College of Liberal Arts and Sciences
Liberal Arts Matters

Thoughts for the Class of 2010

Written by: Dr. Marshall Gregory

You have probably heard the terms "liberal education" and "the liberal arts" bandied about, but you may not have a concrete notion of what these terms mean, except, perhaps, that the liberal arts are a required set of courses not directly connected to your major, and you may have wondered irritably why you should pay good money to take a big chunk of courses not pointed like an arrow at the bull's eye of a future job, preferably a job with high status and a big salary. This brief document explains to you why the value of a liberal arts education can, like a wise financial investment, not only stretch across a lifetime, but increase in value the longer you own it.

Despite the fact that the liberal arts are often defined as a set of courses, the truth is that the liberal arts are not a lot of things you learn about. Instead, the liberal arts are a lot of things that you learn to do: things that you learn to do directly on your own behalf, not because doing them serves someone else's agenda. An "art," after all, is not a parcel or a burden. It's an activity. In the second place, you need to realize that these activities-the liberal arts-are the arts of living a life that you increasingly learn to shape by purpose and design-the way you would write a poem or construct a proof or design an experiment-rather than living a chaotic life dominated by random impulse or living a sterile life dictated by social programming. The arts that a liberal education teaches you to perform are the very arts you have been working to master since you were born:

  • Rationality: the art of practical reasoning, such as figuring out what's likely to happen tomorrow based on what happened today, learning how to read such phenomena as cause-and-effect, coincidence, agency, and learning how to use logic or critical thinking to analyze everyday problems. The more you study reasoning, the more you realize the vast span that it covers from, say, figuring out how to use a simple tool like a hammer all the way up to doing the calculus or recursive functions or scientific hypothesizing.
  • Imagining: the art of holding an image in your head, holding it there indefinitely, constructing a mental picture of something that does not exist in order to criticize or change something that does exist (where do you think the ideas for better mousetraps or better governments come from?), and sometimes stringing a lot of images together to tell a story, a joke, a lie, or to make a private day dream the topic of social conversation.
  • Introspection: the art of thinking about your own thinking. Perhaps this is the only one of the liberal arts that is thoroughly unique to human beings, but whether it is or not, the ability to submit our own thinking to persistent inspection is central to human identity in general.
  • Language: the art of using language is a profoundly indicative marker of human nature, and is surely the basis of humans' ability for abstract thought, metaphor, cooperative activity, and individualized self-expression.
  • Moral and Ethical Deliberation: the art of judging our own and other people's conduct in moral and ethical terms. Only human beings make such judgments, apparently, but all human beings do it, and they do it unceasingly. Deciding who is right or wrong in a disagreement or deciding which actions bring honor or shame, praise or blame, and so on is a human pursuit of ceaseless interest to everyone. From culture to culture the standards of judgment may differ widely, but not the exercise of standards, whatever they may be.
  • Sociability: the art of living with other people in ways that either promote human flourishing or that impoverish and undermine human flourishing. Since we have no choice but to live with other human beings-there is no such thing as a naturally solitary human being-we can never shake off this topic. Sociability is woven into the fabric of human existence. Other people may often pain us or tire us or bore us, but they are always important to us-what we think of them, what they think of us-whether we like it or not.
  • Aesthetic responsiveness: the art of responding to certain forms, sounds, appearances, shapes, colors, uses of language, textures, designs, and so on because we consider them beautiful, and responding in different ways to these same stimuli when we consider them ugly. Like moral and ethical deliberation, aesthetic responsiveness seems to be an activity that only human beings do, but it is an activity that all human beings do, and is the reason you like listening to music, looking at pictures, wearing jewelry, picking clothes that you think are attractive, going to museums, and so on.
  • Physicality: the art of mastering your body. Your education on this front began with learning how to feed yourself, how to walk, and how to go to the toilet without assistance. You're still working on your body as you learn how to exercise, stay healthy, eat right, sleep enough, (or, on all of these fronts, not).

The point is that these are the arts of human excellence. You are born with a great capacity for the potential development of each of these human arts, but all of us begin life with little functionality. Functionality comes slowly. Mastery comes seldom. The corridor to both is practice.

However, it is natural for most people to overestimate the degree of their mastery of the arts of human excellence. In your own case, for example, you have now gained familiarity with all of those forms of functionality that challenged you as a child. You have not only been tying your shoes for about twelve years, but you can now dance and pass a lab science course and do math problems and read easy poems and drive cars and have sex in your dorm rooms. All of these forms of functionality invite you to participate in the universal human tendency to overestimate your mastery of the arts of human excellence, but you probably have the deep intuition, as the old adage puts it, that "you still have a lot to learn." We can all make progress toward mastery, however, even though none of us will ever become full masters of excellence, and making progress is what getting an education is all about.

The methodology of a liberal arts education is to take you through a series of courses, each of which gives you particular forms of practice that are the foundation for progress in all the arts of human excellence. Text-based courses such as literature and history and languages, naturally, give you the kind of practice that helps you strengthen such arts of language as your sensitivity to metaphor, rhetoric, idioms, different levels of style, conventions of usage, and the sound and feel of language used for artistic purposes rather than informational purposes. Lab courses, math courses, and science courses give you the kinds of practice that help you strengthen certain arts of reason, such as computation, calculation, hypothesizing, collecting and evaluating material evidence, and so on. Courses in art history and music appreciation give you practice at strengthening your aesthetic responsiveness to ever more complex and, at first, unfamiliar forms of artistic expression. And so on. All the way through the liberal arts curriculum you will be assigned forms of practice the real purpose of which has less to do with your remembering the content of the discipline forever than with your getting the kind of exercise that will develop your fundamental capacities for human excellence.

Every class is about some discipline or other, and this fact is neither trivial nor false, but it is also neither trivial nor false to say that, most of all, every class is about you. It is about how much progress your study of each discipline forces you to make simply because some good teachers is making you sweat blood in the chemistry lab, or making you sweat blood over the poem, formula, hypothesis, fact, or interpretation. The sweating blood is not about anyone's ambition to turn you into a chemist or a literary specialist or a psychologist or an art historian. It's about your learning how, regardless of the discipline, to get it right. And to get it right-to get right the fact, the formula, the hypothesis, the proof, the poem, or whatever-forces you both to employ and deploy all of your arts of human excellence. If you think back on all of your years of previous education, you will instantly perceive that you have forgotten most of the content you learned. This is not because you have a learning disability; it's because education is about a lot more than what you remember or forget.  It's about how you learn to think, feel, and judge.

Another thing you need to realize is that you are the target of insidious designs on your autonomy, and that you are probably looking in the wrong direction to see the trouble coming. While you are peering anxiously into the future as if the "What Job?" question is the only important question driving your education, the trouble coming at you from both sides is composed of false and confusing messages incessantly being shouted at you by the American marketing machine. The great act, the great deed, that a liberal arts education helps you perform is the act of constructing an entire human life that is socially responsible, intellectually perspicuous, personally enriched, and morally defensible. However, all Americans' lives are saturated in messages constructed by corporate marketers, and the last thing marketers want is for any of us to be authentic and autonomous because, the more autonomous we are, the less they can control how we spend our money.

The scary thing is that corporate marketers are among the most accomplished and successful teachers you will ever encounter. In matters of teaching, many of your college teachers feel like bumbling Neville Longbottoms when they compare themselves to the Lord Voldemorts of corporation marketing, for corporation marketers know the magic spells and enchantments that make their lessons about the heaven of toys and fashion go all the way down. Corporate marketers have actually mastered the magic of restructuring human desire. The words and images that they use on television and movie screens teach all of us not only what products to buy but what kinds of lives to desire.

Another thing you need to realize is that life is always more than a job or a career or a profession. Quite independently of jobs and careers, everyone falls in love, gets love denied or love requited, gets sick and gets well (or not), relates to other people in a wide variety of roles, needs rest, walks on two legs, fails, succeeds, endures accidents, enjoys good luck, suffers from bad luck, feels happy, feels sad, grows old, and dies. Educational talk that forever forces you to focus on the question of what you are going to do with your education is profoundly misleading because it is way too shallow to be truly useful. The deeper question is not what you are going to do but who you are going to become. Every day the choices you make are turning you into some particular version of your potentialities, and your four years in college will be a particularly formative period of self-formation. All those people who have shallowly led you to think that you can form a self merely by preparing for a profession have done you a serious disservice. No matter what career you choose, the single job that every human being has to work at is the job of deciding what kind of person he or she will become. You cannot dodge this issue. Not deciding who you are going to become is, in fact, deciding to let internal impulse or outside pressures form your soul. A liberal arts education is your best resource for learning how to think in holistic terms about who you are and about who you wish to become.

A final thing you need to realize is that the arts of human excellence are your only resources for doing anything at all. Because academic disciplines and jobs in the world vary so much, people often think that these differences mean that everyone needs vastly different kinds of education to prepare for professional life. This is a mistake. Whether you turn out to be a physicist or a stock broker or a computer engineer or a high school history teacher, the only resources you will ever have for performing any of these tasks are your resources of reason, language, sociability, imagination, introspection, moral and ethical deliberation, aesthetic awareness, and physicality. These resources can and will be tweaked by specific job requirements-chemists have to know things that stock brokers don't-but, still, the success with which chemists and stock brokers do their work, and the success with which you will master job requirements of any kind, depends on how well you have strengthened your fundamental resources, the arts of human excellence. For 2500 years society's main strategy for strengthening those arts has been a liberal arts education.

So what's the value of a liberal arts education at Butler? The value of a liberal arts education is no more and no less than the value of your own life and the extent to which that value can be added to, strengthened, and enhanced by your persistent efforts to develop all of the arts that make for human excellence. All of you possess these arts but none of you possesses them completely. Working to develop the arts of human excellence is a lifetime project of discovery, enlightenment, and joy. If you learn how to start working on this project in a serious way here at Butler University because we know how to lead you through a liberal arts education, you will enter post-college life having learned how to learn, how to think, and how to feel and judge with subtlety, propriety, finesse, and power. You will have learned how to liberate yourself from sheer impulse, prejudice, bigotry, and any shallow belief in quick-and-easy answers. You will have learned how to use evidence and make arguments. You will have learned how to communicate clearly and effectively. You will have learned how to argue about issues of justice, fairness, and equity without relying on the clichés of partisans or the platitudes of popular culture. You will have learned how to see beauty in corners of life where you never before suspected that beauty might be hiding. In short, you will have learned how to become a joy to yourself and a solace to others. The liberal arts education you acquire now will be a mainstay of your life forever.

Marshall Gregory
Ice Professor of English, Liberal Education, and Pedagogy