Sunday, March 06, 2011

On the Liberal Arts

Apparently my comment in my previous post that the liberal arts are "useless' have scandalized a few persons, so if you all will indulge me on this topic one last time, I will endeavor to explain what I mean when I say that the liberal arts are "useless." What I hope to get through is that, though the liberal arts may be "useless" to a degree, they are not valueless, as to have value and to have usefulness are not the same thing.

First, let's go back to the beginning, to the definition of the terms we are talking about: What are liberal arts? If we start with etymology, we see that the word 'liberal" in liberal arts derives from the Latin word liber, which means free. The primary context of the original Latin meaning is free in the sense of politically free, as opposed to a slave or freedman. The liberal arts were those disciplines which it was considered fitting for free men to study, men who would have to be well-formed human beings in order to responsibly take up the burdens of representative government in the ancient world. Thus, a "free" man was encouraged to study philosophy, literature, history, geometry and the like while servants or slaves would obviously not, both because they did not have the time, and because to the degree that they specialized in anything, it was in menial tasks. Sometimes free men wrote treatises on manual tasks, like horticulture, husbandry and cattle breeding, but only because these agricultural pursuits were seen as fitting for free men. So liberal was originally contrasted to manual, just as free men were to slaves. Thus, the liberal arts were for free men of the higher classes; in the classical dichotomy between practical and theoretical, the liberal arts were certainly not practical.

Later, the phrase "liberal arts" came to take on another connotation. Besides the idea of political freedom, the term came to mean free in the sense that the liberal arts were ends in themselves; i.e., they were "free" from being put to utilitarian ends. For example, an architect will put the skills he learns to work building bridges, houses or other structures of practical usefulness. An electrician will take the electrical-working skills he learned as an apprentice and put them to practical use in the actual wiring of homes. One who studies history or philosophy, however, does not later put his knowledge to "work" for any practical or utilitarian ends. The sole purpose of such education is simply to educate the learner and make them a more perfect human. The liberal arts are thus free also in the sense that they are free from being put to utilitarian uses. This means that, by their very definition, the liberal arts are indeed "useless" in the truest sense!

We could phrase it this way: liberal arts were never meant to be studied for the end of making people money; they were studied by people who already had money. They were never meant to make a living; they were the course of study for those who already had a living. They were never meant to be put to use because they were studied by those who had no need to go into any "useful"trade.

This does not mean that a liberal arts education has no value. On the contrary, it is of immense value in forming the person, acquainting one with the greatest treasures of civilization and teaching one how to think. But, because they are not ordered towards any utilitarian or vocational end, a liberal arts degree is not likely to make its recipient much money. In this sense a liberal arts degree is "useless" as far as earning potential goes.

There is one exception to this, of course, and that is unless you are actually going to be a literature professor or a history professor. In this case, you are studying the liberal arts for the purpose of teaching the liberal arts to others, in which case the degree would be "useful" to one's career. But the problem with so many Catholics going to liberal arts colleges is that not all of them are intending to go on to be professors of literature or philosophy; many do not know what they want to do in life. They just go off to get their liberal arts degree, imagining that their job opportunities are going to be better after getting it. To some level this is true; any degree looks better than no degree. But, comparable to how much money they are likely to spend attaining that degree, it is unlikely that they will get a job whose pay is commensurate with the debt they are likely to incur. I know of many people with liberal arts degrees who do not make in one year what it cost them for their education, which is disappointing since most people go to college with the intent of at least having a modest increase in their earning potential.

Absolutely all Catholics should be educated in the liberal arts. This is essential. The liberal arts teach one, not only knowledge, but how to acquire knowledge for oneself. The liberal arts, more than any other field of study, equip one to be a self-directed learner. This is the end goal of all education: not to teach a subject, but to teach others how to teach themselves. But, unless one is planning on becoming a professor of the liberal arts themselves, and given the tremendous cost of college, I do not think Catholic kids ought to choose the liberal arts as a major. It is best taught during the high school years, in order that they may already have this liberal arts template over which they can view everything else they learn college.

Teach the liberal arts? Absolutely without a doubt. Spend $40,000 and four years of your precious life getting a degree in them that will not give you an adequate return on your investment and for which you could have gotten the same knowledge for free by reading some books? That arrangement should give us pause, and that is all I have been saying.


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Seán said...

Good clarification, Boniface. I agree with your assessment. I would say the advice is even more appropriate considering the recession and the large numbers of graduates who end up working at Wal-Mart or some other unskilled place. These people would have done better by getting a vocational degree and working in a blue-collar position. I think a lot of people are realizing that the whole degree system is blotted and too many people have pursued a degree and then float through life. The Catholic version is liberal arts. I'm sure another off-shoot are the Classics programs. I myself got a linguistics degree. There was no chance of a job unless you went on to a Master's and a PhD. I eventually went on to librarianship, which required a Master's. But even now people are coming out with a librarian master's, and there are no openings for them. We're oversupplied. What a shame!

In general, I think roughly age 5 to 16 should be an "updated" liberal arts curriculum. From roughly 16 on, there should be a preparation for a vocation. People push back the vocation stuff till the last two years of college. Too late! And if you don't know, get a blue collar job and learn something useful while you're floating! Thanks for the clear thoughts!