Faith & Thought

Liberal Arts Help Students Find Answers They Need

I have been teaching philosophy for many years. I have taught at Brooklyn College, Queens College, New York University, Princeton Theological Seminary, and what was Cathedral College of the Immaculate Conception Seminary in Douglaston, Queens. Besides suggesting that I may not be able to hold a job, the experience at all these educational institutions was joy-filled and personally fulfilling. 

Never once in all the years in which I was involved in liberal arts programs did I wonder whether teaching philosophy was a worthwhile vocation. I have always believed in the important role that the study of philosophy can play in someone’s life. 

When I was an undergraduate studying philosophy I believed in the importance of philosophy because the seminary professors told me philosophy was important and I believed them. Later when I was doing graduate work, and especially when I began teaching philosophy, I came to see why it is important. I am wondering if philosophy today may be more important than ever. 

When I was a fulltime parish priest and my Bishop asked me to go to graduate school in order to get a doctorate in philosophy so that I might teach at Cathedral College of the Immaculate Conception, which he was planning to build in Douglaston, a classmate said to me, “Too bad the bishop did not ask you to get a doctorate in theology.” 

I understood why my classmate made that remark. In fact, if the bishop had given me a choice between philosophy and theology, I would have chosen theology. However, in hindsight, I can see many ways that studying philosophy was the better discipline for me to study. 

Recently I have read about educational institutions canceling their liberal arts programs, and I think this is extremely bad news. Studying liberal arts is one way that a person’s vision of reality can be deepened and broadened and a person’s self-understanding can be expanded. 

Polls have indicated that many students of high school and college age are experiencing severe anxiety and depression and that the suicide rate among that group has been on the rise. I hope that serious counseling is available for high school and college students to help them with emotional problems. 

I am not suggesting that the study of the liberal arts become a substitute for serious psychological counseling for troubled young students. However I am suggesting that the study of the liberal arts could be a step in the right direction. 

The classics are considered classics because they contain insights that can prompt serious reflection on what matters most in life. The classics can provide profound insights into the human person. 

At the beginning of a course entitled “Introduction to the Philosophy of Person,” I suggest to the students that the course should provide answers to the question “Who am I?” and to the question “Who are we?” 

Every college professor I know tells me that contemporary college students do not read. They read their cellphones but they do not read books. If this is true, it is an exceptionally serious problem. Reading classics can be a wonderful experience that can help young people to examine their lives carefully. 

More than 2,000 years ago, Plato, through his hero and model, Socrates, warned us that the unexamined life is not worth living. That was profoundly true when Plato first proclaimed it. Perhaps it is even more important and relevant today. 

The study of the liberal arts can be one way that students are helped to study important mysteries that are part of everyone’s life. It can also be an enormous help in providing answers to questions about the meaning and mystery of the human person. 

In his excellent book “The One and the Many: A Contemporary Thomistic Metaphysics” (The University of Notre Dame, 2001, 324 pp.) W. Norris Clarke, SJ, wrote the following: 

“Thus, in order to live our lives effectively at all we are called to make a kind of commitment in hope, an act of natural faith, so to speak, in the radical intelligibility in principle of all being. … As Einstein, the great physicist, once remarked. ‘All science of a high order presupposes a kind of act of faith in the intelligibility of nature. And the wonder of all wonders is that in fact nature has shown itself to be intelligible” (p. 17). 

Philosopher Jacques Maritain, a Thomist, expressed beautifully an insight similar to Einstein’s when he said, “There is a nuptial relationship between mind and being.” 

God has created human persons who can ask ultimate questions about themselves and about all of reality. God’s creation is filled with answers. Authentic education should help students both to ask important questions and to find answers in God’s creation.

Father Lauder is a philosophy professor at St. John’s University, Jamaica. He presents two 15-minute talks from his lecture series on the Catholic Novel, 10:30 a.m. Monday through Friday on NET-TV.