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

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Liberal Arts: The Skills of the Free Man

I want to see if I can clarify and expand a bit my thinking on the Liberal Arts, broadly defined, and their place in education, particularly post-secondary education.

First off, I think some discussion of terminology is in order. When people talk about "liberal arts majors" in modern colleges, they generally seem to mean people who major in English, History, Philosophy, Art, Religious Studies, etc. Thus, in disputes about education, you'll sometimes hear someone say something along the lines of "You want a liberal arts education? Go to the library if you want to read the classics!" Or some particularly easy general math or science course will be dismissed as "for liberal arts majors" when talked about by students actually majoring in Mathematics or in one of the sciences. However, even in current formal usage, "liberal arts" still designates a wider range of skills than this more colloquial usage. Miriam-Webster defines "Liberal Arts" thusly:
1. the medieval studies comprising the trivium and quadrivium

2. college or university studies (as language, philosophy, literature, abstract science) intended to provide chiefly general knowledge and to develop general intellectual capacities (as reason and judgment) as opposed to professional or vocational skills
I rather like Google's definition for conciseness:
1. Academic subjects such as literature, philosophy, mathematics, and social and physical sciences as distinct from professional and technical subjects
This range of disciplines reflects the original list of the Seven Liberal Arts which derives from the 5th Century Roman writer Martianus Capella: Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, Astronomy

To the modern eye, this seems like a wide and somewhat odd collection of skills, and I would not say that a modern liberal arts education should necessarily mirror the original Seven Liberal Arts in exact detail. However, I think there is a useful general point do be derived from them. The seven liberal arts represented the education of a generalist. It was an advanced education. In late antiquity someone getting a liberal arts education would have mastered both Latin and Greek, and gained the ability to write and speak fluently in a variety of genres: Political speeches, poetry, history, etc. The student would have mastered formal logic and the major philosophical schools of the time, including an understanding of science (natural philosophy), ethics, and metaphysics. The student was also expected to master mathematics and geometry at a fairly high level. If you've worked a bit of Euclid, this wasn't exactly "math for liberal arts majors", it's fairly hard core stuff. And the modern equivalent of Music and Astronomy as the Ancients dealt with them would arguably be the hard sciences.

What made these "liberal arts", the skills of a free man? Some of these related directly to the responsibilities of a citizen taking part in ancient civic life: rhetoric, for example, was key to the political campaigning and legal wrangling which was a common part of aristocratic life in antiquity. More broadly, however, these are general skills. Someone who has only a specialist's education in some given trade is thus limited to his chosen profession. He is, in some sense, educated to be an implement. An education in the liberal arts is suited to a free man because they provided a general foundation on which one can quickly develop a more practical expertise on any of a number of subjects. So the liberal arts are those skills suitable to a free man because they are adaptable, allowing him to turn to any of a number of subjects and have sufficient knowledge and adaptability to master them.

Further, the idea of a liberal arts education is based on an understanding of the human being as a rational creature. We have a human need to understand questions of "why" and "ought", not just "how". As such, it's suitable to the human person to develop the skills that allow us to reason about the human condition and about the problems we face in our lives and in society at large.

The liberal arts are skills that provide us with the ability to understand the things that surround us and reason about them. As such, some degree of liberal arts are (at least if we take seriously the idea that we all share a human dignity rather than being by nature either "servile" or "ruler" in type) necessary skills for all of us.

What that leaves open is the question of what relation (if any) the liberal arts bear modern education at various levels, and since I've already spent far too much time on this post, I'll try to begin addressing that in another post.


bearing said...

This is a really interesting part of the thread to me. I would like to explore this question:

What are the *modern* liberal arts? What collection of general skills would in today's world best serve the purpose of being the "skills of a free man?" What today would make a skilled, advanced generalist?

My first proposal is to replace Greek and Latin with English for non-English speakers, or with some other lingua franca depending on the region of the world you live and work in. Not that Latin isn't useful, but it stretches the imagination to think it has the same place today as it had in medieval times as an international and scholarly language. That is English today.

My second proposal is to take a good hard look at certain technical skills and ask oneself, are any of these necessary to understand in order to live in today's world? I'm inclined to suggest that notions of computer programming and other in-depth working with algorithms would be an important modern liberal art skill -- if you don't "get" the notion of an algorithm, there is a lot going on that you won't understand.

I am inclined to suggest that ethics, political philosophy, and history (esp. military history) all still belong as firmly as ever, as well as rhetoric, although all might require some updating.

Darwin said...

Ah, see, I'd been attempting to do a roughed out list of liberal arts in the modern age, but it made the post to sprawling, so I pasted it into a draft to draw out into a post later. Clearly I better get to that soon.

Darwin said...

BTW, I'm particularly curious, why the "(esp. military history)" parens?

bearing said...

Because it's been neglected, and I think it is necessary to understand international relations, which are more global now than they were in the middle ages.

Darwin said...

Makes total sense. And (as a bit of a military history fan) it would be great to see the pendulum of opinion finally turn form "we need less of military history because it's been emphasized for too long" to "gee, now we eliminated military history entirely and that was a bad idea, let's bring it back." Seems like after 40-50 years a change is in order.