The Liberating Arts: Unlock the future with the keys of the past

Dr. Sam Overstreet is a Professor of English, and Ralph S. Collins Professor in the Humanities. Photo courtesy of Maryville College website.
Dr. Sam Overstreet is a Professor of English, and Ralph S. Collins Professor in the Humanities. Photo courtesy of Maryville College website.

In 1974, when I was a freshman at Yale, a classmate in my Calculus class said something that epitomized an attitude about the liberal arts that was badly mistaken. He casually referred to Engineering majors as doing “apple math.”

The implication of his sneer was that the liberal arts should not be applied disciplines. Only theoretical mathematics, in his view, was worth pursuing. Attempts to use those theories to solve practical problems in the real world of manufacturing he considered somehow beneath the dignity of the school he had chosen.

I didn’t have time to pay any attention to his arrogance. I was starting to pursue a discipline that in the eyes of many was less practical than even theoretical mathematics–literature, with a focus on ancient and medieval epic and allegory. But for me it was intensely practical. Almost every old text opened up a window on ways of looking at the world that were quite different from those held by most of my peers. For me, those ideas were vibrant options about how I could live my life.

When I read, in translation, Homer’s portrayals of Greek and Trojan heroes whose identity and mission in life were defined not only by their individual interests, but by loyalty to all the relationships that in their semi-tribal societies laid claim to their allegiance, that loyalty struck me as an interesting antidote to American individualism.

My parents’ marriage, like those of many people I knew, was falling apart. I didn’t buy the Greek and Trojan heroes’ arrogant focus on their own glory, nor their views of the status of women. But Hector expresses in Iliad Book 6 an ideal of fighting “for the glory of my father’s household” – persevering through great difficulty in order to preserve a society that gave him identity because it situated him in a web of relationships. That might be more rewarding than the American individualism that seemed to me to propel people into disharmony.

My very cautious pursuit of an enduring love-relationship was informed not just by articles in a modern InterVarsity Press book about love and dating and marriage, but also by Edmund Spenser’s 16th-century allegorical romance The Faerie Queene, a fantasy story about knights and damsels.

Spenser bound together the book of Friendship and the book of Love, so that the conflicts of Love were only resolved once the hero and the heroine had worked through issues of Friendship. That was an exceedingly practical focus that I could immediately implement in difficult conversations with the young woman I was seeing.

Spenser’s heroine, dressed in armor and therefore mistaken for a male knight, jousted more than once against the hero with whom she had already fallen in love. This I interpreted as a Renaissance idea that conflict, rightly managed, could cause a man and a woman to grow in mutual knowledge and understanding and esteem, and could thus build unity of purpose and love.

It was an idea I also found in Shakespeare. It echoed an idea I had read in a modern marriage book by Charlie Shedd. I also applied that to the conversations with the young woman I was seeing.

She and I were married the summer after we graduated, and this past August we celebrated our 38th year of very happy marriage in a lusciously satisfying love relationship.

As Chaucer says at the start of the Parliament of Fowls, “all this new grain grows out of old fields.” Sojourning through old books can give you ideas and perspective that cause new, wonderful, living things to spring up in your life that are not springing up in the lives of others you know.

It’s not just about love. When my father died, the greatest consolations came to me not from other people, but from things I had read in Chaucer and Dante.

Of course, as you sojourn, you have to pick the good and leave the bad. Knowing which is which can be difficult. (For that, I recommend the Book of books.) But just as traveling to the other side of the world gives you new perspective on the attitudes taken for granted in your native country, helping you outgrow your provincialism, so traveling to another century can help you outgrow your temporal provincialism.

That is one of the most valuable legacies one can gain from the liberal arts. Incidentally, the liberal arts can also give you great job skills: writing, speaking, listening, analyzing, synthesizing, computing, planning. But while you’re getting the skills, don’t pass up the wisdom.

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