Reviving the Classic Liberal Arts Education: what I heard at George Weigel’s lecture in Lincoln


On November 30th I had just arrived home from a long day at work when a good friend sent me a text inviting me to attend a lecture at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln Newman Center. It was to be the final of four in the “Reborn in Wonder” series and since I’d had to miss the other three despite wanting to go, I accepted the invitation. Ninety minutes later Tom and I were in our seats in the second row. I learned afterwards from one of the organizers that the room sat 240, but with the people also standing at the back and sides the crowd was estimated at just over 250 people. The crowd was a mixture of college students, priests and religious sisters, as well as many interested laypeople. I saw and spoke with several of my peers afterwards. There were children present as well, and the front row just ahead of me contained five siblings ranging from I’d estimate early elementary to early high school in age.

For those not familiar with George Weigel you can read his Wikipedia entry. He is both a respected author and one of the leading Catholic intellectual voices of our age. I own four of his books and flirted with the idea of bringing one to be autographed but ultimately decided against it. As it turned out I should have as he signed a few after the lecture.

After an introduction courtesy of Professor John Freeh, Doctor of Philosophy, Mr. Weigel began the night by citing some recent survey stats. My apologies as I didn’t catch the source:

  • 35% of Millennials believe that George W. Bush killed more people than Stalin
  • Only 1/3 of Dutch young people thought it essential to live in a democratic state
  • Less than 30% of US young people thought the same
  • 35% of US population are Millennials, but those same Millennials comprise just 19% of the electorate
George Weigel

George Weigel

After establishing a bit of where we are now, he proceeded into the heart of his talk and what he called “The Revival of the Classic Liberal Arts Education”.

To start, he listed, defined and discussed Five Toxins/Solvents that are eating away at civilization.

  1. Gnosticism
  2. Skepticism
  3. Moral Relativism
  4. Radical Individualism
  5. The Will to Power as the center of the human condition. This in turn leads to “A Regime of Coercion”

Weigel also described the “Three-Legged Stool of Western Civilization”

  1. Jerusalem
  2. Athens
  3. Rome

Jerusalem: brought us the school of thought that said life is a journey, an adventure, a pilgrimage, and that life is NOT random. Here he mentioned the experiences and lessons of the Book of Exodus.

Athens: taught that there are truths. That human reason can grasp them in an orderly way. The “Principle of Non-Contradiction” was discussed.

Rome: taught us that the Rule of Law is superior to brute force when governing (even though they were also known to ignore this at times in their history).

By the 11th century the three legs had produced what we know as the Civilization of the West in which the Dignity of the Human Person was emphasized. This also ultimately led to the birth of the Democratic Project.

In the 19th century those three legs begin to be kicked out from under the stool.

weigel-1The first leg to be kicked out was Jerusalem.

  • The project of Atheistic Humanism
  • The God of the Bible as the enemy of human liberation and maturation. (This is ironic as God had entered into history as a Liberator as opposed to the gods of Egypt, Greece, etc., with their demands, child sacrifice, and treatment of persons as “chess pieces” to be lead around a cosmic game board.

The second leg to be removed was the Athenian leg.

  • If no rationality is built into the world…no Logos…then reason left to its own devices turns on itself.
  • The result: there is “your truth” and there is “my truth.” A view dominant in so many philosophy departments in universities today.

The final leg, left on its own, will then collapse. Thus the Rome leg and our entire stool was brought down.

  • If there is no truth, and no horizon of judgement, then I’ll impose my will on you or vice-versa.
  • This is known as “Coercion of the Will” (or Will to Power)
  • Students shutting down free speech on campuses, for example.
  • He referred to modern universities as “expensive daycare centers”, a term that elicited laughter from the crowd.

All of this, he said, is auto-constructed self-deconstruction. In other words, we’ve done this to ourselves. Communism lost. The Nazis lost. Fascism lost. Yet we alone did this to ourselves.

Weigel ended the night by talking about the lessons to be learned from rediscovering and reading what he called “the great books”. These are his Ten Lessons Learned from Classic Education:

  1. The dignity of the human person as inalienable
  2. The superiority of reason to raw emotionalism
    (Thinking trumps Emotion)
  3. The sense of responsibility for the common good
    (A willingness to contribute and sacrifice for the common good)
  4. The willingness to engage others with dignity and respect
    (Disagreement is not hate)
  5. The critical importance of integrity, prudence and maturity in public life
    (Character counts)
  6. The ability to distinguish between Wisdom and Whizbang (Twitter).
    (In other words, there is no way to find wisdom in 140 characters on Twitter or in brief Facebook status updates. Too many confuse the quick hit or even memes as some deep dark secret of life, or as wisdom.)
  7. The recognition that democracy depends on a critical mass of virtue in the citizenry.
    (Weimar Republic: while the architects built grand facades and pillars making it appear as a great, classic society, it masked the corruption and dissatisfaction within that ultimately led to Hitler rising to power through a free election.)
  8. The instinct for sniffing out demagoguery
    (Learning to recognize when the man of power is a demagogue in disguise)
  9. An appreciation for the truly beautiful, not the transiently amusing.
    (We are amusing ourselves to death. Get yourselves, and most importantly your children, away from the screens.)
  10. A sense of life as adventure.
    (Life has a goal and a direction. This goes against the zeitgeist of our post-modern line of thought that says “life is a burden.”)

Weigel concluded by emphasizing the need for Virtue and the things needed to become a free and virtuous society.

  1. Democratic Society
  2. Free market Economy
  3. Vibrant Moral Culture

It takes a certain kind of people with certain virtues to make the machinery of political and economic society work.

So taking all of the above into consideration, what heals a wounded culture? Mr. Weigle’s response: An encounter with great thinkers and great minds of the past.

Throughout the evening he mentioned books such as The Aenid, The Iliad, The Odyssey, Night by Elie Wiesel, and the Bible. And writers/thinkers such as Aristotle, Augustine, Dostoyevsky and Aquinas.

Weigel ended his lecture with the following closing remarks: Honor the wisdom of the past and extend it into the future.

There was a brief Q&A afterwards. I raised my hand to ask what we as parents could do to help facilitate this education for our children given the fact that so many universities no longer appear to back their professors who teach a classical education. Here I was going to allude to the goings on at Providence College and Dr. Anthony Esolen (you can get a good overview of it by reading this article and the links within it), but a man behind me was called on first and he asked essentially the same question. Weigel’s response was to reiterate what he’d said earlier about removing the screens from our children’s lives and not only having the classics within our homes but to model good behavior for our children and read them. Read them together and discuss them. He talked about one family he knew that had a weekly family movie night, and while they would watch popular movies together they would also watch classics such as A Man For All Seasons and talk a bit about them with their kids as well.

Bishop Conley's closing remarks.

Bishop Conley’s closing remarks.

An interesting question was posed by a woman in the audience: If you could give one book to everyone in America what would it be? After humorously hinting towards a forthcoming book of his to be published early next year, Weigel once more referred to a book he’d talked about early in the lecture that he’d enjoyed that was written by James Traub John Quincy Adams: Militant Spirit. At over 600 pages however Mr. Weigel that might be a tough one to get everyone to read. After thinking it over audibly for a minute he said that although it wasn’t a book, he’d give everyone a DVD set of the HBO miniseries John Adams, based on the book of the same name by David McCullough.

Once the Q&A was complete, our Diocese of Lincoln Bishop James Conley closed the evening with a few remarks and a closing prayer.

I plan to do a quick follow up to this blog next week to discuss reading the classics. I determined that it would make this article too long. My apologies for the outline/bullet point nature of what I captured during the lecture. I learned to take notes that way to survive my history and political science lectures in college and I still use them to this day.


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