“…And what do you do with a liberal arts degree?” is something anyone who has attended or works at a small school like Wyoming Catholic College or Thomas Aquinas College is used to hearing. When someone asks: “what is your major?” you usually know that “liberal arts” won’t actually mean anything to them. This is partly because there is no “work” directly associated with “the liberal arts.”
What, then, do liberal arts graduates go on to do with their lives? And is such a degree truly useful? Do small “liberal arts” colleges like Thomas Aquinas College (TAC), Thomas More College (TMC), or Wyoming Catholic College (WCC) really make a difference in their students’ ability to find work, or in the revitalization of American Catholicism?
All three of these colleges base their educational model on “the liberal arts.” Although they are just a few of the Catholic colleges listed in the Newman Guide, I believe that they are more similar in size, vision, and curriculum than many of the other institutions in the guide; they are not just normal universities with “Catholic” tacked on, but truly unique educational projects. All of them have student bodies under five hundred, majority Catholic professors, seminar method classes, and no majors or minors—just a bachelor’s degree in Liberal Arts.
Let’s briefly recall what the phrase “liberal arts” encompasses. Growing out of the ancient distinction between “manual” skills, such as carpentry or agriculture, and the activities of the “free” or “liberal” man, the “liberal arts” perfect the soul in regard to general intellectual and artistic topics rather than the “vocational training” associated with the peasant classes. Initially formed of disciplines such as Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric, Arithmetic, or Music, the liberal arts are the skills foundational to human flourishing as rational animals, paving the way for other distinctly human pursuits such as reflection on right and wrong, what constitutes the good life, or our ability to know God. They involve honing our uniquely human abilities of reasoning, language, and observation to lead to philosophy and contemplation of the divine.
Concretely, this looks like studying the great philosophers and thinkers of the Western tradition; struggling in Plato’s dialogues with the immortality of the soul or the source of love; using Euclidean geometry not only to understand the principles of quantity but also to become familiar with our ability to reach conclusions of perfect certainty; or discovering with Aristotle that “nature aims at an end.” It also means wrestling with the most fundamental questions that give us purpose: Where do we come from? Where are we going? Why are we here? How ought we to spend our lives?
We see the liberal arts as humanizing—making their practitioners better at using their human faculties. Consequently, graduates of liberal arts colleges like the ones mentioned aren’t heady, effete intellectuals whose study fails to prepare them for the “real world.” Alumni are rather in possession of uniquely strong skills such as excellent communication, reasoning ability, and above all a coherent set of thoughtful principles to give them direction in life. In comparison to “hard skills” such as graphic design, welding, or investment theory, such soft skills are much harder to acquire and are prerequisites for being a good learner in other disciplines.
It should be no surprise, then, that we find men and women with liberal arts degrees in widely diverse fields—doctors, winemakers, travel-guides, architects, lawyers, and electricians among them. I will take a few examples from the alumni of Wyoming Catholic College who are better known to me, but I will feature alumni from all three institutions mentioned here.
Having attended a Catholic high school, Anthony Vercio never realized the impact continuing onto a secular university could have on himself until he spent some time with friends a few years older. Whereas a few years previous they were fellows at the Catholic high school, now all they could talk about was their major—and they had stopped practicing their faith. Drawn to WCC’s well-rounded education and outdoor program, he enjoyed the vibrant community united by common studies. Anthony Vercio graduated from Wyoming Catholic in 2016, subsequently working in a winery, and then embarking on Notre Dame’s architectural program. Now he is well on his way to becoming a licensed architect, working as an architectural designer at Glave and Holmes.
Anthony once asked an architect if his need to catch up on design and engineering skills was a disadvantage. The response was, “I can teach you technical skills which you will get better at. No one new is really good at window details. I can teach you that. But I can’t teach you how to think well, when you come into my office you either have it or you don’t. I would prefer to hire someone who can think and communicate, and then teach them to draw, rather than someone who draws well and can’t think or communicate.” A Thomas More alumnus, Dr. John Martin put it this way: “After studying Aristotle, Kant, and Nietzsche, learning legal and technical details has been easy.” In a liberal arts college like his alma mater, “you learn how to learn, study, and articulate your thoughts.”
If you google “TAC alumni”, it’s funny who comes up: two major traditionalist figures (my dad and Fr John Berg, former superior general of the FSSP), a reporter-theologian, and a government liaison for a nuclear energy company. Here, however, I want to focus on a TAC alumnus who took a more “earthy” path: the wine-making brother of the college’s current president.
David O’Reilly (who graduated from TAC in ‘89) is the founder of Owen Roe, a gourmet winemaking company with vineyards in Oregon and Washington state. Leaving college “believing he could do anything,” he planned to climb the usual ladder of business by getting a degree in the science of wine-making, gaining years of experience at an already established firm, and then waiting for an opportunity to found his own company. Instead, he skipped the first step, realizing that common sense, self-directed study, and hands-on learning from old hands in the trade would be more valuable.
Working at a small California winery, he gained knowledge from various tradesmen; a marketing suggestion on his part cleared several years of backlogged inventory, and he was offered a primary marketing position, which he declined in favor of working the cellars. Drawn to the burgeoning wine scene in Washington state, David worked at the then-struggling Elk Cove Vineyards, helping to turn their production from 5,500 to 22,000 cases of wine per year in a little over six years.
When David received permission to produce a wine under his own label using Elk Cove facilities, in very small batches, from ancient vines, and it received a glowing reception, he branched off to open Owen Roe in 1999. Using the analytical principles he learned at TAC, he has successfully competed against the more than 800 other wineries in Washington state, producing coveted wines, many of which sell at $50 or $80 a bottle. All of which goes to show that the road from scholastic to sommelier is not as indirect as one might think.
Someone unfamiliar with the liberal arts ethos might be surprised at the number of alumni who go on to the trades. After a pristine education in the intellectual and artistic traditions of the West, why become a carpenter or plumber? At Wyoming Catholic, at least, I believe this stems from the love of the real world inspired by John Senior, and a deep appreciation for caring for the world which is, enjoying the good things the Giver has given us as “small-s sacraments” of His presence. From an appreciation of creation arises a knowledge of oneself and therefore of the common good, and an impetus to build up society accordingly.
Consequently we find excellent Latinists working at a house painting company, and students turning from Euclid to electrical work, from Plato to plumbing (examples I know of personally). I think it is important to remind For those who already know that they want to practice a trade or craft rather than an academic or office-based job that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” as Socrates says.
A unique example is a Thomas More College alumnus, Richard Worsham (‘07), who is co-founder of Janus Motorcycles, which builds “simple, beautiful machines that are a joy to own and ride.” Questioned on his experience, Richard said that the focus on primary texts by the great authors themselves was one of the things that initially sparked his interest in pursuing such a program. From literature to graduate studies in architecture, and then to machinist’s shop is a surprising road to some, but was born of a “longtime dream of starting a vehicle company.”
Richard remarks: “Too many options are worse than none at all if we don’t have a means of staying alert and choosing rightly.” Liberal education, however, helps one to navigate this, equipping one “with the ability to be a primary thinker—a person who is capable of putting choices in a larger context, interpreting raw experiences and information, forging their own path, making decisions, and being comfortable with sometimes flying in the face of convention.” Perhaps TMC’s unique Guild program had a role to play in Richard’s love of finely crafted motorbikes.
Winemakers and architects, as well as doctors, entrepreneurs, and programmers certainly arise from all of these colleges programs. Yet the ultimate paradox is this: the point of liberal education is not to teach students a profession, but to teach them the profession of life (so to speak), the meaning and beauty which must undergird a mundane workaday existence if it is to have any joy and lasting value.
Whether you are a high school student, parent, or pastor of souls, it is important to remember what you can do with a liberal arts education: anything you like! Whether you are searching for a college education or advising young men and women where to embark on one, the formation a school like these can give is invaluable, whether you want to be a mother, travel guide, or software engineer.