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Pittsburgh Catholic Column: December 7, 2007

Why Catholic universities like the liberal arts

by Dr. Charles J. Dougherty

Large numbers of college-bound students have no clear idea of a future career and no fixed disposition toward a major field of study. They know they need a college education for whatever lies before them. But they do not have a career path in mind.

Many of these students will choose a liberal arts program. Some do so because of the prospect of deeper study of something they enjoyed in high school—history or literature, for example. Some do so because of advice that those undecided about a major should start with liberal arts. Some do so because the university they will attend actively promotes the liberal arts. This is true of most Catholic universities. In fact, many Catholic universities have core requirements in the liberal arts for all students, even those in professional programs.

Why do Catholic universities promote the liberal arts?  One clear answer is historical. Contemporary American Catholic universities developed largely on the model of the medieval universities of Europe. In those institutions, theology, philosophy, rhetoric, grammar and mathematics were central. The study of law or medicine was generally preceded by studies in these liberal arts areas.

But there are deeper conceptual links between the Catholic university and the liberal arts. Theology is the obvious case. Catholic universities offer theology because of the belief that faith can be defended and deepened by the use of reason.

The other classical parts of the liberal arts—philosophy, history and literature—have another link to the mission of Catholic universities. In their modern expressions, none of these disciplines intends to defend and deepen faith. In fact, some major contributors to the development of these fields are indifferent or hostile to faith.

The connection between these fields and the mission of Catholic universities lies in the root of the word “liberal” which, of course, means free. The study of the liberal arts is meant to free the mind. In a society that regards itself as the leader of the free world and for students who enjoy an unprecedented range of freedoms in their lives, “free” in this context is neither political nor directly practical. The freedom sought here is mental, a freeing of the mind of limitations on thinking and imagination. The liberal arts accomplish this freeing by teaching, directly or indirectly, the following mental habits.

Analysis: The liberal arts foster the ability to break complex wholes into their constituent parts. This skill helps one to understand the steps of a moral argument, for example, or the multiple forces that led to an historical event.

Synthesis: They also promote mental habits in just the opposite direction. The liberal arts focus on the “big picture.”  They ask, for example, what is the essence of Christianity? Or, what is the message of” Moby Dick?”

Criticism: The liberal arts create critical thinkers. This does not mean being negative; it means being able to examine the truth of assertions. Perhaps “everyone” believes it, but is it true?  What is the evidence for a point of view, and is it really compelling?

Imagination: The liberal arts were teaching students to think “outside the box” centuries before that phrase was born. To immerse oneself intellectually in another time and culture, for example, is to expand one’s own possibilities.

Articulation: More than in any other field, the liberal arts hone the skills of reading, writing and speaking. Generally, ideas are only as effective as their expression. The liberal arts teach how to attend to the expressions of others and to be more articulate in one’s own expressions.

It is clear that this is a list of skills that are universally useful. An individual in any career will likely be more successful if he or she has an analytic and synthetic mind, is a critical and creative thinker, and is an effective communicator. Such an individual is a freer, more complete person. That is why Catholic universities promote the liberal arts and generally require some study of them for every student, regardless of major.