out, not what they should do in terms of a profession or job, but what life itself is about—itself a lifetime task, to be sure. Many, unfortunately, make very serious mistakes early in life. College is a place in which, if we are wise, these mistakes can be corrected or, on the contrary, if we are not so wise, magnified indefinitely.

Self-discipline, the rule over all of our given passions, fears, dreams, thoughts, can be, if simply taken for itself, a dangerous thing. We can be Stoics who conceive self-discipline somehow as an end in itself, whereas it is really the prerequisite for seeing and loving what is not ourselves. Self-discipline can become a form of pride in which we attribute to ourselves complete mastery over ourselves with no willingness to guide ourselves to ends that are to be served or people who are to be loved. Nonetheless, our “bare” selves are objects to ourselves. We recognize that our ability to accomplish anything at all begins with some realization that we must take control of ourselves. We must begin to note in ourselves those things that cause us troubles. These difficulties can be other students, perhaps even teachers—anyone, in short, who interferes with our studies or with our responsibilities, including our responsibilities to God. What impedes us can be things like drink or drugs or television or parties or work or our own laziness or an eros untampered by any sense of justice, friendship, duty, purpose, or permanence.

The object of self-discipline in the best sense then is not ourselves. That probably sounds strange. The classical writers, I think, used to relate self-discipline to liberty. The person who was most free was the one who had the most control over himself. The person who was most unfree was the one who was ruled by pleasures, money, or power. Self-discipline does not, however, solve the question of what is knowledge or truth or good; self-discipline is a means, not an end in itself. It is like being all dressed up with no place to go. In this sense, it is instrumental, something good for the sake of something else.

A Personal Library

The second step, if I can call it that, to advancement in the pursuit of objective truth has to do with a personal library. We are profoundly fortunate to have almost the whole of the world’s books, music, art, journals, and press available to us through something like the internet. Nonetheless, the most important ideas and concepts still appear first in the print media, in books. “How to read a book,” to use Mortimer Adler’s famous phrase, is still one of the most important skills we can develop in our pursuit of truth.

But we don’t have to read everything. One can be well on his way to what I am trying to encourage by reading a very few books, and these not necessarily large ones or even famous ones. The things that I suggest here, then, are not necessarily the “great books” which I take it that most of us have some knowledge of. These should be read and reread. I remain a firm believer in C.S. Lewis’s famous observation that we have not read a great book at all if we have read it only once.

So what do I mean by our own personal library? I know that most of us cannot help but accumulate reams of paper in the form of books, articles, journals, letters. A. D. Sertillanges’ The Intellectual Life remains a good guide to how to take notes, to classify what we have read, to select. When we move or build, we should look for places to keep our collected books and printed matter. Read books are a precious item. No one else will ever read a book quite the same way that we do. Books can speak in many different ways, even at different times in our own lives. I always assign what I consider fine and great books to my students, books that are worth reading again and again. I would be ashamed to assign to a student a book that I did not think worth keeping. I have myself read Aristotle and Plato and Aquinas and Chesterton many, many times—finding something new in each reading. Furthermore, at different times of my life I have seen things in these works that I could not have seen when I was younger.

Thus, I conceive a personal library to be composed of books we have read again. I consider a book that we have read to be part of our memory, something we can quickly go back to, something we can look at again when a problem or controversy arises. Often we know that we have read the precise argument we need.

In this personal library of ours, as I have explained, we ought to have books that we have read, though there is nothing wrong with accumulating in advance books we might never read or read only years later. No serious book-lover will ever die having read every book he has managed to collect. This is not a sign of dilatoriness but of eagerness, anticipation. I do not mean here the technical books of a given discipline that quickly become out-of-date, though even these preserve a certain history. Rather, I mean those books which explain things, that touch on the truths of our being, that reach to what is.

Very rarely will we read a sane book that does not lead us to someone else, to some other topic or writer we did not know about, but whom we are now incited to read. Problems that we could not quite fathom when we were nineteen or thirty or forty, and thus left quietly churning in our memories, can suddenly become clear when we read something at fifty or sixty.

Rev. James V. Schall, S.J. (1928–2019), taught political science at Georgetown University for many years. He wrote more than thirty books.

What Are the Core Principles of Conservatism?

The word “conservatism” is used a lot, but what is it, really? How do you understand it, or explain it to someone else? This free 10-page eBook breaks it down.

Download the eBook »

Get the Collegiate Experience You Hunger For

Your time at college is too important to get a shallow education in which viewpoints are shut out and rigorous discussion is shut down.

Explore intellectual conservatism
Join a vibrant community of students and scholars
Defend your principles

Join the ISI community. Membership is free.

You might also like