The Liberal Arts Tradition: An Education in Human Excellence

In the first line of his Metaphysics, Aristotle famously wrote that, “All men desire to know”. At first glance, this insight may seem quite simple, but it is truly profound in its implications. It is important to observe that the Greek philosopher did not say, “All men desire to do”, or “All men desire to work”, or even, “All men desire to make”. Although all of these remarks might be true, the thing that is most peculiar about man, and most immediately obvious about him, is that he desires to know. Thus the young child finds himself overcome with questions about the world around him, and never ceases to ask the question, “Why”? It is deeply satisfying for the child to know the causes of things because it fills a natural desire in his heart and gradually develops and perfects his intellect. And there is no further reason or ulterior motive to his questioning; he simply wants to know.

According to the tradition, this kind of knowledge is called “liberal”, or “free”, because it is not ordered towards any further end, or practical purpose, but is known for its own sake. The knowledge acquired through the liberal arts is opposed to the “servile” or “useful” arts, because this latter kind of knowledge is at the “service” of some further end. For example, knowledge of boat-making is at the service of the art of sailing, or of naval command. While these servile or, “useful” skills are both good and necessary, especially in today’s highly developed technological world, it remains true that the knowledge which is acquired entirely for its own sake, e.g., about the ultimate causes of the world, or about man’s highest good, is still the best and most valuable kind of knowledge a student can hope to possess. This kind of knowledge is good in itself; it is truly its own reward. To provide students with, at the very least, a cursory knowledge of all that is good, true, and beautiful, was once considered to be the primary task of the university, and it is still the noble goal of a liberal arts education.

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Yet there has been an almost universal abandonment of genuine liberal education at American universities. What was once taken for granted as the primary role of the university, has now been largely replaced by narrow professional and technical training. In addition, we witness an ever-increasing fragmentation among the sciences, such that students no longer receive a unified and organic vision of knowledge. Subjects are often taught in isolation from one another and students find themselves lost in a sea of conflicting ideas and unconnected facts. The revitalization of liberal education, or at the very least, the inclusion of a core curriculum of liberal arts classes at the university level, can adequately address what may rightly be called, an educational crisis. The benefits of a liberal arts education are inestimable: it forms the whole person by helping them to develop good intellectual habits, strength and order of mind, skills of both creativity and critical thinking, all while introducing them to the greatest minds and ideas of Western civilization. It is an education which introduces students to the heights of human and intellectual excellence.

While there has been a noticeable resurgence of interest in the liberal arts in the past few years, one cannot help but notice the accompanying emphasis on the “practicality” of receiving a degree in the liberal arts. Many seek to articulate a “pragmatic approach” to a liberal arts education. However, to ask what contemporary practical benefits a liberal arts education can provide is to entirely miss the point. To ask first what a liberal arts education can be used for, is already to give assent to the mistaken notion, so popular in modern society, that the best and most valuable things are those which are strictly useful. It would do violence to the nature and beauty of a liberal arts education to insist that it be useful, or even more importantly, helpful to secure a place in the workforce; this can only be a secondary consideration. And yet, ironically enough, this is precisely what recent studies are showing to be the case.

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Many professional companies prefer to hire liberal arts graduates because they have both practical skills as well as the ability to apply their knowledge and adapt to different challenges. Employers consider this is an invaluable asset, and it is the primary reason why liberal arts graduates often advance to middle and senior management positions. In order to keep up with an overwhelming increase in new information and technology, some business leaders have a policy that they will not even consider hiring students who major only in business at the undergraduate level, because they do not believe such students have been adequately prepared, through their narrow and specialized education, to adapt to new circumstances or provide the kind of ingenuity that is necessary in a constantly changing world. Research also shows that a higher and higher percentage of students with liberal arts backgrounds are being admitted into the most highly respected medical schools across the country. While scientific and technical knowledge is indispensible, most medical schools are looking for well-rounded, well-educated individuals, who will develop into caring and analytical doctors. By learning how to think, and learning how to learn, the liberal arts student acquires an education that will last a lifetime, long after formal schooling ends.

Nevertheless, it must be appreciated that a solid liberal arts education has its own irreplaceable merit, and still stands as the only intellectual answer to the overwhelming flood of information, ideas, and technological change that every young person now faces at the university and in the world. For however vaguely or obscurely they may feel themselves attracted to something beautiful and noble, too many students no longer understand or appreciate what it means to be fully civilized or virtuous, and they rarely encounter, either in the university or in the culture at large, a sense of the whole, of how things fit together. Despite the fact that it flies in the face of contemporary wisdom, we must acknowledge honestly that most young men and women, upon first entering college, are just beginning to acquire the habits and skills necessary to figure out, not what college or profession they should pursue, but what life itself is all about. For, as Augustine observes, “To seek the highest good is to live well”.

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Through their engagement with the great ideas of both Western and world civilization, students learn to read and reason, to recognize and construct clear arguments, to understand the range and expression of human experience, and to have a sense of humility when they consider the great minds which have gone before them. This kind of education is the bedrock of democracy, because it is the best preparation for fully informed and responsible citizenship, regardless of what one wishes to do in their career or professional life. The formation of the whole person is the noble task of a genuine liberal arts education; in a word, it is an education in human excellence.