The Liberal Arts Tradition at Saint Mary's College

The mission statement of the College begins with a description of the liberal arts: 

"As an institution where the liberal arts inform and enrich all areas of learning, Saint Mary's College places special importance on fostering the intellectual skills and habits of mind, which liberate persons to probe deeply the mystery of existence and live authentically in response to the truths they discover. This liberation is achieved as faculty and students, led by wonder about the nature of reality, look twice, ask why, seek not merely facts but fundamental principles, strive for an integration of all knowledge and express themselves precisely and eloquently." 

The special trait of an education in the liberal arts is that it frees you from the chains of what you think you are supposed to know so that you might follow the light of reason, which is nothing other than your participation in the Divine knowledge of the world. A liberal education is an intensely personal and unique journey.

Your individual pursuit of knowledge at Saint Mary's will lead you between two poles, on the one side the free exploration of your intellect in paths that stretch out as far as your patience and discipline will allow; and on the other the constraint of the common and well-tested opinion of your professors and peers.  Blessed John Henry Newman described this second guiding pole as a civilizing agent.  It smoothes out the rough edges of our thoughts and helps us let go of untested and faulty conclusions.  It also gives us the ability to talk to each other about important things with "calmness, moderation, and wisdom" (The Idea of the University, Discourse 5) to use Newman's words.

But to return to the first pole of learning at a liberal arts college, that of free exploration... When you feel the urge to break beyond the bounds of what your classes ask you to read or study or do; when you head for a carrel in the library stacks and lose yourself in stolen hours pursuing an investigation, a topic, that you can't get enough of, bouncing back and forth between printed and online texts; when the joy of discovery leaves you exhilarated and you turn over and over again in your mind the things you have learned, forming connections while you wander to the cafeteria or walk back to your room; then you have tasted the liberal arts. And this kind of pursuit can be in any of the disciplines we have here—in science, the liberal arts per se, economics, business administration or education. 

The fire of intellectual discovery will sometimes lead you to choose professors more than to choose classes. May you be blessed to find intellectual masters here who will guide and encourage you. This is also one of the gifts of a liberal arts college. Your education here should open up to you an international fellowship of learned men and women, or as our more ancient predecessors sometimes called it, a Republic of Letters. 

We believe that the education on offer here can leave you a better person, because you will be able to guide yourself in learning and you will be able to exchange with others ideas founded on the real acquisition of knowledge. 

In closing, take to heart the words of Hugh of St. Victor, "Learn everything, and you will see later that nothing is superfluous. Knowledge constrained is not a pleasant thing" (Hugh of St. Victor, Didascalicon, VI, 3).

Brother Charles Hilken, F.S.C.
Aug. 23, 2012