A New Paradigm for a Liberal Arts Education?

A friend once suggested that most contemporary students are so far removed from Nature that they would have to be reintroduced to it before they could even begin to understand the classic teaching about the natural law and the virtues.

As some readers may know, Wyoming Catholic College’s way of dealing with this challenge is to require horseback riding.  Riding a horse is not a “virtual skill” that you can “fudge.”  Horses have their own minds, and riding them takes both skill and sensitivity to the needs and dispositions of that horse on that day.  Riding a horse is not like moving numbers around on a spreadsheet, making it just the sort of thing students should learn to do.

Now, perhaps not everyone can or should learn to ride a horse, if for no other reason than we wouldn’t want to torture our poor horses with many incompetent riders.  Horses also require a lot of care and space to run around in, and not every college has the resources.  But how about learning other skills in which excellence requires ingenuity and attention to the realities of the world, not merely the desires of the will?

Here’s my radical proposal.  Every student should learn a skill with a master craftsman.  It could be such skills as plumber, electrician, bricklayer, farmer, auto mechanic, carpenter, furniture maker, or any number of others.  The primary goal would be to introduce the students to a practice requiring discipline and excellence, where the results are concrete and obvious.

If you don’t wire the light correctly, it won’t go on.  If you don’t lay the bricks properly, the wall falls down.  If you don’t plumb the pipes properly, they leak.  There is little room for “creative individualism” and “self-centered willfulness” when one is being apprenticed to such crafts.  If you don’t do it “right,” it fails.

And it becomes clear to everyone pretty quickly why the master is considered a “master,” and why I, the newbie, am not.  This, as I said, would be the primary goal.  You learn skills so you understand what standards of excellence are and so you can reason from the development of excellence in a skill to the development of the virtues.

It’s an absurd proposal, of course.  One of those “pie-in-the-sky” things that college professors come up with in their spare time.

But is it so absurd?  It’s not as though it would be impossible to do.  We hire electricians and plumbers around the university all the time.  Is hiring a master electrician or plumber who can teach really any more difficult than hiring a first-rate scholar of American history who can teach?

And consider what we could say to parents.  We will train your son or daughter in the best traditions of the liberal arts.  Are you worried they might not get a decent job and be able to support themselves?  (This is a common-enough fear.)  Well, guess what?  Even if all else fails, they can always make money as a plumber, electrician, auto mechanic, or a tailor.  They always have something to fall back on.

And let’s be serious, a good plumber or electrician makes more money than most of these kids will make working in some boring office job.  And if they go to graduate school, they have a skill they can use to do part-time work that will actually pay the bills.

Their knowledge of history and organic chemistry may fade, and the scholarship on Shakespeare and Freud will certainly change, but evidence suggests that, much like the skill of riding a bike, they will never lose the skill of wiring a switch or building a chair.  And although the technology may change, with a little time and training, they’ll get the hang of it again.

So given the obvious practicality of this proposal and the potential increase in college admissions, why is it not likely to garner much interest?  The problem is that it requires a paradigm shift in our view of college education. According to our current way of thinking, developed over the last eighty years or so, college is for white-collar workers.  Plumbers don’t go to college – not to learn plumbing, at any rate.  They are blue-collar, i.e., “working class.”

Let me make clear that this is now, as it always has been, utterly bogus from the Christian perspective.  The ancient Greeks may have looked down their noses at manual labor, but Christians cannot.  Christ worked as a carpenter for most of His life.  The Benedictines, Franciscans, and Dominicans who founded Christian education and the first universities all worked.  They were not Oxbridge aristocrats.

Besides, plumbers deserve a liberal arts education as much as anyone else.  I have had some of my best discussions about faith and philosophy with plumbers, electricians, and various other people who have come to fix things in my house.  These are interesting people.  Try discussing the problem of evil with a female police officer who has been shot at by drug dealers.  She has an interesting perspective not present in the standard undergraduate.

And to be honest, most office jobs don’t require a college-level education any more than plumbing does.  In fact, I resent the notion that workers can’t advance unless they have “finished college.”  Who made colleges the gateway to business advancement?  That’s not our task or our goal.  It is, admittedly, what we tell people to keep ourselves in clover, but at some point, people are going to get wise to us.

You don’t need a college education to get a job or to advance to the highest position of leadership in a company.  You should want a liberal arts education because it expands your mind and soul.  If that helps you make more money, well then, God bless you.

As long you’re donating some of it to your poor, struggling professors back at your alma mater. Okay?

 

*Image: Laborare est Orare by John Rogers Herbert, 1862 [Tate, London]. The painting depicts the monks of St. Bernard’s Trappist Abbey (Coalville, Leicestershire) gathering the harvest of 1861.

Randall Smith

Randall B. Smith is a tenured Full Professor of Theology. His book Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Guidebook for Beginners is available from Emmaus Press. And his book Aquinas, Bonaventure, and the Scholastic Culture at Paris: Preaching, Prologues, and Biblical Commentary is due out from Cambridge University Press in the fall.