Are the liberal arts for the use of technological advancements?

Anyone who has a degree in the classical liberal arts is accustomed to people—including the proverbial uncle at Thanksgiving—asking what use his or her degree will be in finding a job after graduation.

What do Homer and Aristotle have to do with real work that brings in real money? Just seven years ago, Microsoft cofounder Bill Gates shared the opinion of the proverbial uncle: Graduates with a liberal arts degree would be insufficiently prepared for the modern economy. Now, however, Microsoft officials have reportedly said that liberal arts majors will be essential to the future of technology—especially in developing artificial intelligence (AI).

Why has Microsoft seemingly switched gears regarding liberal arts majors? As Microsoft President Brad Smith and Executive Vice President of AI and Research Harry Shum explain, “As computers behave more like humans, the social sciences and humanities will become even more important. Languages, art, history, economics, ethics, philosophy, psychology, and human development courses can teach critical, philosophical, and ethics-based skills that will be instrumental in the development and management of AI solutions.”

Because AI is not only related to technological fields, but also ethical ones, liberal arts majors will be useful in working on this technology because of their backgrounds in philosophy and the humanities. The ethics of Aristotle truly become relevant; the interactions of Achilles and Agamemnon become important for understanding human behavior. The relevancy of the liberal arts is most certainly true, as AI technology involves many ethical questions that cannot be ignored or overlooked. Yet one wonders if Smith and Shum have considered what a liberal arts degree is at its heart. In other words, is a liberal arts degree really for the purpose of assisting technology?

In Leisure: the Basis of Culture, Josef Pieper discusses the importance of the liberal arts in ancient Greek culture. The liberal arts were the “free” arts, which meant that those without servile work could pursue them. They were not learned with any particular purpose; rather, the liberal arts were pursued simply for their own sake. In other words, whereas the art of brickmaking is learned for making bricks for buildings, the liberal arts, such as philosophy, are studied simply because of their intrinsic goodness.

It is good to know philosophical principles; it is good to know Euclidean geometry proofs, even if they have no use for anything practical (some might argue to the contrary, however). In Aristotle’s Metaphysics, he writes that men began to pursue the liberal arts when they had time for leisure. After they had learned the arts necessary for survival, they had time to rest and wonder at the world surrounding them. Wonder is born in leisure, which is used for the purpose of contemplating the good, the true, and the beautiful.

Contrast this perspective with modern American culture. Everything that is done in our society is for some particular use. We are proud of our extreme efficiency, to the point that traveling to Europe can become irritating for the American, who is accustomed to everything being done in an instant and on demand. We are frequently eating on the road, while we continue to work, and we will even sometimes skip meals to continue working. Education is for the purpose of learning a skill to make as much money as possible (as the proverbial uncle will affirm). Even though many trade skills are in high demand right now, and while there is certainly nothing wrong with learning them, this (in the American mind) is the sole purpose of education. Any other kind of education is inefficient and a waste of time.

Nevertheless, in Leisure, Pieper offers a distinction between education and training. Training, he explains, is for the purpose of learning a useful skill, such as plumbing, carpentry, or accounting. These skills are indeed useful, but they cannot comprise the entirety of a person’s learning. Education, on the other hand, is for the whole person and allows him to ask the deepest questions about human existence, which are often overlooked or ignored when we are consumed with doing “useful” things. Education allows a person the space to wonder and to contemplate, to consider the goodness of the world and of existence. Such an education is the opposite of being merely useful, in the strictly utilitarian sense of the word. The liberal arts consist in this true education because they are not mere training. Pursuing the liberal arts allows the students to think about the deepest questions and to ponder the goodness of the world.

How does this discussion relate to Microsoft’s eagerness for liberal arts majors to help with AI? It is possible that Microsoft misunderstands the reason behind pursuing a degree in the liberal arts. Someone pursuing a liberal arts major is seeking to develop his or her whole person. He or she may eventually decide to help with the AI movement, but this is not the primary reason for his or her education. While liberal arts majors might prove helpful to the movement, and indeed should help if they feel inclined or called, we must be careful not to place this degree in our category of “useful,” for that is not the raison d’être of the liberal arts. People with an education in the liberal arts indeed can become useful once they have pursued their degree, but they earned this degree simply for the sake of studying the good, the true, and the beautiful. The motives were likely not utilitarian, even if one can recognize that liberal arts majors can be important for society.

Nevertheless, as Smith and Shum write, “If AI is to reach its potential in serving humans, then every engineer will need to learn more about the liberal arts and every liberal arts major will need to learn more about engineering.” There is certainly some truth to that. Interaction between these two fields is certainly important, and many liberal arts majors are eager to learn about anything they come across. And yet we must continue to respect the liberal arts for what they are, namely, the pursuit of something good simply for its own sake, which only secondarily becomes something useful for society. Or, perhaps we should consider the goodness of the liberal arts as Blessed John Henry Newman describes in The Idea of a University,

Though the useful is not always good, the good is always useful…. If then the intellect is so excellent a portion of us, and its cultivation so excellent… it must be useful to the possessor and to all around him; not useful in any low, mechanical mercantile sense, but as diffusing good, or as a blessing, or a gift or power or a treasure, first to the owner then through him to the world (Discourse VII.V).

In other words, the liberal arts education is useful to the world in that it is a blessing because of the goodness that it shares; we must never confuse this goodness with usefulness in the purely utilitarian sense, for then we risk losing the sheer goodness and beauty of such an education.

VERONICA ARNTZ graduated from Wyoming Catholic College with a degree in the classical liberal arts. She is pursuing a Master of Arts degree in theology from the Augustine Institute.

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