A Boots and Tie Education

Rather than primarily utilitarian, the college window should be about something much bigger than it actually is at most colleges.

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Everyone has “windows of opportunity” in their life. 

For most men and women, they are about fairly similar things at fairly similar times: you start speaking between 1 and 2; at the crucible of middle school, social skills development; puberty occurring between 8 and 15; the golden window for marriage, perhaps 22-30, followed by the best years for pregnancies; a man’s earning peak between the ages of 40-60. And then, restful years of retirement and the blessing of one’s “children’s children.”

One of the most important is the window opening this spring for many young Catholics: where will they attend college in the fall? While this might sound obvious, I think many of us have a very limited idea of what that window is important for: gaining the degree (and hopefully skills) necessary to land a decent job and become a successful cog in the system. That is part of it, but a small part.

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For one thing, that a degree is necessary for getting a good job is becoming less and less apparent. In fact, recent research indicates that even ten years after graduation, almost half of college graduates are underemployed—that is, not working a job which requires their level of education. That someone with a Bachelor of Arts will end up in a field or fields different from that of their degree also has a great likelihood.

Rather than primarily utilitarian, the college window should be about something much bigger than it actually is at most colleges: entering adulthood through the pursuit of truth, the practice of virtue, and the discernment of what makes up the good life and how to pursue it.

In a recent article, I discussed the importance of the intellectual life and the imbalances that can occur when we neglect it. I briefly addressed the objection of someone who might say that “while all this study may be well and good, my state in life doesn’t allow me to devote time to it. I’ve got a family to provide for, either by working or by being the primary care-giver.” Now, it is very true that most parents don’t have the leisure to develop a rich intellectual life. But that’s what education is for—real education, the sort that makes you a better human being.

The window of opportunity which parents understandably no longer have (rightly devoting themselves to other duties) must not be missed. Who wouldn’t want to develop a capacity for wonder and a love of wisdom? Without knowledge of logic and rhetoric, you won’t communicate efficiently and effectively at work, among friends, or in the home. Missing out on a knowledge of philosophy and theology, you might needlessly struggle with existential questions about what we were created for and how we can know that—or struggle with how to present claims of natural law, reason, or faith to secular people you encounter. 

Deprived of studying history and literature, you will pass through life operating under unfounded assumptions about how we moderns are better off (or not) than our forefathers. Lacking an informed appreciation of poetry, art, and music, you will be sadly unable to enjoy the heights and depths of mankind as expressed in the greatest works of the human race. Lacking an informed appreciation of poetry, art, and music, you will be sadly unable to enjoy the heights and depths of mankind as expressed in the greatest works of the human race.Tweet This

This sort of “real education” has a name. It’s called liberal education, which means leading men out (e-ducare) into the knowledge and virtue characteristic of those who are free (liberi). It is real because it connects you to the fundamental realities, to the earth, art, culture, and God. While most people are familiar with the name, it means very little to them. They think that liberal arts majors have some kind of weak literature degree with some interdisciplinary frosting. Nothing could be further from the truth. 

Indulge your imagination for a moment. Imagine a deep, dark sky above your head. Sparks from a campfire are rising, and woodsmoke occasionally stings your eyes. You lean back on the stump you are sitting on; shooting stars flash across the Milky Way, far over the black mountains silhouetted against the indigo heavens. 

Oval faces flicker in the firelight, fingers strum a guitar, and a crooning song floats into the crisp air: 

Out on the trail night birds are calling
Singing their wild melody
Down in the canyon cottonwood whispers
A Song of Wyoming for me

A few cowboy boots shift in the dirt as legs stretch beside the fire. A young man loosens his necktie. Another puffs on a pipe. A young lady passes the marshmallows to her neighbor. 

Tomorrow these young men and women will be back in a classroom. One will be drawing geometric proofs on a whiteboard, demonstrating a truth Euclid discovered more than two thousand years ago. Another will present a case for viewing Achilles as a hero to his classmates who would rather view the Greek as a good-for-nothing, spoiled demigod. The other will be researching the poet Wordsworth for a paper due next week. One will attend a Roman Rite Mass at noon in the college chapel. Another will be at the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. The third will spend an hour in adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

Fast forward five years: graduated, what are these youths doing with themselves? Likely as not, one will be teaching at a classical high school while working on a master’s degree, another pursuing work in the trades, and another raising a young family. Their classmates will likewise be pursuing a varied and colorful variety of careers in law, computer programming, priesthood or religious life, as travel guides, mothers, architects, authors, journalists, Latin teachers, midwives, and once-upon-a-time sailor-violinists turned housewives.

How is your imagination doing at this point? Happily, you needn’t imagine anymore, because what I’ve just described is a common occurrence at Wyoming Catholic College. You’ll have to excuse me for a little favoritism: having studied at this school and worked for it, it is the liberal arts college I know best, and the one I believe is the best at giving a complex and well-rounded liberal arts formation. What I just described is exactly the project Wyoming Catholic students undertake: a formation of mind, body, and spirit in academic, outdoor, and spiritual projects. From the 21-day backpacking trip that kickstarts freshman year to the Byzantine Chaplaincy, it aims at re-enchanting the student’s world—for the rest of his or her life.

In You Can Do Anything: The Surprising Power of a “Useless” Liberal Arts Education, George Anders describes how a college class on Dostoyevsky taught him “how to wrestle with big, half-formed ideas—and how to keep fighting in the face of fatigue” and that this was “the best lesson of all.” In contrast to the “basic journalism classes” and business courses which made him initially more employable on paper, it was the literature course that enabled him to even begin to dream, a decade later, of writing “ambitious feature stories or full-length nonfiction books.” 

Other writers, reporters, and market analysts have noted how liberal education has an interdisciplinary strength that often leads to positions of management owing to the communications, research, and reasoning skills it fosters. My conversations over the years with Wyoming Catholic alumni have only confirmed this.

This utterly unconventional yet universal education is like so much air I breathe, yet it retains the freshness of the country—for as anyone who lives there knows, fresh country or mountain air never gets old. This life of thought and campfire songs, of poetry and prayer, can be yours too. 

Like the attire many students wear to class every day, it’s a “boots and tie” education: whether you wear boots or a tie to work, it helps you thrive. It is for carpenters and accountants, farmers and lawyers, mothers and fathers. It is a boots and tie education because it’s for everyone, and because it integrates groundedness with academic and cultural refinement: what better symbols for this than the boots of the cowboy and the necktie of the don?

If you are approaching the college window opening this spring, do not let it go to waste. Are you going to risk living a less happy, less well-reasoned, less challenging life? Are you going to pass by this opportunity to seize the day by seizing the real? Of discovering how to examine life so you can see that the “unexamined life” is, as Socrates said, not worth living?

If you are going to go to the trouble of spending valuable time and money on college, at least follow the advice of another song we sing around the fire: “Of all the money that e’er I had / I spent it in good company.” Wyoming Catholic’s poetic and wandering forays through the planes and pages—to me, that is the song of Wyoming.


  • Julian Kwasniewski

    Julian Kwasniewski is a musician specializing in renaissance Lute and vocal music, an artist and graphic designer, as well as marketing consultant for several Catholic companies. His writings have appeared in National Catholic Register, Latin Mass Magazine, OnePeterFive, and New Liturgical Movement. You can find some of his artwork on Etsy.

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