The Liberal Arts and the End of Education
The past is always difficult to deal with. We are torn between the temptations of remaining within the comfort of a past we have become accustomed to and the equally dangerous alternative of fleeing an unreckoned past into pointless novelty. Mark Van Doren reminded us that "the past is a burden which crushes only those who ignore it." In the interest of a circumspective understanding of the past of liberal education, I would like to take this opportunity to remember together the traditional liberal arts curriculum and the philosophy behind it.
Some variation of this curriculum prevailed in universities throughout the classical period, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Its early articulations in Plato, Boethius, Nicomachus, Martianus Capella, Ptolemy and St. Bonaventura and others give way to the advance of modernity.. Jonathan Swift recorded the first great battle of the "new" versus the "old" learning. Matthew Arnold and T. H. Huxley engaged in a debate about the respective roles of literature and the sciences at the end of the nineteenth century. that now seems a rearguard action. When Arnold defended letters, he did so by advocating what was left in the nineteenth century of the liberal tradition. When Huxley put education in the sciences forward as the appropriate wisdom for his time, he had already absolved himself and his society of debts to transcendent values. Hopes for a consistent and inclusive schema of meaning were buried along with the ancient division of a complete education into the studies of the trivium and the quadrivium. The practical man is the man of the age, but his practicality lacks purpose. The man of letters in the nineteenth century, not yet but on his way to imprisonment in the ivory tower, makes no difference. About this time, Nietzsche noticed that God had died and Dostoyevsky that, when God is dead, all is lawful. The rest, as they say, is history.
Since the 1920's in the United States and more recently elsewhere, liberal education has been identified with elitism and, thereby, discredited. The remnant of the tradition which survives, usually billed as the "Humanities," amounts to scraps of the ancient curriculum. Since the fragment that remains includes humanistic values, these "impractical" studies war with their "useful" rivals, as if human happiness were not useful. The benefits of humanistic studies are reaped only by persons who can think as well as feel, who can remember and preserve as well as innovate, who can sacrifice themselves as well as develop themselves. Human being has many possibilities not all of which can be achieved through poetry, although perhaps none of them can be realized without it.
The liberal arts were the repository of the knowledge and skills that the old tradition believed worthy of transmitting to its young people for their good and for the good of the civilization. Although some disagreement persisted or erupted from time to time concerning the exact number and definition of the specific arts, the necessity for mastery of both the natural and artificial languages is a constant throughout the time of their practice. Always, although with emphasis on different arts (the careers of the liberal arts tell the intellectual history of the West), the range of the curriculum guaranteed the successful result of university education.
Plato seems first to have formalized the doctrine of the liberal arts in his Republic. Utopia, he sees, rests on proper education. Laws may not be necessary if all citizens learn from childhood to rule themselves well. In order to control the direction of the growth of the soul, all children began their education with stories and physical education. They advanced through the studies of grammar, logic and rhetoric (the arts of the trivium) to the symbolic thinking required by the sciences and mathematics of the old quadrivium, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music. These seven arts prepared the person for philosophy, the search for truth in dialectic with others.
For the Greeks, any art results in a product. The product of the liberal arts was the person who under went their discipline. Training in the liberal arts produced a free and thoughtful person who could read anything written, understand anything spoken, and say whatever (s)he wanted to say. Liberal education aimed to produce persons who can think symbolically and continue to educate themselves when their university days were over. The liberally educated person was the emancipated human being who could possess his unique human nature fully.
The idea behind liberal education went roughly like this: the liberal arts are the arts of using language. The faculty of linguisticality distinguishes the human nature from that of all other animals. If one were to master the liberal arts, then one would master human nature. Here is where the libre of liberal comes in - such a person would thereby be freed from the ancient enemies which plague humankind - the liberal arts are the liberating arts that free humankind from its worst enemies, ignorance and prejudice.
At least two consequences derive from the generality of the liberal arts: 1. Unlike the arts of the hand (the manual arts), education in the liberal arts was not directed toward a specific product, but to the development of the human powers which could be turned to any intellectual endeavor. In our contemporary economic settings where it is not unusual for an average individual to engage in four or five different careers over the course of a lifetime, perhaps the generality of the liberal arts is a recommendation for their practicality. The ability to think and speak coolly, correctly, and critically is essential to any of the endeavors which our students pursue. In his excellent history of the practice of the liberal arts curriculum, Wagner wrote, "All human work has its grammar, rhetoric, and logic; every man practices them his life long. He practices them better when he knows that he is doing so and can name the processes; when he knows that he is incessantly an artist, either of the trivium, when he distinguishes the kinds of things, or of the quadrivium, when he handles their quantities."
2. The liberal arts were the locus of the unity of the university. The liberal arts, specifically the arts of the trivium inculcated in the undergraduate curriculum, have no specific subject matter of their own. Only recently have they been associated exclusively with humanistic studies. Originally, the practitioners of the arts of language recognized that they were as essential in studying biology or chemistry as in literature or philosophy. The unity of the university coalesced in the single endeavor of producing persons who were adept at manipulating symbols.
The early universities explained the separate functions of the liberal arts in this fashion, the arts employ language exhaustively in three possible ways: 1. Grammar is the art of using words to refer to themselves or, more broadly, grammar is the art that identifies and properly employs structures and elements. Thus, there is a grammar of chemistry or music as well as a grammar of the natural languages. According to this view, the science teacher instructs students in the appropriate use of the elements or categories of his discipline in a fashion analogous to that of the language teacher since the science teacher is also a kind of language teacher awakening his students to the peculiar vocabulary of his science. 2. Logic is the art of argumentation, as necessary for mathematics as for making sense of a novel. Rigorous thinking follows general lines in any rational endeavor. Skill in practice of scientific logic prepares the student to think about politics or computers. Logic is the art of producing and evaluating universals. No serious study in any field can do without these most general concepts. 3. Finally, rhetoric is the art of persuasive speech. Properly understood, the scientist who subjects his hypothesis to experiment is a kind of rhetorician. Using apparatus perhaps, the scientist seeks to persuade the fact to conform to a uniformity that (s)he postulates. The rhetorical art of making analogies employs language to refer to things in the only way in which humans seem to be able to refer to things - this is knowable since it is like that which is already known. Thus, we learn and convince others of the value of what we have studied.
The three arts, the tradition held, could not be mastered in isolation from each other. If I know the elements of a study, but do not know how to relate the elements to each other or to the world, I have no real mastery of my field. If I attempt to persuade through rhetorical skill alone, I may solicit emotional response, and even achieve the effect I desire. Rhetoric alone cannot produce a reasoned response. For this, a person must understand the arguments and be convinced in his own mind. Snake oil salesmen and successful advertising agencies specialize in this approach in rhetoric undisciplined by the other arts. Logic teaches the critical function of referent as well as proper ways of thinking. In isolation, the practice of logic creates the stereotypical ivory tower scientist who is not a citizen of his community. The integration of the three arts is requisite for the education of the whole human person. We bring to mind what John of Salisbury wrote in the 12th century, "Just as eloquence, unenlightened by reason is rash and blind, so wisdom without the power of expression is feeble and maimed."
The arts and sciences of the quadrivium in their ancient uses recall their value to the person undergoing their training. Nicomachus introduced the study of arithmetic by recommending it for its utility. Arithmetic is helpful in innumerable ways in daily life; thus, its usefulness resides in its furtherance of human happiness. The Elements of Euclid provide insight into the regularities of the physical world; the discipline that geometry requires encourages insight in the soul who practices the art. Boethius understands music to be the universal science of harmonics. The Medievals studied the mathematics of music; they were not interested in its performance. Astronomy applies mathematics to unchanging things according to Ptolemy, yielding (at least as a limit) strict science. Tellingly, Copernicus, one of the precursors of modern science, disclaims the possibility of exact knowledge from astronomy..
The arts of the quadrivium were analogous to the arts of the trivium. Arithmetic and geometry describe the grammar of the two possible orders of extension. Music was a rhetorical study concerned with the application of numbers (rather than words) to things according to rules. Astronomy was astrology before the Renaissance; it was the science of the stars rather than the measurement of the movement of the stars. In its early incarnation astrology embodied Plato's notion that the harmonies of the universe govern "the pattern for the good life of man. Thence, astronomy became the study which sought to discover and express the harmonies of the whole heavens and its relation to the world of men." The point of the astrological studies which were required in Plato's Academy was that the student would mold his soul to be constant by inculcating the regularities of the heavenly bodies. Use value then was not confined to monetary profit.
What has all this to do with our situation now? Perhaps the liberal tradition is simply the discard of an outworn culture (or worn out culture) and no long relevant to the twentieth century, much less beyond. On the other hand, perhaps the contemporary institution of higher learning would better understand its function of serving its students by reflecting on the old ideas that formerly guided the university. Maybe the business that university professors all share is the business of leading young people out of ignorance and prejudice and into their own intellectual powers. Edward G. Ballard wrote,
The humanities represent our liberal engagement with the good; the sciences represent our liberal engagement with the true. The very being of a university is dependent upon the unity of these two. Urged on and guided by these working together and in harmony, perhaps we have some hope of producing that splendid and rare thing, a university. And where else could excellence and truth be so freely and methodically sought as in the ideal university.
What changes would a re-renewed recognition of the combined power of the liberal arts to humanize lead to in our curriculum? I suppose that we would have to demand that every student become familiar with the various symbolic systems that are in use in our cultures. Our mathematicians would be able to read, or even write, poetry; we would discipline our poets' thinking by demanding that they study the sciences and mathematics. Perhaps we would encourage foreign language study as a means for learning about other natural languages, incidentally overcoming the prejudice of provinciality. Perhaps we would understand ourselves and our colleagues in the various disciplines, not as competitors for students and grants, but as laborers in the same field. After all, we each attempt in our own specialties to reveal the generality and complementarity of knowledge.
What I am proposing is nothing short of remembering that the university was originally an organ for human intellectual freedom rather than cybernetic fit.. Plato's guardians ruled well over others since they controlled themselves. Their education led them to embody the values of good citizens, living well together in cities. Perhaps if we, college faculty, saw ourselves as co-liberators of human powers, our students could leave our institutions better prepared to compete in the rapidly changing job market because they had acquired the basic skills requisite for all intellectual accomplishments. The world is too complex for us to be training specialists, and the human potential is too broad for us to limit it by teaching any particular field as if it summed up the facets of the person. We want our students to survive in the changing world of work, but first we want our students to live well by taking possession of their powers and their personhood in order to affirm human values, freely.
In a book that details the isomorphism of poetry and mathematics, Scott Buchanan wrote, "The aim of the liberal arts is insight, understanding, imagination, and finally the transformation of the student into his own teacher and the teacher of others. The result of liberal education is lifelong learning and teaching. The social fruit of the tree of knowledge is an intellectual culture. The rediscovery of the liberal arts could be the much-needed beginning of the reconstruction of education in this country." The liberal arts are empty of content, that is, the liberal arts are devoid of dogma. Our educational theory, in a era which renews focus on cultural and individual difference, might do well to reflect on Mark Van Doren's opinion that
The liberal arts equip the person to exercise reason. The benefits of rationality would seem to extend to peace in the Middle East, Bosnia, and Northern Ireland and so forth. The mastery of the arts of using natural language would free us to communicate better with ourselves and those we love. The arts of mathematical language teach us habits of rigorous, disinterested abstract thought.
Post-moderns seem to be engaged in replacing philosophy, perhaps in the guise of logic, with rhetoric so that all becomes conversation or narrative, and privilege is problematic. Were we to resuscitate a version of the liberal arts tradition as pedagogy and a goal for our "post-modern" times, we would not be coaxing a dusty corpse of a bygone tradition back to life. Rather we would be putting our tradition into practice. The liberal arts live only in time, in some historical instantiation or another. Now may be the time to bring this curriculum back into our time. Rather than a person ill-equipped to do anything, the more traditionally educated liberal arts graduate could again be a person who is equipped by his skills to do anything. And, to evaluate what is worth doing.