Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Reclaiming Liberal Artistry Pt II

In the first part of this essay my goal was to articulate the grief that I believe we all feel, consciously or unconsciously, while reading those authors who have had the privilege of contributing to what Robert M. Hutchins coins as “The Great Conversation”. This grief exists because, overall, what we can know from this conversation is fragmented and only marginally representative of the whole of Western civilization. This conversation has been held amongst the elite of the West for generations and has, according to Hutchins, faded in its glory since the 19th Century due to two factors: “internal decay” (the specialization of all fields of study) and “external confusion” (attempting to apply experimental science to every disciple). As discussed in the previous essay, these members of the elite are predominately male and white and the sense of loss we experience is rooted in the missing pieces of the conversation. So, what we might have considered the greater and holistic wisdom of Western culture must be practically relegated to a place of limited perspective.

However, there is a message in the silent void that is left by these missing pieces and that message should invigorate those of us living in the West. Recognizing the limitations of the great conversation as represented by the “great works of the mind” does not warrant casting the whole lot of it into the abyss. Quite the opposite, in fact, as it seems to me that ignoring the greater journey of how we came to be here in this time and place, no matter how fragmented and disjointed that journey may appear when most of what is left is words on a page, is tantamount to self sabotage. Hutchins articulates clearly that “these books show the origins of our most serious difficulties.” We must try to learn not only from the extant Western canon but also from its many and varied voices whose silent words carry perhaps a more expansive depth of understanding. How can any of us know where to go from here if we do not know as much as we possibly can about where we have been? To swipe a metaphor from psychology, how can you identify the pain you feel in this moment if you cannot face the shadows of your past? I concur with Hutchins that an even greater grief awaits us if we continue to blithely ignore the liberal arts as they slowly vanish from importance within our systems of education.

Now, above all other times in our past, we must consciously reclaim liberal artistry and rejoice in the fact that we all have an equal opportunity to make an attempt at contributing to the Great Conversation. The lessons of the silent ideas must continue to be sought but more importantly we must maintain as well as enrich this precious dialogue with new words and new ideas that are not as limited in their perspective as were our forbearers’. However, before we can reclaim liberal artistry and contribute to this esteemed conversation, we must first define liberal artistry/the liberal arts and understand why our lives would be negatively affected by their absence. Robert M. Hutchins describes liberal artistry as, quite simply, the vehicle by which the great conversation has been made manifest since the beginning of history. But more pragmatically, he argues that each and every individual utilizes the skills that are informed by the liberal arts every day of their lives.

“The liberal artist learns to read, write, speak, listen, understand and think . . to measure, manipulate matter, quantity, and motion in order to predict, produce and exchange. As we live in the tradition, whether we know it or not, so we are all liberal artists, whether we know it or not.. The liberal arts are not merely indispensable; they are unavoidable. Nobody can decide for himself whether he is going to be a human being. The only question open to him is will he be an ignorant, undeveloped one or one who has sought to reach the highest point he is capable of attaining. The question, in short, is whether he will be a poor liberal artist or a good one. [50]”

One might ask why, if liberal artistry is a daily and “indispensable” activity of us all, then what effort is needed to consciously reclaim it? Hutchins’ diatribe illustrates an integral element of why this effort is needed – do we choose to be proficient liberal artists or inept liberal artists? At this time in our culture a strong argument can be made that mostly we are poor liberal artists and for the greater majority of us this has nothing to do with our abilities to think and write and feel but more to do with the ways in which our education system has failed us. Hutchins spends a good portion of his essay discussing the free, mandatory, universal education system of the West (specifically, in the United States) which seems to him to be a great waste of time.

He refers to our schools as basically holding pens for the young where we “keep the child off the labor market and detain him in comparatively sanitary surroundings until we are ready to have him go to work.” Hutchins believes that it is a horrible misconception to believe that our education systems are adequate to the task of actually educating our young or our adults and that reintegrating the education of the elite, the liberal arts, (if it is good enough for the elite it is good enough for all) into the system is something, that firstly, has never been tried before within the existing compulsory system and which also will give us the necessary tools to accomplish well those things we do every day.

“Education is supposed to have something to do with intelligence. It was because of this connection that it was always assumed that if people were to have political power they would have to have education. They would have to have it if they were to use their power intelligently. This was the basis of the Western commitment to universal, free, compulsory education.” [57]

Two barriers to integrating liberal artistry into our education system are what Hutchins refers to as rampant specialization and a deeply rooted misunderstanding of experimental science and its applications. The first barrier, specialization within all disciplines of human thought, deals with a shift in writing and communication. Specialization does not lend itself easily to having translatable communication outside of said specialization. Hutchins argues that this necessary and needed phenomenon has been hit hardest from a lack of liberal artistry. Liberal arts allow for people to be able to communicate with a wider audience because the proficient liberal artist uses a universal language and is capable of drawing parallels between details and the broader picture. Without the liberal arts as a foundation, we have incredibly smart people who are only writing and communicating to other people who happen to possess the same vocabulary of whatever specialization that they are writing about. This leaves them communicating their knowledge in a void where only others of their ilk have access to it. And, in many disciplines, even attempting to communicate this information in more accessible ways is highly discouraged. It is true that the liberal artists of our past who have contributed to the great conversation were also only writing for each other (the elite), however, it must be clearly stated that these writings are far more accessible to us today than if we were to attempt to read a doctrine of law or medicine or even literary criticism.

The second barrier for our citizens in becoming exceptional liberal artists is the “external confusion” of which Hutchins ascribes as a wide reaching misunderstanding of experimental science. It is important to note that the beginnings of the great conversation and the origins of experimental science are synonymous and have been linked since the dawn of history. However, Hutchins believes that “faith in the experiment as an exclusive method (of learning) is a modern manifestation...[t]hus we are often told that any question that is not answerable by the empirical methods of science is not really answerable...and if they are not answerable by these methods, they are the sort of questions that should never have been asked.” [60] The success and amazing technologies that the experimental method has afforded us cannot be refuted.
However, we have developed a dependence upon this sort of learning that is limiting our perspective. I have confronted this attitude within my own experience. In many ways this experience can be interpreted as a manifestation of both barriers; specialization and the overriding faith that if science cannot cure what ails us then it cannot be cured.

While attending a physical science class, I attempted to begin a dialogue regarding the ethics of scientific education in reference to population control. My question was a simple one and one that was never answered. If science has verifiable methods of proving that, within such and such time, our population will be so great that our species will be harmed and risk possible extinction, then why is it not prudent to aggressively educate people of this verifiable fact so that social changes can begin to follow? I recognize this to be a prickly question but the response that I received was startling. My teacher literally looked at me as if I were insane and began to mockingly explain that what I was asking was a question of ethics that had no place in science. “That is a question for the humanities not for scientists.” I was appalled especially considering the fact that I believe ethics to be of primary importance for all fields but especially within science and medicine. Not to mention the fact that, in essence, this ‘save it for the humanities’ attitude simply illustrated lazy liberal artistry.

A struggle continues to exist between science and what some consider the superstitious notions of our ancestors before science came to illuminate the world and banished these antiquated ideas back into history where they can propagate no further “illusion and sophistry” (Hume). However, the reality is that science cannot answer all of our questions and if we are limited to seeking further understanding of those things that cannot be answered only through scientific experimentation, then we have, ironically, narrowed our opportunities for coping with these very real and pertinent questions yet again.

The absence of liberal artistry in our culture can be seen in many places but it is devastating when we see it within our systems of communication and education. I do not believe that Hutchins is arguing against specialization and experimental science, however, I think it is safe to say that he sees danger lurking behind these trends if they are not influenced by a foundation in good liberal artistry. Hutchins believes that with political power (which those of us in the West enjoy freely) comes a deeper responsibility for educating ourselves. And, that in order for us to be able to contend with the ever changing variables in our lives we must pay heed to the skills we can learn from our ancestors many of whom spilled their own blood that we might be privy to the “Great Conversation”.

“We know that it will be impossible to induce all men to agree on all matters. The most we can hope for is to induce all men to be willing to discuss all matters instead of shooting one another about some matters. A civilization in which all men are compelled to agree is not one in which we would care to live. Under such circumstances one world would be worse than many; for in many worlds there is at least the chance of escape of one to another. The only civilization in which a free man would be willing to live is one that conceives of history as one long conversation leading to clarification and understanding. Such a civilization presupposes communication; it does not require agreement.” [71]

Hutchins’ advocacy of the liberal arts hopes to inspire and prepare us for what it is to come and what has come since the 1950’s one can barely describe. Throughout history every generation of peoples comes to an ardent wish for future generations. For me, and I believe for Hutchins, that ardent wish is for the children and adults in the future to be smarter and better prepared than we have been for all that lay ahead of them. What they will face I cannot imagine but I do know that if they are not given the skills they need their lives will be unnecessarily more difficult. I think the message of the silent voices who were not allowed to contribute to the great conversation is simply this – do not limit yourselves. If we allow liberal artistry to fade from our culture, if we allow the silent voices to continue to remain unheard then we are shackling ourselves with chains of our own making. I guess the only question left remaining is whether you wish to be a good liberal artist or a bad one?


No comments:

Post a Comment