The Liberal Arts and the End of Education
ABSTRACT: An international conference that takes Philosophy Educating Humanity as its theme does well to revisit the liberal arts tradition. Although the liberal arts are most often assimilated to studies brought together as the Humanities, the old usage included the arts which employed artificial languages in mathematics, music, and astronomy, as well as the literature and letters of the various natural languages. The current conflation of liberal education with the humanities does violence to the historical tradition in education, reducing it to fluff in the eyes of tough-minded scientists who know that only numbers deliver objectivity. The liberal arts of the traditional undergraduate curriculum provided the skills to liberate the student's linguistic powers so that he or she could read, speak, and understand natural language in all its functions. To educate human persons to master language is to encourage students to take possession of their natural powers so that they can express themselves, understand what others say, and reason together. The arts of natural language lead to mastery of the mathematical arts which use a language that is no one's mother tongue. Together, the seven arts rid students of the worst enemies of humankind: ignorance and prejudice.
Since no one can be considered to have received a good
education if he accepts uncritically the opinions of
the educators of his own times, the student should
encounter alternatives to these opinions.
Samuel S. Kutler
The past is always difficult to deal with. We are torn between the temptations of remaining within the comfort of a past we have become accustomed to and the equally dangerous alternative of fleeing an unreckoned past into pointless novelty. Mark Van Doren reminded us that "the past is a burden which crushes only those who ignore it." In the interest of a circumspective understanding of the past of liberal education, I would like to take this opportunity to remember together the traditional liberal arts curriculum and the philosophy behind it.
Some variation of this curriculum prevailed in universities throughout the classical period, the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Its early articulations in Plato, Boethius, Nicomachus, Martianus Capella, Ptolemy and St. Bonaventura and others give way to the advance of modernity.. Jonathan Swift recorded the first great battle of the "new" versus the "old" learning. Matthew Arnold and T. H. Huxley engaged in a debate about the respective roles of literature and the sciences at the end of the nineteenth century. that now seems a rearguard action. When Arnold defended letters, he did so by advocating what was left in the nineteenth century of the liberal tradition. When Huxley put education in the sciences forward as the appropriate wisdom for his time, he had already absolved himself and his society of debts to transcendent values. Hopes for a consistent and inclusive schema...