Last week I tried to expand a bit on the concept of the Liberal Arts as "the skills of a free man". I described the purpose of the ancient and medieval liberal arts education as being to develop a general and adaptable set of skills that allowed the liberally educated person to understand and reason about the world, and I attempted to contrast this type of education from being trained to perform some one task or set of tasks well.
The classic set of liberal arts is: Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, Astronomy
Some of these disciplines are defined rather differently now than they were in the pre-modern world, and the modern world presents its own particular challenges to understanding, so I think it's worth thinking a little on how one might update this list. The following is rather unrigorous, but hopefully the exercise of thinking it through is illustrative even if the conclusions are far from the last word.
History and Literature
In the classic liberal arts, one would have read and memorized a lot of this during one's early education, and since grammar and rhetoric were taught in the context of examples, one would also have studied much of the best historical, literary, legal and political writing of the age as part of learning grammar and rhetoric. Further, I'd argue that context in the doing and writings of people in other times and places is essential to help free one from some of the modern world's assumptions about how the world works.
Writing and Rhetoric
Not only is the ability to write and speak clearly and persuasively essential to communicating to others one's own ideas, but the process of writing or speaking in an organized and persuasive fashion can help one refine and improve one's thinking. Further, understanding persuasive and reasoned discourse can serve to help one see through the ruses of those who misuse those arts.
The ability to use logic remains as essential as in the ancient world, and the ability of think about ethical and metaphysical issues in some manner other than "feelings" is equally so.
I found my background in studying Greek and Latin surprisingly useful in mastering skills such as programming. While I certainly don't think that one must study the ancient languages, it seems like the process of learning how to express or understand thoughts conveyed in a language other than one's own allows to learn things about how thought relates to language that it's hard to learn any other way. In that regard, I feel like one of the major gaps in my education is that I never learned to speak a foreign language fluently (Greek and Latin being read rather than spoken languages, at least the way I learned them.)
This is an area where I wish I'd learned more when I was in school, though I've been able to make up some ground since. I went through calculus in high school, but I was self-teaching using the Saxon textbooks, and I never took any college level math classes, which I regret. I think one key element is that one should get far enough in math and geometry to deal with proofs and see the way in which logic and mathematics meet up: that there are abstract concepts which are absolutely provable which we can then turn around and see reflected in how the world works. Also, given the extent to which we live in a mass society in which statistics and probabilities are constantly discussed, I think freedom in the modern world almost requires a certain basic understanding of statistics and probability. Otherwise, one finds oneself at the mercy of those who use (or misuse) these arts.
Science (Physics, Chemistry, Biology, etc.)
Again, this is an area discussed so commonly (and receiving so much reverence) in modern society that some understanding is, I think, essential to the free life. Especially essential, I think, for those who are acquiring only a passing familiarity with science would be a conceptional and process understanding: how he scientific method works, what it's capable of determining, etc. Also, enough of the basics of physics, chemistry and biology to see how it ties in with the mathematics and geometry one has learned.
The more abstract elements of Computer Science and Engineering
Again, for the non-specialist, I think the key elements here would be on concepts that have more general conceptual application and that intersect with other fields. Thus, for instance, understanding how physics and geometry drive machine and architectural design elements. Some understanding of the problem solving methodology and process development aspects of engineering. The basic grammatical concepts of computer programming would also seem key (algorithms, loops, etc.) I'm tempted to say that some understanding of database concepts (normalized data, relating tables through keys, etc.) is also of general application, but I kind of suspect that this is over-reaching.
Political Science, Economics, Anthropology
Here I hesitate a bit, because it can get kind of sketchy pretty quickly how much can actually be known from the social sciences. However, there are definitely concepts and approaches to analysis that should be learned here.
What to make of these?
I think it could be useful to take a whole post to look at how the concept of a liberal arts education relates to real higher education as we find it these days, rather than taking this post to absurd length to try to address that as well. But let me at least touch on a couple things.
The scope here is necessarily very wide. The concept, after all, is of a general and adaptable education. I think the breadth is important. Fr instance, looking back at my own education I do regret that I took no college level math, science, computer science or economics. I've picked up amounts of these since, but I feel like I had a lopsided emphasis in my own education.
At the same time, different people have different interests and abilities, and so it seems clear that different people would put far more emphasis on certain areas of the liberal arts than others. This seems fine and indeed very good. I don't want to try to make a case against specialization in study (I think there's a particular value to having a field of specialization and knowing one subject area quite well) but in keeping with the idea of a liberal education it seems to me there has to be some breadth as well as depth.
St. Francis Xavier
16 minutes ago