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Why the Liberal Arts are Essential

Why the Liberal Arts are Essential

It is common to hear students dismiss certain fields of knowledge as useless to their profession and career. Why should students majoring in information technology, accounting, music, or biology study philosophy, literature, or Latin? Surely they will not need this knowledge in their specialized, technical fields of study.

The courses designated as “liberal arts” have no practical, utilitarian value for many professions that require skills acquired only in that particular discipline. Business majors need to study accounting, economics, and statistics to become expert in their field, and pre-medical students benefit more from the study of biochemistry than a course in the Great Books of Western civilization.

Good or Useful?

Blessed Cardinal John Henry Newman addressed this very question during the Victorian Age when trade schools and technical training established respectability as models of education essential for the Industrial Age centered upon the importance of manufacturing and the progress of science. Thus Newman’s age made the common distinction between “the good” and “the useful,” separating the two ideas as exclusive.

While the useful was good, the good was not useful or “utilitarian” as it was defined in that period. For something to be classified as “good” or beneficial, it needed to have immediate results and produce tangible benefits. As Sir Francis Bacon argued, knowledge is power. An education that led to a job was useful; work that resulted in good income was useful; the income that improved a person’s standard of living was useful. The useful, then, was measured in quantitative ways and seen in materialistic advantages.

Dickens’ schoolmaster in Hard Times, Mr. Gradgrind, valued education for its utilitarian benefits: “Now, what I want is Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.”

He proceeds to root out from Gradgrind Academy nursery rhymes, folk tales, poetry, and every hint of imaginative literature that he calls “Fancy,” the enemy of Facts. He explains to a student that birds and butterflies do not belong as paintings on walls and dishware because these creatures do not “in fact” dwell there any more than flowers grow on rugs. Students are instructed that thinking opposes wondering and knowledge does not come from affections and sentiments: “By means of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, settle everything somehow, and never wonder.”

Anything Good Always Has Value

Against this background of utilitarian education that scorns the liberal arts, imaginative literature, and love of learning for its own sake, Newman defends classical education as not only good but also useful. He does not, however, reduce the meaning of the word “useful” to utilitarian in the narrowest sense. He explains that the good is never useless, even though the progressive educators simplistically opposed the two ideas:

“Good is not only good, but reproductive of good; this is one of its attributes; nothing is excellent, beautiful, perfect, desirable for its own sake, but it overflows, and spreads the likeness of itself all around it. Good is prolific.”

While utilitarian education views learning as a means to an end, a stepping stone to a good income and economic prosperity, bona fide liberal education prizes education as an end in itself,” an intrinsic good “desirable for its own sake.” As Newman argues, anything naturally and inherently good always has value and benefit and possesses a different form of usefulness than in some “low, mechanical, mercantile sense.”

Education that is loved for its own sake as an end in itself resembles other activities that are pursued for the pure joy they bring. The pleasures of friendship, the delights of beauty, the enjoyment of sports, and the love of play serve no practical, utilitarian end that translates into productivity, efficiency, and profits, but they nourish the spirit and fill the heart with a love of life.

This joy, as Newman explains, is “prolific,” “reproductive,” and overflowing. It is communicative and spreads itself to create a life-giving energy that inspires human work and enriches human relationships. The good is useful because it breathes life into the soul, and the life of the soul inspires all that human beings do well. A master carpenter explained to a patron that “the lift of the heart” he received from the operas he loved inspired the cabinets he made with the joy of the songs ringing in his heart.

The good is profoundly useful in both tangible and intangible ways.

Child’s Play – An End In Itself

Utilitarian education teaches manual skills and trains the mind to perform tasks with precision and expertise. It does not cultivate the affections and sentiments that require the food of joy and love to fill a human being with a zest for life that is reflected in his daily work. A child’s play serves no utilitarian purpose. He does not play because the doctor promised him good health as a result. He does not play because the coach convinced him he would be a great athlete. He does not play because the psychologist persuaded him it was the best way to make friends.

He plays because it is fun, which is an end in itself—something intrinsically good and therefore fruitful. However, his love of play naturally overflows into good health, athletic skills, and joyous friendships. Newman writes, “A great good will impart great good” because the good by its nature is fecund and life-giving by the many ways it multiplies, “diffusing good, or as a blessing, or a gift, or a power, or a treasure, first to the owner, then through him to the world.”

A man is a child before he is an adult. A person is a human being before he is a worker. Man has a soul in addition to a body.

Without the child’s love of play, the heart of a happy human being, and the soul in love with the good and the beautiful, the most utilitarian, practical, scientific, technical education will never be as truly useful as the so-called “useless” things Mr. Gradgrind banished from his school.

About Dr. Mitchell Kalpakgian

The son of Armenian immigrants, Dr. Kalpakgian has taught at Simpson College, Christendom College and Wyoming Catholic College. He has authored several books and written for many Catholic publications. Meet Dr. Kalpakgian | See his Books
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