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The Daily Tar Heel

Lux, libertas and the liberal arts

When you meet someone new at college, the invariable question — “What’s your major” — is generally followed up by asking, “So, what are you going to do with that?” That’s the lens through which we view our time spent in college: preparing us for a specific career. We are, after all, “minds on a mission.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Professors who spend their days teaching Milton do need someone to provide them with three square meals a day, a roof over their heads and, of course, iPads. As much as some of us may want to devote ourselves to the , most people cannot, and they choose to do equally necessary and important jobs outside of academia.

What ends up happening, unfortunately, is that the humanities — tied inextricably to the liberal arts experiment — get a bad rap. You know that taking another math class will prepare you better for the world than a class on Plato’s “Republic.” There seems to be a certain precision in calculus that’s nowhere to be found in discussing the modern equivalent of how many angels can dance on the head of a pin.

Scientism is so ingrained in us that we are confident that we can dismiss the importance of supposedly softer options like English in favor of the hard sciences. When courses have to go on the chopping block, the humanities are the first to go. Just look at the attempts that were made to cut Professor Larry Goldberg’s classes last semester.

When are we going to realize how dismal this view of life is? We’re much more than economic actors; we’re mothers, fathers, citizens, spouses, friends, business partners and classmates.

My economics degree will tell me a bit about each of the roles I will play, but how can I be a good citizen if I’ve never read the writings of our the men who drafted our country’s constitution?

Every nation is centered around certain conceptions of justice and liberty, which we can’t fully appreciate if we haven’t read Rawls or Burke, Locke and Machiavelli, Aquinas, Aristotle, “King Lear”— or the Letter from Birmingham Jail.

You can’t set out to solve all of our society’s problems if you don’t actually understand the world around you. The University is doing students a disservice in failing to appreciate just how crucial the humanities are to our development as humans.

The liberal arts tradition isn’t without its critics. Some say philosophy is esoteric and unfit for popular consumption. Others make the graver (and more spurious) allegation that Western philosophy is inherently racist, sexist and every other “-ist” in the dictionary.

To be sure, some of the criticism is legitimate. Far too many proponents of the liberal arts have tried to turn it into an elitist enterprise, worthy only of a select few. Some have also tried to devalue math and the sciences.

But both of these efforts miss the proper understanding of the liberal arts, which tries to incorporate all of human knowledge for everyone’s benefit.

The liberal arts try to free you from your preconceived notions of the world to help you discover what you really believe about the world. The University should do its utmost to preserve this tradition, if only to live up to our motto: .

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