Wednesday, February 4, 2009

LB: The New Liberal Arts?

Just when you thought it was safe to come out and start blogging about Ye Olde Liberal Arts, clever people on the Internet have begun a conversation about the New Liberal Arts (or LibArt2.0 if you are texting it to your Twitter account). While some might see this as a reason to air up the old hackles and practice “harrumphing,” I’m finding it as yet more validation that this is the moment in history when we, as a culture and, more broadly, as a species, need to gather the sum of our knowledge and wisdom to overcome the obstacles we’re facing.

It’s probably going to be valuable here to draw a distinction between the three different ideas about liberal arts that we might be bringing to the table as we begin a discussion of what the latest version of any one of them might look like.

Historical- The historical meaning of liberal arts was the education appropriate to a free man as opposed to a slave. I like to think we’re all on board with retroactively giving personhood to women and re-crafting that to read, “the education appropriate to all free persons.”

Pedagogical- The term liberal arts was most often applied to the sum two complementing bodies of knowledge, the trivium and the quadrivium. The archetypes of the seven liberal arts remained roughly unchanged from the time of Plato’s Academy until the Renaissance though the texts considered fundamental to an understanding each did accrue over the span of that time.

Modern- The modern term liberal arts is used to describe to a specialized type of university that is more often defined by what it doesn’t do (cram 150 people into a classroom with a single professor, allow the majority of its lower level classes to be taught by graduate assistants or adjuncts) than what it does. This, in my opinion, represents not only a failure to make the most of what liberal arts education is available but a cynical narrowing of the phrase’s meaning from its much richer and descriptive origins.

In his original introduction to the Great Books series, Robert Hutchins underscores the importance of the relationship between the liberal arts and freedom with an urgency that is, perhaps, more relevant today than it was in 1952.

“It would seem that this is the education for everybody, if it is the best for the best, provided that everybody can get it. The question, then, is: Can everybody get it? This is the most important question in education. Perhaps it is the most important question in the world.

If leisure and political power are a reason for liberal education, then everybody in America now has this reason, and everybody where democracy and industrialization penetrate will ultimately have it. If leisure and political power require this education, everybody in America now requires it, and everybody where democracy and industrialization penetrate will ultimately require it. If the people are not capable of acquiring this education, they should be deprived of political power and probably of leisure. Their uneducated political power is dangerous, and their uneducated leisure is degrading and will be dangerous. If people are incapable of achieving the education that responsible democratic citizenship demands, then democracy is doomed, Aristotle rightly condemned the mass of mankind to natural slavery, and the sooner we set about reversing the trend toward democracy the better it will be for the world.” [54]

I’m sure Hutchins would not be surprised to discover that fifty-six years later, democracy and industrialization have spread far beyond their ambitions of the mid-20th century and that the United States now finds itself as a nation almost magically incapable of educating its citizenry either as youth or adults despite the best efforts of many who make it their vocation to do just that.

President Obama made the point repeatedly in his campaign that the problem was that we were preparing children for the 21st century in classrooms designed to prepare them for the 20th. But when pressed on what those new challenges might be, the answer is always the same.

“More science. More math.”

Pragmatically, I understand, confronted by catastrophic problems like global warming and peak oil, that the urge to produce a nation of mathematicians, scientists, engineers and other helpful producers of specialized information products is, well, urgent. But it seems meaningful to point out that many of these man-made problems that we must now urgently solve were CREATED by mathematicians, scientists, engineers, etc.

Before people start hurling Bunsen burners at me, please accept at face value when I say that I personally love math and science. I believe, wholeheartedly, that there is an amount of both that are absolutely essential to any free person who hopes to function in this increasingly complex world. For those who are gifted in these areas and wish to pursue this kind of information, I wish nothing but unending vistas of knowledge for them to explore.

But for the full potential of all this freedom and all this technology that we are exporting to every habitable square inch of this world to result in anything but utter and total human ruin, it’s time to pay more than lip service to the ways that non-scientific and non-mathematical avenues of study might be not just useful but essential.

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