RoseMary Johnson, Contributing Writer
In the age of technology, does the liberal arts student have a chance to succeed? This question was the topic of the Ruskin Rhetoric competition almost exactly three years ago. Initially, I was very disappointed by this question. Surely, there is no need to debate such a question at the University of Dallas! If UD students believe they are going to graduate as losers, what are they doing here?
So, at first, I thought it would be a boring, pointless competition. However, when I considered the question more carefully, especially the part about succeeding “in the technological age,” I realized the matter was more complex than it seemed. In fact, the matter is so complex, and so important, that I would like to take this chance to repeat now, as a message of bon voyage to the graduating class of 2014, what I said then as a member of the class of 2011.
First, we all know that a liberal arts student’s ability to succeed does not change from year to year or from age to age. It remains the same today as it was for Winston Churchill, Thomas More and Aristotle. What does change is the popular definition of success. What precisely is the definition of “success” in the technological age?
I hate to put it so bluntly, but it doesn’t take more than one summer outside the Bubble to realize that the contemporary definition of success is to achieve as much money, pleasure, fame and power as you can, for as little effort as possible.
Now, if this is what success means, then I would say no, UD students are not going to succeed in the technological age. Not because they don’t have the ability, but because they don’t have the desire. If that is what success means, they don’t want it.
At UD, we learn to value a different sort of success.
The liberal arts — grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy — are the foundation of a liberal education that is pursued, not for utility’s sake, but for its own sake. When you study something for its own sake you become more free. The liberal arts are called “liberal” precisely because of their connection with freedom. What you are studying is free to be valued as truth, and you are suddenly free to be a seeker of truth. And if Aristotle and Aquinas are correct, our ability to grasp the truth, our rationality, is the defining principle of our nature. So, to put it in a five-second, admissions-office sound byte: The study of the liberal arts enables us to be more human.
However, the fact that a liberal arts education is studied for its own sake instead of for a specific, useful purpose makes many people nervous. After all, what can you actually do with a degree in English, or worse yet, philosophy? Don’t liberal arts students end up being perfectly useless? Burdens to their families? Burdens to society? Wasn’t there a philosopher who hung out and enjoyed useless conversations so much that his city eventually executed him by forcing him to drink hemlock?
Actually, no. Socrates was condemned because his “useless” conversations about things like justice, virtue, truth and the gods, were so powerful, and had such tangible results, that they were threatening to disrupt the ancient foundations of Athenian society.
What really makes people nervous about the liberal arts is that they are so powerful. A liberal education is free — no, not price-wise! — a liberal education is free to disrupt our lives and turn things upside down. The truths that we learn in a liberal education are not like the truths we learn in the owner’s manual of a car. We possess utilitarian truths — those found in a car manual, etc. — and we can use them to fix our car, or to chat with our mechanic while he’s fixing it. But liberal truths — they possess us. They have a claim on us. The truths learned in a liberal education present us with a reality that we did not make—a strangely beautiful reality that demands our loyalty and devotion. We can’t just take them out when we feel like it and put them away when we don’t like them anymore. They are the truths of a reality that is free from our control, and they are truths that we must accept and defend if we are to be true to our own freedom as human beings.
Consequently, students of the liberal arts have a hard time buying into the illusions and delusions of the modern age. Sure, their education has certainly equipped them with all the skills they need to become wealthy and famous, but it has also changed their definition of success. When UD students leave the Bubble, their goal is not to become rich and famous, but to live according to the truths they have been taught.
I know UD students who are going into law school — they are brilliant. But they probably will not “succeed,” because they will actually use their brilliance to defend justice.
I know UD grads who have gone into politics — but I’m willing to bet my last five dollars’ worth of print credits that none of them will ever get a job on Obama’s cabinet.
Two of my classmates have spent time in Rome studying for the priesthood, and one of my best friends from freshman year is now a cloistered, Carmelite nun.
The running joke on campus, of course, is that all the girls come here to get their MRS degree. I neither affirm nor deny this, but if it is true, it’s not a bad goal. During my senior year, two of my friends already had the MOM degree, and were carrying around adorable, new babies.
UD students — like all liberal arts students — will go into every career and vocation imaginable: business, science, teaching, politics, marriage, the consecrated single life, the religious life, the priesthood, etc. And they will bring their commitment to the truth and their integrity of conscience to their families, friends and colleagues.
Yes, UD students can succeed in the technological age — but they will do it on their own terms. And those terms just might change the world.