Incarnate Learning: On Friendship and Liberal Education

by Monica Krason

In L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of the Island, a sequel to the beloved classic Anne of Green Gables where the eponymous heroine goes off to college, Anne tells her friend Miss Lavendar , “I feel as if I had two homes—one at Green Gables and one at Patty’s Place.” Patty’s Place is the enchanting cottage Anne lives in while attending Redmond College. Green Gables is, of course, the beloved farmhouse on Prince Edward Island where Anne, a neglected orphan, found the home she had always imagined. It is the latter fact that makes Anne’s statement about Patty’s Place so striking. How could the magical Green Gables have a rival for her affections? The answer can be found less in Patty’s Place itself (charming though it is) than with whom she shares it. Anne lives with three close chums (and the young-at-heart Aunt Jamesina, who serves as their chaperone), and the home they make between them certainly sounds idyllic: conversations together as they pour over their studies, afternoons spent reading books such as The Pickwick Papers, Friday night receptions with their other college friends, and the million little annoyances, pleasures, and griefs which make life together so perfectly imperfect.

I doubt she realized it, but with this portrayal Montgomery provided us with a beautiful image of liberal learning illuminated by friendship. Anne and her friends study hard, and honors, scholarships, awards, etc. are heaped upon them throughout their collegiate careers. But, after four years of study, their enhanced ability to encounter reality in its fullest—the true aim of any liberal education—is indelibly connected to their friendships with each other. When they take stock of what they have learned over the past four years, they identify a series of intangibles mostly centered around how to live more excellently: a growth in their sense of humor, especially when it comes to making mistakes; a renewed determination to persevere when disappointed; and a heightened appreciation for the intrinsic beauties found in the arts, the world, and humanity itself.

Could Anne and her friends have learned this on their own, if there had been no Patty’s Place, no Friday night receptions, no casual conversations about “cabbages and kings?” I think not, and yet today that almost seems like a novel notion. The importance of friendship for liberal learning is frequently underestimated. On the surface, it is true, friendship does little to increase the rigor of the intellectual endeavor being undertaken. Indeed, with the distraction of social activity and leisure, it could be said to decrease it. When we encourage informal conversations between students and colleagues, we take them away from serious academic work—that is, grappling with ancient ideas and theories and then adding to that body of knowledge. We have long thought about scholarship and academia as a uniquely solitary pursuit; our communing should be primarily with the great minds of the past, not the classmate seated next to us. So we pile on the papers and the readings and by extension teach each other that serious seekers of truth have no time for the frivolity of friendship.

Elizabeth Corey states in her essay “Learning in Love” that at its core a liberal arts education is about learning to love a thing for itself. She argues a person is needed to awaken that love and give us a vision for what the intellectual life looks like. If Corey is correct and we cannot come to love liberal learning on our own, then how can we be expected to sustain it without others? If liberal learning is intended to be for its own sake—simply because it is worthy of love—how can we persist in that endeavor, one which will be inevitably discouraging, disheartening, and demoralizing, without embodied persons who wish to do the same? Love is necessarily personal, and an education which does not take that into account risks cutting off its life-giving nature. Friendship and liberal learning are two essential aspects of the same end. Liberal learning allows us to see the truth before us, and our friendships force us to encounter it.

When defending friendship’s place in liberal education, we are tempted to resort to utilitarian arguments. For example, interaction with others refines our ideas and challenges us to view the world differently. At the same time, it makes us more tolerant towards those with whom we disagree because we know them as people, not just words on a page which aggravate us by their (perceived) fallacies. Friendship amongst adversaries, as Aristotle taught us, is imperative to maintain order in a pluralistic society. All of these statements are true, but still attempt to make pragmatic that which is inherently not. Because friendship is most definitely an extra, a non-necessary necessity—life can continue without it, as C.S. Lewis discusses in The Four Loves, but it is decidedly less livable.

We see here more parallels with liberal education, which is often derided as useless and self-indulgent. Without the enlivening force of friendship, I, an unapologetic proponent of liberal learning, am tempted to agree. If we do not put our hunger for truth at the service of others, it quickly becomes a selfish enterprise. The pursuit of knowledge, however innocently it may begin, is always a battle against our own egos, and the more we isolate ourselves the greater that danger grows. Friendship forces us out of our academic bubbles and into the messy sphere of human relationships. When we combine the genteel business of education with the invariably fraught experience of conversing (not to mention living) with another person, we finally encounter reality at its most real.

As we champion the value of liberal learning against the great giant of empiricism, we should emphasize friendship as an indispensable aspect of that education, even after we have completed our formal schooling. Friday night receptions and casual afternoon conversations are superfluous, sometimes superficial, and frequently a distraction, but they are also supremely beautiful. It is in these unassuming, unglamorous moments that we are surprised by the innate goodness of living. And in which, consequently, we expand our capacity to love.


[author][author_info]Monica Krason graduated from Franciscan University of Steubenville in 2014 with a degree in Legal Studies and English, and she is pursuing a master’s degree in English at Cleveland State University.[/author_info] [/author]