IWU faces its 10 year accreditation visit in three years, so we are doing the usual revisiting and reassessment of our general education curriculum. Here there are a number of terms and concepts that are often thrown around as if they are synonymous. But are they?
Is a general education curriculum the same as a "liberal arts" curriculum? Does a liberal arts curriculum constitute a "foundation for all the majors"? Is a liberal arts curriculum about being an "educated" person? a "cultured" person? To what extent does it have to do with life skills (instrumental value) and to what extent is it about truth as an end in itself (intrinsic value)? Are the liberal arts necessarily connected to the traditional subjects of the medieval trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric) and quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music)?
Here are my working categories for the components of the "general education" core curriculum at a college grounded in the liberal arts:
1. components relating to "liberating pursuits"--this is the way IWU's own David Riggs has described the essence of a liberal arts approach to learning. The idea is that such learning "liberates" us from the shackles of ignorance, vice, delusion, and so forth. It enables us to be fully human.
2. components relating to "a cultured, college educated" person--this relates to knowledge valued particularly in the "Western" tradition without which a person in the West would not historically be considered an educated person.
3. the broad equipping of a person to function effectively in the 21st century world--this relates to awareness of the world beyond the Western world, a person who is generally based in such a way that they could function effectively in any other discipline, a base from which all other learning might proceed.
It is my contention that while there is significant overlap between these three centers, they each represent distinct aspects of a general education curriculum that is grounded in the liberal arts. The introduction of the adjective "Christian" to the equation presents a new dynamic that significantly modifies and redirects the centers above.
My purpose in this post is to ask the place of philosophy in such a Christian general education curriculum grounded in the liberal arts.
1. In a non-Christian environment, philosophy stands at the very center of all "liberating pursuits." This is because philosophy asks the most fundamental questions without which the other disciplines never emerge from "the cave."
Without some sense of a philosophy of science, the sciences proceed without any sense of what they are really doing, like mice who do not know they are in an experiment of their own making. Without some sense of themselves, humans operate little differently from other unreflective animals. We do not fully exist until we define ourselves. And without an awareness that the world might be understood differently than we understand it, no one is truly free. The unexamined life is the life of one who is a slave to forces of which they are not even aware, forces that have mindlessly manipulated them into the blind positions in which they (don't) find themselves.
Philosophy thus stands at the center of the idea of "liberating pursuits."
The idea of Christian liberating pursuits introduces new dynamics that potentially challenge the place of philosophy at the center of human liberation. Now the motto must surely become "faith seeking understanding," and our sense of what constitutes meaning and individual significance takes on a particular form. A whole set of axioms and theorems are added to the operation of logic.
But the questions philosophy asks have not changed. It is only the presuppositions that inform the pursuit of the answers. And maybe, just maybe, God has already revealed some of the answers.
2. Certainly from a historic standpoint, there are any number of ideas and movements that should be a part of any curriculum informed by the liberal arts. An educated, cultured individual in the West should know who Socrates, Plato, and Nietzsche were and what their most signature ideas were. A college educated person should have heard of Kant's categorical imperative and should know what a utilitarian approach to ethics is.
Someone might object: "The importance we have placed on these names and ideas is an accident of history, even a construct of a particular time and place." No doubt there is an element of truth to this claim. However, if we are to follow through on this argument, then why even speak of "liberal arts," since the notion derives from the Greco-Roman world and has historically been the province of European civilizations? The very word "renaissance" implied the intention to return to the pursuits of this world, and the great universities of the late middle ages were founded under these ideas.
It is certainly in keeping with the fundamental ideas of "liberating pursuits" to move well beyond European interests (#3). To allow ourselves to be enslaved to a particular cultural tradition would be to deconstruct the fundamental idea. However, it would be equally myopic to claim that any other cultural milieu has had a greater effect on the overall look of the world today, for good or ill.
The scientific revolution that has made the world into what it is today came from Europe, and it developed in conjunction with the ideas of the liberal tradition. Democracy is not the dominant mode of human culture. It was the European Enlightenment that brought this form of government into contemporary dominance. Similarly, it is the "Western" world that has brought into dominance a focus on the rights of individuals, an orientation around equal justice for all, and a sense that truth should not be truth for groups but for individuals. These ideas are ironically in peril even in American culture today. We ironically have followed the rightful idea of tolerance and openness to the ideas of others to the point where we run the risk of abandoning ideas that have made the modern world thrive.
Awareness of the persons and key ideas of this "Western" tradition is thus engagement in the most thorough engagement with the questions of humanity available to us. We run the risk of repeating the pitfalls of the past and missing out on the blessings of the present if we do not know these things and educate our successors in them.
3. Finally, as we have already said, we cannot limit ourselves to a knowledge of the European philosophical tradition if we want to rid ourselves of blind spots. Every true human is a philosopher, and it would be ludicrous to suggest that the ancient Greek Thales was truly the "father of philosophy." Any full pursuit of truth and true liberation must ask how other cultures throughout history have done philosophy and learn from them as well.
So what should a Christian general education curriculum that is grounded in the liberal arts tradition look like in relation to philosophy? Clearly there can be no such thing as a liberal arts education without addressing the questions of philosophy. To remove it from such a curriculum is immediately to disbar the term liberal arts from use. Liberal arts without philosophy is not liberal arts.
However, Christianity clearly impacts the nature of philosophy on a fundamental level. My suggestion is a course something like, "Philosophy and Christian Thought." Courses in Bible and Christian theology probably stand even more centrally in a Christian liberal arts curriculum. But as far as a Christian liberal arts curriculum, "philosophy and Christian thought" would stand more centrally.