Wednesday, May 04, 2016

Wednesday Gen Eds

I want to start a series on Wednesdays something like my series I do on Saturdays. My Saturday series is "Seminary in a Nutshell," and I am going through a seminary curriculum over the course of perhaps several years. Today I want to start a series called, "Gen Eds in a Nutshell."

1. Most colleges and universities, indeed, pretty much all high school curricula, cover what we might call "general education" topics. Colleges often consider most of these topics to be something called the "liberal arts." The term is an old one and one that does not always communicate well, not least because of the connotation that the word liberal has.

The "liberal arts" are the liberating arts. [1] That is to say, education presents possible options on various topics that might not have occurred to a person previously. In that sense, a people becomes "freer" to make their minds up because they have more information and know more of the previous discussion experts have had on those topics.

When we only know one option, we are a slave to that option. We cannot possibly pick another one because we do not know any other options. A good education opens up new possibilities and brings a critical eye on existing ones. Ideally, this process creates greater freedom for our thinking. We become liberated from past blind spots.

Of course there is a very important caveat here. You may know the saying, "The more you know the less you know." Socrates (470-399BC) is reported to have said at his trial that true wisdom is to know that you really know nothing. [2] In some respects, education is as much about "unlearning" as it is learning. That is to say, education tends to reveal that there are rarely easy answers. If you think the answer is always obvious, you are probably missing something.

2. Plato, an ancient Greek philosopher, told a story that has come to be known as the "Myth of the Cave." [3] In the story, some people are chained in a cave in such a way that they can only see shadows of people walking in front of the cave entrance. Because all they can see are the shadows, they assume the shadows are the reality.

Then one of them gets free and comes to realize that the reality is not the shadows but the figures in the light outside the cave. Having reached this Enlightenment, he returns to those who are still chained and shares with them. In response, they kill him.

While this story relates strongly to Plato's philosophy of what is real and how we can best apprehend it, the story has also come to symbolize the quest for knowledge. [4] There is an enlightenment that can take place with education. Indeed, Socrates' statement that "The unexamined life is not worth living" is often quoted. [5] Whether the statement is too extreme is a topic for another time, but he suggests that knowledge is virtuous for its own sake. A reflective life is arguably a more meaningful life than one in which we only eat and drink our way through life until we finally die.

A group known as existentialists in the twentieth century suggested that we do not really have a life until we make some choices about who we want to be. Our bodies may exist, but we have no identity until we decide who we are. [6] Albert Camus put it another way. The only serious philosophical question is "Why not suicide?" [7] This is perhaps another way to look at Socrates' statement on the unexamined life. If we have never reflected on the meaning of our lives, are we really living? What reason do we have to live?

Of course these questions take on added significance in a Christian context. There is a sense in which a Christian might say that a person does not fully existence until he or she has found their ultimate identity in God. As Augustine said in the late 300s, "You have made us for yourself, and our hearts are restless until they find rest in you." [8]

3. In the series that follows, I propose to summarize in a nutshell some of the most important insights that one should receive from a "gen ed" education, whether in high school or at a university. Indiana has helpfully created an agreement between most of its colleges that 30 credit hours of such general education will be a package that can be exchanged from one to another. So if you do these 30 hours at IWU, you have potentially fulfilled all your gen eds for IU, Purdue, or Ball State.

What will follow is thus ten "courses," a series of posts on each subject. The intention is to capture, in a nutshell, the main learning that a roundly educated person would have after a solid liberal arts education. The courses are:
  • Philosophy
  • World History
  • World Culture and Language
  • World Literature
  • World Art and Music
  • Sociology
  • Psychology
  • Written and Spoken Communication
  • Basic Mathematical Skills
  • Basic Scientific Knowledge
Let the liberal arts begin!

Next Week: Philosophy 1: Philosophy Overview

[1] The original sense was that the liberal arts were the kind of education worthy of a free citizen in Athens. My redefinition is more appropriate for our modern context. In the history of education, the liberal arts are classically discussed in terms of the "trivium" and "quadrivium" of the Middle Ages. The trivium laid the foundation of education for a free person in grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Then the quadrivium formed a second story build upon it that was more mathematical: arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music.

[2] Plato's Apology.

[3] In Plato's Republic.

[4] Since Socrates was put to death by the Athenians, there is also the allusion to Socrates' death as a martyr for philosophy.

[5] Also in Plato's Apology.

[6] Jean Paul Sartre, "Existence precedes essence."

[7] The Myth of Sysiphus.

[8] Augustine's Confessions.

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