In a thought-provoking article on the Word on Fire blog, Bishop Robert Barron brings attention to the alarming trend of Catholic institutions like Marymount University in Virginia eliminating traditional majors in philosophy, religious studies, art, history, and more. According to Bishop Barron, these institutions are voluntarily turning themselves into STEM academies and marginalising the very subjects that touch upon purpose and meaning.
Bishop Barron explains the significance of the term “liberal arts” and their intrinsic value by stating, “We do so because they are free (liber in Latin) precisely from utility. And this is to say that they are the highest sort of disciplines, for they are subordinated to nothing outside of themselves. They exist for their own sake, endowed with intrinsic value.” He emphasises the importance of subordinating practical sciences to the liberal arts, acknowledging their value but recognising that they should serve the higher pursuits of meaning and purpose.
Furthermore, Bishop Barron highlights the impact of sidelining the liberal arts on society, particularly the younger generation, saying, “I believe there is a correlation between the disappearance of the liberal arts and the demonstrable rise in anxiety, depression, and suicidal thoughts—especially among the young today. When we push the subjects that treat of meaning to the side, are we surprised that people are finding life less and less meaningful?” He underscores the crucial role of the liberal arts in shaping a well-rounded education that addresses fundamental questions of love, purpose, justice and the divine.
The article calls attention to the perils of reducing education to simplistic binaries and the erasure of important figures from the liberal arts tradition. Bishop Barron states, “It is beyond tragic to admit this, but all that many younger students know about Shakespeare is that he is a dead white male, all that they know about Thomas Jefferson is that he owned slaves, and all that they know about T.S. Eliot is that he entertained some anti-Semitic opinions. But have they begun to notice that, despite their personal flaws, these people shed intense light on the themes of love, purpose, justice, right government, God, and eternal life?”
In conclusion, Bishop Barron passionately urges the professors and administrators at Catholic institutions of higher learning, as well as society as a whole, to preserve and prioritise the liberal arts. He emphasises the importance of exploring subjects that delve into meaning and purpose, stating, “For the sake of our young people and indeed the entire society, don’t give up on the liberal arts!” By recognising the value of these disciplines and their ability to address the deeper questions of life, we can cultivate a society that embraces beauty, truth, and intrinsic value.