On Liberal Arts and Liberal Artifices
There’s a lot of hating that goes on towards liberal arts majors. Not the people, obviously, but the universities that churn out degrees like, “communications” or “sociology”. These majors must seem effusive to employers who must wonder what the heck the student did for four years in college. Meanwhile, the colleges gladly accept the thousands of dollars (sometimes hundreds of thousands of dollars) of students in exchange for this mysterious product: a liberal arts education.
The argument for liberal arts is, sometimes unfortunately, not really related to it’s economic worth. Studying liberal arts won’t make you very competitive in the job market and it’s not a direct path to wealth by any means. The study yields a more philosophical, ephemeral value. Lately I’ve been reading Robert George (arguably our age’s preeminent conservative thinker)’s book, Conscience and Its Enemies. In it, he makes this argument for liberal arts:
According to the classic liberal-arts ideal, our critical engagement with great thinkers enriches our understanding and enables us to grasp, or grasp more fully, great truths– truths that, when we appropriate them and integrate them into our lives, liberate us from what is merely vulgar, coarse, or base. These are soul shaping, humanizing truths- truths whose appreciation and secure possession elevate reason above passion or appetite, enabling us to direct our desires and our wills to what is truly good, truly beautiful, truly worthy of human beings as possessors of a profound and inherent dignity. (pg 31)
In other words, liberal arts teach us how to be better human beings. In high school or college, we don’t learn the practical things about being a human being: balancing a checkbook, filing taxes or how to buy a house. Liberal arts are essentially the philosophical equivalent. They teach you why seeking knowledge is good, why sitting on your butt watching television is not the best use of time. George continues:
The true liberal arts ideal rejects the reduction of reason to the status of passion’s ingenious servant. It is an ideal rooted in the conviction that there are human goods, and a common good, in light of which we have reasons to constrain, to limit, to regulate, and even to alter our desires. It proposes the study of great works of the humanitarian and social sciences with a view to grasping more fully these goods and the reasons they provide, and to understanding them in their wholeness. What liberal arts learning offers us is a truly audacious hope– the hope of self-mastery. (pg. 33)
George emphasizes that, “Personal authenticity, in the classical understanding of liberal arts education, consists in self mastery- in placing reason in control of desire” (pg. 30). As sad as it is, most milennials don’t understand why self discipline and regulating one’s passions are in society’s best interest. Cohabitation before marriage, premarital sex… even gluttony concerning food: these are all habits that I think most people could acknowledge aren’t rationally good ideas… they’re activities we engage in because they feel good. Sure, the majority of couples who cohabitate before marriage have marriages that end in divorce. Sure, premarital sex is an insanely risky behavior which can result in STDs, children who grow up without daddies, and emotionally broken people. Sure, eating an entire pan of brownies will clog your arteries and more and more research is showing that excessive amounts of sugar poisons our brains. All of these behaviors are self damaging… why do we engage in them so often?
We forget that our actions have consequences.
In a cruel twist of irony, it’s the abuse of liberal arts has contributed to the decline of our moral society. Professors and departments have agendas they feel free to push and students are given selective reading assignments that either skew the author’s words, not providing the full context, or authors are chosen that don’t do justice to the term “philosophy”. Students are often presented with one side of the story, instead of two competing viewpoints from which to choose from. I remember a political philosophy class I took my senior year of college, where I was the only one arguing for objective, absolute truth. I was only informed of this because of my extracurricular reading of John Paul II and other Catholic thinkers.
C.S. Lewis said, “After all, almost the main work of life is to come out of our selves, out of the little, dark prison we are all born in.” How can we truly “come out of our selves,” if we don’t understand how to master ourselves and control our passions? How do we truly be someone to anyone else if we can’t even know ourselves? The Founders developed the American political philosophy with the presupposition that the people would be educated, moral and reasonable. They viewed institutions such as clubs, associations, churches, marriages and universities as safeguards that would keep public decency afloat both by encouraging conversation and by reinforcing moral values. All of these institutions require us to come out of our bubble and explore ideas different than the ones brewing in our own heads. A liberal dialogue between different viewpoints can’t thrive when we’re stuck with the philosophy of the talking heads who appear on television.
A liberal arts education, if undertaken earnestly, should free us to live at a higher plain. This allows a broader perspective. Specifically, in our democracy, this sort of education is vital for the voting demographic. Without it, democracy is and will continue to devolve into a squabbling mass of special interest groups, incapable of seeing beyond their own parochial, sectional interests. The concept of the greater good will perish, trampled beneath the mob of immediate gratification.