I ask my students students from time to time why they want to “get an education.” These days the expected answer is of course “so that I can get a good job and make a great deal of money.”
“Great!” I respond, “if I give you $1,000,000 right now, would you quit school?”
This is a great starter for getting students to think about the real purpose of education – something which must necessarily have to do with something more important than money.
In fact, after some consideration, students can usually see that only those who have had a liberal education would know what to do with themselves or all of their money should they ever become wealthy. Liberal education allows a person to see the order in things; allows him to see, as St. Augustine distinguishes, which things are means and are meant to be used, and which things are ends and, consequently, are to be enjoyed for their own sakes.
Liberal education allows, or rather, it frees a human being to see
and live for those things for which jobs, careers, and money are merely a stepping stone. Those without a liberal education will inevitably misuse their wealth, and the gift of leisure becomes a time for mere self gratification or recreation. Ironically, though the usefulness of such an education might be questioned, it is precisely by the study of things which appear “useless” that the student acquires a the knowledge which will prove to be most useful to him throughout his life.
The student of the liberal arts learns how to learn. Any education may give students knowledge, but a liberal education gives students the tools needed to acquire knowledge. The student who is unable to acquire knowledge for himself is perpetually enslaved by his own ignorance, but the man who knows ‘how to learn’ has the ability to set free himself free.
Besides, practicing the liberal arts is not even optional; their practice is essentially part of being fully human:
“The liberal arts are not merely indispensable; they are unavoidable. Nobody can decide for himself whether he is going to be a human being. The only question open to him is whether he will be an ignorant, undeveloped one, or one who has sought to reach the highest point he is capable of attaining. The question, in short, is whether he will be a poor liberal artist or a good one. The liberal artist learns to read, write, speak, listen, understand, and think. He learns to reckon, measure, and manipulate matter, quantity, and motion in order to predict, produce and exchange. As we live in the tradition, whether we know it or not, so we are all liberal artists, whether we know it or not. We all practice the liberal arts, well or badly, all the time every day. As we should understand the [Western] tradition as well as we can in order to understand ourselves, so we should be as good liberal artists as we can in order to become as fully human as we can.”
(Robert Hutchins Great Books of the Western World, vol. 1: The Great Conversation: The Substance of a Liberal Education,
Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc., Chicago, 1952.)