Liberal Arts and the Imitation of Excellence.
Let’s answer the big question: why pursue liberal arts?
That ‘useless’ liberal arts degree is making a major comeback, like at Patrick Henry College. In fact, it’s becoming “tech’s hottest ticket,” writes Forbes contributor George Anders in a front-page story that appeared in the magazine’s Aug 17, 2015 issue. Using several case studies in his article, Anders shows some of the ways in which the biggest technological innovations are born from creativity—a creativity that comes from liberal arts thinking. Anders notes that the Bureau of Labor Statistics expects that by 2022 1 million more Americans will enter the workforce as educators. Another 1.1 million newcomers will earn a living in sales, he adds.
Indeed, the liberal arts aren’t just for bygone eras. Liberal arts majors are finding themselves in the most innovative tech hubs in the nation.
President of Patrick Henry College in Virginia, Jack Haye believes that the liberal arts mentality makes businesses and individuals stronger.
“Liberal arts degrees are prime targets for corporation hiring,” Haye said a 30-year veteran of the corporate banking world and holder of a liberal arts degree.
At Patrick Henry College, students are expected to graduate with a broad and diverse understanding of the liberal arts. Patrick Henry College structures its academic program around its distinctive Christian classical liberal arts core curriculum, consisting of 63 credits plus intermediate foreign language proficiency. Regardless of major, every graduate will have taken 17 classes that are founded on texts and ideas that have stood the test of time and human experience. Classes include theology, logic, rhetoric, philosophy, history, economics, constitutional law, literature, geometry, music, biology, and physics.
“People who are to be free must be given an education that equips them for freedom,” states Patrick Henry College’s Philosophy of Education.
Alumni Brett Larson (Government 09’), now professor of international politics at Patrick Henry College, explains that the three basic aspects of liberal arts—grammar, logic, rhetoric—are especially important for democracy. “In order to have a functioning democracy you need to have an education populace to make informed decisions in political activity,” Larson said.
Indeed, the classical liberal arts from its beginning in ancient Greece were an attempt to find a common body of knowledge for people, says Dr. Stephen McRoberts, professor of classics at Patrick Henry College.
Some students may know nothing about the liberal arts before coming to Patrick Henry College in Virginia. Some students were taught the liberal arts their whole lives and come in thinking they know everything about it already. But each student leaves Patrick Henry College with advanced skills and methods needed to ask fundamental questions about the world, its people, and what it means to be human.
Broad, diverse scope with integrated parts
At Patrick Henry College, students explore the connectedness of all disciplines. The thematically linked classes tend to be heavily based on reading, often on the ‘greatest’ works of grammar, logic, and rhetoric.
The broad and diverse nature of the liberal arts allows students to examine the world from various points of view.
Over his past three years at Patrick Henry College, senior Ryan McDonald (Government 16’) expanded his understanding of the liberal arts into something that grows one’s moral, spiritual, and professional intuition holistically rather than either of those things apart from each other.
The classes at Patrick Henry College trained him to be more perceptive of what he would otherwise look over, he said. For instance, even as a legal assistant headed toward law school, McDonald found that the college’s music appreciation class was actually his favorite course, a class that trains students to perceive the cultural shifts through time as expressed through music.
“Perceiving cultural shifts is an integral part of everything you’ll do in your life—understanding different perspectives, relating with your neighbor, and advancing the gospel,” McDonald said.
In a similar way, artist and alumna Christine Olmstead (Journalism 15’) discovered that the liberal arts were a way of thinking and living, rather than just a type of education.
When Olmstead thinks of the philosophy and lifestyle that liberal arts fosters, she thinks of Alexis De Tocqueville, the Ancient Greeks—living a simple, fulfilled life where one is constantly learning, engaged, and living for a purpose.
“Liberal arts touch every aspect of our lives,” Olmstead says.
Shaping the Person to Live Life Well
When an individual goes through the whole range of a liberal arts curriculum he has the opportunity to develop in very different capacities that he otherwise would not have. Coupled with the Christian dimension of Patrick Henry College’s curriculum, the liberal arts education at Patrick Henry College has a persistent focus on the human questions of life.
The historical filter of knowledge and the focus on fundamental questions used to examine life enable liberal arts majors to have the courage and wisdom to face life’s uncertainties.
“I think the liberal arts creates a more well-rounded individual who will be able to approach the current cultural situation with a lot more depth and respond with more wisdom and discretion,” McRoberts said.
Alumni James Nelson (Government 13’), third-year law student at Harvard says that Patrick Henry College’s core curriculum enabled him with a greater respect for culture and how best to influence the culture. The core curriculum’s history, theology, and philosophy classes helped Nelson to put everything he’s learning in into the context of western development. For him, too, Freedom’s Foundations class, changed his view of the role of government and law and their implications on the relationships between people. “Our culture is increasingly individualistic and isolationist, whereas to be fully human is to live in community and to think about how your actions affect other people,” Nelson said. “Reading classics and understanding western thought and theology makes you a better person,” Nelson says.
Indeed, the liberal arts allow people to cultivate various aspects of their human development—their moral cultivation, spirituality, craftsmanship, entrepreneurship, etc.
“Liberal arts is an attempt to help people become more human, what they ought to be,” as Larson, too, explains.
Likewise, alumni Jonathan Carden (Journalism 11’) believes that the impact of getting a liberal arts degree from Patrick Henry College goes beyond education for education’s sake. Developing the capacity for reflection on one’s life is a focus of the liberal arts that can have a personal effect, he says.
“The purest form of what we’re doing here is how it affects people, so that when you leave you will be better husbands, mothers, citizens, employees, bosses, etc.,” Carden said. “You can’t find an area of your life that goes purely untouched,” Carden said.
Olmstead would agree with Carden. Olmstead was aware of the pressures of getting a specific job or paycheck, for instance, but the liberal arts enabled her to think about the meaningful questions of human life that don’t just conform to the sequential steps of society. What beliefs were implied in the choices she made? Would getting that paycheck really be a clear-cut path to success?
The summer before she graduated, Olmstead interned for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in digital strategic communications. But getting involved in public policy didn’t excite her. Upon graduating last spring, Olmstead took her passion for art and launched a high-end painting business, working as a full-time fine artist and part-time web designer for Suzanne Reid Design.
“I have complete creative liberty and complete ownership,” Olmstead says.
The liberal arts mentality gave Olmstead the daily reassurance of progress in a job that she enjoys doing but one that can evolve, adapt, and change with her. “The classical liberal arts give me the lifestyle that I want to live—family-oriented and God-centered, an outlet to share some of God’s beautiful creation with others perhaps in a way they haven’t seen it before,” she said.
For a current Patrick Henry College senior like McDonald, the liberal arts also enabled him to view life not as line items, but as a whole.
“Patrick Henry College grew me into the sort of man that should realize he should be known by his integrity and work ethic rather than by his resume,” McDonald said. Core classes like Freedom’s Foundations, a class that traces the development of the concept of freedom and the roots of American political tradition, not only enhanced his knowledge but also improved his understanding of his place in the world. It taught him why he should pursue law and how he can better influence the people around him.
Learning to Read and Think Well
The liberal arts also equip students with analytical and learning abilities that guide them to graduate or professional school.
In his first year of law school, for instance, Nelson discovered that he was already ahead of his classmates. Learning how to read well, write clearly, and understand Supreme Court cases proved invaluable. Nelson also writes for the Harvard Law Review, the highest ranked student run journal in the nation, where Patrick Henry College has had five students on the journal over the past three years.
While the wide knowledge of liberal arts helps one to thrive in certain areas for study, it is also hard and challenging. “It will push you beyond any other education you’ve experienced,” McDonald said. “But that’s the point—to be pushed, to be grown,” he said.
Reading Alexis De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America epitomized what the liberal arts meant for him and also changed his perspective on the role of lawyers.
“Rather than trying to pursue a career just to get ahead, I realized that the legal career was special because it looked back to history and was a restraining, conservative force on the rest of society if pursued rightly,” McDonald said. McDonald realized that law and politics were in contradiction and that he needed to pursue law entirely on its own.
In contrast, some students, like Larson, for instance, come to Patrick Henry College in Virginia and realize that they don’t want to pursue law. After graduating from Patrick Henry College, Larson got his master’s and Ph.D. from Catholic University and focused on political theory. For Larson, the liberal arts refined his interests in political philosophy and helped him to figure out his own direction.
“Had I not dealt with the core curriculum I probably would not have developed the degree of interest that I did,” Larson said. In grad school, having a wide background in things ranging from U.S. history, western civilization, philosophy, etc., helped him to put some fairly narrow range of studies into focus.
Necessary practical skills that you will apply in a job
Ultimately, Patrick Henry College’s broad education is climaxed through its emphasis on apprenticeships and jobs. Internship programs exemplify the rhetorical dimension of classical education, which follows the model of how classical universities prepared young people with a rigorous grounding in the liberal arts and then sent them out to practice their craft.
“A good quality liberal arts education makes you ready and capable of doing many jobs,” Dr. McRoberts said. People who are intellectually well balanced within the liberal arts spectrum stand out to employers while business schools look for classics majors to apply, Dr. McRoberts adds.
It is the unique mentality of the liberal arts education—the refinement, body of knowledge, and approach to the world—that is cultivated and allows people to pursue a wide range of careers.
Carden explains how the liberal arts equip one to excel in today’s global business world. “It’s amazing how applicable my liberal arts education has been,” he says.This education enabled him to ask really good questions, he said, as modeled by professors in every class.
Upon graduating from Patrick Henry College, Carden worked for the National Retail Federation, a large trades association in Washington D.C. “The critical nature of thinking and communication were incredibly valuable for me there,” he said.
Now, he’s a marketing manager for Uber, the ultimate tech company and the fastest growing start-up ever. At a tech company like Uber, the “war for talent” has shifted to nontechnical jobs, mainly sales and marketing, as Anders writes in his Forbes article.
“Anybody can be given a job,” Carden said, “but it’s difficult to find people who can critique, help a company grow, and improve everything they touch.”
By Aphie Sahindis