Why study the liberal arts? - a myroad journal

An Essay By Ben // 2/19/2003

Sometimes I feel like a person holding a lantern behind his back in the dark. Anyone who follows has light to guide his way, but he who holds the light has little to see by. In my experience I find that I will say or do something that simply seems right to me, something that inspires others, but only later on will I begin to understand its full significance.

For instance, if you were to ask me why I sit here in my little dorm room studying the liberal arts I would give you a weak argument. I might say, "I think this is something I should do, something worthwhile." And, if you were to ask, "why?" I would never feel satisfied with my answer. Actually, this is part of the reason I came here to Thomas More College: to learn why the liberal arts are important.

My answer begins with a question: what do we live for and most want? The answer is: happiness. What is happiness? Where do we attain it? Somehow we must find it and learn to hold on to it forever. But, this seems impossible since one day we will die. And, when we look at the stars we are in awe at our tiny, mortal insignificance. We are left asking, "how?... why?... where?..." with the sense that we may never know the answers.

The foundation of learning stands upon this questioning and desire, this experience of awe. The liberal arts seem to begin and return here time and time again. Remaining faithful to these basic uncertainties, the liberal arts remain faithful to their purpose: uncovering objective truth, locating inherent worth.

Some people say that life itself is education enough. They are like Chaucer’s Wife of Bath, who claims, "Experience – and no matter what they say / in books – is good enough authority / for me." I agree entirely, and I list memory, history, and books as part of experience. For even the Wife of Bath quotes history and books. The fact is that we live in a world full of people and ideas. Tradition stemming from ancient Greece, Israel, and Mesopotamia shapes our Western culture today. Our life comes all wound up in history and books. And we – the reasoning and intuitive creatures that we are – may unite our powers with men and women of every race, age, and religion through a liberal arts education. We may read books that have survived by merit or luck through the ages; we gain a mountaintop view of life. And, when we return to our personal experiences we have a new-found touch that reveals the order and value nestling within them.

I see this much in the dim light of the lantern, and I realize that I do have an answer for why I choose to study the liberal arts, even if I don't fully understand my own answer. Perhaps this is a sign that someday soon the lantern will illuminate my face and the world set out before my eyes.


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