In a recent episode of Game Of Thrones, viewers watch Samwell Tarly scrub toilets, read books, scrub more toilets, read more books in a scene that lasts far longer than is comfortable. Of course we know that Samwell is going to discover something crucial that will have significance for the broader plot. We know that Samwell is actively searching for certain practical information as his service to a broken world. But we also know that Samwell is a bit of a nerd, and we love him for it, and we certainly don’t begrudge him his joys in learning even though we know most of that learning is “useless” and even though we know that Westeros is going to hell in a handbasket all around him. I submit to you that this scene is a picture of the liberal arts and shows us what Eastern University should aspire to be given that it is a liberal arts school. We ought not feel guilty that we Eastern students live in safety, security, comfort: we ought to count these things as a blessing. We ought not feel guilty if we don’t have a roadmap for how our study of dance is going to “wake up the world” or how exactly our biochemistry degree will translate directly into bettering the lives of others. We need not even feel impatient with the process of teacher or nursing accreditation, as if the journey only holds meaning in the future when we are employed as teachers and nurses. It is enough, in our four years as college students, to be like Samwell Tarly, to delight in this time of learning and the joys therein.
You are likely not convinced. You are likely asking, along with C.S. Lewis, how can we dare devote ourselves to study, to contemplation, when all around us the poor are starving, and the earth is crumbling, and the world is hurting? But it is indeed worse than this: how dare we emulate Samwell when all around us unreached souls totter on the brink of hell? Lewis asks, are not literature and mathematics, art and biology, mere trivialities when compared to the need to evangelise lost souls? So much for a liberal arts degree. We ought to allow Eastern to become a vocational school, to dedicate ourselves only to those areas of study which are immediately useful for immediate action which address immediate needs in our immediate surroundings.
But wait, no, here is Lewis himself defending this daring to study in his essay, “Learning in War-Time.” It is our nature to tell stories, says Lewis, and like Boccaccio, we do that even if the plague is sweeping through Europe. It is in our nature to write poetry and like Boethius, we do that even when imprisoned and awaiting our own execution. The world is broken but the thirst for Beauty persists. The world is hurting but we know that solace is found in music as well as food, that art meets a need in us just as clothing does. The question is not will there be art, but only whether there will be good art. It is a sorry view of the world, indeed, that says only the material matters, and that everything else is frivolous.
There is a further reason from Lewis for why the liberal arts matter. He writes, “If you don’t go on thinking rationally, you will think irrationally.” Likewise, “a cultural life will exist outside the Church whether it exists inside or not.” Why study philosophy when your neighbor’s body is wracked by cancer? Precisely because “Good philosophy must exist, if for no other reason, because bad philosophy needs to be answered.” Your neighbor’s mind may be wracked by utilitarian philosophy that lies to him, telling him that what is good is only what makes the greatest number of people happy. Surely your neighbor needs a doctor, and certainly we as a university ought to form doctors, but your neighbor needs a philosopher too, a good one who is formed by reading “useless” books during an “unproductive” four years at a “liberal arts” school. In the Western tradition, there has always been a tension between “the contemplative life” and “the active life”: we need both, both are good and worthy of our praise. We need clubs that mobilize us to respond to the injustices all around us, but of course, if we are to be able to recognize injustices and to respond to them, we also desperately need the students whose study is centered on exploring the question, “what is Justice?”
Source: C.S. Lewis “Learning in War-Time”