The Importance of Liberal Arts Education, and the Darkness of Our Times

This column was written by Dr. Chris Campolo, a philosophy professor at Hendrix

Many people, from across great political, social, religious, and cultural divides, seem to think that we live in dark times. Descriptions of the darkness vary greatly. But from almost every direction there come expressions of dismay about the darkness. That’s interesting, and there’s a lot to explore in it.  I want to focus on this question: What is the relationship between the darkness of the times and liberal arts education?

An answer I’m not going to entertain, because I believe it is false, would go like this: liberal arts education should help against the darkness.   

The liberal arts cannot be used as a tool to fight the darkness because liberal arts cannot be used as a tool at all—unless we’re talking about a very corrupted version of liberal arts and a very crude and clumsy tool. Any time someone wants to put liberal arts education to work—in any way—they are deeply sunk in misunderstanding. Or they are engaged in mischief.

Liberal arts education, any version worthy of the name, has no purpose. It is something we do, like staring at the sea, or talking to a friend, or listening to music. If someone tells me that they listen to music, or study chess, or hand-feed wild birds, for a purpose, I doubt that I can trust them about anything. It may be true that learning the names of constellations, strolling downtown, and kayaking on a river have “payoffs.” Maybe they create in us certain feelings that we enjoy. Maybe they help us deal with stress. Maybe they make us interesting, “well-rounded” job candidates. But to call those gains the goals of those activities is to completely distort them. The same is true of liberal arts education.

Some things we just do, and any attempt to justify them in terms of their outcomes is already a sign of corrosion and corruption. That this is hard to understand, that it is hard to accept, is indeed a sign of the darkness of our times.

We can understand the temptation to sell the liberal arts as a productive product. We want to keep the lights on, the classrooms full, the grounds flowering, the paychecks coming. But giving in to that temptation, as almost everyone has, shows a complete lack of faith in the activity. It’s a sign that we have utterly lost our confidence. It’s a sign that we are lost. And every resulting attempt to “demonstrate” that we are not “wasting” our time or resources leads us to distort the very activity.  

What else shall we harness to a productive purpose: planting flowers? attending church? learning about calligraphy? A culture that regards every activity that doesn’t yield “practical payoffs” as a waste of time has lost its vitality, has lost its understanding of what makes life grander than survival.  Truly, it is wasting its time.

Don’t get me wrong. Survival is a prerequisite. But many things that are of vital importance have nothing to do with it. And genuine liberal arts education is among them.

I am not expressing nostalgia for a purer time. There have always been those who seek, in everything, some palpable advantage. But our time is not one that merely contains those mercenary voices; it is one that has surrendered unconditionally to them.

“OK, then, what are they really for?” Well. What’s wandering through a cemetery really for? What’s playing with a dog really for? What’s smoking a pipe on an autumn day really for? What’s talking about your favorite movie really for? If you think I’m headed that way, you don’t see that the question is part of the problem I’m describing.  

We don’t do these things for anything. We do them. They are part of who we are, and they connect us to those from whom we inherit them. They make us human. They make us us.  

“Shouldn’t we fight for justice?” “Shouldn’t we feed the hungry?” “Shouldn’t we find ways to help the suffering?” “Shouldn’t we get ourselves in the habit of treating everyone, and everything, better?”  Obviously we should. Of course we should. But liberal arts education, real liberal arts education, is not about those things. Yes, yes, it is possible that we can bend liberal arts education in those directions. But not with great effect. And not without distorting, and quickly losing, the nature of the endeavor—and important parts of ourselves.

“Maybe such a useless endeavor is an indefensible indulgence, and we should stop doing it.”

If you say so. To me, that assertion is among the most telling manifestations of the darkness of our times.  

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