Black Mountain, NC. It’s the beginning of a school year. I am sitting in a faculty meeting listening to the annual update about the college. You know the ones: what are we excited about, what can we expect, what’s going well, etc. etc. This particular state of the union address focused on two things: technology and adult online education—the savior of colleges near and far. (Praise be).
Now, I don’t have a problem with STEM degrees, and I received most of my degrees from online or hybrid educational models. I am grateful for an accessible education. But I was discouraged. There was some lip-serviced paid to the liberal arts foundation when prompted, but it was like the mainline churches a generation ago: they took the gospel for granted, and so lost the gospel. And I was fearful we would lose the liberal arts if they functioned as a type of, “Oh yeah, of course that stuff. We offer things like that on the way to a lucrative career.”
So, three years in, wet behind the ears (as the saying goes), I spoke up. I said something like, “Okay, that’s fine. We need to stay open, and this is a path forward. I’m glad I’m not making the decisions. But if this is the direction we’re heading, we should re-evaluate our general education, because it can be better and needs to be better to maintain our core commitments.”
Another (STEM-oriented) colleague spoke up, “You know, I hear that. But we write papers in our class?” As if to say, “we do that liberal art competency stuff, too! Don’t leave us out.”
To which I (silently) wondered, “Oh, you don’t get it. We, the faculty of a liberal arts college, don’t know what the liberal arts are or what they are for.” And if we faculty don’t know what the liberal arts are for, then I am pretty pessimistic that our students or parents of our students will value them.
I’ve reflected on how the liberal arts are used around campus; we talk about them as if they are not goods in and of themselves. They aren’t intrinsic goods. They help you write better memos, work in teams, communicate, critically think, etc., etc. We talk about them as if the liberal arts are made to be servile arts: to make students more employable. If the point of the liberal arts is the skills we develop from them, we miss the point. To say something is useful outside of a practical outcome has come to sound insane and certainly doesn’t follow market logic. It can’t be neatly packaged and advertised.
Lost is the pursuit of the liberal arts for the sake of our humanity. The problem even when I talk about that is our humanity has been reduced to what we make: we’re only as valuable as what we produce. If the liberal arts are turned into servile arts, then our humanity diminishes. The liberal arts function by a different logic: they are for unfolding our humanity, connecting us with our past, practicing leisure, as Joseph Pieper recommends. I want my students to know that they are not a cog in the machine. They are image bearers capable and made for reflection and contemplation and creation. The liberal arts train students as whole persons to realize that they exist beyond the work-a-day world. At the deepest recess of the self lies a gift to be received and developed. The liberal arts are a path to this reception and cultivation of a grace we do not produce.
Let me offer a modest definition of what an education is for. An education assists in ordering and expanding our loves. This follows in the tradition of St. Augustine and Hugh St. of Victor up to present day with James K.A. Smith and David Brooks. The flourishing life is a life of ordered love, and education prepares and shapes such a life. It’s for a life fueled by affection creating a people “who the life they’ve made and they place they’ve made in it,” in the words of Wendell Berry.
Love is not something useful or utilitarian. I don’t love so I can get something out of it or feel better about myself. I don’t love so I can do something else better. “Doing” something better may be a result, but it’s not the point. By loving my wife, I may be more compassionate to others, but I don’t love my wife to become more compassionate. Love is a virtue, not a purpose; it’s a habit of being in the world. It requires practice, and the liberal arts are ways of training and disciplining our loves. Education gives us things to love: sometimes new things to love, sometimes old things to love in new ways, sometimes things to be rejected.
Rainer Marie Rilke notes that young people especially need to be trained to love. In Letters to a Young Poet, he writes, “It is also good to love: because love is difficult. For one human being to love another human being: that is perhaps the most difficult task that has been entrusted to us, the ultimate task, the final test and proof, the work for which all other work is merely preparation. That is why young people, who are beginners in everything, are not yet capable of love: it is something they must learn. With their whole being, with all their forces, gathered around their solitary, anxious, upward-beating heart, they must learn to love.”
We can argue about how well a liberal arts institution goes about their task. Certainly, there are changes that need to be made to better fulfill this purpose—to introduce a body of knowledge worth knowing and studying and loving, to make connections between students’ humanity and their learning, to holistically care about all of their identity outside of their work or status as students. But we must not forsake the ideal for a cheap alternative. If we produce graduates who write eloquently and critique ideas but have not love, well, the apostle Paul writes about that—they’ll be as annoying as banging cymbals and will gain nothing.
The liberal arts aren’t for some utilitarian purpose; they’re to free young people to love rightly.