There be dragons!

Thursday, August 27, 2009

On the Liberal Arts

Our most excellent guidance counselor sent me the link to this article on a downturn in liberal arts education enrollment (a typical phenomena during a recession; people panic and try to get jobs that will pay, only to find themselves becoming destitute and then longing again for the shining city on the hill).

Applications to Colleges Such as St. John's Are Dropping As the Downturn Leads Families to Weigh the Value, And Price, of a Liberal Arts Degree More Carefully.

This article is from today's Washington Post (August 27. 2009):

I certainly understand the struggle of LA education in this sort of environment. Unfortunately, I think that they are fighting a losing battle when they claim that a LA education is “practical” and gives “tools for life”. I don’t know if that is correct and I don’t think it is a selling point. It’s much like University of Dallas trying to field a baseball team to compete with Texas Tech or SMU – ain’t gonna happen.

More to the point, though, I still am unconvinced that the praxis of liberal arts education is that strong. Praxis always speaks to utility, practicality, what are you gonna “do with” that degree in (insert LA field here)? When it comes down to it, LA education is impractical b/c it encourages the mind/soul/nous to pursue beauty, goodness, truth with ardor – not to use verum bonum pulchrum for some practical end. Such pursuit and contemplation ultimately is liberating; makes the freeman out of the slave, b/c it broadens the mind to see vaster vistas than before.

But liberation, though one of the main goals of the education, can’t actually succeed unless the student pursues knowledge with abandonment of any practical return; a certain ecstasy of sorts has to happen.

Therefore, I think LA education is as impractical as love.

Though it isn’t a big selling point to say “we offer an utterly impractical course of study” – ne’theless, if we make the modus operandi for study a praxis we have debased the finest and noblest of pursuits into something base and selfish; just as if we attribute to love a selfish motive, the promise of gain or some irresistible drive of biology we no longer have love, merely a weaker form of power.


  1. I had the option between a 120k liberal arts degree (and I could have even got EF daily mass!), or a 50k actuarial science degree (where they make you move in on a Sunday morning... grr). Even among us lovers of the liberal art it dons on us that as lovely as knowledge is (impractical as it may be), at times it really is as useless as love. They aren't useless though: to love and to know are the two most necessary things for a Christian to do! How do you figure out at what altitude your head should reside, on your shoulders or in the clouds? I guess I figured, on Holy Thursday afternoon (all that stupid symbolism you literature teachers pedal, which we all laughed at, is manifesting itself in my daily life!) that God doesn't see fit to wash away the obligations of the world for many.

  2. Yes, as impractical as love and just as necessary, but found and partaken of sincerely, earnestly, by only a few; even fewer who will further it. What disturbs me as a peddler of such wares is that the quantity of choices that is worthless, beyond impractical even to being damaging, is increasing along with the price.

    I've been reading Charles Murray's arguments against the BA. They're pretty strong, but that doesn't mean systematic change or, better still, reversal to days when a BA wasn't required to answer phones, run copiers, and more.

  3. Indeed, that article in WSJ here
    was quite illuminating. I've been entertaining the fantasy of "what would the world of education be like if there were no grades - students judged only on what they accomplished at the end of four years?" Then a colleague burst my bubble by saying that what would happen would be parents clammering at my office for how their kid was going to get into Harvard.