A liberal arts education, like love, is best when it is useless. ‘Useless’ is a philosophic term which refers to that which is enjoyed for its own sake, that which has purpose, value, and meaning in and of itself.
Joseph Pieper discusses the useless on page 41 of his essay In Defense of Philosophy. What he refers to as “philosophy,” he elsewhere refers to as the liberal arts:
But isn’t love useful?…Isn’t a liberal arts education useful?
It depends what is meant. One sense of ‘useful’ is ultimately dehumanizing and absurd. It amounts to an instrumentalization of love. Consider:
- I love you because your father is rich and powerful.
- I love you because you boost my self esteem.
- I love you because you make a mean casserole.
- I love you because you fetch my slippers.
This is similar to what happens when a liberal arts education is understood primarily as a means to an external end, such as an economic or cultural aim. To subordinate this form of education is to subordinate and obscure the radical love which God has bestowed upon us.
A liberal arts student can become a successful employee, artist, pastor, etc., but such outcomes are secondary. This education is meant to engage the person as such because it is only the person, and not the employee, artist, etc., who can love, understand, and give thanks. A person has value and purpose, not because one is learned or successful, but because the capacity of love and gratitude (worship) has been implanted by God. Our role is not to manufacture the good, but know and to worship a God who is Good.
The pursuit of truth, goodness, beauty, and unity, the objects of the liberal arts, puts a student in the way to discover something very much like the absurd delight of the lover for the beloved. It parallels the queer absurdity of a God who not only creates, but gave his only Son in order to redeem his creation–not to make it useful, but to refashion our hearts in glorious gratitude.
The liberal arts is not ultimately about career readiness or social success because one cannot say, “I will have successfully used this education when I do or become x.” Rather, the student is directed to a fount of living water that will bear fruit in its season throughout a lifetime. Taken seriously, this education encourages one to awaken to the blessed reality of God, creation, and the human person (in the self, in one’s neighbor, and preeminently in Jesus Christ).
Such an education may or may not prove ‘useful’, though I would argue it will do this as well. It benefits the individual more fundamentally in displaying and defending the freedom of love. The liberal arts, the free arts, ultimately strives to remind us that it is for freedom that Christ set us free (Galatians 5:1).