This is the true value of the liberal arts: to awaken us to the poetry and beauty of life and within ourselves, and to remind us that we are not alone—we are attended by a host of saints and scholars and poets and soldiers, who march before and behind us on this pilgrim journey…
There are many ways to measure the value of a liberal arts education: sharpened critical thinking skills, the ability to write well, greater flexibility of thought. However, there are other aspects of a liberal arts education that are just as valuable as these useful qualities, if not more so.
Last weekend I had the unique opportunity to go on a walking pilgrimage to Mont Saint-Michel, in the north of France. The uniqueness of this journey was heightened by the fact that my crossing began at sunset, and finished beneath a clear sky and a dazzling moon. As I wended my way—barefoot, for the sake of both tradition and practicality—across the sandy bay, the isle was gradually illuminated until it was a blaze of white stone set against the dark bay and the star-studded sky. It was a sight.
This experience was impressive enough on its own, but it was heightened by—have you guessed it yet?—my liberal arts education. As I gazed on the brightening isle, the words of Blake’s “Mock On, Mock On, Voltaire, Rousseau” popped into my head, the echoes of my education endowing the night with an almost-magical quality:
…And every grain becomes a gem
Reflected in the beams divine
Blown back they blind the mocking eye
But still in Israel’s tents they shine
The Atoms of Democritus
And Newton’s Particles of Light
Are sands upon the Red Sea shore
Where Israel’s tents do shine so bright
The figurative poetry of the night and the literal poetry of my education blended that evening to create an experience of substantial beauty and wonder. One week later, I have still not processed it completely.
Not everyone will have the opportunity to see Mont Saint-Michel by night; but everyone should have the opportunity for the beautiful experiences of their lives to be enriched and transformed by the power of the liberal arts.
For this, in my mind, is the true value of the liberal arts: to awaken us to the poetry and beauty of life and within ourselves, and to remind us that we are not alone—we are attended by a host of saints and scholars and poets and soldiers, who march before and behind us on this pilgrim journey. Yes, there are the added benefits of better standardized test scores and essay-writing skills, but in the end what do these things matter? Ultimately, the liberal arts are about becoming better, more wholesome human beings, and realizing the beauty and wonder of reality both within ourselves and in the world.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore. Republished with gracious permission of the Intercollegiate Review (Spring 2013). The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.