Copyright (c) 2000 First Things 107 (November 2000): 11-12.
In an essay written during World War II, C. S. Lewis raised the question of learning during wartime. What, he asked, is the use of pursuing arcane knowledge when the world is collapsing about us? Isn’t this like fiddling while Rome burns? Since I teach at a Christian liberal arts college, this question is as forceful for me today as it was when Lewis posed it. We are, if you believe the pundits and sociologists, in the midst of a battle for the heart of American society and morals, a “culture war” in which the future of America lies in the balance. But in the midst of this battle, the faculty and students of my college are, in quite peaceful circumstances, devoting themselves to the study of old books, poetry, music, history, and theology. Why aren’t we doing something more to help save America?
One might argue that diligent study of classics gives us a wisdom that will help to engage in cultural battles more effectively. This argument could be mounted, but it would not be very convincing, for the learned are notoriously clumsy in the practical world of political conflict. Some would argue that exposure to the best that has been thought and said will help to form moral and civic virtues, but if the twentieth century taught us anything at all, it taught us that the most exquisite music and poetry can coexist quite peacefully with unimaginable brutality.
No, we must not respond to this criticism by seeking some use for the liberal arts. In fact, to defend the “usefulness” of the liberal arts is to accept the standards of our critics, the criterion that judges every human pursuit by its economic, political, or personal usefulness. If we do this, we lose the argument before we begin. We must concede that the liberal arts are, at least by all normal standards, useless.
But we must go further than concession: we must be willing to celebrate this uselessness. Lewis points out that there is always some crisis, some alarm that demands our attention; there are always a million and one things more important than reading Homer. Yet we continue to read Homer because we are not creatures whose behavior is solely guided by a crabbed criterion of usefulness. We are creatures made in the image of a Creator who makes things that He does not need, things that are not of use to Him. As we imitate His excess, we play music and recite poetry and tell stories—and organize liberal arts colleges so others can do these things with us. The liberal arts are useless in the same way that the centerpiece on a dining room table is useless; useless in the way a silk tie is useless; useless in the way salt and pepper are useless; useless in the way that perfecting a golf swing is useless; useless in the same way that most of what makes life rich and beautiful is useless. We should not be ashamed of the uselessness of the liberal arts, for making what we do not need, and doing what we have no ordinary use for, is part of the glory of being made in the image of the infinitely creative God.
Liberal arts education, more particularly, is useless in the sense that however far we progress we are always only beginners. Students at my college spend four years reading thousands of pages of history, theology, and literature; learning logic and rhetoric; studying Greek and Latin and in some cases Hebrew. For all this time and effort, they have read a tiny fraction of a fraction of a fraction of what there is to read, and they know an even smaller percentage of what there is to know. If our graduates have an ounce of pride in their accomplishments, they have learned nothing at all. If they think they have “mastered” anything, they have surely failed to master the one needful thing. Perhaps here, at least, we can find a real use for liberal education. Knowledge can puff us with pride, but if it is received rightly, a liberal education inculcates at least one virtue: the master virtue of humility.
If education were nothing more than initiation into the liberal arts, I could end here, singing anti–utilitarian psalms and hymns and spiritual songs from now to the end of time. But the college where I teach is also striving to be something more: it is also, and above all, a Christian college, a college in which every discipline is grounded in God’s revelation in His Word; a college that seeks, by the grace of God, to see this Word planted and nurtured and watered so that it will produce abundant fruit; a college whose confession is that Jesus Christ has been exalted high above all rule and authority, all power and dominion, even all art and poetry.
This additional factor changes the whole equation. Because what we are seeking above all is a deeper desire and knowledge of God and His Word, we have reason to hope that our students will grow in wisdom, as they come to know the God who is His wisdom. In this context, and only in this context, the liberal arts themselves become what the older theologians called ancillae theologiae, handmaidens of the knowledge of God. Teaching history becomes teaching the mighty acts of God; languages are taught so students can gain a more accurate grasp of the Word that brings life; philosophy and science provoke wonder at God’s creation; we study poetry to learn to read Psalms and Proverbs with understanding; we learn to read music and sing so that we offer a sacrifice of praise. Liberal studies can thus be shaped into instruments of worship, even as the ancient Israelites shaped the gold and jewels of Egypt into a tabernacle.
Solomon wrote in Ecclesiastes that all is vanity, and this vanity encompasses the making of and devotion to books. Devotion to liberal arts is no more vain than any other human pursuit, but neither is it any less vain. But though vanity and vapor, it is the labor that God has set in our hands, whether for a time or for a lifetime. And we can enjoy it in Him and enjoy Him in it. “Here is what I have seen to be good and fitting,” Solomon wrote, “to eat, to drink and enjoy oneself in all one’s labors in which he toils under the sun during the few years of his life which God has given him; for this is his reward. . . . He will not often consider the years of his life, because God keeps him occupied with the gladness of his heart” (Ecclesiastes 5:18, 20).
Peter J. Leithart is Fellow in Theology and Literature at New St. Andrews College in Moscow, Idaho.