Mark William Roche, Why Choose the Liberal Arts?
When people value liberal arts education it is not usually because of its intrinsic value, but because it develops the skill of thinking critically. Roche writes, "The emphasis educators place on critical thinking, on liberating the mind from parochialism, is indeed important, but not exhaustive" (102). The author thinks that what is often not emphasized is forming character. Roche states, "Often neglected within a culture that elevates critical thinking is formation, the goal of helping students develop virtues, build character, and gain a sense of vocation, the moral and social purpose of education" (102). Educators tend to say that education is for the intellect not for the soul. It is important to think what we want students to look like when they graduate. In other words, what skills, knowledge, character traits should they receive from their education. It is also important to understand one's calling, vocation, or mission in life.
Why is character development neglected in higher education? The author thinks it is because of skepticism and relativism, or even tolerance. He asserts, "The contemporary hesitancy to engage personal development and moral formation derives from many factors, including the strong 'epistemological skepticism' that holds sway among rival versions of liberal education. The elevation of critical thinking, with its implicit suggestion that liberal education means viewing everything with a a distant and disinterested eye, seems to work against the idea that what one is studying could have meaning for one's development and identity as a person, for one's heart and soul" (102). This reason does not seem to be supported with of evidence. It seems to be based on the myth of neutrality.
Some might say that formation is for religious colleges only. However, the Greeks and Romans emphasize both liberal education and moral formation. The author writes, "For the ancient Greeks, education was not only about cognition but also about longing, motivation, and inspiration as well as attaining self-knowledge and developing virtues" (102). Some would even argue that without cultivating virtue, the passions would distort the ability to see truth.
Roche thinks that education "is often reduced to mastery of information and the acquisition of techniques; it is rarely viewed as serving a loftier purpose of helping them develop a philosophy of life and preparing them to answer a moral obligation or discern a sense of vocation" (103). It seems to me these latter things are very important. College is an important time to decide who we are and where we want to go. It is also an important time to decide on a life-view. What is the purpose of life? The author thinks the college years "represent a privileged time in our lives for the exploration of new ideas and the formation of personal and social identity; as a result, for many students, the college years become crucial markers for who they are to become. During these years students develop, or fail to develop, capacities for integrity and courage, for diligence and self-sacrifice, for responsibility and service to others. They also develop, or fail to develop, a love of knowledge, a capacity to learn from criticism, and a sense of higher purpose" (103-104). College lays a foundation that students will build on the rest of their lives. It seems that it is crucial what is in that foundation and to neglect formation is a short-coming in one's education.
The author thinks character and the intellect often develops together. Roche asserts, "Many intellectual pursuits presuppose virtues of character, and so the two often develop in tandem. The author list different virtues that may develop from intellectual pursuits: temperance, generosity, modesty, justice, respect, intellectual hospitality, diplomacy, humility, attentiveness, honesty, integrity, discipline, resilience, gratitude, and courage. The author states, "to prepare well for each class completing all assignments, rereading materials, making appropriate notes, and reflecting thoughtfully is to elevate study over other available pleasures and is as such an illustration of temperance. To renounce pleasure, despite its legitimate allure, for a higher value, is both a character virtue and an intellectual virtue. . . . To consider that every author I study may have ideas that are worthy of my attention presupposes generosity of spirit. . . . To listen carefully to the views of others and to weigh them honestly, giving them a full hearing with your utmost attention, even if they contradict your own initial inclinations, is to practice a form of justice. . . . To participate in the give-and-take of discussion by asking clarifying questions of other students, offering evidence to support your own positions, or proposing alternative perspectives in the light of disagreements is to exhibit respect for other people and the common value of truth. . . . Humility is evident whenever I recognize that I must withdraw an idea from discussion in the face of decisive counter-arguments, that I haven't myself discovered the answers to a particular puzzle, and that I continue to listen attentively to the views of others" (110-111). The author gives more examples, but this is enough to support his point that character virtue and intellectual pursuits often work in tandem. In addition, he describes vices that the student should avoid: arrogance, cowardice, indifference, sloth, envy, and greed.
The author suggest that the liberal arts foster personal development. Roche states, "through their engagement with literature, students encounter imaginative and compelling situations that they have yet to experience and which are capable of giving them a more differentiated grasp of life as well as a more nuanced compass. Character is formed and leadership developed as much by models and the imagination as by theory and practice, and meaningful models are readily available through history and literature" (136). Before modern times cultures emphasized the telling of stories for moral development. Aseop's fables would be one example. The popularity of William Bennett's Moral Virtues suggests there is a need for stories that will encouragemoral development.
Last, a liberal arts education will help students to develop a higher purpose for life than just personal fulfillment. It seems that students need a meaning and purpose for their life. The author thinks we need an education that focuses "on ends and the value of ideas in the service of the common good" (135). He thinks education "should foster not simply formal skills to gain employment, but a calling that gives our pursuit dignity, higher meaning, and a sense of fulfillment" (135). Education should help students understand their giftedness and how they can use their gifts in service to others. A liberal arts education will help students discern their own calling in life.