The Useful Uselessness of the Liberal Arts
Many schools today call themselves liberal arts colleges, and if one refers to the liberal arts in conversation, people generally seem to understand what one means. In fact, everyone seems to use the term so confidently and easily, one usually just assumes there is as much general agreement and understanding about its meaning as there is about, say, the meaning of the term “toaster.” But if one examines the various programs of study at the schools going by this name, one is confronted by a bewildering variety. So many different subjects and kinds of studies seem to be included by this term “liberal arts.” At some schools, the term means any study that does not clearly belong to a specific discipline; at others, it signifies courses in the humanities; at others, it seems that almost anything qualifies as a liberal art so long as it is not explicitly scientific or professional. So, with respect to this term “liberal arts,” we are confronted with an interesting situation: here we have a term that everyone seems to assume has a uniform and universally understood meaning, but when we examine the objects to which that term is applied, we find extreme variety to the point of confusion.
What does this confusion signify, if anything? I believe it indicates deep disagreements regarding the nature of education itself. And disagreements regarding education ultimately stem from deep philosophical and theological disagreements about first principles. We would all agree that the subject of education is the human being, but few of us would agree about what a human being is and why human beings exist. And this deep division, this pluralism regarding fundamental things, is reflected in our educational institutions. We are all at odds about the means and ends of education.
Given this situation, people naturally wonder about the value of this vague, general type of education that goes by the name of liberal arts. On the face of it, the liberal arts are useless. Indeed, it is of their very essence to be useless. That is partly why they are called liberal, because they are free from having a purpose beyond themselves. By definition a liberal art is a study pursued for its own sake, not for some other end.
However, even those who wonder about their value seem to think studying the liberal arts is important at some stage of life. Look at the statistics. Statistics suggest employers in different fields find this type of education very valuable. Employers point to the fact that this type of education helps people think, write, and speak better; that it helps them make good decisions in complex situations; and that it helps them understand different points of view, which helps them get along with, and perhaps manage, other people. This does not surprise anyone who teaches at a liberal arts college, whatever form that takes. We know that students, to different degrees, are learning the difficult arts of language; we know that they are learning to think; and we know that they are learning about values. We also know that they are acquiring that quality of the educated mind that Aristotle so well described when he said that an educated person is one who can sympathetically entertain an idea without agreeing with it. We see that study of the liberal arts is very useful. And so do employers.
But again, as with the term itself, we are confronted with a rather odd situation. Apparently these studies which by definition and conscious aim are useless are very useful, perhaps even the most useful, in preparing students for different jobs and success in life. How is this? I would suggest, as a tentative answer, that these studies are the most useful not despite but because of their uselessness. I can’t unfold the full meaning of this paradoxical assertion here, but as a beginning, I would point out that this sort of paradox is at heart of many of the most important human activities. We might put it thus: a thing is most productive when its primary concern is being itself to the utmost capacity, not when it aims at some effect. It is most diffusive of good, to use an old scholastic formula, when it is most excelling in its own proper goodness. Think of a knife. A knife does its work best when it is sharp. Or a work of art. A work of art affects people best when it is a good work of art, and when the artist is most concerned with making a good work of art, not when he has propagandistic designs on his audience. And this is true of the human being, the subject of education. When the human being is most fully human, when it is flourishing as a human being, it is most useful and productive of good in the world. For whatever we do, whatever vocation, career, or state of life we pursue, by that peculiar combination of character, luck, education, Providence, and choice that determines a person’s destiny, we bring our humanity with us. And whatever form an education in the liberal arts takes, it always has something to do with the deep formation of our humanity, that is, with the making of the fully human, fully integrated human person. As Pope Francis has reminded us, the most important value of education is its human value, from which all its other values flow and upon which they depend, as their root and source.