Robert P. George and Cornel West on the Values and Virtues of a Liberal Arts Education

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Robert P. George, a professor at Princeton University, and Cornel West, a professor at Harvard University, began their recent lecture at Villanova University on the values, virtues, and challenges of a liberal arts education by asking a question those of us pursuing a liberal arts degree are quite familiar with: “So, what are you going to do with a liberal arts degree?” This leads to the question of the importance of the liberal arts and how the liberal arts interact with everyday life, including both the professional and political life.

Robert P. George is the McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence and Director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University. He is a specialist in moral and political philosophy, constitutional law, bioethics, and the theory of conscience. His wisdom on the importance of liberal arts is valuable because this is his primary focus and he has spent the majority of his adult life addressing the liberal arts and their importance.

Cornel West is a prominent and provocative democratic intellectual. He is the Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at Harvard University and holds the prestigious title of Professor Emeritus at Princeton University. West, being well versed in a variety of subjects including philosophy and theology, has an interesting perspective to add to the conversation because it is through his dedication to the liberal arts that he is able to keep alive the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.—a legacy of honesty and bearing witness to love and justice.

Though West and George did not agree on everything, they did agree on one very interesting virtue of the liberal arts that is rarely thought of, namely, the ability to explain the truth to others. Studying the liberal arts makes us better able to think critically across a variety of subjects. Unlike other specialties, the liberal arts allow for reasoning beyond your specific subject in that you can think critically across specialties. In the liberal arts you are searching for answers to questions that do not necessarily have empirical answers. The ability to think critically about a variety of subjects is indispensable to not only the professional world but more importantly, to living well.

The ability to think critically is also crucial because it allows you to converse across political lines. It gives you the ability to step into other people’s shoes to see their view. This ability to be charitable to the arguments of others is seemingly less common in political discourse. What we typically see are people talking past each other because they are unable or unwilling to critically engage in an opposing view. However, George and West alluded to the idea that if more people were trained in the liberal arts, we would have more fruitful discourse. The liberal arts teach us to seek the truth, which means looking at opposing views and engaging with them in a critical, and thus charitable, manner.

Cornel West and Robert P. George talked of many values and virtues of the liberal arts, but the most striking was the ability to think critically. This lecture gave a compelling argument for why the ability to think critically ought to be one of the first things that comes to mind when thinking of the liberal arts. This ability ultimately allows you to be more human by making you see other humans as they are and not as ideas. The importance of critical thinking is not restricted to philosophy or literature because it is crucial for engaging in any topic, and it is crucial to engaging in the public sphere. The liberal arts not only prepare us to participate in any specialized profession, but they make us better humans who are better equipped to participate in the public sphere.

Ceara Shanahan ’20 is a sophomore in the Templeton Honors College. She is majoring in Philosophy and minoring in European History. She is planning on attending law school after graduation. 

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