Why Choose the Liberal Arts?
reviewed by Gregory Jusdanis - December 13, 2010
How will a philosophy degree help my career? Students often ask us this. Why should they spend four years delving into a subject that is ultimately useless when a degree in business or engineering would more likely lead them into a job?
Mark William Roche opens his investigation of the liberal arts with exactly such questions. He is better prepared than most to offer answers because he has served as professor, chair, and, more recently, Dean of the College of Arts and Letters at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. He thus approaches his subject matter from this practical perspective of teacher and administrator.
The issue of relevance has come up repeatedly over the last ten years as many (myself included) have asked themselves about the value of art and literature in our poststructuralist world. Why should students, for instance, occupy themselves with literature in the fluid world of the Internet, with sirens beckoning at every site and link?
Actually, these questions go back to Plato. The arts have always had to justify their existence before the Tribunal of Relevance. But this tribunal has become much more rigid in the last few centuries because modernity has defined the arts as useless: they are important exactly because they dont bring food to the table. The age that converted every value into a form of economics wanted to exempt the arts from this logic. Actually, it transformed them into superfluous activities. So the question has become much more pressing for those who pray at the altar of utility. After all, no one has ever had to write a book defending biology, engineering, law, or medicine, for obvious reasons. The task facing humanists, like Roche, is to justify something pointless at a time of both utilitarian thinking and long unemployment lines.
Roche approaches this challenge by looking back at his own experience as student, scholar, teacher, and administrator. His observations on the liberal arts are often shaded with personal reflection. This strategy helps open the book to parents and students -- two obvious groups of readers. Roche offers three main reasons for the teaching of the liberal arts:
1. They have intrinsic value in their own right. We learn something about history or philosophy. We can acquire foreign languages and read literary works in translation or in the original. We gain, in other words, a more engaged and meaningful understanding of the world.
2. The liberal arts cultivate those skills, such as critical thinking and writing, which are important for success after graduation. Students thus gain competence in thinking systematically and analytically, enhancing their facility to communicate with other people.
3. The third purpose represents a synthesis of the two. By engaging students with other cultures and other traditions, the liberal arts help instill in them a higher purpose and a sense of connection with the world around them. Becoming aware of their links to other people, societies, and institutions, students also recognize their responsibilities to this world.
People can argue that this is a traditional recipe. But Roche brings to it a sharp focus, approaching it from a practical as well as a scholarly perspective. What follows are the thoughts of a dedicated teacher and administrator. But we get more than personal experiences. For Roche provides wide-ranging surveys and statistics for the continued significance of the liberal arts. We learn that large percentages of medical school applicants are liberal arts majors, that students often feel bored in class, and that they want professors to deal with engaging questions.
Some may find his approach old-fashioned. They may cringe at the discussion of character or moral virtue, for instance. Indeed, Roche does not shirk from proposing ideas that others would not touch. If we measure success by praise, he writes, then we are discouraged from challenging orthodoxy (p. 153).
But Roche does not reside in the proverbial ivory tower. While he juxtaposes the world of the university against the world of exchange and production outside, he recognizes the reality of the former. He does not pretend that the only goal in life is mastering French verse from the fourteenth century or learning about the Battle of Marathon. He never makes the intrinsic case his exclusive argument. Nor does he maintain, as was the practice in the past, that culture makes us into better human beings.
But does Roche idealize the experience of a liberal arts college, a uniquely American phenomenon? As I was reading his book -- his small seminars, his invitation to students for dinner at his house, faculty meetings, extra-curricular activities -- I wondered if his observations and prescriptions could be applied to large universities, the reality of so many students here and abroad. Their understanding of liberal arts may not correspond to Roches descriptions.
Do these conditions exist anywhere today? I ask this question because central to Roches book, and indeed, to the liberal arts, is the idea of leisure which is connected to the uselessness of the arts and humanities. The arts require that we waste our time, so to speak, that we invest energy into worthless activities. That is what makes the liberal arts relevant, what gives them their beauty. There is a paradox here that we cant ever work our way through.
Over and over again, Roche mourns the loss of this leisure necessary to appreciate important pursuits. But doesnt the university create those very creatures who lack the time for adequate reflection? Roche does not go into the obstacle courses high school students have to run through to get into Williams, Princeton, or Notre Dame, three places he has been associated with.
In addition to getting as close as possible to a 4.0 GPA or over (only in America can one graduate with more than a perfect score!), the student must have participated in many extra-curricular activities (preferably in more than one area of sports, arts, or public service). But wait, then come the SAT, SAT II, ACT tests (in addition to the AP courses throughout high school), and the prepping for these tests, in addition to the composition of the killer entrance essay. (If you want to know the meaning of misery and paranoia, log on to College Confidential now and peruse the anxious comments of applicants and parents.) If there is one aspect of American life that has more to do with acquiring the right credentials than learning, it is the preparation for college admission.
Does that change once the student enters college? Is studying at a university to a certain extent not an exercise in collecting credits and enhancing résumés? Who has the leisure to engage in the type of questions that Roche believes are vital: What do we mean by friendship? If God exists, why is there suffering in this world? How can we explain the continuation of war? Does the American university really encourage such thinking, the taking of intellectual risks? Or is such a pursuit lost in the business of the American campus, of students rushing to the next class, to their clubs, or volunteer sessions? In discussions about the place of genuine intellectual inquiry at the American university, my colleagues in both private and state institutions are not always encouraging.
Let me now turn to my own experience, in an echo of Roches strategy. I was reading Roches book while in Colombia, giving lectures first at the Universidad del Rosario in Bogota and then at the Universidad de Cartagena. After my lecture at the University of Cartagena, a state institution, students and faculty took me out to what they called their own agora, an open square with benches and a fountain, flowering acacia trees, surrounded by posh restaurants and boutique hotels. Because the Plaza San Diego faces the School of Fine Arts on one side, over the years students, artists, intellectuals, and professors have appropriated it as their own space and now gather there every Friday night for discussion over drinks and snacks they buy from stalls.
These informal gatherings are not part of some freshman seminar or formal discussion group but a domain spontaneously claimed and organized by the participants themselves. They come because they are passionate about ideas and how they can apply them to life. They want to hear others speak. The sessions are neither hierarchical nor limited to academics. While participants may hone their debating skills or learn something new about a topic, they cant include these evenings in their résumés.
It is easy to sentimentalize and exoticize an experience that is not your own, to believe that palm trees are taller on the other side of the sea. But I wondered that evening whether anyone needed to be persuaded in the Plaza San Diego of the importance of the liberal arts.