What is “Liberal” in Liberal Arts – a message from the Dean

The Danish philosopher Søren Kiekegaard tells a story about a caged bird who complains incessantly of its inability to do what it wants. It wants to be free to fly like the other birds it sees outside the cage, but cannot. Then one day someone opens the cage for it to fly out, but the bird decides not to leave but to stay in its security and comfort. Too much anxiety about the world outside the cage.

Most of us want to live as that bird initially desired.  We seek out education and life experiences which lead us to what makes us more free to do what we want. We know, however, that freedom at times can be risky: we risk failure if we do not make the right choices. The fear of failure causes anxiety that is sometimes overwhelming.

I myself have experienced this anxiety and fear of pursing my dreams. In  my undergraduate experience I tried out several majors. I even took an entire semester off as well in the process just to figure out what I wanted. I did not settle on my final area of study – philosophy – until graduate school. Yet I can now see how my entire undergraduate liberal arts experience slowly but surely was moving me in that direction: it was certainly what gave me meaning to my life and something I discovered I was fairly good at – and yet always felt, even to this day, that I have much more to learn about it.

So, what can I say, as a dean, about the value of liberal arts? Well, it is meant to free us. To free us either to do what we excel in or to do what we find meaningful or truly challenging. Or to do both!  

Sometimes, though, we do not yet know what is meaningful for us. That is, of course, what a particularly a liberal arts education helps us to find out. It took me several years — and many classes — to find this out.

Other times, however, we do not yet know what we can excel in. That is also what a liberal arts education, particularly with a core curriculum that requires students take courses on a number of disciplines, helps us to find out.

That all seems well and good, most people say, but we also need to earn a living. How good is a liberal arts education for that?

One should choose a profitable field of study, even one that is very demanding, expecting that it will bring happiness over one’s life. Fair enough. But the liberal arts students thinks the other way around: we first choose what we feel happy in studying, and then we find the ways in which the world we live will allow for those excellences that we achieve to be worthwhile. Worthwhile because they bring an excellence about the very core of what it is to be a just and contributing person in society. So taking on a liberal arts perspective is not an either or kind of situation:  success or happiness. Our excellence brings us, and others, to success.

But let me say something about the practicality of liberal arts study. Recent studies show that although liberal arts graduates are, relative to non liberal arts graduates such as in the sciences or business, slower to gain good incomes early in their careers, they catch up and often surpass those counterparts in subsequent years. These are rather consistent findings.

Like any course of study, liberal arts study is hard work. The excellences we choose to pursue do not come automatically. Yet the excellences that we do form are life long. We learn history of an ancient period of a non Western culture. It opens us up to engaging with cultures of today to which they related. We learn a language, and even if we don’t use that language often, it opens us up to people of other cultures. For example, I learned Italian, rarely speak it today, but carry a deep and abiding appreciation for Italian culture. 

So, the liberal arts — and especially the liberal arts at Duquesne — empower us to leave our cages and to motivate others to so the same.  It’s education for life.

James Swindal, Dean



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