Restoring a Radical Tradition

The Guilds and Liberal Learning

By William Edmund Fahey, Ph.D., President, Thomas More College, New Hampshire

Photo Credits: Allison Welton, Gwyneth Thompson-Briggs & Staff & Students of Thomas More College

The vision is radical in its traditionalism.

The noble mission of Catholic education was eloquently summarized by then-Pope Benedict in his remarks to University and College Presidents given in 2008: “First and foremost every Catholic educational institution is a place to encounter the living God who in Jesus Christ reveals his transforming love and truth.”   Few then recognized the charity and skill which Benedict was using to turn aside from the highly specialized and fragmented thrust of education common to universities for the last two centuries.  The intellectual life and the moral life are both assumed and integrated in his statement.  A two-fold desire for both contemplative leisure and concrete action is at the center of his remarks: the quest for truth and the need for life-giving work support one another in this vision of education, a vision born of the encounter with Christ. 

Traditional liberal learning in our age is stunted by serious cultural deficiencies. Students and teachers lack a clear understanding of what the word “art” in the liberal arts even means and, increasingly, they have no relationship with nature or human traditions.  Putting aside the folly of calling so many of the subjects found in the modern academy “liberal arts,” how many—students or teachers—in the modern university give any thought to why the subjects they study are called arts?  What should they do with that art?

An art is a making.  Do the typical students of psychology, criminal justice, social work—or even disciplines like literature or history—think they are learning how to make something during their education?  No, but how can they be blamed?  There is little healthy vision, design, or purpose in the modern Academy.  Not so long ago, the Academy was redesigned not to teach art as a making and certainly not to suggest that there were traditional arts which educated men and women mastered to help create a good life.  No one can master subjects like the seven liberal arts, the proponent of the new Academy asserted, because mastery runs against the egalitarianism that is central to our modern institutions.

Are there masters in this modern academy?  Is there any chance of mastery?  When subjects are pursued indiscriminately through a curriculum with the unity and design—at best—of an Arabian bazaar, students and teachers experience only the mastery of the passions over the intellect and the malformation of the soul through the indulging of curiosity and the creation of bad habits. 

The exception to this may be the “so-called” hard sciences.   I would suggest that some of the tension between the sciences and the liberal arts and much of the skepticism about the liberal arts arises from the frustration experienced by those who still do submit to some form of educational mastery when they glance across the Quad at the antics of those who do not.  An architect must master foundational principles of mathematics, drawing, and physics or people will die.  When literature majors are not called to master the grammar of a sentence, but only to emote, it is hard to respect them or literature itself.

Similarly, students and teachers increasingly lack the direct experience of nature and the natural world.  Visit most campuses throughout North America and Europe and you see students focused on the flickering delights of tablets and iPhones.  Courses are increasingly linked by a luminous chain to the abstract never-never land of the internet, where the online treasures of Gutenburg are but a finger flick away from the enticements of Amazon.  Few have learned the craft of using the internet to draw readers to beauty, to turn their gaze back toward reality. Hiking, fishing, hunting, camping, bird-watching, wildlife painting—such things are still found, but have long ceased to be part of the common culture.  Apart from perhaps impeding one’s free movement from café to café, or serving as the sun-kissed backdrop to a “vacation,” nature plays little role in the mind of the typical university student or professor.

Parallel to this nature deficiency, we find the utter inexperience of tradition as life-giving or even interesting.  Since the Protestant revolution, tradition has been a problem to overcome and since the French revolution, an enemy to destroy.  There are many departments and directors of Innovation in the Academy.   Yet one is hard pressed to find positive language about, let alone institutional consideration of, Tradition.  Students do not consider how much care, practice, and observance are needed to sustain and hand down knowledge and craft.   We have been slowly and almost imperceptibly dispossessed of tradition in our family life, our parishes, and in our schools and universities.

Wisdom and Creativity: At the Heart of Catholic Education

With a desire to address weaknesses common to young people in our culture, in 2009 the teachers and administrators at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts reconsidered the nature of the academic curriculum and the student life.  To an outside observer, most of the developments would likely appear modest.  One, however, was not.  It was bold.  Though it occupies only a small portion of the credit hours expected with the curriculum, it is a clear statement about the crisis in modern education and one way to find encouragement and strength in the Catholic educational tradition.

Once again, Pope Benedict provided inspiration and direction.  In a 2008 address at the Collège des Bernardins, Pope Benedict had made a remarkable statement regarding the radical distinction between the Christian approach to education and culture and that of Greco-Roman pagans.  “In the Greek world,” spoke Benedict, “manual labour was considered something for slaves.”

Only the wise man, the one who is truly free, devotes himself to the things of the spirit;  he views manual labour as somehow beneath him, and leaves it to people who are not suited to this higher existence in the world of the spirit.  The Jewish tradition was quite different: all the great rabbis practised at the same time some form of handcraft.  Paul, who as a Rabbi and then as a preacher of the Gospel to the Gentile world was also a tent-maker and earned his living with the work of his own hands, is no exception here, but stands within the common tradition of the rabbinate.  Monasticism took up this tradition; manual work is a constitutive element of Christian monasticism.  In his Regula, Saint Benedict does not speak specifically about schools, although in practice, he presupposes teaching and learning, as we have seen.  However, in one chapter of his Rule, he does speak explicitly about work (cf. Chap. 48).  And so does Augustine, who dedicated a book of his own to monastic work.  Christians, who thus continued in the tradition previously established by Judaism, must have felt further vindicated by Jesus’s saying in Saint John’s Gospel, in defence of his activity on the Sabbath: “My Father is working still, and I am working” (5:17).  The Graeco-Roman world did not have a creator God; according to its vision, the highest divinity could not, as it were, dirty his hands in the business of creating matter.  The “making” of the world was the work of the Demiurge, a lower deity.  The Christian God is different:  he, the one, real and only God, is also the Creator.  God is working; he continues working in and on human history.  In Christ, he enters personally into the laborious work of history.  “My Father is working still, and I am working.”  God himself is the Creator of the world, and creation is not yet finished.  God works, ergázetai!  Thus human work was now seen as a special form of human resemblance to God, as a way in which man can and may share in God’s activity as creator of the world.  Monasticism involves not only a culture of the word, but also a culture of work, without which the emergence of Europe, its ethos and its influence on the world would be unthinkable. 

In a flash, we had a vision of Catholic education: an education which would neither turn away from work and activity or leisure and contemplation, but would keep them unified—as Christ Himself had.  As his early disciples had.  As the Benedictine architects of Catholic education had.  This unity of craftsmanship and learning was possible only because of God’s revelation to the Jews and Christians: God himself was a craftsman.  God himself was constantly contemplating His creation.  And most intriguing: God called man to imitate him and participate in both contemplating and making.

Under such encouragement, we began to reconsider aspect of medieval civilization and examples of how in a single community intellectual and spiritual exploration was brought together with work and craftsmanship.  The monasteries provided a solid example, but an American liberal arts college is only partially like a monastery; it is more akin to an entire small city, and with that image, we quickly struck upon the idea of the Guild: an association within the College where craft could be learned in something resembling the old Master-Apprentice arrangement.

One of the concerns that vexed those of us who had been educated in Great Books colleges was that our endeavor seemed not in accord with the intellectual tradition.  After all, the architects of the twentieth-century creation of Great Books schools seemed consistently to speak against any blending of liberal studies with either the fine arts (e.g., painting) or the mechanical arts (e.g., wood-working).   


Mortimer Adler, 1902 –2001

The iconic figure Mortimer Adler and his followers were regularly saying things like “Liberal education is education for leisure; it is general in characteristic; it is for an intrinsic and not an extrinsic end; and as compared with vocational training, which is the education of slaves and workers, liberal education is the education of free men.”  Adler and other proponents of the Great Books regularly conjured up Aristotle, St. Thomas Aquinas, and Blessed John Henry Newman as authorities on the matter.  A result of the wall of separation that Adler built between activities such as learning Latin or reading Shakespeare, on the one hand, and naturalistic drawing or carpentry, on the other, was that it led most proponents to the conclusion that liberal education could not be one in which men and women were formed in and for virtue.  To intend that a program in liberal studies could form him for any extrinsic end, even as a moral being, was folly and dangerous: for in this line of argument the exclusive freedom of the liberal arts by definition meant that any effort at producing a man or woman of moral excellence would involve the subordination and corruption of the liberal arts.   How could an art justified in itself and free from other purposes and ends remain free if things like character, virtue, or self-mastery were involved? 

While much of what Adler and others said was of the truth, the experience that each teacher at Thomas More had of students at many different colleges suggested that somewhere there was a weakness.  Even the best of students from academically rigorous colleges were rarely familiar with nature, though they could go blue in the face arguing about violations of natural law.  They read many of the greatest minds of western civilization, but had not given serious thought to what that meant for their own spiritual life, the communities they would live in, or their vocations. The reality of the material world and culture seems to be absent in their intellectual life and—again—the idea of art as a making was almost universally absent.

The terribly surprising thing was that the more one returned to looking at the great authors of the “liberal arts” or “liberal education” the more it became obvious that twentieth-century writers like Adler were missing things or being overly selective.  They were fond of quoting John Henry Newman’s Idea of a University—or at least Discourse Five, which emphasized knowledge as its own end—but never cited his The Rise and Progress of Universities, which introduced a more wholistic and moral vision of undergraduate education, wherein learning and the training for virtuous life were tied together, and the expression and divisions of liberal and servile are not part of his descriptive language.  Other works, such as his Benedictine essays, even more forcefully challenge the idea of the exclusivity of the liberal arts as Adler would have it, and do so in a manner anticipating Benedict XVI.  For Newman, the School of St. Benedict was one in which there was both the hard work on the land as well as in the cloister.  It was a vision of education that he described as fundamentally “poetic”—that is, one based on putting things together.  “It was a restoration . . . and what the haughty Alaric or fierce Attila had broken to pieces, these patient meditative men had brought back together and made live again.” 

The ancient and medieval authors seem to suggest a similar love of unity: bringing together in practice—not separating (except in definitional analysis) the theoretic and the practical, not with emphasis on an equal mastery, but as equally instructive for a good life.  Again, our aim at Thomas More College was to find the balance in remaining an academic or intellectual community, but one truly Christian, healthy and reflective of the good life.   A student’s principal occupation was and must be his disciplinary studies, but part of the program should aim to give him experience of nature, work, human craft and culture—both to enrich his imagination and to allow him to participate in an imitation of Christ the Teacher and the Son of St. Joseph. 

A careful reexamination of great writers of the Western tradition revealed to us the extent to which they recognized not only the compatibility of, but the need for, unifying the theoretical and practical.  Cicero speaks of this blending in works like On Duties.  Hugh of St. Victors draws together all the arts for consideration.  And Aristotle—the writer Adler most commonly cites in his defense of the utter separation of liberal and servile—emphatically advocates that for the student and scholar, theory and practice must be joined, even while he maintains a theoretical distinction in the arts.   A single passage from his On the generation and corruption of animals will suffice as an illustration:

Lack of experience diminishes our power of taking a comprehensive view of admitted facts.  Hence, those who dwell in intimate association with nature and its phenomena are more able to lay down principles that could allow a serious and coherent intellectual exploration; those whose studies have made them obtuse to reality are quick to dogmatize on the basis of a few observations.

In his formal consideration of education at the end of the The Politics, Aristotle states that a purely liberal arts education free from practical experience, or an education myopically focused on avoiding useful arts and perfecting only knowledge of the liberal arts, will “degrade the mind.”  In his view, a good education must find the balance between the theoretical, the useful, and that which will form student in virtue. 

Aristotle admitted to being puzzled as to how one finds the balance.  Would that Aristotle had encountered Christ.

The Craft of the Good Life: Education and the Lost Arts of Catholic Culture

The educational program and community life at Thomas More College of Liberal Arts purposes to bring the three into balance: the traditional liberal arts, the useful arts, and an education for virtue.  Our guild program plays an important part in achieving this balance by providing an encounter with Catholic tradition, an occasion for growth in the virtues (particularly humility and prudence), and an opportunity to serve and delight both those within the College and in the surrounding area, with the results of the Guild art.

Catholic guilds flourished during the Middle Ages, but by the 19th Century they had all but disappeared under pressure from revolutionary governments seeking to destroy all signs of tradition and fidelity to the Church and all political associations which could resist or operate outside of the grasp of the State. Guilds in their earliest form had developed out of man’s natural spirit of association. Guided explicitly by Church teachings, guilds encouraged a corporate enactment of charity and political prudence.  They were fraternal benefit societies, religious associations, civil organizations, as well as educational alliances (for they provided a forum for both novices and masters to meet and practice their crafts).

Inspired by these origins, Thomas More College intends that the guilds enable students to gain practical skills and experience in areas such as woodworking, sacred art, homesteading, and music. The College’s guilds derive their spirit from those earlier voluntary communities of men and women who advanced their trades and arts while responding to the needs of their local communities.

Each guild meets for a few hours every week and is taught by someone devoted to perfecting the skills of his or her trade, if not already a master. Students are required to meet a series of benchmarks throughout the year so that their performance can be measured—whether that is the perfection of a dovetail joint, the correct reading of plain notes, or the memorization and performance of a dozen folk tunes.

For many students, of course, the guilds are a welcome and relaxing break from their studies. This is to be expected; participation in them is meant to enjoyable. However, the guilds offer more than simple recreation. Each guild offers practical experience that is integrated with the College’s academic curriculum. One objective is to demonstrate our belief that a Catholic liberal education need not, in fact should not, divide what is contemplative from what is practical, what is beautiful from what is useful.

The guilds are a forum in which the virtues are taught through hands-on experience.  A hammer blow to the thumb, falling in the mud chasing a chicken, singing an off-key pitch: these teach humility in a bodily way.  The lessons learned through the guilds can be applied to any aspect of daily life, even if one does not pursue woodworking, art, music or gardening as a career.  After all, virtues such as patience, exactitude, practical self-mastery, apprenticeship, and creativity—whether it results in the creation of liturgical art for a chapel or the performance of songs at a festival— profit the whole person and his community.

Through the experience provided by the guilds, students come to understand what is meant by a living tradition.

A living tradition transmits knowledge that was learned in the past to the next generation. Once the tradition is known, students use their own creativity to speak to the present generation.

The core principles of an art come alive and can be passed down. This orderly and personal participation and knowledge is at the heart of tradition. In the guilds, students learn from a master and are then in a position to assist in guiding the junior guild members.

Our hope, of course, is that this dual process of learning and teaching will not stop once students leave the College. For example, each member of the St. Gregory Music Guild will be highly capable of joining or forming a choir or teaching others, even those with no experience, how to chant the Mass and the Liturgy of the Hours.


The Thomas More College Guilds contribute to the development of the student, the life of the College and the common good. Each guild instills a spirit of cooperation, prayer and service. Service to the community is as simple as singing to the elderly in nursing homes, taking on construction projects in one’s parish, and baking bread for the homeless.

Through habitual consideration of the end to which the guild’s activities are directed, students will understand how work, paid or unpaid, can be directed towards the common good. The old Roman virtue of labor comes alive! Through their twin labors—both intellectual and practical—our students creatively engage the wider culture and serve as agents of its transformation..

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