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Liberal Arts

“I have heard a great many persons object to certain branches of study because they were not of ‘practical’ importance. [On the contrary] the processes of [a liberal] education … are intended to put the mind in such training that it can do anything with itself that it pleases.”
— Woodrow Wilson

“A liberal education is designed to prepare you not for one profession but for any profession, including those not yet invented.”
—Shirley M. Tilghman, President of Princeton University

Today, there are three common perspectives on the liberal arts.   One is to dismiss them as a waste of time, in part because the term “liberal arts” has been so distorted as to mean almost anything, achieving a guilt-by-association with the excesses of the modern university and its identity politics.  The second is to fail to recognize that there are things in life worth doing for their own sake and that authentic liberal education is one of them.   Many who share this perspective defend the liberal arts but only as means to more pragmatic ends.  A third might be called the perspective of the purists, those who understand the value of liberal education but resolutely refuse to consider the demands of living that will attend postgraduate life.

At Magdalen College we choose a different path, honoring the great tradition of liberal education that transforms the human person as an end in itself, while also recognizing that most of our students will take up professional careers in their postgraduate years.  This recognition was the genesis for the Career Pathways Program.  We engage with all of our being in the pursuit of wisdom during the academic year.  But on occasion during the year and with greater focus and energy the summer recess, our students intentionally and carefully prepare for the next stages of their lives.  It is in these times that they recognize how much a traditional liberal education–contrary to its detractors–sets the foundation for professional success.

Let us begin by making two important but preliminary observations:

  • Alumni SuccessFirst, according to a recent survey conducted for the Association of American Colleges and Universities, the two collegiate “learning outcomes” most heavily favored by employers are “the ability to effectively communicate orally and in writing” and “critical thinking and analytical reasoning skills.”

  • Second, the typical employee can expect to change jobs five to seven times in his or her lifetime

Professional success sustained over the course of a lifetime—success that brings glory to God and leads to human flourishing—depends on the development of the intellect and the imagination as well as fundamental knowledge and skills that cannot be learned in an online seminar or weekend course.  It depends on deep formation that requires years of education. This formation prepares students for professional success in ways that are seldom available to students specializing exclusively in one field beginning freshman year and passively enduring large lecture courses at à la carte universities.  Pages could be written about this formation, but briefly we can observe that our graduates excel in the following ways:

Persuasive writing and speaking

Through our seminars—built around the discussion of primary texts—our students develop their skills in writing and speaking. Students write essays in almost every course, essays that require them to write clearly, coherently, and persuasively. Students also hone their abilities in courses devoted exclusively to writing. In their seminars, students often lead discussions, offering their own insights as a persuasive initiation to a larger discussion. Students also present orally, in their junior year, the results of a year-long research project to a faculty panel. Some seniors elect to write a senior thesis that culminates in defense of their work before a faculty panel and students.

Analysis

Almost every assignment students receive at the college involves analysis, breaking things down—Latin phrases, philosophical claims, Euclidean propositions—into their essential elements. Though few of our students work with Latin, Euclid, or Aristotle in their professional lives, the skills they develop in their academic efforts develop intellectual and imaginative strength that can be applied to analysis in professional settings. Being able to get to the core of a matter, distinguishing what is most important from what is less important, is a priceless skill in every field.

Synthesis

But analysis is not enough. In our modern age we too often lose sight of “the whole.” We can break things apart, but we cannot put Humpty Dumpty back together. This blindness to wholes becomes a stumbling block to professional advancement. Thinking of one’s work in isolation prevents innovation and compounds alienation. Students at the college have many opportunities to synthesize and integrate their work. As one example among many possible examples, our seniors take a comprehensive exam that requires them to integrate key insights obtained over their four years of study, drawn from every discipline at the college.

Problem-solving

Students face a wide variety of challenges at the college both within and beyond the classroom. Studying the traditional liberal arts requires students to engage both verbal and quantitative disciplines, each with their own problem-solving methods. Professionals who have acquired these problem-solving skills by using a variety of verbal and mathematical tools are invaluable in contemporary professional settings.

Critical thinking

Moving from a free-for-all discussion about a topic to the moment of decision requires the ability to see things for what they really are and to evaluate the consequences of a variety of possible outcomes. Students must make distinctions as well as unify knowledge, all while avoiding false analogies and common intellectual missteps. This kind of critical thinking requires honesty, perspicuity, and courage to make a judgment and commit oneself to it. One could make the case that all of the students at Magdalen College “major” in critical thinking.

Quantitative and logical analysis

Though students spend much of their time analyzing philosophical, theological, literary, and political texts at the college, they also study Aristotelian logic, Euclidean geometry, astronomy, physics, and biology. These courses impart and strengthen quantitative and logical skills applicable to a variety of professional fields

Teamwork

Teamwork is essential to both the curricular and co-curricular lives of our students. In class, students often collaborate in a wide variety of projects that require leadership as well as the compromise and give-and-take necessary for success. Outside of the classroom students work together in the kitchen, on the soccer field, in choir and in the residence halls. They learn how to work with people from a variety of backgrounds and with a variety of personalities.

Project management

Through their work in teams, students also have multiple opportunities to lead effectively the planning and execution of larger projects, both academic and co-curricular. These skills are invaluable in a professional setting and are transferable from one field to another.

Independent work

Throughout their four years of collegiate life, students undertake multiple long-term independent projects (in addition to the larger projects required for individual courses). In their junior year, students independently complete a Junior Project that requires them to develop an annotated bibliography on a single author and present their findings to a faculty panel at the end of the year. As seniors, students must manage their time over the course of the year and prepare for a comprehensive exam that requires them to integrate key insights obtained over their four years of study. In addition, some seniors elect to write a senior thesis that demands nine-months of independent study, preparation, and writing, as well as an oral defense before faculty and students.

Self-confidence

Through four years of dialogue in Socratic seminars, our students learn to speak with confidence and poise, offering insights to their peers and teachers. They learn to receive and respond to criticism, engaging their interlocutors with respect and clarity of thought and expression.

“To develop a complete mind: study the science of art; study the art of science. Learn how to see. Realize that everything connects to everything else.” – Leonardo da Vinci

“It is not so very important for a person to learn facts. For that he does not really need a college. He can learn them from books. The value of an education in a liberal arts college is not the learning of many facts, but the training of the mind to think something that cannot be learned from textbooks.” – Albert Einstein

“It is technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities,
that yields us the results that make our hearts sing.” – Steve Jobs

The Bigger Picture

“Magdalen College serves her students, their families, the Church, and society by providing a premier Catholic, Great Books, liberal arts education that is faithful to the magisterium and rooted in a vibrant liturgical and sacramental culture, calling all within her collegiate community to a life of intellectual virtue, poetic imagination, service, and faithful discipleship.”

The intellectual formation described above and the efforts of the Career Pathways Program unfold in a larger context at the college.  This context is suggested through five plaques at the entrance to our primary administrative building on campus.  The mission statement of the college is found on one followed by four others, featuring a key verb:  “Educate,” “Equip,” “Connect,” and “Launch.”

Educate

Magdalen College educates our students intellectually and spiritually through a Great Books curriculum that is animated by the fundamental questions that shape human life and the Catholic intellectual tradition.

Through Socratic seminars our students probe the foundations of the spiritual, natural, and cultural order, engaging the great thinkers, ideas, and texts that have shaped our world at the deepest level.  Through this curriculum we form our students in a worldview that is oriented toward sacramental discipleship.  Ultimately, our students establish the foundations upon which they will learn to live life well.

Equip

Through their active participation in the seminars and tutorials, students receive an intellectual formation that equips them for future success in a wide variety of fields, learning to think analytically, honing their abilities to write and speak convincingly, and developing their creativity and imagination.  All of this takes place in a collegiate culture in which our students are called to order their loves to the highest Love and are challenged to take up the sacramental practices that will enable them to sanctify contemporary society as they live out their vocations.

Connect

Through our Career Pathway Program—consisting of mentors, internships, pre-professional programs, speakers, and networking opportunities—students can explore their vocation with the people and organizations that will enable them to carry out a renewal of the Church and the world.

Launch

After four intense years at Magdalen College, our students will be in a unique position to live wise, generous, and successful lives that take their ultimate measure of success from Christ’s standard: that is, fidelity to his calling.  Having received a unique education and formation rooted in human nature and purpose, our students will stand ready and equipped to serve and shape their world—sometimes quietly and sometimes in the public sphere—offering themselves for God’s ultimate purposes.

We would be happy to discuss further how our liberal arts and Great Books education prepare our graduates professionally.  Feel free to contact the Career Pathways Coordinator, Eric Buck or call 603-456-2656.