When I was a college student in the ’60s, folks often asked me “What is your major?” College students are often asked that question, mainly because a college education costs oodles of money. For that reason, students want to know how they can find a good paying job with their college degree.
However, I am unconvinced that one’s major matters that much. I was a philosophy major at a small Franciscan college, St. Hyacinth, that went out of business years ago. After I graduated from college, no one ever asked me what my major was. As Jacob Neusner observed in his book, “How to Grade Your Professors,” “What you study matters less than what happens to you because of what you study.”
In advising students in the past, I told them to pick as their major whatever discipline they liked. After all, one can develop intellectually in every subject that one decides to study, regardless of whether it was physics, business administration or English literature. Courses in the liberal arts are unstructured, that is, they usually consist of what the professors in a particular department want to teach that semester. However, it’s a horse of a different color in STEM courses. Imagine taking a calculus course, if one has never taken algebra.
I am a strong proponent of the liberal arts. Why so? They offer students the opportunity to acquire the skills and competencies needed to live well in the 21st century. The liberal arts support human flourishing in a democracy by offering students a spectrum of courses — arts, literature, foreign languages, music, philosophy, religious studies, theater — together with the social sciences like sociology, plus the hard sciences, like chemistry and physics. Students get a well-grounded education that serves them well throughout their lifetime.
Those who study the liberal arts take a wide view of the world and are able to see both the forest and the trees. By studying a large number of disparate disciplines, liberal arts students become sure of themselves and, as well-informed citizens, are capable of speaking truth to power and do not back down from questioning authority and the status quo. Because liberal arts students have studied a wide range of disciplines, they are self-confident at a cocktail party and other places. They are also able to adapt to different situations and to a changing workplace. How so?
The skills they learn — problem solving, critical thinking, oral and written communication — are transferable to many situations, making them valuable employees. It seems that in a time of swift technological change one needs something more than STEM skills. Many corporations like Yahoo, Oracle, Space X, NASA and Cisco Systems have their employees work in teams where both technical skills and excellent interpersonal skills are absolutely necessary.
Some years ago, the writer James Michener pointed out that major firms are revamping their hiring practices. They have found through experience that managers with only a M.B.A or M.S. degree provide “wooden leadership.” Instead, they are now looking for liberal arts students who can react correctly and properly to the rapid changes that occur in a technological world. Paradoxically, a liberal arts education does not prepare students for a specific job. Rather, it prepares them for “everything,” that is, many types of jobs.
Michener notes that persons trained in the liberal arts have made the decisions that govern the world. How so? Most liberal arts majors possess critical thinking skills, are trained to weigh evidence and are conversant “with the great sweep of history.” Such students come to terms with new ideas and have weighed and addressed moral values. These are some of the values on which great societies and empires are built.
The liberal arts date back to the time of the Greeks (Plato, Aristotle, Socrates) and Persians. In studying the liberal arts (such as history, language, religion, music) a mental habit takes shape that lasts a lifetime. A liberal education involves the cultivation of one’s intellect. In his book, “The Idea of a University,” John Henry Newman notes that the perfection of one’s intellect resulting from a liberal education has almost a supernatural quality to it because of its freedom from small mindedness and prejudice of every kind. Just as we go to the gym today to improve our health, so too, do we need to exercise or cultivate our intellects by taking courses in the liberal arts.
I shall now share with you how the liberal arts have shaped my life. First, I have taught religion/religious studies for 40 years. The academic study of religion and theology have given me the ability to teach my students critical thinking skills that are invaluable in dealing with complex problems, such as the ethical issues involved in the use of recombinant DNA or the whole question about abortion. A study of philosophy and religion gives students a tolerance for ambiguity in dealing with complex problems for which there may not be one final answer.
Second, by studying religion, my students learn how to clearly, precisely and accurately communicate their thoughts to others, both verbally and in writing with “style.” In this connection I understand “style” to be a thinking out into language. A person’s style follows them around like a shadow. In his book, J. H. Newman calls style the “fire within a person’s heart that overflows in the torrent of one burning eloquence.”
Next, the liberal arts help students form sound judgment — an intellectual power much needed in life. There is no recipe for teaching good judgment. Newman reminds us that good judgment lives by discrimination and comparison. It comes about by reading widely and observation. Judgment gives strength in every discipline a person chooses to study. It enables a person to seize the strong points in an argument and corresponds with our best idea of a cultivated intellect. Newman writes that “the elements of general reason cannot be found in any one type of study.” Rather, those “who would know her idiom must read it in many books.”
And lastly, the liberal arts have helped me get the most out of life since they enrich my spirit. In sum, a liberal education makes my mind a pleasant place to spend my leisure. The thinking of those who study the liberal arts may be called “joyful play.” Their minds do not squeak as they run along the path of life.
Richard Penaskovic is an emeritus professor at Auburn University, who taught religious studies for 30 years.