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The Carletonian

The Carletonian

The Carletonian

Searching for purpose

<n education in the liberal arts introduces intellectual rigor into the lives of its students. In doing so, it helps them to achieve their full potential as thinkers and problem solvers, typically in the context of a single field of study. Furthermore, it cultivates within its recipients a work ethic that remains with them whatever their subsequent vocation may be. One could equally say that it produces an appreciation for pursuits of the mind (e.g. music, literature or art) which might otherwise forever be lost on them.

Grateful as I am for the education I’ve received thus far, its value, beyond these virtues it bestows, has remained unclear to me. Is the most important thing in life to be able to work hard and solve problems? Is it to enjoy pursuits of the mind? Though perhaps an unfairly momentous task to ascribe to a four-year education, I can’t help but feel as though mine has offered precious little in the way of answering the crucial questions by which we are all confronted. One might put them as follows: “What should I value?” and “How should I lead my life?”

As I understood it coming in, one of the principal goals of a liberal arts education was to cultivate within its students an inward striving to understand the self, this, to me, being an inquiry into the workings of human being and that which is healthy for it. This task I naturally saw as falling to its humanistic component. Yet I soon found that, on balance, rather than concerning themselves with issues of human flourishing, my courses in the humanities focused instead on a sort of scholarly inquiry, the greater value of which was often dubious to me – other, of course, than the benefits laid out above.

This alone would not have been so great a disappointment for me; while the classes did not concern themselves with how whatever culture, philosophy, or religion we were dealing with spoke to our condition, I could simply tease out the implications of the subject matter for us as people. Yet when I found many of these courses to be discouraging of this treatment of texts, I found myself lost.

“This is not the point of what we’re doing here,” my professors would tell me, “if you want to ask those sorts of questions, you have to do it outside of class.”

Incredulous as I was, it took me a while to realize that what they were saying was right – that is not what scholars do in the humanities.

That the humanities seem to disregard questions concerning the relevance of their subject matter to the lives of those studying them has since been baffling to me, as I know that all but the most rigid of the individuals comprising these disciplines consider them. Indeed, the professors that I’ve tried to spend most of my time with here have been those who, in almost-vigilante fashion, dare step outside the bounds of scholastic edict to raise what of these questions they can for their students, and to these men and women I owe a debt I can never repay. Unfortunately such practice is the exception rather than the rule, and in a strange turn of events, the significance of these objects of study to the life of the student and humans more generally has come to take a backseat to their more technical and esoteric aspects.

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