While scores of colleges are expanding their curricula by narrowing specialties and fields of study, some top Catholic colleges are keeping liberal arts alive and well.
Presidents from such colleges shared their insights about the benefits of a liberal arts education for their students.
“It’s ultimately responding to the desire of the Church,” explained Timothy O’Donnell, president of Christendom College in Front Royal, Va., referring to Ex Corde Ecclesiae (On Catholic Universities), St. John Paul II’s apostolic exhortation.
“This kind of education leads to the free man, the man who is self-directed,” he added. “If you really take the time to study, reflect, think and pray through the liberal arts and math, theology and history — and not to be enslaved by your passions or be carried away by any cultural fads, but only study the truth — it allows you to understand more deeply who you are as a human being and who God is and Christ is.”
Through a liberal arts education, he contends, students can come to a deeper understanding of these truths and live based on these truths.
The Heart of Education
“It gives people the freedom to know who they are and to know something about God and the whole nature of order,” O’Donnell said. “And that’s the beauty of it: You can go on to do anything, but as a deeply educated and committed Roman Catholic.”
O’Donnell said that this is the heart of Catholic education.
“Education is not just about getting a job, but forming the person and entering into the relation of the truth; for us Catholics, ultimately, that encounter is a Person, Jesus Christ,” O’Donnell said. He cited Pope St. John Paul II, Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI and Pope Francis as having clarified that education is for this higher purpose, not just to train man as a worker, but to have him recognize he has an immortal soul and eternal destiny.
“So many times, we make the mistake and overly limit study in a particular area,” he said. “But to raise the most fundamental questions about why things are the way they are is part of a great adventure that starts and never really ends, until we get to the Beatific Vision.”
Since Americans tend to be pragmatic, liberal arts even excels in this regard, he said, because studying the liberal arts really prepares one for many areas of post-college life.
Graduates who can think and write clearly and live a virtuous life are sought after by employers.
No matter what graduates choose to do, they have “a broad-based education that addresses the most fundamental questions to know who you are, grounded in ethics and virtues that help you to be good in whatever you choose to be,” he concluded. “The liberal arts are speculative, but the impact they have on life is very valuable.”
Michael McLean, the president of Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif., is of like mind.
He clarified what “liberal” means in this context.
“We use the term ‘liberal’ education from the Latin word liber, meaning ‘free,’ so this is an education ordered to freedom,” he explained. “[It] means the ability for people to govern themselves in accord with natural law and in fidelity to the Gospel.”
“Our Lord said, ‘I am the Way, the Truth and the Life,’ and ‘The truth will make you free,’ so there is a connection between Catholic liberal education and truth,” McLean made clear. “In this case, truth is embodied in Jesus Christ, so the education here is really Christ-centered and God-centered.”
Logic and Truth
Theology and philosophy are of central importance, he said. Learning logic and math habituates students to orderly thinking, reasoning and discourse, too.
“The liberal arts really provoke the kind of wonder in the heart and mind that is the starting point of Catholic intellectual life,” he said. “The more students are encouraged to wonder about the world and the beauty around them, the more they are motivated to pursue education.”
“But first and most importantly,” he observed, “since the curriculum is ordered to theology, one of the great benefits is the students really do grow in their knowledge and love of God. Related to that, they see in a profound way the harmony between faith and reason.”
That vision is one of the challenges of our times, he said, because students exit college and enter a world where faith is under attack. But graduates are prepared because their “education is Christ-centered, but it’s also skill-centered.”
Students are actively engaged in classes that are conducted as conversations and discussions. They acquire analytical and conversational skills — traits employers look for in employees.
The large number of religious vocations to come of out of this college is another benefit of liberal arts education, McLean said, citing that 10% to 12% of the college’s graduates enter religious life. About 59 graduates have become priests, and a large number have entered religious life.
Likewise, those who marry have family lives centered on Christ, and they bring their strong Catholic faith to their work — “that is the heart of the New Evangelization,” he said, “and the way the Church is going to evangelize the world: sending deeply committed Catholics into the secular world to remake that world in the image of Christ.”
‘Diakonia of Truth’
William Fahey, president of Thomas More College of Liberal Arts in Merrimack, N.H., explained that the college is committed to the liberal arts for several equally important reasons.
“First,” he said, “we view ourselves as faithfully responding to the Church’s long-standing desire that universities defend the Western patrimony and especially respond to the responsibility to uphold the diakonia of truth — the ministry of truth in defense of God’s majesty and human dignity.”
He observed that the liberal arts, as traditionally taught at such institutions as Thomas More, “faithfully introduce students to the theological, philosophical and humanistic tradition of the West.”
Fahey contended that this great tradition has largely been abandoned at most mainstream American universities. Students are instead encouraged to “pursue utilitarian and specialized paths that, in reality, narrow a student’s view of life’s purpose and the path to happiness and holiness.”
According to Fahey, with its focus on the liberal arts, Thomas More College stands opposite “those contemporary trends that make men and women spiritual and intellectual cripples who only know how to do one thing in life — focus on how to ‘get ahead.’ Getting ahead usually means a narrow range of pleasantries, rarely wrong in themselves, but which can never be satisfied and, in the long run, distract the student from man’s noble purpose and final end.”
On the other hand, Fahey observed, “When the liberal arts tradition is integrated with a residential college that pays attention to the moral character and spiritual life of the student, you have a fully Catholic education.”
At Thomas More, the liberal arts also encompass more than one would suspect. Fahey described how the college follows Aristotle’s observation that a purely liberal arts education lacking an acquaintance with the fine or manual arts leads to a kind of madness, as the intellect, left alone, becomes disengaged from the rest of the person.
“That is why we require our students to learn arts such as wood-working or icon painting, in addition to having a rigorous academic curriculum, a college with five chaplains and daily access to the sacraments of the Church,” he said. “The incarnation of Christ our Lord points to what we must seek in all aspects of life: the full integration of the intellect, the body and the spirit.”
Joseph Pronechen is a
Register staff writer.