Liberal Arts and the Pandemic

I fear we are not likely to learn the lessons we need to learn because we have insulated ourselves from seeing the situation fully, having narrowed our vision within various academic sub-specialties.

(Image: j zamora |

It’s a shame we’re not in the classroom these days, because the pandemic would be the perfect subject for discussion in a liberal arts university. Indeed, I would suggest it is precisely because of the lack of the kind of liberal arts education John Henry Newman had in mind when he wrote The Idea of the University that so many in our society, especially those among the ruling elite and “expert” class, are having so much trouble dealing with the pandemic.

By this, I don’t merely mean the purported experts don’t know precisely what to do. Let’s be fair; this is obviously a difficult problem. What I mean, rather, is that there is much evidence that we increasingly lack the resources to think holistically and in an integrated way about a complex phenomenon like a pandemic.

Allow me to begin with why I think it would be such a great teaching opportunity in actual university, if we had one. I say this not wishing to diminish the real tragedy of the event. But the job of an educational institution is to try to understand a tragedy such as this so the right lessons can be learned. I fear we are not likely to learn the lessons we need to learn, however, because we have insulated ourselves from seeing the situation fully, having narrowed our vision within various academic sub-specialties.

This narrowing of vision is often taken to be the key to the technocratic “success” of the modern academic disciplines. Reducing reality to a few simple factors allows the technocratic engineer to make the messy complexity of reality “legible” to their particular discipline. If I am a biologist, I see the world in terms of biological realities. I can only do this, however, if (and to the extent that) I “reduce” the messy complexity of the world to its biological components. It is precisely this narrowing of focus that allows the biologist to explore in admirable detail the elaborate workings of something like a coronavirus.

In a pandemic, however, there is not only the biological description of disease to be considered, as valuable as that is, there are also issues related to how a crowd may react to fear and panic. What will be the results of a lockdown order? A psychologist might want to intervene with her expertise to describe what is likely to happen to people stuck for a long time in solitude. Experts in statistics might then help us understand the pros and cons of various attempts at “modeling.”

One goal of a liberal arts education should be to bring all these modes of discourse together into a meaningful conversation. Covid-19 is certainly a biological reality. We have all had to take a crash course on coronaviruses: what they are and how they differ from other viruses and why they don’t cause a flu like the flu we experience every year. But we are not merely studying a specific coronavirus, we are experiencing a pandemic. And a great microbiologist who specializes in viruses is not necessarily an expert in epidemiology and the spread of diseases. But as many people have noted in recent months, even the best of the epidemiologists (and by that I mean those whose predictions have actually been accurate) are not always the best at knowing what the social, psychological, or economic consequences of a lockdown would be.

This problem is one that is more likely to arise in the modern research university in which disciplinary divisions preclude any meaningful common discussions. Biologists talk to other biologists, chemists talk to other chemists, and philosophers talk to other philosophers, or at least to philosophers who do philosophy the way they do. When I have in the past pointed out to colleagues and administrators that “distribution requirements” — a few courses in area A, a few in area B, one in area C — is not the same as giving our students an ordered pedagogy of the sort Newman had in mind in The Idea of the University, the sort of education the university was created to provide, I have repeatedly been told: “Students just make that unity on their own, don’t they?” Considering the recent responses to the pandemic, the answer is obvious: No, they don’t.

Our biggest problems right now are not being caused because we don’t have enough qualified technicians. Our biggest problems are being caused by our “experts” not being able to talk to one another in such a way as to inform prudential judgments in public policy.

Classically, the various disciplines were to be brought together within a framework provided by enquiries of politics and ethics about human nature and human flourishing. The Christian development of the classical liberal arts took up the main elements of this tradition and deepened it, both in its understanding of the troubles and errors to which human nature was prone because of its fallen state in a fallen world and in its elaboration of the ways in which the achievement of the ultimate human good lay beyond politics. What we lack now is any similar unifying conception of human nature and human flourishing according to which we could make prudential judgments about the common good informed by the information supplied by the other disciplines.

In the absence of this “humanistic” framework, we face the unfortunate outcome Newman predicted in The Idea of the University. He envisioned the various disciplines as forming a circle. If one part of the circle were removed, the other disciplines would not leave that space blank, rather they would “fill in” the area left open, an area not properly theirs.

But this, as we can see more clearly now, is only the first stage of the problem. For the disciplines are not only fragmented from each other, worse yet, they battle for priority and preeminence. Whose discourse is to be “the last word”? These academic conflicts reverberate in contemporary political discourse when we hear complaints that, “you people may be listening to the economists, but we are following the science.”

What the modern academic disciplines give us is always merely a thin slice of the world — a slice purposefully cut away from the complex messiness of reality so that it can be seen more clearly and predicted more easily. This is one of the sources of their clarity. But the world itself is rarely as simple as the language of science and specialized technical disciplines causes us to think it would or should be. As Michael Crawford has argued in a recent article in American Affairs:

The mischief of grand schemes for progress lies in the fact that, even in the absence of totalitarian aspirations, the logic of metrics and rationalization carries with it an imperative to remake the world, in such a way as to make its thin, formal descriptions true. The gap between the model and reality has to be narrowed.

Classically, the goal of the ordered pedagogy offered in a university was thought to be that students and faculty would bring these various disciplines, each with its own proper methods and modes of addressing reality, into a meaningful dialectic. This was certainly how Newman envisioned it. However, because we no longer share that vision — because we have invested in highly expensive “multi-versities” that train technicians to serve the regime of commerce rather than investing in universities that train citizens to understand and serve the common good of the polis — we suffer the “tyranny of experts” without the political benefits that might otherwise be gained by being informed by greater expertise.

When a university education is primarily about power, wealth, and status — when “education” becomes subservient to the libido dominandi of the City of Man — then one can expect the institutions informed by that education to decay and fail just as surely as did those in the Roman Empire when Augustine’s exhortation to his fellow Romans to embrace the spirit of truth, virtue, and charity that characterizes the City of God fell too often on ears that refused to hear. There are few things more practical for human flourishing than a good liberal arts education. And there are few things more useless than a detailed knowledge of last year’s management plan.

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About Dr. Randall B. Smith 44 Articles
Dr. Randall B. Smith is Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, Texas, where he teaches courses on Moral Theology, History of Theology, Faith and Science, and Faith and Culture. His books include Reading the Sermons of Thomas Aquinas: A Beginner's Guide (Emmaus), Aquinas, Bonaventure, and the Scholastic Culture of Medieval Paris (Cambridge), and From Here to Eternity: Reflections on Death, Immortality, and the Resurrection of the Body (Emmaus), due out in October 2022. He is also co-author of Why Believe? Volume 2: Answers to Life's Questions (Augustine Institute). Prof. Smith is the author of numerous articles in academic journals, but he also publishes a regular bi-weekly column for "The Catholic Thing."


  1. Who said colleges needed to close? Who said churches needed to close? Who’s going to guarantee our absolute safety in all circumstances in the future? Who? Man has surrendered his faculty to reason.

    • That is true. It is outrageous and deeply disturbing that churches, schools, colleges, and universities refuse to exercise their duties.

      In Germany they say, the state told them to do so. Actually, the state in most cases never did.

    • Health professionals and political leaders who genuinely care for the well-being of the citizenry have wisely told us to close the colleges and the churches and all the places where people gather closely together. No one is “going to guarantee our absolute safety in all circumstances in the future”. No one is expecting that. We do, however, expect our safety to be improved and extended when knowledge tells us how to do so. We haven’t surrendered our faculty to reason; we’ve employed it.

        • You’re not going to change his beliefs, try as you may.
          He puts his faith in men, much like the church leadership. That’s why the churches closed eagerly, often before any state orders were issued, like my home diocese of Joliet, where on Friday, while the fish fry fundraisers were steaming full speed ahead, bishop announced that starting Saturday the churches will close indefinitely, even though governor’s orders did not come to force ’til following Tuesday…so, according to the “good” bishop, Mass attendance was dangerous, but eating fish together in the school gym sitting shoulder to shoulder was all cool a day before…

          No one, by the way, to my knowledge, fell sick or died because they attended that fish fry.

          No one in my family fell sick or died because we attended a Mass that Sunday in the neighboring diocese of Rockford which did not close until after the fgov’s orders came the following week.

          But one cannot reason with the dangerous and often deadly COVIDiotism that is being spread by the media and permeating our society…

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