Whether the Purpose of a Liberal Arts College Is to Teach

[This is the first in a three-part series on liberal education: (1) Whether the purpose of a liberal arts college is to teach; (2) whether teachers at a liberal arts college teach for the sake of their students; (3) whether teachers at a liberal arts college are employees.  For background on the subject, see my post on Pieper’s book.  For a glimpse into the kind of enjoyment I hope this post offers, see my comments on the scholastic question format.]

Here’s how to read this post.  Read the first objection, and then stop to think through how you would reply.  Do the same with the second objection.  Read the “on the contrary,” and stop to think about whether you agree with the argument.  Then read the body of the article, where I tip my hand as to my own ideas, and see if just reading the body changes how you would reply to the objections.  Finally, read each reply and see whether I said the same thing you would have said.  If not, why not?  Let me know.

 Article 1: Whether the Purpose of a Liberal Arts College Is to Teach

Objection 1. It seems that the purpose of a liberal arts college is to teach.  After all, the purpose of a college is to benefit students, and students go to college in order to be taught.  Therefore, the purpose of a college is to teach.

Objection 2. Both a college and a “think tank” are devoted to the intellectual life.  The difference between the two is that a college teaches students.  So the defining mark and hence the purpose of a college is to teach.

On the contrary, many university faculties are devoted to research, and they teach only in order to pay the bills so that they can research.  This makes it seem that the primary purpose of a college is not teaching but the intellectual achievements of the faculty.

I respond that, every community has both proximate and remote purposes.  The most remote purpose of a community is the best good of the community, while the most proximate purpose of a community is what defines it as a certain kind of community.  For example, the marriage is ultimately ordered to the good of society and most proximately ordered to the good of family:  although the good of society is best for married people, the good of family is what defines their marriage.

Ultimately, a liberal arts college exists for the sake of a broad community of truth, that is, to be part of and to promote the presence of wisdom and virtue in the world.  Without wise and virtuous people, the world would not only do foolish and wicked things but would be disfigured, like a body with no eyes or ears.

More proximately, a liberal arts college exists for the sake of a community of truth made up of those who have at one time or another been a part of the college.  The liberal arts college is part of and fosters wisdom and virtue in the ever-growing “family” of alumni.

Most proximately, a liberal arts college exists for the sake of the communal life of wisdom of those actually in the college, namely the current faculty, students, and staff.  This, therefore, is the defining purpose of a liberal arts college.

Reply to 1. To teach is not the proximate purpose of a liberal arts college but the proximate purpose of one of the parts of a liberal arts college, namely the faculty.  The proximate purpose of a college embraces all the parts of the college, including the students.  And yet not even the faculty has teaching as its only goal, if teaching be understood strictly as bringing about knowledge in others, because this is a practical activity rather than an activity good for its own sake.

Reply to 2. The difference between a “think tank” and a liberal arts college is that in a “think tank” all the members of the community live the life of wisdom in the same way, as peers, while the members of a college live the life of wisdom differently and unequally.  The teachers are above the students as regards their ability to live the life of wisdom, and so the teachers live the life of wisdom by contemplating and teaching while students live the life of wisdom by contemplating and learning, becoming more like the teachers as their studies progress.

Reply to 3. In universities dedicated to research, classroom activities are carried out as useful for paying bills and for recruiting future researchers.  But in a liberal arts college, classroom activities are conducted as good for their own sake.

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Author: Dr. Holmes

Dr. Jeremy Holmes teaches Theology at Wyoming Catholic College. He lives in Wyoming with his wife, Jacinta, and their eight children.

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