Today I met with a group of prospective students who are interested in studying history at Messiah College. Whenever I do these presentations, especially in these economic times, I need to remind students and their parents that an investment in a liberal arts education is “worth it.”
I am glad that people like John Macais, a philosophy professor at St. Gregory’s University of Shawnee, Oklahoma, have my back. Macais does not make an economic argument for a liberal arts education (i.e., you can get a job with this degree). Instead, he makes the case that a liberal arts education is “worth it” because it can make you a more virtuous person. This is an argument that should have a special appeal to students interested in pursuing study at a church-related school.
Here is a taste of his recent piece “Why a Liberal Arts Degree is Worth It” at Aleteia:
But the liberal arts in fact have plenty to offer us — in this Jubilee Year, I would like to suggest that Liberal Arts are an important tool precisely for cultivating the virtue of mercy.
How so? Well, mercy, as Aquinas explains, is the virtue whereby we are able to recognize another’s pain and feel it as our own. He calls it a “heartfelt sympathy for another’s distress, impelling us to succor him if we can.”
Alasdair MacIntyre, in his book Dependent Rational Animals, echoes Aquinas in explaining that “to understand another’s distress as our own is to recognize that other as neighbor.” [Emphasis mine] So if I am a merciful man, then I see each individual as my neighbor, deserving of sympathy when suffering, regardless of his relationship to me. This is precisely the lesson of the Good Samaritan of the Gospel.
Being an English major or a music major can contribute mightily to these facets of mercy as explained by Aquinas and MacIntyre. How? Well, the liberal arts are those branches of study and research ordered, not to some practical end, e.g. healing a broken bone or building computers, but to the attainment of truth for its own sake. These studies are, quite strictly, “pointless.” They seek to discover the truth about reality simply to know it, because knowing the truth is what – beyond the balanced ledgers and the innovative codes written for our technologies — we are ultimately made for.
In the liberal arts, a central question concerns the nature of the human person. What is a human being, what are its powers, and what separates human persons from animals and plants? Philosophy and theology take a more universal scope, while literature, poetry, and the arts seek to concretize these systematic views of the human person. These arts, when correctly pursued, allow us to recognize the common nature that each and every human being possesses. Regardless of race, sex, religion, or economic status, all human beings seek after the same ultimate good.
Therefore, liberal arts help us recognize our shared humanity. They help us to understand who we are as persons, and to detect the things that cause our nature distress. They help us to take it a step further, not merely recognizing the suffering of others, but also understanding that the suffering person in fact has a relationship to us, regardless of who he is. The arts burnish empathy, which in turn drives action to improve our lives and the lives of those around us.
Read the entire piece here.