Why The Liberal Arts?

Jim Knight
The liberal arts are good for the soul, but will they get you a job? Parents whose sons and daughters choose to major in art history, English, philosophy, or classics ask this question routinely. Questions like these highlight the fundamental reason for getting an education at all. What’s the point, anyway?
Certainly, focusing one’s studies on a professional degree in medicine, engineering, computer science, or finance that will lead to a lucrative job is a viable and popular route. At my alma mater, UCLA, these were considered “South Campus” majors. It was the more difficult route of math and science that the “best students” pursued. Questions arise like “Will I find meaning and purpose in such a job?” “Will I be happy if I don’t love or even hate what I do?” “If I’m providing a good income for myself and my family, isn’t that enough? Isn’t that being responsible?” “With such a degree, will I have any social skills?”
The alternate route is a course of study in something less practical like Latin or history—“North Campus” majors. Important questions arise here like “Will I be able to pay my bills, buy a house, or care for my family?” “Should I take out $120,000 in loans to get a teaching certificate?” “Sure, I might be happy, but will I ever see Europe or sit on a Hawaiian beach with my friends?”
Whether one chooses a specialized professional degree that leads to a life of affluence or a broad liberal arts path that creates the proverbial renaissance man, good questions should be posed and discussed.
At Pacifica, the core liberal arts education that nourishes the soul; teaches students how to write, think, and reason; and provides meaning, purpose, and direction is our bread and butter.
The liberal arts—the broad course of study in moral philosophy (history, English, language, ethics); natural philosophy (biology, chemistry, and physics); divine philosophy (understanding reality); English, math, and rhetoric (tools for proper learning); piety (faith and devotion to God); theology (thinking in biblical categories); the arts (forming the imagination); and athletics (caring for the body)—make one more fully human.
The liberal arts nourish the heart, mind, body, and soul. They develop in one the capacity to know, understand and enjoy the world. They allow students to think and live well. The liberal arts not only make one more fully human but make for better engineers, doctors, bankers, programmers, and architects. With such a background, students can go in any direction they like. They are free.
Imagine an engineer versed in Shakespeare and the book of Genesis, possessing highly developed oratorical, thinking, and writing skills; an ear for Mozart and Billie Holiday; a working understanding of the history of the Church and the West; a sweet jump-shot; a solid faith in God; and the ability to listen, analyze, understand, and debate on a range of topics. An engineer with a liberal arts background is not only an expert in a small, specialized subject but understands the whole and how it all fits together. We need specialists, but it is all the better to have specialists that know the big picture and how the component parts work together—complete integration.
More and more employers are attracted to students with a liberal arts background. Their education has taught them not what to think, but how to think. They can write, reason, and speak to a host of topics.
Of course, engineers need to take engineering courses. They couldn’t build bridges or develop new products without such training. But more and more, I am urging my students who pursue professional degrees to consider minoring in a “North Campus” subject or even take an extra year and double major. “But the cost!” I believe it will pay off. If that isn’t practical, do what I and many of my friends have done—be disciplined and educate yourself for free in a second major. Why not spend a little time in your late twenties and early thirties tackling an undeveloped area of life?
About nine years ago, a close friend invited my wife and I over for dinner and then an after-dinner reading of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The evening became the next day, and when we got up to leave at about 2 a.m., we had embarked on a new adventure. Over the next seven years, ten of us tackled all thirty-seven of Shakespeare’s plays, one per quarter and an extra at Christmas. We knocked off Twelfth Night, Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, As You Like It, Macbeth, Othello, Henry V, The Winter’s Tale, and so on. Finally, around a table at the Globe Theatre in London, Hamlet. Am I an expert? Far from it. Am I better for it? Absolutely!
Our daughter went off to UCLA to study biology with a minor in English. During Easter break of her freshman year, she returned home. We spent the week connecting and talking “education.” She seemed troubled. She said “Dad, I don’t know what I should do with my life. Everyone knows what they are doing and has it all planned out.”
I said, “Everyone?”
She said, “Yes, everyone. They all have internships and are knocking out the chem and physics prerequisites for med school. I’m taking a chem and a calc class, but that poetry class is slowing me down.”
“Do you like the poetry class?” I asked.
“Dad, I love it. I also love the way chemistry works and how it challenges my brain,” she replied.
“Do they love it?” I queried.
“Not really,” she replied. “For them, education has always been a hoop to jump through. Something you do to get to somewhere else. You find the easiest class and the straight shot to the career. My education has been different. I’ve taken classes I’ve liked, even if they have been hard. I’ve enjoyed my education.”
“Lindsey, you are in the right spot,” I said. “Just continue building a life. Don’t focus on the résumé or the hoops. Don’t worry about the ‘straight shot.’ If you build your life, you will have a fine résumé. If you build a great résumé, you might not have a solid life. It will all work out.” She seemed encouraged.
At the end of the break, I drove her back up to campus onto the “hill.” Ten thousand people live on the hill at UCLA. I pulled up in the long line of cars and helped her get her things, and then she walked away into the crowd. I stood watching. As she was about to disappear into the throng, she turned back and looked. I shouted, “Hey Lindsey, go build your life!” She smiled, turned, and disappeared into the spring quarter.
The liberal arts—the broad course of study that causes one to look up and look around, to see the beauty of God’s creation, to understand oneself and one’s role in the world. An education that frees one up to do whatever one wants. An education that builds a life, not a mere résumé. An education for the joy of it. It’s an education that refines the soul and, with a little creativity, can be parlayed into something that will definitely pay the bills.

Pacifica Christian High School

A college-preparatory, Christian, liberal arts high school in the heart of Santa Monica.