Humanities The Heart Of Liberal Education

3325 words - 13 pages

I justify the humanities by sketching four views of knowledge in which the idea of an academy or an integration of disciplines might be understood. I assume that every system of higher education inevitably appeals to concepts of knowledge. Such concepts cannot be isolated from political and civic dimensions of life as well as from personal cultivation and character. Nonetheless, older views based on these aspects are open to serious criticism. The four views considered are Aristotelian-Thomistic, Cartesian-positivist, Kantian, and "traditionalist" (in a liberal and hermeneutic sense). The paper describes key elements in each of these views and notes several objections, with a marked preference for Kantian and "traditionalist" views. Kant provides for rehabilitation of the humanities, especially ethics and literature (the moral and aesthetic), within a framework in which modern science displaces ancient teleological nature. "Tradition" is justified on practical grounds--by the need to appropriate for oneself the knowledge and experience of past generations (without which human life loses continuity and meaning). Further, the humanities save the great texts from oblivion to which "progress" would otherwise consign them. The humanities counteract the tendency of science to undermine the conditions of its own possibility, as well as the discipline, knowledge, and virtue required for its own origin.

Two questions are urgently posed to the modern academy: what is the justification for congregating all the disciplines of modern knowledge under one roof as if they belonged integrally together—if, that is, there is one? For perhaps it is merely a convenience. And secondly, what is the justification—if there is any—for insisting upon the centrality of the humanities?

Yet without the humanities, and philosophy in particular, it would seem that there cannot be an academy in any real sense. Consider, then, four ways of conceiving and organizing an educational curriculum, or rather concepts of knowledge brought to focus by philosophers—by no means the only ones, but clearly distinct and decisive in the history of pedagogy in the West since Plato. These are abbreviations, each meant to stand for a general idea, without too much emphasis on historical reference or detail.

(1) An Aristotelian-Thomistic view of disciplinary divisions and the order between them. Aristotle canonized the idea of knowledge as divided into disciplines, each with its appropriate matter and method, and ordered into a hierarchical (ascending) whole. However contemptuous it is of "the canon" (so called), the modern academy owes its existence to Aristotle. His division of the sciences presupposes a "teleological" order of nature, a single rational order discoverable from the nature of things by human reason and grounded in manifest purpose, i.e. a cosmos. Probably the core of this ideal is the absolute centrality it places on philosophy as the "queen of the sciences" and upon...

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