Mark W. Roche’s recent book, “Why Choose the Liberal Arts?” argues for the essential importance of a liberal arts education—beyond the practical value of a degree as the gateway to employment after graduation.
The Association of American Colleges and Universities recently named Roche, the Rev. Edmund P. Joyce, C.S.C., professor of German Language and Literature and former dean of the College of Arts and Letters, the winner of the 2012 Frederic W. Ness Book Award. The Ness award is given to the book that best illuminates the goals and practices of a contemporary liberal education. The book is already in its third printing.
“I wrote the book because I was concerned about the perception among students—and parents—that you have to major in something practical to get a job,” he says. “As dean, ‘What can my child do with a major in philosophy?’ was a question I received every year at Junior Parents Weekend. I wanted to make the case to both students and parents that a liberal arts education is superb preparation for a career in any number of fields, including business.”
In their postgraduation jobs, liberal arts majors draw upon a wide range of skills, he notes. “The more you move upward, the more you need to be able to learn about new areas, ask probing questions, sift data and use critical thinking to solve complex problems. The most sought-after capacity is communication skills. Study what you love, and you will still be able to get a job.”
But at the same time, Roche argues, education shouldn’t be reduced to just its practical value. “If we reduce the purpose of education to that of getting a job, we have failed to adorn it with higher meaning. Even more than awakening a deeper meaning in work, a liberal arts education gives graduates a direction for life.”
There are three partly overlapping grounds for a strong liberal arts education, Roche says: first the sheer joy of learning for its own sake—asking the great questions that give meaning to life; second, the cultivation of the intellectual virtues necessary for success in life; third, character formation and the development of a sense of vocation—a connection to a higher purpose or calling. A great liberal arts education, he says, produces not only educated people but also good people, with a sense of mission. Finding a vocation begins with great questions—Who am I? What ought I to do with my life? Through the study of such questions, Roche says, liberal arts students develop skills in reading, writing, speaking and critical thinking—skills that will allow them to flourish in whatever career paths they choose.
For the cover of the book he chose a painting by Paul Klee, titled “Highways and Byways,” created in 1929. “I picked it because all roads lead to a blue horizon—whether you go by the straight path or you get there by byways. I want students to spread their wings. The most important thing in the liberal arts is the capacity to continue to learn.”
“Why Choose the Liberal Arts” is both a book that captures the essence of a Notre Dame education and a book that transcends Notre Dame, Roche adds.
“We shouldn’t be embarrassed that college is separate from everyday life. At the university, we have a reason to elevate knowledge for its own sake. We are unabashed about saying that we help students develop values and virtues. We believe students should be searching for a higher meaning and purpose in life. What we do at a Catholic university is exciting for anyone.”