Jacques Maritain, who turns 139 today (!), on why true education sets us free

Gracious readers,

This week, we’ll explore:

  • Jacques Maritain, one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century, on the purpose of education

  • Join us: How to revive American civic life, a conversation with Francis Fukuyama

  • Invitation: Should we diversify the Great Books canon?

  • GIVEAWAY: Living in the Constellation of the Canon: The Lived Experiences of African-American Students Reading Great Books Literature

Jacques Maritain on the purpose of education: cultivating humanity and true freedom

Jacques Maritain was one of the greatest philosophers of the 20th century. Born 139 years ago today—on November 18, 1882—in Paris, he lived a long and storied life, dying at the age of 90 on April 28, 1973.

Maritain was deeply committed to the idea of personhood, individual human dignity, and the notion that all human beings, by virtue of being created in God’s image, have an irreducible worth. His views on personhood and human dignity found expression in the United Nation’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR)—a landmark document that declared the foundational worth of all persons, regardless of race, gender, or ethnicity.

Maritain had a hand in crafting in the UDHR in the wake of the atrocities and genocides of World War II. After this low watermark of human history, it seemed that the world was ready to find common ground, and this common ground ultimately took the form of a declaration that all persons have dignity and value—and an agreement among nations to work together to prevent such atrocities from ever occurring agian. (Find a longer reflection of the importance of The UDHR here.)

Maritain’s views on personhood and human dignity are also foundational to his views on education. His thoughts on both of these themes—dignity and education—can be found throughout the 60+ books that he wrote throughout his life, but a good summary of his insights on learning can be found in his Education at The Crossroads.

During Maritain’s own education, he was initially drawn to the natural sciences. Yet he quickly moved to philosophy when he realized that studies of the natural world—while fascinating in their own right—couldn’t answer the big and important questions in life.

Who are we? Why are we here? What does it mean to be human? What is the best way to live?

He thought that grappling with these questions ought be central to every person’s education, as it is only through encountering these questions—and answering them for ourselves—that we cultivate our humanity, our freedom, and become fully human.

“Nobody can do without philosophy,” Maritain wrote.


Because, Maritain maintained, philosophy focuses primarily on these foundational questions of origin, purpose, and destiny—and these questions are ones that every single person, without exception, must ask, and answer, for themselves.

For Maritain, education is about the pursuit of wisdom, and cultivating in students the love of truth. An education isn’t about learning how to do something. It is about how to be who we really are.

He believed that the learning process itself is objectively good and noble, that it involves each student participating in something that is ultimately divine.

He thought that education ought to be an opportunity for students to cultivate their interior lives, to exercise the life of the mind— inside, outside, and after the classroom.

But, Maritain asked, how can teachers be expected to help nurture the life of the minds of their students—and cultivate their students’ love of lifelong learning—if their own intellectual lives were faltering?

For this reason, Maritain cared deeply for the intellectual life of teachers, too. He wanted them to have opportunities to continue to nurture their hearts, souls and minds. He thought very highly of educational professionals, and it is safe to say that he’d advocate for more personal development days—and fewer bureaucratic and administrative tasks that dull both one’s mind and one’s passion for education.

Education and freedom

Indeed, Maritain thought that teachers were often over-worked and that too much is expected of them.

He wrote,

“It’s preposterous to ask people who lead an enslaved life to perform a task of liberation, which the educational task is by essence.”

He thought that teachers are too burdened down by metrics and administrative tasks and lack enough time for what matters—crafting pupils’ souls.

He likely would have been dismayed that teacher colleges today seem to have lost sight of what matters in education—cultivating character and lifelong learning in students—and overly focus on things such as pedagogy, curriculum design, or training in educational technology.

Maritain would be of the mind that teaching schools should primarily nurture a teacher’s love of truth so that they might share that love—both by instruction and example—with their students.

Maritain thought that education is fundementally about cultivating a heart and mind of freedom, for both teachers and students alike.

Maritain, however, would say that today, we’ve largely lost sight of what true freedom is. Freedom for Maritain is not about to do and say what we want, whenever we want. It is actually about becoming free from our basest desires, and to act in accordance with the truest and the highest principles in life.

Freedom for Maritain is freedom to orient ourselves toward, and pursue, the good in relationships with others.

Maritain understood that this was the original purpose of the humanities—the mode of learning that helps us to become fully human, and also humane in our interactions with others. His vision of education is aligned with the original understanding of liberal arts: the arts that liberate us from our baser instincts and impulses, and make us truly free to pursue the good, true, and beautiful for our entire lives.

Some thoughts for you to consider:

  • How do you think Maritain’s views of education converges with, or departs from, how we approach education today?

  • What might it look like to ground our view of education more firmly in a basic respect for personhood and human dignity?

  • How might Maritain’s vision of education—as a means of pursuing wisdom, of cultivating in students the love of truth, of becoming truly free, and fully human—inform reforms to how we view and approach education today?

  • How might we each show more gratitude to the teachers in our lives? How might we each help fill their emotional “well,” and nurture their intellectual life, so that they might be better equipped to build into the students they are charged with cultivating? We should each take the opportunity to thank a teacher in our lives today—whether one from our past, or one from our life currently—and express to them our thankfulness for their investment in their students.

Join us: How to revive American civic life, a conversation with Francis Fukuyama

I’m thrilled to invite you to a conversation next month—brought to you in partnership with the Indiana University Lilly School of Philanthropy—with Francis Fukuyama explore ways to How to revive American civic life.

Francis Fukuyama is one of the greatest minds and deepest thinkers of our day, so I’m grateful for the chance to facilitate this dialogue with him about a topic of great importance to the health of American democracy: America’s civic fabric.

Reserve your spot now!

In recent decades, scholars, policy makers, and pundits have lamented the decline of American civic life. Many have declared that this civic decline has—and will continue to—threaten the health and future of American democracy. But has this decline been monolithic? Are there any reasons to hope for the future of American civic culture—and for American democracy?

This conversation will reflect on the recent decades of research and public debate concerning American civic life, including recent threats to the health of America's social fabric, and will contemplate possible practical avenues of revival in the years to come.

I hope you’ll join us!

Invitation: Should we diversify the Great Books canon?

What would it look like to open up the “Great Books” canon? While Cornel West has suggested “blowing up the canon,” what might it look like to diversify it?

Register now!

There are many important thinkers whom history has overlooked. “Great Book” lists and volumes, such as Mortimer Adler’s project at the University of Chicago—admirable as that and other such projects are—have too often excluded women and people from minority backgrounds.

This is unfortunate because it means that it is easy to miss out on some very important contributions to the Great Conversation and the broader humanistic tradition.

Join me as I discuss these ideas with Dr. Anika Prather of Howard University and Anya Leonard of Classical Wisdom, where we will explore how a “new canon” can ground us in the wisdom of the past while meeting the needs of the present.

What authors that have historically been overlooked should be included in such a “new canon”?

And how we can overcome some of the common, contemporary challenges to the idea of a canon of “Great Books” in the first place.

The conversation will take place Tuesday, Nov 23, 12-1 EST.

Please feel free to forward this invitation to anyone you think might be interested in joining us. A recording of the conversation will be made available to all who register.

I hope you’ll join us for this important dialogue!

Register now

GIVEAWAY: Living in the Constellation of the Canon: The Lived Experiences of African-American Students Reading Great Books Literature

To commemorate next week’s conversation about “opening up the canon,” I am giving away TWO copies of my friend Anika’s book which explores how many prominent f African American’s read and benefited from “Great Books” literature.

In this book, learn how incredible thinkers, creators, and historical figures such as Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Anna Julia Cooper, Gloria Ladson-Billings, James Baldwin and others were formed by, and benefited from, engaging with the Great Conversation.

To enter, write me a note at ah@alexandraohudson.com

(Also purchase a copy of your own here!)

Thank you for being part of the Civic Renaissance Community! I am grateful you are here.