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Opinion: Liberal Arts Does Not Require A Large Core

By Jonathan Meilander

When analyzing the effect of some change, it is often good to look at the desired result and work backward. That is, we must not lose sight of the end goal – the telos, to use a little Aristotelian language – over considerations of short-term efficiency. I think this approach is the right one in evaluating Saint Vincent’s core and the ongoing effort to restructure it.

Let’s begin by considering the purpose of Saint Vincent College. Saint Vincent is a liberal arts college. Presumably, this means that Saint Vincent values or ought to value the idea of a “liberal arts” education. Therefore, we must examine what “liberal arts” means, and what the point of such an education could be.

Many meanings have been proposed, but the literal meaning is the best. “Liberal” means “free,” and thus a liberal arts education is an education befitting a free person. This, at least, was how the term was used in ancient Greece, where it originated. The liberal arts were those things a person needed to learn in order to participate in the life of the city – in order to be a good citizen. Of course, in Ancient Greece, very few people were citizens. Women, slaves, laborers, and so on, did not enjoy the rights of citizenship, and so this education, and the participation to which it pertained, extended to relatively few people. Today, in America, everyone participates in government. If, therefore, certain skills are necessary for an educated citizen, they would seem to be more necessary today than ever before.

And yet this meaning seems too narrow, because it is merely political. Freedom means more than mere participation in government. I hold that, in the broadest sense, freedom is knowledge of the truth. A person who does not know the truth is constrained from acting according to the truth, is bound by falsehood, even if that person is perfectly free to do as he or she wishes in the conventional sense. (For a very simple example, imagine someone who votes based on a conspiracy theory. That person’s action might be free in the sense that he isn’t being physically coerced, but his lack of knowledge dictated his action.)

Therefore, the ultimate purpose of liberal education is to provide individuals with the tools to find truth – that is, to think critically, to sniff out propaganda and falsehoods, to question everyday opinions and prejudices. It is not about teaching a set of beliefs; it is about teaching students how to properly form (or discard) beliefs. It is not about teaching students what to think; it is about teaching them how to think.

This view of liberal arts is fairly orthodox and widespread. I think, however, that it is incomplete without a practical application. Merely knowing how to think is insufficient if that thinking will never be put to use. It is necessary to think well in every profession; for the scientist, the doctor, the lawyer, the factory worker, or the academic. This is not possible without a practical education in the relevant profession. Liberal arts – learning how to think – is really a sort of preparation for doing something else. We learn how to think well, but then we need to go out and actually think well.

What I am trying to point out, of course, is the need for both a broad education in the great traditions of philosophy and logic – the traditional “liberal arts,” which form SVC’s core curriculum – and the concurrent need for specialization in a particular discipline, job training, etc. I think the former must preface and pervade the latter. But it seems to me that there also comes a time in the education of a free person when the foundation has been established, and the time to build on it has come. The question is: when, exactly, is that time?

In my view, that time starts with college. Liberal education can and should start from the very beginning – first grade. This does not mean that you teach little children Aristotle or Erasmus, but you can teach them about different cultures, you can read them good books, maybe they can start learning a little bit of a different language. You can model how to think logically and critically. In high school, students can properly learn many of the things we call liberal arts: they can be taught how to write well, they can read the great works of literature, they can learn a foreign language, they can paint, draw, or dance, and they can study the principles of theology and philosophy. In this way, they can be prepared to apply their knowledge beginning at a college or university – or perhaps forgoing higher education altogether and learning a job.

I present this model of schooling because it was my own experience. By the time I had finished high school, I was tired of it. I knew I wanted to study politics. I wanted to learn about actual problems, to formulate new solutions, to find a good internship, maybe, and get to work. So you can imagine my disappointment when I came to SVC and started doing all the same things I had done already. I have nearly completed my core requirements, and I have only taken one, maybe two, classes in the whole massive thing that taught me anything new – or enough that was new to be worth the time and effort. I took some courses that I could have passed in 10th grade. When I look back at my two and a half years here, I must be honest: in some ways, I have wasted my time.

This early focus on the liberal arts – thus allowing for earlier specialization – is especially relevant because higher education has become increasingly necessary, ubiquitous, and burdensome. Today, a college degree is needed for practically every decent job. More and more, some graduate study is needed as well. By focusing so heavily on the liberal arts in college, we push specialization back to graduate school. We also make it more necessary for those who really shouldn’t or don’t want to attend college to do so, simply to learn the liberal arts. If, as I have suggested, some liberal arts knowledge is necessary prior to specialization, then an electrician has to get that somewhere. Is it better for him or her to spend tens of thousands of dollars over four years? Or is it better for him/her to obtain this necessary foundation in high school?

If we evaluate the importance of a strong core curriculum with this frame of reference in mind, it becomes clear that a limited core is preferable. Indeed, it is worth asking whether a core should exist at all, if it distracts from the ability to pursue serious work in a professional discipline. Such a suggestion might seem rather radical, but it is completely normal in other parts of the world. For example, the Germany university system has no “general education requirements” of any kind. Instead, student pick a specialty and study it intensively. A German university is basically like an American graduate school. The German system makes up for this general education deficiency with a longer and more intensive schooling beforehand (13 grades, not 12, and more advanced material). Basically, everything is pushed back, countering the trend toward longer and more burdensome schooling.

At this point, it seems reasonable to object that liberal arts education in school rather than college might be preferable, but that doesn’t make it possible. After all, our education system is currently structured in such a way that most students – including many of those attending SVC – don’t learn the liberal arts in high school. Surely Saint Vincent must provide an alternative for them? Or what if some students don’t have the capability to study the liberal arts before college? After all, philosophy, politics, and logic are hard work, and not easy for everyone to master.

These are serious concerns that deserve to be acknowledged. The ideal I described above requires a complete rethinking of our educational system. Eliminating Saint Vincent’s core will not bring about that rethinking. At the same time, though, we cannot afford to cater merely to those students who do not have a liberal arts background. We must provide a curriculum that can offer a high degree of independence to students who are ready for it.

Therefore, I propose making the core more flexible. It would be wise to allow students to bypass courses such as First Theology or Language & Rhetoric by demonstrating competence in the area of study. Perhaps a high-quality, 2,000-word essay to be reviewed by the department in question would do the trick. That would help prevent the sort of redundancy and “filler classes” I experienced. Or, instead of eliminating the requirement for students who pass, they could simply be allowed to substitute an upper-level class of their choosing in the same discipline.

I also propose streamlining the core. Right now, it comprises an enormous 61 credits, about twice as much as most colleges. I see no reason why some framework like the following would fail to provide a basic liberal education to those who need it:

3 Credits First Theology * (Systematic and Moral Theology, not a history of scripture)

3 Credits First Philosophy *

3 Credits Language & Rhetoric *

3 Credits Political Science (Redesigned PS-100 to be more useful to non-majors )

4 Credits Biology, Chemistry or Physics (NSCI courses not eligible)*

4 Credits Mathematics*

3 Credits Intermediate foreign Language, with prerequisites as needed (or demonstrated competency at that level)

3 Credits Western History*

3 Credits Fine Arts

Total: 29 Credits.

*denotes course eligible for elimination/substitution for qualified students

But this streamlining must go hand-in-hand with an emphasis on recruiting high-quality students. As argued above, eliminating or reducing a liberal arts core in college only makes sense on the assumption that students are already familiar with the liberal arts. I laud Pres. Taylor’s efforts to rework scholarships to provide greater awards to students with high academic achievements, and am glad to see that they are already bearing fruit. I understand that over 40 incoming freshmen with SATs of 1400 or more have committed to SVC for the upcoming school year, a remarkable recruiting feat. We must make sure to welcome them with material that will challenge them, not bore them.

In the end, what I hope to offer here is a third perspective. My point is not to criticize Saint Vincent for its strong commitment to the liberal arts: instead, I hope to highlight a common misunderstanding of the best way to structure a liberal arts education. We must not think that a strong commitment to the liberal arts requires a strong college core curriculum. At the same time, we must not downplay the importance of the liberal arts, or assail them as outdated and impractical. They are very necessary. But it is not the job of college to provide a general education through a mere foundation in the liberal arts. The foundation must be laid beforehand, allowing the spirit of the liberal arts to pervade all further study, thus creating a true education for freedom.

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