A Liberal Arts Education

I am probably going to end up attending a ‘liberal arts’ university (most likely the University of Dallas). There are several different reasons I want to do this. What I want to focus on right now is the idea of knowledge and wisdom, how they are related, and why they are desirable.

Knowledge, as I use it, does not mean mere information. It means an understanding of a particular realm. For example, there is scientific knowledge. This does not mean “knowing” that an object on earth falls with an acceleration of 9.8m/s^2. It means knowing why this is – understanding the laws that make up the physical universe. The same is true of literary knowledge, mathematical knowledge, theological knowledge, etc.

There are, then, many types of knowledge. But there is only, I think, one type of wisdom. Wisdom is “knowing about knowing”. It is the highest pursuit imaginable. It is also very hard to define. “Philosophy” in one sense is wisdom, but philosophy is a broad term. Depending on the type of philosophy, it can also constitute a type of knowledge. I would phrase it like this: Wisdom is knowledge of the fact that all knowledge, taken together as a whole, implies God. That is not a particularly satisfying definition though.

The goal of a “liberal arts education”, then, should in my opinion be to guide people towards this wisdom. This must be done by teaching them knowledge. The more knowledge, the better. Knowledge is of God. By increasing our knowledge, we glorify God. we should, I think, have at least a fairly good grasp of all the different types of knowledge. Even if I am not going to be a theologian (and I’m not), we should understand theology enough to discern whether a theological argument is nonsense or not.

A friend of mine has argued that all that should be required in a liberal arts education is study of literature and phillosophy (plus probably theology, though he has not mentioned this). I do not deny that those should be involved. But I argue that mathematics and science also have a place.

To see why, let us look at these five different areas and what they are really about. I will from this say how much knowledge of each is required to be really wise – and thus how much should be required of a liberal arts education. The latter part of this will of necessity turn rather practically-minded.

Theology is knowledge of God. Without it, we cannot know God. If we do not know God… well, things would not be pretty.
So: We should learn enough about theology to have a more than rudimentary understanding of God as revealed through Tradition and the Scriptures. I suspect one semester on Church History, one on interpreting the Bible, and one on theology proper (based primarily on readings of Augustine and Aquinas) should be sufficient.

The Arts give knowledge of the human person. Without them, we could not understand emotions, which are the root of how we can possibly be rational beings when we often act so irrationally. They are also aesthetically pleasing, and studying them helps refine our sense of beauty. That’s a good thing. Practically speaking, “art” generally constitutes study of the great works of art and analysis of them.
So: Art is fundamental for our understanding of humanity. Even those who do not want to be writers, artists, or musicians need to study it. As for specific numbers, I am not sure, but it is clearly important. Several semesters of literature, at least one semester of art, and at least one of music, plus a few on history, too…

Everyone agrees, I think, that these two need to be studied by anyone who wants to be wise. But what of the other two areas?

Mathematics is knowledge of what is universally true outside of God. Mathematics are more than just universal. What would it even mean, after all, to say that 2 + 2 != 4?
It is also the bastion of logic. Axioms, theorems, proofs, etc, which are needed for philosophy, are best explained through math, where the proofs are incontestable – they either work or they don’t.
So: The problem with teaching mathematics to everyone is that many see mathematics as mere “number crunching”. There are set, unchanging rules, you follow them, and you get answers. Now, I realize mathematics is a challenging subject for many. Not everyone can be expected to complete two years of calculus and go on to higher math. But I think it is important for everyone to at least take one year (two semesters) of calculus.
Why? Calculus, as my teacher has said, “turns all the rules upside down”. Learning calculus should, ideally, teach people that math is more than just a set of arbitrary rules that are followed – there is a deeper logic behind it. Everything up to calculus is basically the same, and it is never asked why those are the rules. Calculus forces you to actually think about what math really is, not just about the superficial rules.
I would not object to a “math for non-math-majors” course, for those who simply find calculus too difficult. But there are two things I will not accept. The first, that a math course will not be required. The second, that the course, if it is required, will focus on the “practical applications” of calculus. That’s just stupid. Calculus simply isn’t relevant to everyday life. People don’t need to be taught ways to approximate numbers that they will never have need to approximate. They don’t need to be taught how to implement Simpson’s Rule for finding integrals; they need to be taught why Simpsons’s Rule works.
So, such a “math for non-math-majors” course would be a calculus course, but it would focus more on the aesthetics of math than on the particulars. People find taking integrals hard and frustrating. Fine – don’t make them take integrals, but make sure they understand what an integral is.

Science is knowledge of the physical world around us. It is purely natural. It deals with the laws of the universe as we know it. But the universe could be different. Why do we need to know the specifics of our own universe? Mainly because, well, we live in it. Science is a very practically-minded field of study, the most so of any of these. It (unlike mathematics, though math has been accused of this as well) is purely quantifiable. Somewhat boring, really.
So: Why do we need to study it if we aren’t going to be scientists? Because even if we aren’t going to be scientists we need to know something about how our world works. It wouldn’t do for us to go around saying the world is flat because we’ve never been taught otherwise.
But all of the basic facts of science would be taught before one gets to the university. So what else does one need to study science for? Well, science also has philosophical implications. Neuroscience and free will, quantum physics and randomness… it would be a good idea to educate people on these things. But I’m not sure what else science is needed for… a few sciences courses should be required, but not many.

So, theology, history, literature, art, they should all be studied. We agree on this. But I think that to gain wisdom, you must also study mathematics, at least somewhat, and science, though even less. So they should be required in a liberal arts education.


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