Thursday, July 16, 2015

Liberal Arts 7: Psychology and Sociology

The seventh post in my series on the importance of the liberal arts for civilization, finishing up the usual general education curriculum at a non-Christian school. Previous posts include:

1. A Vision for the Liberal Arts
2. The Value of Philosophy
3. The Value of History
4. The Value of Music and Art
5. The Value of Literature, Writing, and Speech
6. The Value of Science and Math

1. We've covered literature, philosophy, art, music, history, writing and (indirectly) speech, science and math. With those we have covered the classical liberal arts. Two more courses often fill out a general education curriculum: psychology and sociology.

Psychology has to do with our human minds, how we think, our personalities, why we behave the way we do. Sociology has to do with how people behave as groups, how different groups interact, and the various layers of a society. These are incredibly significant concepts that potentially help us understand ourselves and others more clearly.

I would argue that these are areas of a vast lack of self-awareness in American culture. We do not understand ourselves and why we behave the way we do. We do not understand what it's like to grow up in a different place in a different social setting. So we evaluate others on the basis of our norms and possibilities rather than having a realistic sense of what the lives of others are truly like.

These courses are thus of potentially immense value for individuals, groups, and nations. If we understand ourselves and others, we can potentially get along better with each other. We can potentially build a better society. So these courses are of immense value to the advancement of civilization.

2. In psychology, we get to know ourselves and how we are different from others. How did the events of my childhood help make me what I am today? What is my personality type and how is it different from people with other personality types? Ideally, I stop considering other people weird, abnormal, or inferior because they do not think the way I do or act the way I do. I realize they're just different.

From a Christian standpoint, I become less judgmental of others. I realize that I have weaknesses others do not have, and others have strengths I don't have. Young individuals can catch a glimpse of what it is like to be older. Hopefully, students develop some empathy for others.

In psychology, we hopefully can see our own bad habits and move toward healthier ones. Do I make excuses for my bad behavior? Do I vent my frustrations in a healthy way? Do I have any unhealthy ways of relating to other people? Do I have any bad habits or addictions? How can I change?

How do emotions work? How does memory work? These are all incredibly useful things to know. They give you an advantage in almost any field because they help you understand and relate to others more effectively.

3. Sociology tends to be more controversial, because it gets at some of the most unreflective assumptions of our herd. These are assumptions that give us a sense of meaning and belonging in the world, so we can become incredibly defensive, angry, even violent when they are exposed.

What if a very male-oriented society comes to find out that women are just as smart as men? What if it turns out that black people are just as smart as white people? Sociology exposes prejudices and privileges we either don't think we have or we mistakenly think are true.

So sociology can be very controversial to the group it is analyzing. A white person may not like being shown that a black person faces more traffic stops, more scrutiny and suspicion, more obstacles in day to day living than he or she does. A religious person may not like his or her prized religious experience being described as a predictable experience typical in certain cultures or subcultures.

But these insights, hard though they are, can help diverse groups get along together. They can help us check ourselves and correct our course. Why is it that one person sees only good in President Obama but someone else sees only bad? Why would someone associate being against abortion with being against gun control? Group behavior is very predictable and is the stuff of sociology.

4. If taught right, you can see that sociology is especially an important course for a healthy society. You could argue that homo sapiens is at root a herd animal. We survived in the past by forming clans that made alliances and fought together against others.

But civilization moves beyond the level of the clan, just as Christianity does. Christianity calls us to love our enemy and not just our herd. As such, an understanding of sociology is an incredible tool for the advancement of civilization.

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