Why Liberal Arts?
“Why do I have to take courses in philosophy and science?” “What can one do with an English or history major, besides teach?” In my many years as a Jesuit educator, these are perhaps the most frustrating questions I have to entertain at college open houses, if only because I assume that prospective students, and their parents, understand what a liberal arts education is. However, in these days of challenging economic times, I understand the concerns that students and parents have about the practical uses of a liberal arts degree, especially since it comes with such a high price tag.
As the Jesuit historian John O’Malley, S.J., pointed out last year at the Faith + Reason Conference of East Coast Jesuit colleges and universities, these same concerns were present among parents and patrons in the 16th century when the Jesuits set up their first school at Messina in Sicily. At the time there was a tension between universities, which dated back to the 12th century and were primarily secular in their orientation, providing what we would call “professional” education; and the humanistic schools or “colleges” that arose in the 15th century and aimed at “the personal formation of the student that would enable him to take an active role working for the betterment of this world.”
So the question, “Why liberal arts?” has been around for a long time. My usual default mode when the query is posed by a high school junior or a skeptical parent is to talk up the fact that a liberal arts education provides skills that can translate into lucrative jobs and successful careers. However, in a non-“selling” mode, I prefer to answer the question from the opposite direction, as I will now, beginning with the least practical but perhaps the most rewarding reasons.
In my counterintuitive rationale, the first reason for studying the liberal arts is as an end in itself. Following St. Ignatius of Loyola’s motto of finding God in all things, the Jesuits saw all areas of human knowledge as potential encounters with the divine, and they themselves became experts in just about every area you could imagine at the time: from art to astronomy, from medicine to music, and from calculus to cartography. The breadth of the Jesuit curriculum reflects the wonders and diversity of God’s creation, and this is a primary reason for asking our students to engage in studying a wide range of the liberal arts and sciences. The early Jesuits, so influenced by their own education in the humanities, believed that such study is essential to understanding what it means to be human, and this is the foundation for our required core courses.