Core decorum: useless for Good

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Illustration courtesy of Cecilia Lang

Being in college, especially at one so focused on the liberal arts, places one inan unusual state. 

You know the feeling. You go home for the summer and run into distant relations or friends of the family who, after awkwardly greeting you, inevitably ask, “So, whatcha gonna do when you graduate? Got any career plans?” 

Some know exactly how to answer, but I’d expect their ranks at the University of Dallas to be few and relegated to those who dwell in the Haggerty dungeons or perch in the heights of SB. 

The reality for most UD students, especially those of us studying disciplines like theology and philosophy, is that much of our study is not directly applicable to most job fields. In our incredibly productive and economically active nation, there is a tendency for many to view the fields of study that engross such a large part of our UD community as being “useless majors.”

The worst part is, these people have got a valid point. 

While some go to a two-year program and learn to be HVAC technicians or welders, get their degree and start the next day working, earning and contributing to the economy, many of us who spend our days contemplating the mysteries of the Faith or the Platonic puzzles of “The Dialogues” will not see a direct impact of their scholarship upon the economy after they graduate. 

Being learned in fields like philosophy and theology, when it comes to direct economic impact, is quite useless. 

No one ever philosophized their way to a better bridge-building technique without a knowledge of mathematics and engineering, and no theologian ever created a process to streamline the production lines at Ford without knowledge of mechanics and management. 

However, the real question to be considered is this. Is something good or desirable because it is useful, or because it is useless? 

Some might say that useful things are obviously better as they help one get what one wants. Though there is an obvious logic to this, it is shamefully short-sighted. 

The ultimate end for all human beings, whether they call this happiness, rest or peace, is always something that is quite useless and for good reason. 

As Plato and Aristotle so keenly noticed, no one wants happiness in order that one might get rich or be honored, but one does want honor or money so that one might be happy. 

This noble practice of embracing useless disciplines has found no better home than in the Christian tradition.  

Saint John Henry Newman said, “That alone is liberal knowledge which stands on its own pretensions, which is independent of sequel, expects no compliment, refuses to be informed by any end or absorbed into any art in order to present itself to our contemplation.” 

In other words, that which a liberal education is properly ordered towards is completely useless; a liberal education is used for no end or purpose other than itself. 

Elaborating on St. Newman’s thought, Bishop Robert Barron said, “What the university achieves for the mind might be compared with what the hospital achieves for the body; namely a kind of health… We rest in, and enjoy, the health of the mind. The health of the mind is a liberal education, a mind that has the philosophical habit.” 

A liberal education prepares one to enter the world with absolutely nothing other than a mind oriented towards that which is highest, most noble, most true and most beautiful so that one might not become lost in the dark woods of common, “useful” things.

By orienting ourselves towards that which is completely useless, we come to possess a “health” of perspective and are enabled to organize in our lives that which is properly “useful” around that which is truly “useless.” One truly educated liberally is free from temptations to pursue lower, “useful” things and is enabled to bring real perspective to this earthly existence. 

No, your liberal education isn’t very useful, and thank God that it isn’t. If it was, you’d be left to do nothing other than spend your life chasing whatever desires came your way instead of plotting a true course, keeping your eye trained towards the ultimate destination and persevering in all things until you achieve the only goal that really matters.

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