Friday, July 03, 2015

A Vision for the Liberal Arts 1

1. I wish there was a better name for them, given the fact that a lot of people break out in hives at the word, "liberal" (the phrase comes from millennia before the current sense of the word, "liberal"). "General education requirements" has no power at all. "Liberating arts" does clarify a little, but again doesn't communicate much to outsiders.

How about this--it's the part of a college curriculum meant to protect civilization from barbarism? The liberal arts is the part of the curriculum meant to separate students from apes and monkeys. It's the part of the curriculum meant to protect society from stupid.

History, literature, art and music, philosophy, psychology, basic math and science, those are typical fare in a general education curriculum. The medieval topics were grammar, logic, rhetoric (the trivium), music, arithmetic, geometry, and astronomy (the quadrivium). The State of Indiana has translated them into certain core skills: written communication, speaking and listening, quantitative reasoning, thinking scientifically, thinking socially/behaviorally, and thinking humanly/artistically. Those Indiana colleges that participate can swap a 30 hour block fulfilling these competencies.

2. There are still places where the liberal or "freeing" arts can be taught without explanation. I fear, though, that in our "what's it for," utilitarian world, they will be in danger. Their vulnerability is compounded, I think, by professors and colleges who do not show or articulate what they are for. If the professor loves the topic and can communicate that enthusiasm, a student can be changed without necessarily knowing why he or she was required to take that course.

But if the professor is merely selfish, just teaching what he or she wants to teach, if the professor begrudges having to teach a general education course, if some hapless adjunct is drafted to teach it who doesn't really know what he or she is doing, then it would probably have been better if the student hadn't had to take the class. Where there is no vision, the liberal arts perish.

3. I might brand them this way--The liberal arts are civilization's best defense against barbarism, against us being mere animals, ripping whatever meat satisfies our passing appetites. A business major without a sense of virtue and human value is just a gorilla, no matter how much money he or she ends up making. A political science major with no sense of the meaning of life is just a baboon.

You might ask where my mention of Christianity is in this. Obviously there is a rich, Christian way of teaching these subjects. Indeed, these subjects could be taught in an insidious, evil way that deconstructed humanity. When I speak of the value of the liberal arts, I mean when they are taught in the way that coincides with core Judeo-Christian values like the worth of every person and the existence of meaning.

But there are plenty of people calling themselves Christians out there who are just as animal as anyone else. Religion, even Christianity, is often used as a tool of stupid and oppression. When stupid reads the Bible, stupid thinks the Bible teaches stupid things and then beats up others who disagree with stupid. The same goes for stupid reading the Qur'an or the Communist Manifesto.

4. The purist might not like the tactic I'm taking--using abusive language and arguing for the utility of the liberal arts. The liberal arts usually are meant to move us toward peaceful co-existence, not my militant and strident tone. The liberal arts are usually thought to be valuable for their own sake, not for their instrumental value.

But I wonder if the truth could use some "mercenaries" from time to time. Utility usually wins, especially when resources are scarce. Power wins over truth time and time again. The meek will inherit the earth to come, but in the meantime force tends to win. I have no problem with Bonhoeffer cooperating in the plot to assassinate Hitler and do not consider it sinful. (However, if you've absorbed the benefit of the liberal arts, all sorts of warning lights should be going off at what I'm saying).

So think of me as a mercenary for truth. No, I'm not going to kill anybody. In the next few posts I'm going to argue that, in terms of the long term benefit for the human race, the liberal arts are actually more important than being able to get a job or having a major, at least when they are taught well and with the assumption of universal human value and the meaningfulness of life.

They hold the power to make the world a better place for a longer time than some passing skill you might learn in a major. And a deep Christian version of them, I believe, is the most powerful of all to change the world for good.

1 comment:

vanilla said...

Good luck. With what instrument must one beat over the head the troglodyte who persists in his belief that a college education is job training? Much interested in following you down this road you have chosen because I am tired of fighting the battle.

How did "liberal" become a pejorative term? I once did a master's at the conclusion of which I had the choice of "MAT" or "MALS." I chose the latter. Hoo, boy.