The Mission of the Liberal Arts in a Fallen World

We are all involved in the world of education, but we seldom stop to wonder just what we think we are doing. Our civilization engages children in formal education when they are just three or four or five years old, and continues to engage the majority of their time until they are in their early twenties. Sometimes longer. Here at the University of Mary, we “finish” them for life and work. Then, with great fanfare, they graduate, and stride off into the world and into the workplace.

What is it that we do for the students who spend several years in our midst?

Some parts of our work are easy to understand. We teach them skills—physical therapy, nursing, accounting, management. We help them master a body of knowledge–organic chemistry, calculus, anatomy. We certify that they have the discipline to show up every day and perform the tasks we have set for them. We fit them with “lenses” with which to observe civilization—economics, philosophy, political theory, Catholic studies, literature. We make sure that they have a working acquaintance with subjects other than their principal occupational or intellectual pursuit.

Just how much learning students do largely on their own, under our supervision, and how much we actually teach them is an interesting question. In every educational institution, there is a balance between self-help and instruction. As the twenty-first century unfolds, I believe we will increasingly become “learning coaches” rather than teachers in the old “sage on the stage” sense that existed before the coming of the Internet revolution.

But what is our larger purpose? Why does our civilization devote about a fifth of our lives to formal education? A horse or a pronghorn antelope struggles up a few minutes after it is born and begins to behave, well, like a horse or a pronghorn antelope. Undoubtedly its mother “teaches” it how to be an adult—how to graze, flee from danger, settle disputes, find water. By the end of its first year it is more or less fully formed for life. We humans spend a very long time getting our young ready for the world. What are we about?

St. Augustine said that he would consider himself fully educated when he could read anything he wanted to read, write anything he wanted to communicate, and understand any concept he wanted to understand. If we had a way of measuring the skills of the 3.7 million students who graduate from American colleges and universities each year, how many would pass the Augustine test?

I speak only for myself, but by Augustine’s standards I would have to conclude that I am only marginally educated. A few years ago I read five or ten books on Quantum Mechanics hoping to understand the life and achievement of J. Robert Oppenheimer. But after all that work I could only say a few mostly muddled things about the Quantum universe. I took some solace from the great theorist Niels Bohr, who said, “If you think you understand Quantum theory, then you don’t.” I can’t pretend to understand advanced calculus, and there are times when I stumble around as I try to calculate percentages or determine how much to tip. No week goes by when I don’t feel the frustration of knowing what I want to communicate, but not being able to formulate the language that adequately expresses my thoughts. This is one of the greatest frustrations of my life.

Some days I make lists of things I don’t know (and believe I should know). This can make for a very long day.

It’s one thing for an institution of higher learning to help form a good accountant or a competent physicist. In that enterprise, we have ways of measuring our success. Our graduates either can or cannot pass their boards, apply successfully to graduate schools, or find employment. But we all know, especially at a place like the University of Mary, that higher education is not just about workforce training. We are also helping to form adult North Dakotans, good citizens of the United States, citizens and workers who live in a global community, and—most mysterious and elusive of all—complete human beings.

From a Christian perspective we are never complete. We are on a journey that never ends, because our fallenness never ceases to have the capacity to trip us up or divert us from our goal. Nevertheless, if we are brought up well, at the hands of our families, our faith communities, and our educational mentors, we can expect to lead lives of productivity, integrity, and satisfaction. The challenge for educators at a liberal arts college is to design a path—a curriculum—that makes it possible for every student to move forward towards becoming a complete human being, without predetermining what that means, exactly, and without assuming that the same program works equally well for all young people. The problem with the liberal arts is that they don’t lend themselves very well to easy “metrics” of success or failure. It’s easier to teach statistics than the art of living well. I can tell you how many times per million you are likely to deal out four aces in a game of poker, but nobody can tell you certainly what makes for a complete and satisfying life, or even a mature outlook.

It’s possible to make a few stabs at the definition of a well-educated human being. A graduate of the University of Mary should know where North Dakota is in the geography of the world, how it came to be this state and not (say) Massachusetts or Michigan. A graduate should know how the United States was born, from what antecedents, and for what national purposes, and to what extent we continue to resonate with the founding principles of our Constitution. A graduate should have some understanding of the stream of western culture that extends back to ancient Israel and Greece, that passed through the formulations of the Roman republic and the Roman empire, that absorbed, promulgated, and was shaped by Christianity, and then negotiated with science, nationalism, and capitalism to create the modern world. A graduate should be aware that western civilization is not the only way of organizing culture, that other compelling systems exist, and that it is in our interest, both as citizens of the world and seekers after wisdom, to be familiar with the larger context in which our civilization is situated. A graduate should be aware that the world speaks hundreds of languages, many radically different from our own, and that while our branch (English) is dominant in the world of power, science, transportation, and commerce, it is in our interest to have a serious familiarity with other languages. A graduate should have some grasp of the ways science and technology shape culture, and create both opportunities and complications in our lives. A graduate should be aware that one of the key problems of civilization is how it distributes the fruits of life (money, and material possessions), and that no single economic system has been able to formulate a completely satisfying program. A graduate should be reasonably familiar with the major religious systems of the world (Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity) and with some of the lesser ones. A graduate should have some understanding of global ecology, the interconnectedness of species, the ways in which human economic and technological striving affect the larger environment. A graduate should have read a few dozen of the greatest books in the world, have wrestled with their meaning, have struggled with the challenges they put to our ways of understanding, have incorporated some of that body of literature into a preliminary understanding of the human condition.

I’m just getting started here. And I’m exhausted just trying to formulate these educational desirables, and pretty certain that I am the least well-educated person among the educated people I have met. There is so much to know, so little time to know it, so many distractions at every level of life, and (with me) so weak an engine trying to make sense of it all.

Nobody can achieve all of this in four or even forty years, but I believe these are the benchmarks of the well-educated person and the complete human being. It is easy to turn away from so daunting a program, because it can inspire a kind of intellectual despair. It is tempting to shrug off this dream of education as sheer impossibility. I know I can change tires or sell cars or change bandages or file an insurance claim, but it is not at all clear that I can “place” myself or my culture in the broad stream of western civilization. I can readHamlet, but it would take a lifetime to understand it in all of its complexities. The same is true of all great art.

But it is our duty to try, if we truly wish to call ourselves a liberal arts college, if we wish to take seriously our mission as a Catholic university, if we mean to justify all the time and cost and infrastructure that it requires to open our doors to the young people of North Dakota and America with the promise that we will turn them loose better prepared for the business and the crises of life than when they appeared, eager and frightened in equal measure, in some impossibly beautiful August on the northern Great Plains.

If we are serious about what we are doing, then we have to be deeply, unapologetically serious about it, because nothing less will create the civilization we all know we want to inhabit.


Clay was asked to write this for a publication of the University of Mary, a Catholic liberal arts college in Bismarck, North Dakota. Clay serves as a consultant to Monsignor James Shea, the president of UMary, and he teaches a capstone course at the UMary Rome campus twice a year.