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Former dean shares thoughts

Marisa Iati | Monday, February 11, 2013

Mark Roche, former dean of the College of Arts and Letters, praised the liberal arts’ provocation of important inquiries as part of the Professors for Lunch series Friday afternoon.

“Students come to college with great questions, and college awakens in them other great questions,” Roche said. “What is most essential to human flourishing? How did the world begin? Why are there wars? Few of these questions have practical value in the truncated way we define practical value, but they matter to students to understand the world as it is and the world as it should be.”

Roche, a professor of German language and literature and a concurrent professor of philosophy, spoke to students and faculty over a casual lunch in the Oak Room of South Dining Hall.

College offers a unique opportunity to engage higher-order questions about the human condition, Roche said.

“You’ll be engaged in a lot of busyness in the rest of your life,” he said. “[College is] an opportunity to withdraw from your world and reflect on the past as much as the present, on other nations as much as your own.”

Roche said knowledge pursued for its utility is only useful insofar as it serves an end, but knowledge sought for its own sake fulfills a greater purpose.

“Knowledge is the human capacity that most resembles divine, and therefore, when we engage knowledge as a good in itself, we are engaging in a religious activity,” he said.

Liberal arts courses help students determine their vocations by teaching them to consider how they can use their capacities and passions to improve the world, Roche said.

“A liberal arts education, therefore, helps me discover who I am and how I ought to live my life,” he said.

Roche said liberal arts classes enable students to develop communication and critical thinking skills that will be useful in their careers. They provide tools for adapting to new professional fields and eventually working in jobs that do not yet exist.

A liberal arts background also helps people communicate well with each other, Roche said.

“To encourage effectively the participation of others, to draw them out in the discussion, to challenge the view of interlocutors without irritating them to such a degree that they turn away from the discussion, is to enact a kind of diplomacy,” Roche said.

Roche advised students not to choose majors based on employment prospects but rather on what will most fulfill them.

“If you get a Notre Dame degree, you’re going to get a job, so it doesn’t matter all that much what you major in,” he said. “But you have to worry in this sense: If you choose business, are you getting enough liberal arts classes to really flourish in the long term?”