Suggested Reading: “The Landscape of the Liberal Arts”

Mark Roche, “The Landscape of the Liberal Arts”

This chapter provides a rationale for the value of a liberal arts education, addressing briefly the recent history of the liberal arts, explaining the value of the liberal arts in diverse educational settings as opposed to simply residential liberal arts colleges, and exploring a contemporary rationale for the liberal arts.

What are the “liberal arts”? The term has its origin in the medieval concept of the artes liberalis, the seven liberal arts that were appropriate for a free man (the Latin liber means “free”). On the other hand, the artes illiberalis or artes mechanicae were pursued for economic purposes and involved vocational and practical arts, which prepared young persons to become weavers, blacksmiths, farmers, hunters, navigators, soldiers, or doctors. The seven liberal arts included three basic arts focused on developing a felicity with language: grammar (or language), rhetoric (or oratory), and dialectic (or logic). These were known as the trivium. Added to these were the four advanced mathematical-physical arts: geometry, arithmetic, music, and astronomy, which were known as the quadrivium. The liberal arts were preparatory not for gaining a livelihood but for the further study of law, medicine, and theology. Today we understand the liberal arts to involve study of the arts and sciences, and we contrast the liberal arts with vocational education. Some college students major in the liberal arts; virtually all others take a certain percentage of their courses in the liberal arts, including basic subjects such as composition, mathematics, and history, as well as electives in fields ranging from biology and economics to literature and philosophy.

Mark Roche, “The Landscape of the Liberal Arts”
© 2013 Wiley Periodicals, Inc.
Published online in Wiley Online Library (
DOI: 10.1002/cc.20065

Questions to Consider:

  1. On pages 5-6, Roche offers three arguments for the value of a liberal arts education. Although his audience is composed of community college students and those who work in those institutions, I think Roche would argue that these are good reasons for any student to pursue a liberal arts education. To what extent do his arguments align with your own? What does Hope College do to emphasize to its students these or other rationales for a liberal arts education?
  2. Roche argues that liberal arts students “learn to participate meaningfully in the give-and-take of discussion, listening attentively and asking other students to clarify their points, articulating their own perspectives and offering evidence to support them, and asking good, searching questions that take discussions to higher levels.” (7) If Senior Seminar indirectly functions as a final assessment of our students, then should we expect them to have cultivated the virtues, skills, and dispositions necessary to “participate meaningfully” in the types of discussions that are the heart of Senior Seminar? What about the anecdotal evidence from students who say things like: “I wish I had been given the opportunity to have discussions like these before Senior Seminar.”
  3. Roche claims that a liberal arts education “is about understanding, through the asking of great questions and the development of new capacities as well as through other formative experiences, such as conversation with faculty members and fellow students, what kind of person one is and what kind of person one wants to become.” (9) Where in our academic program, other than Senior Seminar, does this development of understanding intentionally take place? What can we do, either as a community or individually, to increase the likelihood that each student develops an understanding of themselves—both in the present and in an imagined future?


Note: Neither I nor the Senior Seminar Program necessarily endorse all or any of the views, perspectives, or pedagogical practices in the readings that I recommend. Rather, I hope to stimulate and foster meaningful discussion and dialogue, which often means reading texts that you might find challenging and/or in opposition to your own attitudes and perspectives. Therefore, I hope that you find this suggested reading thought provoking.

Actually, You Can’t Be Anything You Want (And it’s a Good Thing, Too)

Excerpts from William T. Cavanaugh’s chapter in At This Time and In This Place: Vocation and Higher Education, ed. David Cunningham (Oxford University Press, 2015)

The following quotation is attributed to Abraham Lincoln: “You can be anything you want to be, do anything you set out to accomplish, if you hold to that desire with singleness of purpose.” This message is constantly reinforced in education and entertainment directed at children. Disney movies often rely on a formula in which an anthropomorphized panda or plane or rat or monster or car believes in himself, overcomes his limitations and the restrictions of society, and fulfills his wildest dreams. The protagonist along the way learns contempt for the unimaginative drudgery to which the majority of society remains captive; self-fulfillment is privileged over the common good. A disparagement of routine labor is accompanied by a disregard for hard work and the development of good habits. As Luke Epplin’s recent article in The Atlantic puts it, “Turbo and Dusty”—the protagonists of the animated movies Turbo and Planes—“don’t need to hone their craft for years in minor-league circuits like their racing peers presumably did. It’s enough for them simply to show up with no experience at the world’s most competitive races, dig deep within themselves, and out-believe their opponents.” Customs, community, rules, habituation—all are ignored in favor of spontaneous gratification of one’s wants.

What happens when young adults who have been marinated in this type of cultural messaging come to the range of questions surrounding vocation? They are often told not only that they can and must choose their life, but that they must maximize that choice and choose their best life. Furthermore, the choice of their best life consists of knowing what they want and then seeking to attain what they want. It is no wonder that many young adults find this demand paralyzing. How many times has panic flashed across the face of a student confronted by the seemingly innocent question, “What would you like to do when you graduate?” Many, no doubt, suspect that what Abraham Lincoln and Dusty the animated airplane say is simply not true: you actually can’t be whatever you want to be. But even if they accept some realistic limitations on the fulfillments of their wants, the deeper problem remains: do they even know what they want? How does anyone really know what kind of life one wants? Can people choose what sorts of lives are right for them before they have lived enough to know? The whole exercise of choosing one’s vocation becomes fraught with anxiety

Questions to Consider:

  • What are the realistic limitations on the fulfillment of your wants? How do these limitations differ from what your parents and your grandparents faced when they were your age? Should you try to overcome these limitations or work within them? Why?
  • How has Hope College prepared you to choose what sort of life is good for you before you have lived enough to know? Or do you feel woefully unprepared to make choices about your vocation?


Psychologists use the term “maximizer” to describe the person who tries to live up to the ideal of the sovereign chooser by making the optimal choice from the range of options. The ideal is a corollary of the notion that having more choices is always better; as choice expands, some even better options may come into play, thus increasing the range of candidates for the “best” possible choice. Maximizers do not stop looking for a sweater or a job when they find one they like; there is always one more store or one more website they need to check to make sure that they don’t settle for second best. The term “satisficer” is used to describe those who stop looking when they find what they were seeking. Maximizers are much less happy with life than satisficers, not because they make worse choices—after all, the maximizer might well end up getting a better deal on the same sweater—but because they can never be satisfied with the choices they make. Maximizers fantasize about living someone else’s life, because the best life is always out of reach.

Questions to Consider:

  • Do you see yourself as a “maximizer” or a “satisficer”?
  • Presumably, it’s possible to be both a “maximizer” and a “satisficer”—you might have some areas in your life where you do not stop looking for the best choice, while in other areas you stop looking when you find what you are seeking. In what aspects of your life are you a “maximizer”? a “satisficer”?
  • If you can be both, can you choose when to be a “maximizer” and when to be a “satisficer”? If so, when would you want to be a “maximizer”? a “satisficer”?

Suggested Reading: Work, Life, and Vocational Choice

Lee Hardy, “Work, Life, and Vocational Choice: Investing Yourself in the Divine Economy,” in The Fabric of This World: Inquiries into Calling, Career Choice, and the Design of Human Work (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans, 1990)

“Career decisions are rarely irrevocable. Most people nowadays go through four or five career changes in the course of a lifetime. When I was in high school I wanted to go into cinematography. I loved movies, and I wanted to make some. Instead I became an advertising artist. But later, while working in an art studio in the San Francisco Bay area, I found myself drawn into the discipline of philosophy. I needed to clarify certain issues in life. Today I am a professor of philosophy at a liberal arts college. And I suspect most people past their twenties have similarly crooked accounts of how they came to their present occupations. Career paths are rarely straight. Typically they are afflicted by detours, unmarked intersection, forced exits, blind alleys, and cul-de-sacs… We can’t know everything before we act. An element of trial and error is unavoidable in the carving out of a niche for oneself in the world of work.” (87)

Questions to Consider:

  • What “detours” have you already encountered either at Hope College or before?
  • If trials and errors inevitably lie before you, what assumptions about your career will your job choices test?
  • Many jobs and careers today did not exist twenty years ago. We might call these “unmarked intersections.” How has your liberal arts education prepared you to respond to these?


Hardy proposes three steps in “responsible vocational choice”:

  1. Identify the abilities and talents God has given us.
  2. Become aware of the specific concern for others God has given us.
  3. Based on our interests, cultivate skills that we can use in the service of others.


“The assumption behind these recommendations is that discovering God’s will for one’s life is not so much a matter of seeking out miraculous signs and wonders as it is being attentive to who and where we are. It is not as if our abilities, concerns, and interests are just there, as an accident of nature, and then God has to intervene in some special way in order to make His will known to us in a completely unrelated manner. Rather, in making a career choice, we ought to take seriously the doctrine of divine providence: God Himself gives us whatever legitimate abilities, concerns, and interests we in fact possess. These are His gifts, and for that very reason they can serve as indicators of His will for our lives. In coming to know ourselves and our situation, we come to know God’s will.” (92)

Questions to Consider:

  • How has your time at Hope College helped you to discern the abilities, concerns, and interests God has given you?
  • As you look ahead to life after Hope College, how will you continue to learn more about yourself and your situation, as you continue to discern God’s will?