Accounting and Aristotle: Why Catholic Colleges Need Both

COMMENTARY: The traditional Catholic liberal arts university has a great opportunity to form not only the next generation of liberal arts teachers, but also the next generation of Catholic tinkers, tailors and candlestick makers, and perhaps even accountants.

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Sing to me, Muse, of the Catholic-college student stereotype. The philosophy, theology or English major, whose intellect is developed over four years of deep texts and deeper conversations, to be a fountain of culture, a fascination at cocktail hours and a foreigner to the 21st century.

But that’s the catch, isn’t it? We aren’t called to be foreigners to the present times — we are called to live in them. And, too often, the Catholic-college student will take a brief glance at “the world,” decide it can’t offer happiness and retreat back into the liberal arts, finding in them an escape from reality, rather than a resource by which to shape the future.

We owe the preservation of the great traditions of Western civilization in large part to the monasteries of Europe. These centers of learning, much like the Catholic liberal arts schools of today, stood as bastions for the protection of culture against pagan hordes and barbarian princes. They kept the tradition “safe”; through them, it was preserved for future generations who would wish to build upon it. Generally, if you wished to study, you retreated from the world into a monastery. And this was necessary at the time.

Yet the time for this is passing, and we have before us a choice faced once before by Christendom many centuries ago: Do we wash our hands of the upcoming renaissance, citing the many evils of the age, or do we enter wholeheartedly into the movements of the times, finding and growing the good and condemning the evil? 

Further, if we are called to shape the culture and priorities of the present day, how do we best prepare to do so?

And thus, here I give you the “Accountant’s Apology” and a plea to future students at our beloved Catholic colleges. The time has come for us to become “Renaissance Catholics” and to learn to apply the liberal arts where “they don’t belong” — because there really isn’t anywhere that truth and beauty shouldn’t be present, even in the most book-less environment.

It’s time we use St. Paul in pediatrics, Euripides in engineering and Aristotle in accounting.

First of all, we must stop treating the liberal arts so delicately. They are meant to be used, and they can handle everyday treatment just like the humans who treasure them. We might not think that Odysseus belongs in the office space, but if we actually look, we will find him already there: in that guy in a tie who is consistently trying to get the vessel of his life back to a safe harbor, but who constantly trips over his own cocky attitude.

Financial analytics may not sound like the place for Greek historians, but Thucydides’ claim that, “human nature being what it is,” history will continuously move in cycles, could arguably be the first recorded study of trends and forecast. At first, the Summa might only appear to land in Suburbia by accident. But should a proper understanding of man’s being in relation to God only be in the libraries and campuses of our Catholic institutions?

Secondly, if we practice law, or medicine, or work in consumer business, or teach at an elementary school, we must strive towards excellence in our work. Excellence, especially in “secular” careers, is a way of evangelizing, for in directing glory rightly, we can point towards a greater, heavenly achievement yet to come.

But more than that, by preparing for and taking up careers in the world, we demonstrate the dignity of work. We re-emphasize the honor of providing for a family. And we elevate the dignity of the human person by seeing good accomplished through the work of our hands and intellect. Honest work is noble work, whether or not it directly incorporates Aristotle’s Poetics or Virgil’s Aeneid. Rather, the professions of the world — far from being removed from intellectual pursuits — are the foundations behind every great work of art, every treatise on poetry, every history penned and every philosophical argument.

For in the tasks of everyday existence we find the inspiration and wonder from which blooms every masterpiece. There is nothing common about a good common man; and it is an irrecoverable loss when common men are no longer good.

A Catholic liberal arts education is a great gift. It should not be kept to oneself. We are each given a specific vocation, a vocation which necessarily involves more than just ourselves.

Catholic students, past, present and future: Please do not be afraid of pursuing a major outside of the liberal arts. Yet at the same time relish every opportunity to learn about the Western Tradition that is part of our own stories, as sons and daughters of Christendom. The traditional Catholic liberal arts university has a great opportunity to form not only the next generation of liberal arts teachers, but also the next generation of Catholic tinkers, tailors and candlestick makers, and perhaps even accountants (I am personally partial to the accountant). Let’s start conquering the world — mind by mind, cubicle by cubicle, heart by heart.

Kathryn Mihaliak is a recent

graduate of the University

of Dallas and works in

accounting and finance.

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