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Thursday, August 22, 2013

"Why do I Have to Study Anything Outside of my Major?": An Explanation for Undergraduates

At the liberal arts school where I teach, students are required to take courses in the fine arts, mathematics, philosophy, English literature, natural sciences, social sciences, and of course, theology.  These courses are in addition to the classes they need to take to fulfill the requirements for the degree in their major.  A frequent complaint I've heard from undergraduate students has to do with the number of classes they have to take outside of their major.  I want in this brief post to address this complaint, and hopefully shed some light for my undergraduates on the meaning and purpose of a liberal arts education.  As I mentioned in a previous post, very little of this is original to me, but the subject is one about which I'm passionate.

"Why do I have to study anything outside of my major?"  At the heart of this question is an understanding of the purpose of higher education and indeed of the meaning of life that I question.  Some, perhaps most, students appear to understand the chief purpose of a university education to be the attainment of a job.  Please understand that I'm not at all opposed to the hope students have that they will attain gainful employment after university.  I understand that people need to make a living, and I understand that a university education should assist them in this goal.

What I oppose, rather, is that this is the primary purpose of a university education.  To suggest that one should only have to take classes in one's major is to posit that university is solely a training facility for employment, as if employment is the highest aim a human being can have for one's self.  Moreover, this attitude manifests an understanding of education as a burden, as something that one must endure only for the sake of getting a high-paying job at the end.

But a liberal arts education should be viewed as a tremendous opportunity for vibrant intellectual exploration.  When I hear students say that they wished they only had to take courses in their major, I want to say to them that they have the rest of their lives to focus on their careers and to devote their time and energy almost entirely to their careers if they so choose; at university they have the opportunity for diverse and exciting study in fields that has the capability to transform them.

See, I firmly believe that education's ultimate purpose is to transform.  A university, as the name suggests, is to be a seat of universal learning at which students cannot (or should not) limit their exposure to only one discipline, but are rather exposed to the tremendous diversity of academic disciplines and ways of thinking and are transformed in the process.  Blessed John Henry Newman, who wrote the definitive work on the meaning and purpose of a liberal arts education in The Idea of A University, describes in an admittedly idealistic tone the way in which students can be transformed through studying the liberal arts (note: Newman uses, as was the norm in his 19th century context, exclusively male pronouns):
"This I conceive to be the advantage of a seat of  universal learning, considered as a place of education.  An assemblage of learned [people], zealous for their own sciences, and rivals of each other, are brought, by familiar intercourse and for the sake of intellectual peace, to adjust together the claims and relations of their respective subjects of investigation.  They learn to respect, to consult, to aid each other.  Thus is created a pure and clear atmosphere of thought, which the student also breathes, though in his own case he only pursues a few sciences out of the multitude.  He profits by an intellectual tradition, which is independent of particular teachers, which guides him in his choice of subjects, and duly interprets for him those which he chooses.  He apprehends the great outlines of knowledge, the principles on which it rests, the scale of its parts, its lights and its shades, its great points and its little, as he otherwise cannot apprehend them.  Hence it is that his education is called "Liberal."  A habit of mind is formed which lasts though life, of which the attributes are, freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom" (76, emphasis mine).
Behind Newman's virtues associated with the habit of mind he describes is the cultivation of critical thought and humility.  Exposure to a wide array of disciplines and ways of thinking within an atmosphere of respectful dialogue can (or should) develop the ability to dialogue, an ability that can take place when one has the humility truly to listen to the other and the humility to recognize that one's own purchase on truth is necessarily incomplete.  Such dialogue demands critical thinking and respect for diverse disciplines of learning, and a liberal arts education, in which one studies a diverse range of subjects, is ideally suited for developing such qualities.

The importance of dialogue cannot, it seems to me, be overemphasized.  So much of the political and religious rhetoric I hear and read these days emerges from contexts in which people are absolutely convinced that the other has nothing worthwhile to contribute.  Those who think differently are therefore summarily dismissed, and any meaningful dialogue is made impossible.

In a meeting with Japanese students yesterday morning, Pope Francis highlighted the necessity of dialogue, arguing that we cannot be isolated in ourselves but  must "go in search of other people, other cultures, other ways of thinking, other religions," and in so doing, "we go out of ourselves and start that most beautiful adventure which is called 'dialogue'."  Only through dialogue can there be peace, according to Pope Francis.  True dialogue cannot lead to closure and conflict, "because we talk to each other to find ourselves and not in order to quarrel."  Such dialogue, he states further, necessitates both meekness or humility and the ability to ask intelligent questions (a brief video below shows the Pope making his comments):


The kind of dialogue about which Pope Francis speaks, I would argue, is the fruit of a diverse education that shapes and transforms students to become, not simply cogs in an economic machine, but contributors to the common good.  And this seems to me to be vitally important.

My next post will focus on the importance of studying the discipline of theology, even for those with no religious affiliation.

Picture of John Henry Newman from Wikimedia Commons.

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