I was talking with my friends a few years ago about the degree I decided to pursue in college. My friends were all engineering students and I studied art and philosophy. We had this constant back and forth going where my friends would try to get me to switch to a technical degree and I would try to defend my choice. During one of these conversations I was going over the typical justifications for studying the liberal arts, saying things like “liberal arts programs create life-long learners, or well-rounded individuals ect.,” when one of my friends asked for an example. He wanted to know what I meant by these comments and how this process supposedly worked. I don’t remember exactly what I said to him at the time, only that it wasn’t a very good example. But I did believe what I was saying, for the most part, I just didn’t express it very well. I was thinking back about this conversation during my morning walk today and it occurred to me that my flow of ideas over the course of the walk would serve as a perfect example. I’ve decided to use this blog entry to describe more clearly my argument to my friends about the value of a liberal arts education through the example of my thoughts over the course of a morning walk. Also pics.
To amend my original argument, instead of using phrases like well-rounded or life-long learner, I’ll be blunt. I believe liberal arts programs foster in their students a type of virtuous thought which is essential for living the good life. To be vague again, the liberal arts provide vital context for making sense of the world. This is not to say that the liberal arts are the only way to get this context. Of course it’s freely available to every thinking person. I make a cautionary note here only because I think taking my argument to the extreme can very easily results in the sort of unfounded elitism which often turns people away from the humanities. It is the context which is vital for the good life, but this does not mean that the liberal arts are necessary for obtaining that context. Instead, I believe they are simply an efficient way to come to know this context and to possess it, and thus to come to know the world. All of this is what I believe my thoughts this morning demonstrate.
This morning I went for a walk up to the reservoir by my apartment. It was a foggy morning, as you can see from the pictures. I spent most of the walk not thinking about much and simply enjoying the morning. However on the walk back, as I watched the school children waiting for the bus and the adults on their ways to work, I had a powerful thought. It was a thought about history and modernity, and I felt to myself, “were living though the greatest time in human history.” There wasn’t anything abnormal or spectacular going on. I was just watching people go about their day. And yet, to me it was as if the grandest thing in the world was going on. And I found myself walking down the street with the biggest smile on my face, happily watching the world turn.
Now you may think: “Well that’s great and all but what does any of this have to do with the liberal arts?” I’d reply that this realization and moment of joy was largely due to my education, because it was my education which allowed me to peel back the curtain of an average day and view the scene in a new context. I don’t doubt that there are many frames reference which can inform such moments of rapture. However this morning, what did it for me was thinking about history and art. Instead of seeing the hustle and bustle of a Thursday morning I saw the dance of human civilization itself. I knew from my courses in history and politics that we here in the United States are currently living through the greatest period of prolonged global peace since the fall of Rome. The great Pax Americana was going on beneath my feet. Likewise, I knew from my courses in art and aesthetics how to spot a beautiful moment and how to pluck it out from its surroundings. And today was a particularly beautiful and unique morning. For a brief moment this morning I saw the world from the perspective of a liberated mind and it was glorious. Then I came back to earth and the feeling of the world’s grandeur faded. But I’ll tell you what, for the next month I’m going to remember that feeling vividly.
I’m under no illusion that the moment of happiness I experienced today reflects the world in its totality. I am aware that there is unimaginable suffering in this world and that I am extremely privileged to live the life I do. I also want to be clear, I’m not saying that my education has somehow made every day sunshine and rainbows. Of course not. All I’m saying is that my education has given me a set of lenses through which to view the world. It has given me perspective. And sometimes this perspective can provide a hopeful view through the clouds when all else seems foggy.