The Saving Nature of a Liberal Education

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Reading good books can help save your soul. A liberal education and Christianity share a mutual pursuit of the truth. With the torrential influx of electronic entertainment and the focus on STEM-based disciplines, people today are reading books less than ever before. This is one of the great crises of our time. The National Endowment for the Arts annual survey found that only 43 percent of U.S. adults read literature. Probably even fewer are reading the great books, yet the need in our culture for what books provide a person is greater than ever before. Reading books offers pleasure, utility, truth, and salvation.

I’ve always loved reading for the pleasure of it. I’ve always proudly worn the title of “bookworm,” but I only wanted to read because it was fun. As I read voraciously, I learned voraciously, but this was an accidental by-product. I didn’t realize how much I was learning about the human condition. I just liked books and I liked the stories; I found them immensely pleasurable. The stories and characters were thrilling; adventure, mystery, fairytales, and fantasy were the drugs I couldn’t get enough of. It didn’t occur to me to read something that would help me get a job, or discover the truth of my humanity, or even find eternal salvation, despite the religious component of my education; I just liked reading for fun. I never had a single doubt that I wanted to be an English major in college.

My decision to major in English was hardly a noble pursuit; I only wanted to bask in the pleasure of books. I never considered that there was so much more to books than enjoyment. I waved off the questions of “What are you going to do with that major?” not because I stood proudly in defense of the liberal arts, but because I pridefully didn’t care.

I remember the first day of my first college English class; I was overcome by my professor’s explanation of why we should read the Iliad—how it has been the cornerstone of education for more years than we can count. I wasn’t a deep thinker at the time and “pleasure” was a good enough answer to why we should read. Because it’s just awesome, that’s why.

 

Since that class, my understanding of the awesomeness of reading has evolved. I still maintain that enjoyment can be a worthy end in itself, but it has been replaced by a goal of paramount importance—truth. Books should be read to discover truth.

The subject of truth does not always enter into a contemporary discussion of education, especially not higher education. Generally, people today see college as utilitarian; universities’ success rates are measured not by the number of epiphanies their students experience while matriculated, but by the numbers employed after graduation. College is seen as only a training ground for a job, which leads many to ask the liberal arts major, “What are you going to do with that?” The lack of a clear career path, except perhaps (non-lucrative) teaching, causes the idea of a liberal education in the modern world to be scrutinized and scoffed at as useless or even stupid.

There are many worthy rebuttals to this scrutiny—which is usually condescending criticism, and not a careful inquiry—including that liberal education serves a higher purpose than simple job utility. Many, like writer B.D. McClay, explain that a liberal education is one “that’s meant to free students in some higher sense.” A dictionary definition will explain that the liberal arts focus on general knowledge and providing general intellectual capabilities instead of professional or vocational skills. Michael Lind, in “Why the Liberal Arts Still Matter,” gives a concise history of liberal education, explaining how the realm of liberal education was the realm of the elite—people who were free to study generally because of their social class and wealth, and duty bound to do so because of their voting responsibilities. The original purpose of higher education, which was always a liberal education, was to produce “well-rounded, versatile civic leaders who shared a common cultural tradition.” Whether a liberal education confers freedom, intellectual ability, conscientious citizenship, or all of the above, a liberal education is undeniably a good, if one looks at the benefits it will grant and not those it won’t.

However, the argument that contemporary college students should veer away from the liberal arts in fear of suffering unemployment or homelessness is greatly exaggerated. In a nationally televised interview in February of 2017, Mark Cuban, the millionaire investor, Dallas Mavericks owner, and Shark Tank host, encouraged more people to major in the liberal arts. He explained that the nature of the workforce is changing due to the advance of technology; with automation, soon there will be little for people with technical degrees to do that a computer can’t do better and more easily. Cuban said, “I personally think there’s going to be a greater demand in 10 years for liberal arts majors than there was for programming majors and maybe even engineering, because when the data is all being spit out for you, the options are being spit out for you, you need a different perspective in order to have a different view of the data … someone who is more of a freer thinker.” Studying the liberal arts may in fact provide more job security than technical prowess as we move further and further toward an automated workforce.

George Anders points out that technology companies are already realizing their need for more liberal arts people than STEM-focused people. In an article titled “That ‘Useless’ Liberal Arts Degree Has Become Tech’s Hottest Ticket,” published in Forbes Magazine, Anders details several successful technology companies in Silicon Valley and their hiring practices. One company, OpenTable, employs 14 people to run all its technological aspects, and 137 people who have no technical expertise. Anders explains how this group, led by an English major, possesses communication skills, people skills, and a creative mindset that the data scientists do not. There is job utility in the skills a liberal arts education provides, and that utility is increasing as more employers recognize that “creativity can’t be programmed.”

The Personal and Social Utility of Reading
There is a personal and social utility to being well-read aside from the one pertaining to the workforce. An engaged reader achieves emotional maturity and understanding of the world far more quickly and effectively than a person who does not read or reads little. Every experience of reading is experience—an experience of how humanity has acted and how humans tend to react, which prepares a person for encountering the challenges of the world. D. H. Lawrence wrote to Arthur McLeod, “One sheds one’s sickness in books, repeats and presents again one’s emotions to be master of them.” Catharsis, a sort of emotional cleansing, has always been the domain of art; in an age where our young people are medicated for emotional well-being more than ever, and crying out for safe spaces, they should turn to books for emotional health—books that teach the experience of humanity—such as novels, plays, tragedies, poems, histories, philosophies, and psychologies. Reading any subject within the liberal arts teaches one about the human condition and how a person fits into human society. A captivating novel doesn’t just provide an entertaining thrill but provides a panorama of human experience and emotion. Books provide emotional utility and preparedness to participate in human society.

Scientific studies prove that reading, especially reading literary fiction, promotes empathy and social ability. A 2013 study found that “literary fiction improves a reader’s capacity to understand what others are thinking and feeling” and that “reading fiction is a valuable socializing influence.” A study published in 2005 by five psychologists in the Journal of Research in Personality concluded that “comprehending characters in a narrative fiction appears to parallel the comprehension of peers in the actual world… Frequent fiction readers may thus bolster or maintain their social abilities.” A Reader’s Digest article, titled “Can Reading Fiction Actually Make You a Better Person?,” declares that “reading fiction literally makes you more empathetic in real life.” There are numerous examples of the emotional and social benefits readers possess. Reading does not turn a person into a socially awkward, timid hermit as one stereotype would have us believe, but instead creates a person who is insightful, empathic, and socially aware.

Read Socrates and Plato to realize that humanity has been asking the question of what it means to be human since we were human. Read about Paris and Helen to experience how far men will go in service of love or the anger of betrayal, or about Achilles to see the danger of pride. Read Jane Eyre to see that even in the midst of true love, even when it will ruin your life, you can make the right choice, endure misery, and then find happiness again. Read of the mistakes people have made throughout history that led to wars and suffering, and of the noble actions we are capable of doing to right wrongs. Read T.S. Eliot to see what’s horribly wrong in modern culture, and C.S. Lewis to see that there’s still beauty and hope. To read, whether it be fiction or nonfiction, is to experience the truth of humanity.

Books are able to teach this experience because great books provide truth. How can the liberal arts claim the pursuit of truth against the more fact-based disciplines of mathematics, science, medicine, engineering, and technology? Because the truths of the liberal arts are not so concrete or easily divined as the truth of what a sum equals or how a cell divides. The truths of the liberal arts ask and answer the questions regarding who we are as humans—not just where do we come from, but why? How do we relate to each other? How can we understand and cope with the presence of such things as unutterable suffering and unutterable joy in our lives? In a world racked by relativism, doubt, scandal, and the idol of instant gratification, where is the place for the pursuit of truth for its own sake? We are in sore need of the freedom, comfort, and contentedness that truth brings—the truths of who we are, how we should treat each other, and what it means to be alive.

The freedom that many claim as a defense of the liberal arts, is, I believe, a byproduct of the experience of truth. The experience of who we are as humans, what we want, how we feel, how we can rise above great difficulty to meet what seems like the most insurmountable challenges, and how we can cope with the truth that amidst all our greatness there is also great evil, weakness, and danger—these are the experiences that make us understand and embrace our powers of free will, forgiveness, and perseverance. These are the experiences that are found by reading about our history and our art.

As we pursue truth by reading of humanity, we are necessarily led to ask the larger questions about the purpose of life. McClay, in her defense of the liberal arts, explains how the answers to these questions are far more valuable than material success: “Sooner or later, people take stock of life and wonder what it is for—and we ought to prepare them to answer. No matter how successful we become, none of us gets to escape this question, any more than we can escape the questions of how to live, or how to understand the world, or of how to organize our society. The person with the successful job and the nice home will still, one day, be called to make an account of himself.” A liberal arts education can provide the answer to these questions; they are the study of the truth of what it means to be human.

Liberal Arts and the Pursuit of Truth
The pursuit of truth belongs to the humanities. It belongs even more particularly to the Christian way of life—Jesus is the Truth, the Way, and the Life. Truth is of paramount importance to every Christian pursuing his or her faith, and the Catechism of the Catholic Church explains that “God is the source of all truth. His Word is truth. His Law is truth. His ‘faithfulness endures to all generations.’ Since God is ‘true,’ the members of his people are called to live in the truth” (2465). It is the vocation of all who follow Christ to live in, for, and of the truth.

Thus, the liberal arts and Christianity share a mutual pursuit of the truth, and one study can lead to the other. McClay explains, “A serious liberal education frees the pupil and forms the soul, and encourages the pursuit of the truth as an end in itself.” My own understanding of humanity and the human need for salvation is based more on all of my experience gained from reading about people and their emotions, downfalls, reactions, courage, and tenaciousness throughout history than on the facts laid out in a catechism class. Reading of humanity leads one first to the truth that salvation is needed, and also to the questions and answers of how to achieve salvation. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains art as a beautiful experience of truth: “Arising from talent given by the Creator and from man’s own effort, art is a form of practical wisdom, uniting knowledge and skill, to give form to the truth of reality in a language accessible to sight or hearing” (2501). Art (in this case, books) provides humanity with insight into its own reality; this reality necessarily and intrinsically contains the need for salvation and the pursuit of the ultimate truth—God.

The Christian mind is perhaps better suited to a liberal education since it already seeks truth; a liberal education leads to a Christian mind since it seeks the truth of what it means to be human. A Christian education is a liberal education. The decline of Christian principles and the decline of the popularity of the liberal arts go hand in hand. Christianity and the great books share the goals of freedom, understanding the human condition, and, ultimately, truth.

The truth is that a liberal education is far more useful than those who sneeze at it understand. It does have utility—professionally and personally. In this current climate which emphasizes getting in touch with your emotions, there is no better, more truth-filled, or more saving way to do so than to read. And it’s fun.

Ashley G. Miller

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Ashley G. Miller earned a Master of Arts degree in English Literature from the University of Dallas, and after years of teaching English in Catholic high schools, is now an editor and freelance writer.

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