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St. Mary’s University will host the Human Dignity, Education and Political Society Conference on Friday, May 10.

The one-day symposium brings together political philosophers from around the nation to discuss the need for a liberal arts education in today’s world. The overarching question to be addressed in some way by each of the eight participants is “How is a liberal education suited to dignified political existence?”

The event will be from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. in the University Center, Conference Room D. The St. Mary’s University Charles H. Miller Sr., M.D. Chair in Human Dignity is sponsoring the event.

For a full schedule, visit the event listing.

The top five ways the liberal arts deepen personhood

By James Greenaway, Charles H. Miller Sr., M.D., Chair in Human Dignity

The task of education is always to prepare students for life, and for many of these students and their parents this means vocational preparation and professional training.

In an economy that has become dominantly knowledge-based, the importance of gaining relevant knowledge and skills for the job market has never been so crucial.

So what then would be the “need” for a study that includes philosophy, theology, history, languages, in addition to mathematics and the sciences? One often hears that liberal arts majors gain critical thinking skills and bring a breadth of knowledge and awareness to the workplace.

One also hears, for example, that four years of philosophical study at the undergraduate level gives the applicant for law school a marked advantage; while other humanities, as well as the social and natural sciences, provide good training for various professional fields.

While a liberal arts education really is an excellent preparation for the world of work, that is hardly the point. Preparation for life always means more than career preparation.

Of course parents want their children to prosper, but they also want their children to become authentic human beings: capable of telling the truth even when those around them falsify; willing to do what is genuinely good even when it is inconvenient; and able to recognize the beautiful and the extraordinary in the midst of all the ordinary things of life.

While parents want their children to be useful, innovative and knowledgeable workers, they also want their children to grow richer in wisdom, more at home in their relationships, and to become more truly who they already are.

Aristotle once wrote that we go to war for the sake of peace, just like we go to work for the sake of leisure. We work, not for the sake of more work, but for the sake of what is genuinely meaningful to us, for the sake of what constitutes genuine happiness for us. Perhaps the kind of work we do is a source of fulfillment, but for most people work is more obviously a means to an end.

The liberal arts aim at the deepening of the student’s own personhood in various ways.

  1. It recognizes that many of life’s problems arise not from the workplace but from non-work related issues: boredom, the breakdown of relationships, addiction, isolation, recklessness, meaninglessness, despair. We train ourselves well for work, but how trained are we for leisure?
  2. The liberal arts invite the student to discover, and to keep recovering, the intrinsic value of life: both his or her own life and the lives of others.
  3. The liberal arts reach out to many fields. In this way, the student becomes conversant with, and fond of, these many fields — economics and other cultures, science and technology, health and sickness, living and dying — so that she or he is no stranger to them when confronted by them. Indeed, the complexity that the liberal arts disciplines explore comes to constitute parts of the student’s own self-understanding.
  4. A liberal arts education exposes the student to the great insights and achievements of those who have come before us. It looks to a tradition of thinking and discovery, and cultivates a culture of vitality and generosity.
  5. What is “liberal” about the liberal arts is the self-lifting of the student up from pettiness, vulnerability to ideological and commercial manipulation, simplistic and glib answers, and unimaginative conformity. The student is liberated to grow in wisdom, to know and to love what is genuinely lovely, and to affirm being and one’s place in the world.

Wonderment and delight are stuff of the liberal arts; they are also precursors to the growth of the soul.

The reason we need the liberal arts now, perhaps more than ever, is that we remember that “soulcraft” is statecraft. A better society is not an ideological construction, but a community of persons who remember what they have inherited, who care about those who come after, and who have earned the trust of one another other through competence and the courage to think and love.

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