Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Why Choose the Liberal Arts?

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Why Choose the Liberal Arts?

Article excerpt

Why Choose the Liberal Arts? 'By Mark William Roche. (Notre Dame, Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010, Pp. x, 198. $20.00, paper.)

A traditional liberal arts education has always been a difficult sell in America. The nation's experiment with mass post-secondary education has sent higher percentages of the general populace to college or university since World War II but often with a narrowly vocational focus. More recently, skyrocketing tuition costs at private liberal arts colleges and the scarcity of job openings for liberal arts graduates have served to convince many parents that an expensive undergraduate degree in, say, art history, might not be a prudent path for their children. Given these sobering realities, Mark William Roche's Why Choose the Liberal Arts? pro vides perceptive insights that can inform the thinking of both parent and prospective student alike.

Roche, former dean of Arts and Letters at Notre Dame, organizes the answer to his book's title under three headings. First, he explores the intrinsic value of a liberal arts education (i.e., learning for its own sake). Second, he examines the practical skills and habits that the liberal arts can equip one with and which are invaluable in certain lines of work. Third, he addresses how studying the liberal arts can cultivate character and clarify one's "higher purpose or calling" (10). Undergraduates bring with them to college many fundamental questions regarding the nature of reality and the meaning of life. A liberal arts curriculum can help them pursue such questions in a thoughtful and systematic way. Moreover, it can also suggest a host of new questions that will complicate their assumptions in constructive ways. Here, Roche argues that many today unwisely "elevate an instrumental form of thinking, a means-end rationality, in ways that tend to obscure what is of intrinsic value" (25). By contrast, a liberal arts college can promote thinking as its own good, or as he explains: "Making money is both necessary and useful, but it is merely useful, undertaken for the sake of something else, whereas the joy of contemplation is an end in itself, an activity pursued for its own sake" (35).

All of which is not to argue that a liberal arts education has no practical utility in today's economy. This sort of traditional curriculum can train students to think critically and to write clearly, two skills that are always in demand. …

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