What is the point of a liberal arts education? This question is bandied about by politicians, parents, professors, employers, and students. Some argue that a liberal arts education is a pointless luxury; it yields little return on investment (ROI). Others counter that people with a liberal arts degree typically earn more in their lifetime and advance farther in their careers than those with a professional degree.
Another thesis is that a liberal arts education helps us detect, diagnose, and provide prescriptions for life’s problems. This point is made in a recent Harvard Business Review article. In “Liberal Arts in the Data Age,” JM Olejarz summarizes the position of venture capitalist Scott Hartley:
“If we want to prepare students to solve large-scale human problems, Hartley argues, we must push them to widen, not narrow, their education and interests. . . .What matters now is not the skills you have but how you think. Can you ask the right questions? Do you know what problem you’re trying to solve in the first place? “
What problems are we trying to solve? This is the education that Concordia University Irvine gives students in its Enduring Questions & Ideas (Q&I) curriculum. Rather than hand students a general education program aimed simply at disciplinary breadth (e.g., take one Social Science course, two Humanities courses, etc.) or a program only oriented toward skills (e.g., take one course each in Critical Thinking, Quantitative Reasoning, etc.), Concordia orients students toward life’s big questions and the major ideas that attempt to answer them.
Taking courses across the liberal arts affords students many methods with which to observe life discretely and holistically. Taking courses that hone skills is also useful. But to what end? Disciplinary breadth is not a sufficient goal in itself; neither is seeing life in all its parts and sum. Skills are tools that one uses to accomplish something else. The real goal of a liberal arts education is questions (or life’s problems) and ideas (or the potential cures to bring about a good life) together. These are what each generation really needs in education.
Concordia’s Q&I curriculum, composed of commonly-taken Core and elective Exploration courses, gives students that essential education. All the Core and Exploration courses are arranged under big questions, perennial problems handed down to each generation to understand and address in order to make life better for all.
The big questions that students wrestle with at Concordia include, but are not limited to, the following:
What are truth, goodness, and beauty?
What does it mean to be human?
Who is a virtuous citizen?
What is freedom?
How shall I live?
What is eloquence?
What are my vocations?
Who am I and who are they?
How do I understand nature?
“Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29)
These questions–and others like them–prompt students to look beyond passing pleasures, fleeting fashions, stock slogans, and temporary techniques to glimpse the very body and soul of life. They cut to the heart of life, inspire students to articulate their own questions, and beckon them to pursue the best life possible for themselves, others, and the rest of God’s creation.
Questions. Ideas. These are two of the greatest treasures we hand down from generation to generation. They contain the wisdom (and folly) of the past that we need to build a better future.
Subsequent posts in the Q&I Forum will flesh out these big questions, great works (text, art, theorem, speech, etc.) that address them, and their implications for today and applications for tomorrow.
Scott Ashmon is Dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at Concordia University Irvine