“The Mystery of the Liberal Arts”

9e36b-boyerEarlier this week I gave a short talk to the members of the Messiah College Admissions staff during their Fall retreat.  I spoke about the value of history and the humanities and hopefully gave them something to think about as they head off to college fairs around the country.

I introduced the group to this blog and our “So What CAN You Do With a History Major?” series.  I hope that some of them will come back and read a few things here.

If they do come back, I hope they find a post at The Anxious Bench blog written by my friend David Swartz, a history professor at Asbury University in Wilmore, Kentucky.  It stems from a talk he gave to first-year students about the importance of the liberal arts.  It is great.

Here is a taste:

A few years ago as an incoming student at a college very much like this one, I sat in an auditorium during orientation like you are right now and contemplated my future. On one level, I was engrossed with the immediate future, the future driven by my stomach, hormones, and nerves. But I also thought long-term. As I recall, my goals clustered around two concerns. One had to do with practicality. I wanted training for a career, one that would pay off my student loans and one that would provide for a comfortable living. The other had to do with answers. I wanted to be able to defend my beliefs and pin down my opponents. I wanted to know the correct interpretation of classical and biblical texts, the right answer to the calculus problem, the precisetreatment we should offer to someone suffering from an ailment.

To be sure, there is great virtue in precise medical treatments and in financial solvency. But I wish I had wished for more. And my wish for you, during your college orientation, is that you can expand the notion of education beyond the calibrated metrics and language of input, output, and quality control that characterized my own conception. For the next few minutes, I want to speak to you about the role of mystery as you pursue a life of inquiry here.

There is considerable pressure on you to follow a safe narrative, to view college and your major only as job preparation. You may feel this pressure from yourself, your parents, from society to live predictable lives in which you follow a script of moving along from kindergarten to high school to college syllabi to a job to a retirement of shuffleboard and early-bird specials in Florida.

But it’s possible to be too practical, to train for a job that might not exist in a decade. One of the strongest defenses of the liberal arts is that it teaches you to think, write, and have imagination. This prepares you for many kinds of jobs. But beyond this practical critique of practicality, I imagine that we should be open to the possibility of sources of inspiration beyond spreadsheets, sources like tradition, morality, passion, and mystery.

Read the entire piece here.