The Liberal Arts: An Education in Cattle Raiding

Cuchulain in Battle
A few days ago, I was trying to convince the freshmen and sophomores in my Western-Civilization survey to signup for my upper-level class in the fall. The upper-level class will cover the history of Late Antiquity, roughly the years 250 to 750. We’ll talk about the fall of Rome, the rise of the church, and the formation of the medieval kingdoms of Europe. It’s going to be awesome.

In order to pique their interest, I told the class that we would be reading the Táin Bó Cúailnge. The book recounts an epic cattle raid in Ireland. That’s right, a cattle raid. I like to think of the Táin as the Iliad of the north. The queen of Connacht steals the Brown Bull of Cooley (he’s an exceptionally fine bull), and the men of Ulster have to get him back. It’s epic; it’s heroic, it’s awesome.

I was passionately explaining to these freshmen and sophomores that the History of Late Antiquity would probably be the best class of their entire college career because no other class would give them the chance to read about the world’s most famous cattle raid. To my surprise, some of the students in the class did not actually know what a “cattle raid” is. As I was explaining the mechanics of raiding cattle (it’s a pretty simple concept), one girl on the front row leaned over to her friend and in a stage whisper announced, “I’m a math major; what do I need that for?”

My answer? “Of course you don’t NEED a cattle raid. But what does that matter!”

My student’s question about cattle raiding is really a much bigger question, and she’s not the only one asking it. All of America is asking, “What do we need the Liberal Arts for?” Many academics, attempting to justify their professorships in the humanities, have proposed various answers to that question. They’ll tell you that a Liberal Arts education promotes critical thinking and problem solving. They’ll tell you that the humanities give you a proficiency in written communication that will enable success in the business world. I believe these things, but on that day, I felt something different.

My student was right. She didn’t need a cattle raid, and she didn’t need the Liberal Arts tradition. But what does that matter? When you get down to it, what do we as humans NEED? We NEED food, shelter, and clothing. Those things are necessary, but they aren’t particularly exciting. Most of the things that bring us joy in life aren’t actually necessary. What’s your passion? What’s your hobby? Strictly speaking, you probably don’t NEED it.

Similarly, a math major doesn’t NEED to read about the greatest cattle raid in history. But wouldn’t it be great if she did. We Americans tend to be too utilitarian. We’re a pragmatic people. Sometimes this pragmatism causes us to lose sight of what it means to be human. Temperance, prudence, courage, justice, faith, hope, and love: do we need any of those things? Do we need to be curious about this crazy beautiful world we live in? No, we don’t NEED any of those things in order to meet our basic necessities. We probably do not even need those things to be successful in a particular career.

Let me suggest that we Americans tend to ask the wrong questions. “Why do I need the Liberal Arts?” You don’t, but you shouldn’t be asking that in the first place. And that’s really the best thing about the Liberal Arts. An education in the humanities helps us get our eyes off the wrong questions, and it forces us to start asking the right questions. Being human isn’t about meeting our needs. It’s so much more.

[Cross-posted at ReflectionAndChoice.org]

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