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Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Whither the Liberal Arts?

Joseph Epstein has a thought-provoking article in The Weekly Standard about the liberal arts education in America. You can read the entire article here. See also Two Handed Warriors

Here's an excerpt: “Traditional liberal arts is the study of Western literature, philosophy and history, with science, mathematics and languages playing a substantial, though less central role; sometimes the social sciences: psychology, sociology and political science are included. For the ancient Greeks, the liberal arts were the subjects thought necessary for a free man to study. If he is to remain free, then he must acquire knowledge of the best thought of the past which will cultivate in him the intellectual depth and critical spirit required to live in an informed and reasonable way in the present" (Joseph Epstein 23 „Who Killed the Liberal Arts? And why we should care” The Weekly Standard 17. September 2012). 

I graduated from a liberal arts university in 1991, and I have to concur with Epstein's thesis: the liberal arts are dying in the American university. O to be sure, when I was at university you could still study and earn a classical, traditional liberal arts degree (mine was in Classical Greek and Theology), but there were many classes offered that were fundamentally not in the vein of classical liberal arts. I took some of them (partly because that was all that remained for me to take in my super-major B.A. in Theology). One class was on Liberation theology, another class had a very feminist approach to it and still another on Native American religions. There were some others that have faded from my collegiate memory. 

I learned a lot from these classes. I disagreed with much that was taught. Nevertheless, a degree in Gender Studies or Native American religions is not a liberal arts education or degree. I believe that a well-rounded university should offer such classes and degrees, but let us not pretend that they are a liberal arts education nor on par with such. 

Epstein further argues that a good liberal arts education should focus on the texts. Your textbooks should not be about the text being studied but the actual text itself. Overall, I found this lacking in my liberal arts education. In fact, looking back, the classes I enjoyed the most were those few classes that actually only used the text as our only textbook. My senior year I took a Classical Greek course on the play Medea. Our only textbook was the text of Medea, in Classical Greek. Our class consisted of our prof and four students. We read and discussed the play. It was a great class that I still think fondly on 20 years later. My little book of Medea (complete with my hand-written notes in the margins) still adorns a prominent place on my living room bookshelf. 

This focus on the text is a bulwark we have inherited from Medieval humanism, the Renaissance and the Reformation. Medieval university education revolved around the liberal arts education that consisted of seven areas of study: the trivium and the quadrivium. The three sciences were the hallmark of university education, with theology as the queen of the sciences. Trivium means "three ways; place where three roads meet". It is the lower group of the liberal arts. The trivium used Latin and focused on dialectics (philosophy, logic, metaphysics and ethics) and Aristotle. Quadrivium means "crossroads; place where the four roads meet". It is the higher group of the liberal arts. At the university, one’s Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) degree was issued after completing the trivium (this could be done in about two years or less). One then could obtain a Master of Arts degree (M.A.) by studying the quadrivium. The master’s degree was the terminus in the liberal arts education. The pinnacle of university education was the doctorate in one of the three sciences. 

A classical humanistic education is almost as defunct as the liberal arts. The trivium focused on these three studies: rhetoric (speaking and writing effectively), dialectics (philosophy, logic, metaphysics and ethics) and grammar. The quadrivium focused on these four studies: geometry, arithmetic, music and astronomy. The doctorate focused one one of these three sciences: theology, law or medicine. In the 14th century, European universities (starting in Italy) began stressing humanism over the traditional scholasticism that reigned supreme from 1100-1500. Scholasticism placed a strong emphasis on dialectical reasoning to extend knowledge by inference, and to resolve contradictions. Humanism took a completely different approach, one that focused on ideals from Classical Greek philosophy and education, and as such it originally centered on Greek and Latin classics but soon influenced concepts of freedom, religion, history, science, etc. Humanism was (and is) concerned with the source text and the original languages, and this helped further ideals like the Textus Receptus (the received text). 

I am a supporter of classical humanistic and liberal arts education. To be sure, it is not a course of study for everyone, nor should it. For those, however, who desire and pursue a liberal arts degree at college and university, I strongly advocate the traditional topics of study emphasized by the Medieval universities. In terms of education, a liberal arts degree forms a well-rounded person. In my own education, I was unable to take much in the areas of music or astronomy. I was, however, able to focus more on languages (German, Koine and Classical Greek, French and Hebrew). I picked up some Latin after my B.A. as I delved into a Masters degree. I am by no means fluent in these languages, although German and Greek are my strengths. For those seeking a liberal arts degree, I would encourage at least two semesters of a Romance language, particularly French, Spanish or Italian. You can pick up others at your own leisure. 

You see, the strength of a liberal arts degree is not mastery in any one field of study. Rather, the focus is on learning how to study, think, critique and formulate reasoned arguments. One’s education should never end, for our life should be one of constant study. A liberal arts education gives you the confidence to tackle subjects and topics. To really grasp the text you need to read and re-read the originals over and over again. 

Twenty years after my liberal arts B.A. I find myself learning new things in topics I could not focus on in my university years. I read more science and political science. I have delved into music (both playing music and writing it). I start and stop in keeping up my language proficiency. The best thing is: it is not a chore. I don't do it for a grade or another degree. I do so out of joy and with no stress as I advance the foundation I obtained with a liberal arts degree. In the twelfth century, Bernard of Chartres said: “We are like dwarfs on the shoulders of giants, so that we can see more than they, and things at a greater distance, not by virtue of any sharpness of sight on our part, or any physical distinction, but because we are carried high and raised up by their giant size”. This is why we should care about education, in general, and the traditional liberal arts degree, in particular.

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