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The Useful Uselessness of the Liberal Arts


The Useful Uselessness of the Liberal Arts


Dr. Stephen Shivone Assistant Dean of Academic Affairs

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.


Thursday, October 15, 2015|Categories: Faculty||

Time and Anew: Another Academic Year

Dr williamsby Dr. David Williams, Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of Faculty

When someone says that they don’t have enough time, Abbot Placid has a response I’ve always liked. He says, “How can that be? You have all the time there is. They aren’t making any more.” Along the same lines, Dr. Thierfelder hates the cliché about giving 110%. He’ll say, “100% is everything! There isn’t an extra 10% hidden anywhere.”

My first August as the College’s Vice President for Academic Affairs and Dean of the Faculty made me feel the point of both sayings. The rush of students and faculty back to campus, not to mention preparing for the new academic year, had me turning over every stone and every leaf looking for more time, more effort. Like Charlie Brown always hoping that this time he’ll kick the football, I kept thinking I’d find something. And like Charlie, I didn’t. All I did was distract myself from the good and needful things claiming my attention.

About half-way through the month, as I was pacing about, the poster of the Benedictine Hallmarks on the wall of my office caught my eye. Two at the top of the second column, right below the picture of Fr. Arthur & Fr. John at Mass, stood out: obedience (a commitment to listening and action), and discipline (the way of focusing energy and attention). And I was reminded, not just that I’d forgotten those two wise sayings we started with, but that I’m still new to being the dean after fifteen-plus years as a professor. timeand-anew

A new academic year is an occasion to greet people as they return (or arrive for the first time!), to listen to their hoped-for goals as well as share my own, and then to focus on the actions that will achieve those goals. All the necessary tasks of an academic August are grounded there, whatever one’s role, and not in counting up the time spent or the efforts made. The particular role of the dean is to listen more carefully to more people, and to focus with greater attention on the whole framework of actions that make up the College’s academic program. 

That’s what I’d missed, until I listened and heard what the Benedictine tradition was trying to tell me. Unsurprisingly, August picked up and I’m looking forward to September!

Wednesday, September 2, 2015|Categories: Faculty||

Are Participation Trophies Replacing Coaches?


Our President Dr. Thierfelder weighs in on the recent debate about participation trophies started by James Harrison, a Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker.

“The problem with the participation trophy is that it is replacing what a coach ought to be doing–motivating players to perform at their best.The key is understanding what sport, or play,  is and why we do it. Play is done for its own sake. Play done for money is not play but work. Being paid to “play” often blurs the line and can lead to play becoming a selfish work. Play is not the problem. The problem is when money, power, fame become the “end” of what looks like play but is not. When this happens vice becomes acceptable and is seen as a necessary evil in order to achieve the highest level of competitive play. Ultimately play is like wisdom – done for its own sake while contemplating the highest thing, namely God.” –Dr. Thierfelder

For a greater explanation review this short clip from his interview with Drew Mariani on Relevant Radio:  click here

For the full interview (Interview is from 29.40 – 44.26 ) click here

Wednesday, September 2, 2015|Categories: Faculty||

A Judge’s Reversal and Catholic Health Care Ethics

Dr. Grattan Brown, S.T.D.

In the sad story of Casey Kasem’s final days, Judge Daniel Murphy was right to require doctors to feed Kasem and right to reverse that decision a few days later.

Grattan Brown

I remember Casey Kasem’s voice so well. Just that memory made it sad to imagine the suffering he endured. He suffered from dementia, from the inability to speak, and from all that goes with being bedridden. Because his particular condition, Lewy body dementia, is difficult to diagnose, he likely suffered from not really knowing what he had.

He also suffered from his family members fighting over him and from having been “stolen” by his wife and hidden from his children and friends during his final weeks of life. Finally, he was the subject of court battles, including one in which the judge had to assign different visitation times to his wife and to his children. In the end, he suffered from a judge’s having to decide between his children’s demand to remove his feeding tube so that he would die and his wife’s demand to continue feeding him so that he would continue to live

At first, Judge Murphy ordered that feeding be continued. Then within 48 hours, Judge Murphy reversed his decision and ruled that feeding could be discontinued. From media reports, we do not know exactly why Judge Murphy reversed his judgment. It could be that Judge Murphy initially thought feeding appropriate for someone like Kasem, who was in an extremely debilitated condition, and then changed his mind. If so, feeding could be withdrawn from a patient who is expected to live but not improve, which would end the patient’s life. Some would call this euthanasia.

caseyOr it could be the Judge Murphy based both judgments on consistent ethical principles, rather than a change of mind about a controversial practice. According to media reports, the judge based his final decision on a review of Kasem’s medical records, which by law are not made public. If those records showed that artificial nutrition and hydration could no longer have prolonged Kasem’s life or perhaps could not have been absorbed by his body, then the judge’s reversal simply allowed the withdrawal of a treatment that could no longer do its work, or had even become harmful to Kasem’s body. Kasem seems to have been in this condition because he died only a few days after withdrawal, while patients whose bodies have been absorbing nourishment typically live longer, as Terri Schiavo did for a couple of weeks after withdrawal. The judge’s reversal seems to have been following this rationale.

If so, it cuts against a rather disturbing trend in end-of-life care. Daughter Kerri Kasem sought withdrawal of artificial nutrition and hydration because her father’s advanced directive indicated that he would not want it if continued life “would result in a mere biological existence, devoid of cognitive function, with no reasonable hope for normal functioning.” Through his advanced directive, Casey Kasem was asking for death even at times when he would have continued to live, though in an extremely disabled state. By initially refusing to withdraw feeding, Judge Murphy declined to cooperate in bringing about Kasem’s death. It appears likely that, from the evidence initially presented to him, the judge had to assume that Kasem would continue to live and that withdrawing nutrition and hydration would cause his death.

The difficult question is precisely that: whether causing a patient’s death, by withdrawing nutrition and hydration, is a morally acceptable way for our society to relieve suffering. Descriptions such as “mere biological existence” are not helpful because they mask the human dignity that no condition can take away. I doubt that experienced caregivers of the severely disabled would consider their patients’ existence to be merely “biological” because those patients have permanently lost consciousness. It is easy to see Kasem’s wife, Jean, as completely irrational after seeing that ridiculous meat tossing video. Yet if anything in her bizarre behavior comes from a willingness to care for a severely disabled man, I will give her some credit for authentic love.

When the judge reversed his decision, it was not based on some sudden agreement with Kasem’s children to end their father’s life. Instead, he based it on a review of Kasem’s medical records, which perhaps showed that the celebrity’s body was no longer absorbing food, or that his lungs were aspirating fluid, or that death was imminent within a few days.

It is telling that a Catholic institution, St. Anthony Hospital, provided Kasem’s final care. Catholics have wrestled for several decades with when to provide and when to withdraw artificial nutrition. In a 2004 address, the late Pope St. John Paul II drew a conclusion that harmonizes with sound moral thinking as well as with Christian faith: artificial nutrition and hydration must be provided unless the body cannot absorb them, unless they cause physical harm, or unless they cannot reasonably be expected to prolong life. That standard respects both the dignity of the severely disabled and the natural contours of the dying process. Sometimes patients such as Casey Kasem require strenuous efforts from caretakers; at other times, the willingness of loved ones to say goodbye.

If the physicians at St. Anthony’s Hospital determined that continued feeding had become harmful to Kasem’s body or could not reasonably prolong his life and communicated that fact to the judge, then they too are to be thanked for helping bring peace to a tragic situation.

Grattan Brown is an Associate Professor of Theology at Belmont Abbey College

Wednesday, June 25, 2014|Categories: Faculty|Tags: |