Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Liberal Arts.

I often hear how 'liberal' our universities are, and it's a concern.  Here's a thought on the subject.

(Latin: liberal, "worthy of a free person")

(Not to be confused with being a political liberal) 

Liberal Arts: those subjects or skills that in classical thinking are considered essential.  

(Not to be confused with a 'liberal arts degree')

With subjects that might include literature, languages, philosophy, and the humanities and sciences, we're offered elements of history and perspective, logic and reason, and fact, all of which are perhaps essential for a mature intellect.  Exposure to that broad arena opens opportunity for:
  • knowing what you think is true and why.
  • understanding what others have thought and what has changed since you first settled on your opinion.
  • dealing honestly with doubts and conflicts that arise as they do in everyone.
  • a grasp of sciences, cultures, history, and the news, all interrelated, and perhaps more importantly, in conflict as ideas and values change.
There is little clarity of thought or objectivity available without understanding more than just part of an issue.  The tension among positions may or may not deserve to be argued, but there is no progress in the absence of understanding. 

We could just follow the ideas we like, the history that can be summarize in a few heroic tales, and the science that fits our opinions.  It is easier to close our ears to conflicting ideas, and it's perhaps a quieter life, but is it honest?

  • Should you sometimes agree with a Democrat (or Republican)?
  • Can you see the conflict between politics and ethics?
  • Do you understand those who are poor (or rich)?
  • Could you joyfully share a meal with an atheist (or a Baptist, or a Catholic)?  Or pray with a Muslim? 

(The 'liberal arts' subjects perhaps offer knowledge and understanding that a person needs in order to be active in civic life, which for Ancient Greece included participation in public debate, defending oneself in court, serving on juries, and most importantly, military service.  It's an ancient but possibly worthwhile goal for our learning.)

That said, not everyone agrees.  Here's an opposing view.

Scholars are of no great help these days. They used to be.  They were supposed to be, as a group, carriers and teachers of the eternal truths and the higher life. 
The goal of humanistic studies was defined as the perception and knowledge of that which is good, beautiful, and true. Such studies were expected to refine our discrimination between what is excellent and what is not (excellence generally being understood to be the true, the good, and the beautiful). They were supposed to inspire the student to the better life, to the higher life, to goodness and virtue. What was truly valuable, Matthew Arnold said, was "the acquainting ourselves with the best that has been known and said in the world."  And no one disagreed with him.  Nor did it need to be spelled out that he meant knowledge of the classics; these were the universally accepted models. 
But in recent years, most humanist scholars and most artists have shared in the general collapse of all traditional values.  When these values collapsed, there were no others readily available as replacements. So today, a large proportion of our artists, novelists, dramatists, critics, literary and historical scholars are disheartened or pessimistic or despairing, and a fair proportion are cynics (nihilists, believing that no "good life" is possible and that the so-called higher values are all a fake).
We can no longer rely on tradition, on cultural habit, on common belief to give us our values. These agreed-upon traditions are all gone. Of course, we never should have rested on tradition - as its failures must have proven to everyone by now - it never was a firm foundation. It was destroyed too easily by truth, by honesty, by the facts, by science, by simple, pragmatic, historical failure. Only truth itself can be our foundation, our base for building. Only empirical, naturalistic knowledge, in its broadest sense, can serve us now.  (Maslow et al., 1968, cheerfully paraphrased for a 12th grade reading level)