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Professors for Lunch’ panel discusses liberal arts

Nicole Michels | Monday, April 2, 2012

The value of a liberal arts education was discussed Friday afternoon at the second installment in the “Professors for Lunch” series. The event, titled “Why choose the liberal arts?” was hosted at the Oak Room in South Dining Hall.

The “Professors for Lunch” series is meant to enrich intellectual life at Notre Dame by engaging students and faculty in dialogue.  Diverging from the structure of the inaugural event on Feb. 24, the second meeting featured a panel of speakers from diverse academic backgrounds, followed by questions from the audience.

Professor Mark Roche, professor of German language and literature and former dean of the College of Arts & Letters, was scheduled to speak about his book “Why Choose the Liberal Arts?” which inspired the topic of this Friday’s event. However, Roche was unable to attend, so senior event organizer Morgan Pino said the organizers worked to find a diverse group of panelists.

“It went really well [because] they all had something different to bring to the panel,” Pino said.  “I enjoyed getting to hear multiple points of view on the issue.”

Fr. Brian Daley of the theology department, Dr. Kevin Burke of the Alliance for Catholic Education (ACE) and Michael Zuckert of the political science department comprised the panel.

The panelists addressed the purpose of a liberal education from varying disciplines.

Daley said he drew on his Christian faith, especially his Jesuit background, to inform his analysis of America’s universities and its general academic culture.

“One of the things that always struck me when I think about our universities is that they are very artificial institutions, that we create them for a specific purpose,” he said.

Daley said these institutions are embodiments of a common culture, resting on specific assumptions, hopes and values.  He said this leads to questioning what type of person would be a successful Notre Dame graduate, and how the University’s vision differs from the general national opinion.

“I suspect that many undergraduate institutions, Notre Dame among them, would also hope to have some consensus that at the end of four years, a graduate would be a virtuous person, a person who is trained morally, virtuously [and is working] to make the world a happier, more just place,” Daly said.

Discussion of the Christian faith, particularly the Jesuit theology, enables students to engage in evaluation of the culture and faith from which they come, Daley said.  

“I say this as a Jesuit because we have a long tradition of doing education,” he said. “The Jesuits happened into education by accident; the first Jesuits were pastoral ministers that happened into education because they shared the assumption that teaching young people … made them better Christians.”

Burke said he also drew on Jesuit teachings to inform his opinions on undergraduate education and the search for personal vocation.

“I’m going to go back to the Jesuits and their idea of the ‘magis,'” Burke said. “The magis [means] ‘more in the world,’ doing more, thinking more, spiritually being more. When you think about what your vocation might be, does it think about doing more for the world?”

The ultimate goal for each individual’s undergraduate education is at the intersection of each individual’s answers to three distinct questions, Burke said.

“The questions are ‘What are you good at?’ ‘What brings you joy?’ and ‘What does the world most need you to do?” Burke said.  “I’m going to argue that you figure out the answer to those three questions in conversation.”

Zuckert said his definition of contemporary liberal arts depends on their basis in classical educational tradition. However, French political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville pointed out the tendency in modern democracies is for people to believe practical education is the only kind that makes sense, Zuckert said.  

“In America, liberal education is always threatened by education that is not liberal,” he said.  “If there are kinds of human activities that are choice-worthy in themselves and not as a means for other things, then there remains a case for liberal education as the education conducive to engaging in those activities.”

These sorts of activities are those that contribute to living well and rightly, Zuckert said.  

“Liberal education helps us to answer these questions,” Zuckert said. “It goes beyond the necessities of living, answering the question of what the point of living is.”

Pino said though the speakers only had a brief time to formulate their comments, the laid-back style of communication made the talk accessible.

“With Professor [of early modern European history Brad] Gregory’s talk [at the last meeting], I think everyone was blown away,” Pino said.  “The problem was that we didn’t leave enough time to really get into it … This time we were going to try to make it a little less formal, and to leave more time for questions and answers afterward.”

The shorter comments from the panel allowed for more discussion and engagement with the speakers’ ideas, Pino said.

“I’m glad it was a little shorter and that we had more time to talk afterward,” Pino said. “I think students really got into it.”  

Event organizer and political science professor Vincent Muñoz said h e is pleased the panel format successfully interested the audience.  

“The turnout was very strong,” Muñoz said. “It seems to me that we have found something that is really resonating with the students. The panel format seemed to work well … It’s unfortunate that Professor Roche couldn’t be there, but the [resulting] format allowed for more voices and more conversation.”

Pino said the organizers want to continue the series, and they are taking it one step at a time.

“It’s really sort of up in the air,” she said. “I think we’re just going to take it topic by topic and see what professors come forward and what interesting work comes up. We are not set on particular ideas, more on what we think people would be interested in and what people want to talk about.”