Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

On The Nature of the Liberal Arts, Broadly Understood

While I haven't been writing about it as much as I'd like, I've been thinking a lot about education and higher education in particular, in reaction to Bearing's series on Post-Secondary Education.

One of my difficulties with the whole line of discussion is that I don't think that college, or education more generally, should be thought of primarily in terms of return on investment or preparation for making a living. Certainly, it can be useful for that. College has become something of a signaling mechanism in our society for "this is an educated, able and adaptable person with a certain ability to stick to something and self motivate (at least enough to graduate)", and as such people with college degrees have doors open to them which people without can find it harder to open. However, despite that, and despite the ever-increasing drum beat of "you must go to college to get a good job" and it's unrealistic (and thus dangerous) cousin "if you go to college, you will be sure to get a good job", I think the purpose of a college education ought to be to become a more fully educated person in the sense traditionally described by the Liberal Arts.

Hopefully, a few readers have just sat up and thought: "Wait a minute, are you saying that only a liberal arts education fulfills the goals of going to college? What about math and science? Should everyone be liberals arts majors?"

No, I'm certainly not excluding math and science. And indeed, I think one of the problems with the way that we often think these days about "liberal arts" and the nature of education is that we tend far too much to equate "liberal arts" exclusively with fields such as languages, literature, history and philosophy.

As one generally reads in a brief essay on the topic, the term "liberal arts" goes back to Roman antiquity, and designates the arts appropriate to a free man. Further, the term "art" had a meaning more along the lines of "craft" or "skill". So the liberal arts comprise the crafts and skills appropriate to a free man. Brandon, I thought, summed this up well at Siris a while back:
The word indicates a kind of craft; it's a productive skill, and one who learns a liberal art becomes an artisan, shaping, and making, and adapting things to good and useful and beautiful ends. Liberal arts are distinguished in one way from servile arts, which are devoted to making oneself useful to other people, and in another way from the manual arts, which make material products (handiworks, things that can be manufactured, things made and shaped by hand). Thus liberal arts are the crafts that involve making those intellectual and imaginative constructions that assist each person in thinking and determining his or her own ends as a free individual. The liberal arts in this sense are literally the arts of free reason.

And it cannot be emphasized enough: they make things, and these things, along with the products of all the other arts, are what make up the material of civilization.
You get a sense of this looking at the traditional list of liberal arts. You have the Trivium which move from the more mechanical to the more abstract: Grammar, Rhetoric, Logic

The Quadrivium have an opposite progression from the more abstract to the more applied: Mathematics, Geometry, Music, Astronomy Especially once one keeps in mind that to the ancient and medieval authors who compiled this list of seven, music was at least as much a science as an art, being heavily based on mathematics and conceptions of pattern and proportion (in a conception of the universe where everything from the movement of the heavenly spheres to the operation of the human body was understood in terms of pattern and proportion.) Astronomy included observational astronomy (though an awful lot of what we now know about the universe was then unknown) but also involved all of the measures and calculations that people performed using the movement of the stars and planets: navigation, calculation of orbits, predictions as to conjunctions and eclipses, etc.

We don't live in a medieval world anymore, and many aspects of our understanding of the world have changed. I'm not here to present a plan for education based on somehow applying the "Seven Liberal Arts" to modern education. Rather, I think it might be useful to think a bit about what made these the arts of a free man (as opposed to service arts or manual arts) and how we might apply that concept to our modern world.

At the most basic level, it seems to me that these liberal arts have in common that they are more general learned skills that emphasize understanding and adaptability. They are not trained skills suited only to accomplishing a specific sort of task.

In more modern terms, an understanding of subjects such as: mathematics, statistical analysis, relational database structure, or a programming language (and the more conceptional background of what a programming language is and how it works) would fall in the category of liberals arts. They are adaptable skills rooted in general knowledge which a "freeman" might well use in the process of building civilization.

A "servile" approach to these same areas of knowledge could be taken, if instead of focusing on an education which is general and adaptable, one focused on training very specific ways of dealing with very specific situations. To draw on another area: Learning to express oneself clearly and persuasively in writing is a liberal art. Medical transcription is a matter of training. This does not, of course, mean that medical transcription is something unworthy of being done. It's simply that learning to do it is a matter of training. Perhaps someone who has pursued a liberal arts education would end up taking training to work in medical transcription. The liberal arts background might be of any amount of help to the person who becomes a medical transcriber, but it is not the business of the liberal arts to train someone in so specialized a field.

Now clearly, by this sort of definition "liberal arts" is a very wide range of subjects. I don't think it likely that in our increasingly complex world someone would be likely to master all of them, nor is that needed. Breadth is certainly desirable, and I think it fits well with the understanding of the "skills of a free man" that I'm describing here, but different people have different aptitudes, and I don't think its necessary or even desirable to try to push everyone pursuing a liberal arts type of education to master everything that might be thought of as a liberal art. What I do think is important to consider, however, in thinking about education in relation to the liberal arts is the approach which emphasizes a general though thorough understanding of a subject, and the adaptability which comes with that, as compared to the very task-specific kind of learning which is more properly termed "training".


bearing said...

I am glad to see you flesh out your definition of the liberal arts and to try to distinguish them from servile arts. I will have to consider the difference. In the meantime, I would like to put in a plug for engineering as one of your liberally-defined liberal arts.

But in my view, a given *skill* can be used for "liberation" or for "servility." The ability to draw the human form in photorealistic detail is a learned skill; it can be employed in servility by a medical illustrator, or it can be employed "liberally" by a painter in the fine arts. Still, it is the same sort of skill, and one could imagine the art student taking a medical illustration course to improve his art just as easily as one could imagine the apprentice illustrator taking an art course to improve his illustrations.

Darwin said...

I'd certainly agree that engineering could be a liberal art under this definition, depending on how it's taught. (Whereas, getting certified as a structural inspector would be more of a servile art, even if you leaned some of the same material.)

Also, I should note: Subjects traditionally perceived as "liberal arts" could certainly be taught in a servile way, one which teaches rote repetition of certain forms.

The ability to draw the human form in photorealistic detail is a learned skill; it can be employed in servility by a medical illustrator, or it can be employed "liberally" by a painter in the fine arts.

Though just to be clear: I'd say the distinction is not whether you're doing fine art or medical illustration with your skills, but rather how the skill is taught in the first place.

The way that a liberal art is taught is in a way that promotes general understanding, adaptability, and the ability to use the skill in a self directed fashion in a wide variety of ways in the future.

I'd hesitated to get sidetracked with this extended example in the post, but you'd probably appreciate it, Bearing:

Some years back I was kind of running a small business on the side doing web and database work. I'd been asked to put together an Access database to manage fundraising address lists and produce form letters and with mailing labels. I happened to know a very experienced database developer who I knew was looking for jobs, so I offered to hire him to do the project.

What I had from the client was a fairly clear description of how the database should work for the use, and it was a project it probably would have taken me 15 hours to do myself. I knew he was far more experienced with databases than me, so I figured I wouldn't have to think about it again. However, instead what I got was a constant stream of questions. "Which fields do you want in the address table? What kind of key do you want on this table? What should this form look like?" In the end I had to spend nearly as much time directing the project as I would have doing it myself, because it turned out that although far more knowledgeable about databases than me, the developer was not comfortable deciding how to create an application. He only felt comfortable implementing very precise instructions. If you told him exactly how something should work, he'd make it for you, but he didn't have the ability to use his skills in a self directed fashion.

I'd say that marks a distinction between a "servile" and "liberal" approach to the craft of database design -- certainly not something which one would normally think of as a "liberal art", though in a latter day Roman Empire, I'd see the cives sent out to the provinces as needing to have a basic understanding of such matters.

To take a very different example: When you see those composition courses which advise students that every paragraph must have a subject sentence, three detail sentences, and a conclusion sentence, and that every composition should have a subject paragraph, three supporting detail paragraphs, and a concluding paragraph, I'd argue that's a servile approach to teaching writing.

federoff11 said...

I'm shot through the heart!

You see, I AM one of those composition instructors who teaches that there can be a recipe for an essay (the standard, 5-paragraph, hamburger essay with a 3 point thesis statement and topic sentences for every paragraph). I think beginning high school level students NEED that level of direction, and the comfort of a checklist, in order to produce COHERENT essays. Latter, they can expand to a slightly more freeform style. But, at least at the beginning, they need to know how to keep order in their essays or they wander off into irrelevance.

I also have the pleasure of teaching the progymnasmata exercises, which actually proscribe the topic of each paragraph as well. Those are the most truly classical writing experiences we can teach the children. There is definitely a "formula" employed there, dating back to the ancient Greeks and Romans.

I would say our typical "hamburger" essay is just another form that we MODERNS have found to be useful... especially for the poor graders, who know they can just look at the checklist of compositional elements to see if the student got the basic idea of an essay "right."

Its not necessarily a servile approach to writing when one teaches a formula. Its more of a framework that an inexperienced mind can use to learn discipline, order, and clarity of thought. (and I bet we can all agree the world could use more writing like THAT!)

Darwin said...

Just because it's formulaic doesn't necessarily mean that it should never be taught. (I'm biased: as I student I always loathed it from the moment I was first taught it in 4th or 5th grade. Which isn't to say that I wrote good compositions, I just hated rules that I couldn't see a purpose in.)

The concept behind the liberal arts was that it prepared one to be a member of the ruling/managerial class. Divorced from class questions, I think it also instills a freedom of thought and understanding that's important even if you're not likely to be sent off to rule of province of Gaul.

That said, students aren't ready to be "free men" right off. Some period of following the rules of others is clearly needed first in order to learn how things are done. The "liberal arts" were an advanced study, not how you started off.

If a highly formulaic approach works well in helping students get started, I see no reason not to use it. The problem is if the student never learns anything else.

bearing said...

The formula only sets up constraints within which a great deal of freedom can thrive. A truly creative and inspired individual shows his best mastery when he can work in tight constraints.

If I teach sonnet-writing, am I teaching servility because I require 14 lines, a narrow set of choices of rhyme-scheme, and a precise meter? Was Donne free, or servile, when he composed Holy Sonnet X?

I like your point that it "depends how it's taught" -- that maybe whether a given art is liberal, or servile-ly, depends not so much on the practice as on the teaching. And that certainly makes sense when we are talking about education.

But maybe this is betraying some deeper differences in educational theory (because I find myself agreeing with federoff). Maybe you agree with it in part (you say "If a highly formulaic approach works well in helping students get started...")

Because my belief is that every subject, even the most "creative" of subjects, must begin and continue for quite a while with mastery of formulas. Build a foundation of skill in imitating effective examples, and build it well, and as the formulas are mastered the student can move on to exercise freedom -- first, creativity within the bounds prescribed by the formulas, and then stretching the formula a bit, to the point when the individual can design his own structure and make a whole new kind of thing.

It's a mistake to teach formulas without explaining the reason for all the rules (and I would say it's an example of poor pedagogy). In the case of teaching essay-writing via the standard 5-paragraph essay, it ought to be clear that you teach it in order to give students experience with a certain scope, with sentences of a certain length, with the notion of dividing up subtopics into paragraphs, with the notion of supporting arguments and sub-arguments.... and that later, when they're able to churn these out with no difficulty, then they'll be able to play with the form. But creativity before accuracy puts the cart before the horse, in my view. If you can't develop the skills to use them properly, you've no business trying to be, er, free with the materials. So you've got to start out learning to wash your brushes before you can create new works of art.

Another possible difference between you (Darwin) and me in our perceptions here -- why I was talking about distinguishing liberal from servile based on "what you do with it" and you are talking about distinguishing it based on "how it is taught:"

If I'm reading your story correctly, you had a liberal-arts education but nonetheless find yourself working for a living, whereas I had a practical-training sort of education but nonetheless find myself in a position where I have to use the character I developed very adaptively and generally. I find myself calling upon my engineering education *as if it were* a liberal-arts background, and you are (if I may make an assumption about you) calling on your liberal-arts education to assist you in developing and monetizing practically valuable skills.

bearing said...

Here's another thing I find myself musing on, but it's not well-developed enough to be a post on my own blog, so I'm throwing it out here.

How does this distinction between "servile" arts and "liberal" ("free") arts look in the light of Christian notions of servitude -- or shall we call it "service" -- and Christian notions of true freedom?

Some would say that freely choosing service and obedience is an especially high form of freedom. Am I going off on a tangent here, or isn't it true that Christianity has rather blurred the distinction you are trying to make? The last shall be first and all that?

MrsDarwin said...

Bearing, I think you're conflating "servile" with "service". There's not much similarity between not having enough education or not having enough mental agility to be able to think, write, or work without close and narrow direction, and in living and acting in Christian service in whatever course of life one finds oneself. Christianity may consist of walking humbly with God and abandoning oneself to His will, but it seems to me that those who follow Christianity in a servile fashion are those who are so caught in up in particular rules, guidelines, and strictures that they are likely to fail in practicing the more "liberal" and divine aspects of Christianity such as mercy, humility, justice, etc.

To pick one contentious example, there are those who are always demanding that the Church ought to lay down very precise guidelines on "how far is too far" or establish a particular dress code to promulgate modesty, whereas the Church has always left these issues to be determined by individual Christians acting under the liberal virtues of prudence and temperance.

bearing said...

Well, I'm thinking about freely choosing to live under strict discipline such as one finds in the cloister. In one sense, monks and nuns are "caught up in particular rules, guidelines, and strictures," but I don't think that makes them "likely to fail" in mercy and humility.

If I'm conflating servile and service, it's just that I think from the outside the two can look very similar. That service is "freely chosen" is possibly the difference -- but again, it often looks the same from the outside.

MrsDarwin said...

Cloistered religious often have "chapter", in which the rule of the order is read and reflected on in order to more fully understand the intent of the founder in promulgating the rule, and how the rule enhances the Christian life. The rule is a help to living Christian life, not a substitute for it.

Why is it that bureaucracies are so universally reviled? Because it seems like they often have a higher-than-usual proportion of "servile" workers who seem unable to see beyond ticking every box and assembling every piece of paperwork. I'm inclined to the idea that "servile" is actually the opposite of "service".

bearing said...

"I'm inclined to the idea that "servile" is actually the opposite of "service"."

I'm not in theory opposed to this notion (and I'm really not trying to be super hard headed about it, I'm just trying to draw bright lines around the meaning of all the terms, and it may be that there aren't any good bright lines).

Maybe I have an overly democratic and populist notion of "freedom" here. I guess I believe you can do servile work and yet be free in your mind... and I keep trying to force this notion to conform to the "freedom" implied in the "liberal arts."

Darwin said...

I sense the need to write an additional post or two rather than having an increasingly wandering comment thread, but let me see if I can focus on the key point and clarify a few thoughts.

First off, I want to drop the composition class example -- it was imperfect to start with, I think, and mostly launched into in an attempt to show that traditionally conceived "liberal arts" can be taught in non-free ways. I do want to write about that approach to teaching composition, but I'll do it separately later.

Secondly, I want to try to clarify the distinction I'm making between "liberal" and "servile" arts.

Two comments of Bearing's in particular strike me, so I'm going to start by responding to them, and then see if I can go from there to clarifying my terminology:

1) If I'm reading your story correctly, you had a liberal-arts education but nonetheless find yourself working for a living, whereas I had a practical-training sort of education but nonetheless find myself in a position where I have to use the character I developed very adaptively and generally. I find myself calling upon my engineering education *as if it were* a liberal-arts background, and you are (if I may make an assumption about you) calling on your liberal-arts education to assist you in developing and monetizing practically valuable skills.

Looking at the way I've seen you take your engineering background and use it in very flexible ways to attack new problems ranging from diet and exercise to curriculum planning, it strikes me that your engineering background was very much a liberal education in the sense that I'm talking about here. So I would tend to say that we both have liberal arts backgrounds according to this description.

On the use of the background, again, I'd say that we've both clearly used the general/adaptable skills that we developed during our educations to deal with disparate situations as they've come up. You in homeschooling. Me in the workplace. Both of us in writing.

2) Maybe I have an overly democratic and populist notion of "freedom" here. I guess I believe you can do servile work and yet be free in your mind... and I keep trying to force this notion to conform to the "freedom" implied in the "liberal arts."

I would definitely agree that you can do servile work and be free in your mind. Indeed, that's why I'm a big booster of liberal education for anyone who has the least desire for it: because even if a lot of people may end up doing somewhat by-rote work, I think they will be freer in their minds (and actually, probably better and more adaptable in their work also) if they have that more general and adaptable kind of education rather than just having training to perform some sort of by-rote process. Again, in talking about liberal arts, I'm talking about what and how you learn, not what you end up doing to make a living. And my objection isn't to doing "servile" work, it's to someone not being taught anything else.

So, to try to pull that together shortly:

The sense in which I'm trying to use "liberal" and "servile" here refers to what you learn and how you learn rather than what kind of work you do.

A "liberal" form of education is one which which seeks to form broad and adaptable understanding and abilities in an array of fields such that the liberally educated person can reason about and determine his own ends and those of the products of human effort necessary to maintain civilization.(In some sense, I think there's a similarity to the latent and developed competencies you talk about in your Heinlein Syllabus)

bearing said...

Thank you *so* much for your patience in helping me make sense of this, btw, Darwin. I must be coming across as terribly bullheaded about it.

Darwin said...

Oh, goodness, after the way I've been on your post secondary education posts, there can certainly be no apologies necessary!

bearing said...

Okay, having gone away and thought about this for a while (and ranted to my English-major friend over a cup of tea) I think I have put my finger on one specific thing that I specifically disagree about and can describe coherently.

You seem to be stressing that the distinction between the liberal arts and what you call the servile arts is "how it is taught." You say, for example, that engineering can be a liberal art, "depending on how it is taught.". You say that subjects traditionally numbered among the liberal arts can be "taught in a servile way." There are a number of other examples in these comments like that.

This is certainly consistent with the notion that a liberal arts education is a thing that can be bought, if you can afford it, and that access to it is controlled by the people who are selling it.

But I disagree that the distinction between what develops the "free intellect" and what develops the "servile intellect" is quite so external to the learner. Certainly it is possible for a particular institution or instructor to teach in a way that actively crushes the intellect, and it is possible for an institution or instructor to teach in a way that attempts to encourage the free exercise of the intellect -- but for the most part, I think that the liberal mind produces itself from digesting and transforming whatever educational material is available to it. Whether you approach learning in a servile way or in a liberating way is, in my view, mostly up to the learner -- that it is a matter of attitude.

This reflects a certain optimism that is borne in me of two modern features which the medievals didn't have.

Number one, all social classes have access to an enormous amount of information (yes, it is harder if you are poor, but it is not impossible) and so the work of integrating whatever skills and other learning is available to you into a concept of the total human person is something that anyone can do, if they have the right attitude and a certain minimum intellectual ability.

Number two (and this is my engineering education -- even specifically my chemical engineering education talking, since the concept of unit operations is basically what defines the discipline) is *modularity.* You can call it cafeteria-style education if you like, I do not know if that would be a disparagement of the idea or not, but what I am getting at is the concept that you can put together "modules" of knowledge, skill, and philosophy according to your needs and interest. Along the way (if you make a habit of stepping back and looking at the whole shebang) you can construct a "liberal arts education" of your own design, one that organically incorporates the skill of an artisan, the obedience of the cloister, and the rhythm of the manual laborer -- if it's called for by your overall vision. I can create an education that is uniquely my own, if I wish, and that is not controlled by any gatekeepers who tell me that for it to be a complete education it must include so many hours of this and so many hours of that.

I believe that modularity is very very useful, and that the "liberal" learner is the one who is motivated to create a coherent whole out of the available modules; perhaps the servile learner is the one who is content to take them one at a time and not make the connections between them. But I really think the difference is an internal one, not controlled by the instructors (though as I said the instruction can influence it).

This rather dovetails nicely with your motivation post.

Darwin said...

Well, like I say, I feel like I need to write another post on liberal versus servile skills, but let me take a shot at this briefly:

There are certain types of skills/training the acquisition of which, I would argue, cannot be a "liberal art", because it's a specific skill only applicable to doing a given task.

So to take an example: As soon as I finish my coffee and this comment, I'm going to go outside and work on replacing a bunch of the drainage pipes that channel the water from my rain gutters. In doing this project, I'll be making use of my knowledge of geometry (how many angle joints of which kind will I need, and what is the most efficient want to laying out pipes) and very basic fluid behavior (the water will always flow downhill, having any dip in the pipe will cause water to accumulate up to the level of the highest point before it goes downhill again, etc.).

So these are, I would say, liberal skills that I'll be using: general knowledge which can be applied to all sorts of different situations.

By comparison, a training course in rain gutter and drain installation would be instilling servile and manual arts. The skills being instilled would be very specific, not general and adaptable. I'm not saying no one should ever know this stuff. Someone whose job is installing rain gutter systems full time needs to have a more detailed and specific knowledge of these things than I do fixing and redirecting a part of my system. But my claim is that someone who is only ever given that kind of very task specific, unadaptable education (someone who never receives any or much of any liberal education) is being done a disservice.

Now, if I follow you, I think you're pointing out that almost any specific thing one might learn would have elements of general applicability. There might be some extreme examples (there's a point in Best Years of Our LIves where the former air force captain is explaining in a job interview that the only thing he was trained to do was all the fine points of looking through a Norton bomb sight making sure the bombs hit the target) but one could certainly imagine that in our imaginary rain gutter installation training, one might pick up generally applicable knowledge of geometry and fluid behavior, depending on how sharp the student was and how well the course was set up.

I'd certainly concede that, but I think that in general vocational training is not going to be a very efficient way of getting a liberal education. That's why, in more hierarchical modern societies, there's been a conscious practice of sending those intended for the managerial/ruling class to get a more general education, while sending those intended to be "workers" off to vocational training only.

Stemming from all this, I think one of the obvious comments would be that the post-secondary education system we have is pretty un-ideal for instilling a liberal education. That probably also requires a post. I'd basically agree, though I think it is probably less un-ideal than most of the other options at this point in time.

bearing said...

"But my claim is that someone who is only ever given that kind of very task specific, unadaptable education (someone who never receives any or much of any liberal education) is being done a disservice...."

See... it's the passive voice here that I'm calling out. I'm saying that maybe the difference you are looking for is between those who passively accept training they are "given" (sold is more likely, but I digress) and those who actively seek out pieces to put together an education for themselves. Of which some manual training can be part.

I might go so far as to suggest that a liberal-arts education that doesn't include at least some manual skill (heck, playing a musical instrument could work here) is insufficiently liberal. (Much as I think that what passes for liberal-arts education in many universities is insufficiently challenging in mathematics and science.)

I mean, are you really a "free" man if you aren't capable enough to do what used to be called "honest work" for a day if need be?

I agree with you that an education that is *limited* to manual training can't possibly be called a "liberal arts" education, but I think that manual/skills training (as well as mathematics and science) could be incorporated into a liberal arts education in much higher proportions than is currently in vogue.