kitchen table math, the sequel: On the liberal arts

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

On the liberal arts

"The utilitarian or servile arts enable one to be a servant-- of another person, of the state, of a corporation, or of a business-- and to earn a living. The liberal arts, in contrast, teach one how to live; they train the faculties and bring them to perfection; they enable a person to rise above his material environment to live an intellectual, a rational, and therefore a free life in gaining truth."




Sister Miriam Joseph, C.S.C., Ph.D.

The Trivium

The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric
Understanding the Nature and Function of Language

25 comments:

Catherine Johnson said...

Beautiful!!!

THANK YOU!

Catherine Johnson said...

I believe this.

It's incredibly hard to put into words...but a liberal education is "liberating."

Which is the original meaning of the term.

Cranberry said...

Elegantly put.

I also see this when I consider the different instruction in various schools. In the public schools, I see more emphasis on being a team member, being obedient, and not questioning authority. In the private sphere, I see a great deal of emphasis on leadership, personal responsibility, and conscience.

The public school administration speaks a great deal about preparing our children for "the workplace of the 21st century." The private school administration speaks of preparing the child for further study, and developing character (defined by leadership, responsibility, and personal conscience.)

Tracy W said...

Yeah right.

Any actual evidence that people who have studied the liberal arts, as opposed to a utilitarian or servile art, actually do live in an intellectual or rational way relative to the people who did the utilitarian arts? How many of them have perfect faculties?

Also interesting that she implies that being a servant is a bad thing (of another person, of the state, of a corporation, or of a business), apparently liberal arts graduates are useless people who never give anything back to anyone (remember, no serving), and instead float around the university perfecting their faculties, while presumably living off mummy and daddy's trust fund earned by that inferior servile, business of providing goods or services that other people value more than the effort that went into producing them.

I don't actually object to the liberal arts, but many defenders of the liberal arts appear to be going out of their way to try to make me object.

Cranberry said...

Definition time. From Wikipedia:

The term liberal arts denotes a curriculum that imparts general knowledge and develops the student’s rational thought and intellectual capabilities[vague], unlike the professional, vocational, technical curricula emphasizing specialization. The contemporary liberal arts comprise studying art, literature, languages, philosophy, politics, history, mathematics, and science. [1] In classical antiquity, the liberal arts denoted the education proper to a free man (Latin: liber, “free”), unlike the education proper to a slave. In the 5th Century AD, Martianus Capella academically defined the seven Liberal Arts as: grammar, dialectic, rhetoric, geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music. In the medieval Western university, the seven liberal arts were:
the Trivium
grammar
rhetoric
logic
the Quadrivium
geometry
arithmetic
music
astronomy

Cranberry said...

"apparently liberal arts graduates are useless people who never give anything back to anyone (remember, no serving),"

Not being servile doesn't mean not serving others--or the public good. Liberal arts graduates become mathematicians, scientists, doctors, lawyers, psychiatrists, philosophers, writers, bankers, diplomats, teachers... The list goes on.

In the United States, professional training takes place after training in the liberal arts. I'd venture to say that President Obama has recently demonstrated the utility of training in rhetoric.

A modern "servile arts" training would probably consist of training in low level skills necessary for people who will never have any responsibility to make decisions--and only those skills. Typing, answering phones, using a jackhammer, driving, the "janitorial arts." All are useful skills to master, but an education consisting of only those skills would be lacking.

"Any actual evidence that people who have studied the liberal arts, as opposed to a utilitarian or servile art, actually do live in an intellectual or rational way relative to the people who did the utilitarian arts? How many of them have perfect faculties? "

I venture to say that a teacher, or scientist, or concert pianist, does live in a more intellectual or rational way, relative to, say, someone educated since the age of 9 to be a bus driver, or a security guard, or a farm hand.

We (in the US) don't currently believe we should sort children into liberal arts and servile arts tracks, but that debate wasn't settled at the turn of the last century. Diane Ravich's book, _Left Back_, covers this debate.

Tracy W said...

Cranberry, I agree that liberal arts graduates often actually do on and serve other people, as the descendent of colonists myself I think that's a *good* thing. We left the useless aristocracy with their Oxbridge degrees behind for a reason. Unlike Sister Miriam Joseph, who apparently thinks that being a servant, broadly defined, is less valuable than training your faculties and bringing them to perfection. Note that she doesn't say "the liberal arts also teach...", she says "the liberal arts, in contrast, teach..."

I don't know whether she'd be enthused about Obama, who after all *sarcasm on*merely wastes his time*sarcam off* serving everyone in the country. (This reminds me of The Onion headline on Obama's election: "Black man given nation's worst job."

I also note that you also don't cite any actual evidence that studying the liberal arts does lead to a more intellectual and rational way of living. My granddad had to leave school at age 14 to work on the farm, and managed to turn his farm into one of the most productive per acre in the Taranaki, he can't have done that without a lot of rational and intellectual living.

Perhaps the liberal arts do produce a more intellectual and innovative life on average, but it doesn't seem very rational to me to just assert this without doing any experiments to actually check - scientists keep finding ways in which reality mismatches with their theories. And you know, if Sister Joseph wants to spend a free life gaining truth, this would strike me as a good place to start.

Cranberry said...

It would be hard to run an experiment. I can think of no parents who would agree to sign their child up for an education aimed at life as a maid, for example. No state school board, and no local district, would agree to allow a student to learn nothing about math, nothing about science, nothing about everything else in the list of the components of the liberal arts.

If your grandfather left school at 14, he may have had a better grounding in the liberal arts than many of today's high school or college graduates.

We can argue about the relative merits of lawyers and engineers, but the distinction between the liberal arts and the utilitarian arts isn't the same debate. The liberal arts are very useful. Grammar, logic, and rhetoric--the trivium--are also very useful. By my definition, MIT is a liberal arts school.

New Zealand and the US are very different, and I wonder if we're not arguing from different concepts of the same thing. When I write of the "utilitarian, or servile" arts, I think of the sort of curriculum (so-called) which black students were offered in the days of segregation in the south. The schools were separate and unequal by plan--because the white ruling class did not want black citizens to be their equal. They could be educated to be servants--porters, street sweepers, janitors, farmhands, manual laborers.

Allison said...

MIT is DEFINITELY NOT a liberal arts school. In the classical sense of a liberal arts school, it fails completely. it's a tech institute, in every sense. It does not ask its students to think about the basic questions that humanity asks over and over again,-- what is the nature of a good society, what is good structure for civilized living, what are the universal truths about humans that have remained regardless of change in empire or standard of living, what is truth, what is the role of government, what is the role of social institutions, what is evil, what is knowledge, what is beauty, what is progress.

A true liberal arts education studies history, literature, classics, art, philosophy, mathematics, and science to come to answers to these questions.

(That most schools claim to be liberal arts school and teach NOTHING of the above either is worth discussing in a different post, but the short answer to that is: MIT isn't a liberal arts school based on those guidelines either. it doesn't require its graduates to know any history, or art, or literature, or philosophy, or a foreign language, or know how to write anything. It doesn't require them to take more than the tiniest of "Breadth courses" (3, last I looked) and all of those can be taken in "studies" disciplines and still meet the requirements.)

MIT teaches "how to think" only as far as problem solving as it relates to math and some sciences; even in most engineering disciplines it teaches how to use tools rather than how to select the right tool for the job.
how does one questions that humans have attempted to answer

MagisterGreen said...

The words "servile" versus "liberal" can cause people's antennae to twitch, but the idea behind Sister Miriam's idea remains sound and goes to the modern debate of skills vs. content. A "utilitarian" approach to education does make you a slave, because you end up on the side of those who claim that education needs to "relate" to students' lives and future. Math should teach you how to balance a checkbook, not how to do algebra. English should teach you how to read a newspaper (8th grade vocabulary level) instead of reading Shakespeare. In short: it teaches you skills, which leaves you a slave to those skills you have been taught.

By contrast, a "liberal" education teaches you the underlying content and thus you are liberated, freed to do whatever you want because the skills you learn (and learning content is learning skills) are transferable to nearly anything you want. You may be able to study the liberal arts "in addition to" the utilitarian arts, but in that case you're learning the same material twice over, and one of those times is far less efficient than it could be.

This notion that the "liberal arts" curriculum creates dreamy eggheads is as old as Aristophanes' depiction of Socrates in his Clouds and just as wrong. A true graduate of the liberal arts can do anything, anywhere, with ease and aplomb. By contrast, a graduate of the so-called "utilitarian" arts is pigeonholed into a life limited by the skills he has been taught, thus truly a slave in the metaphysical sense. One need only look at intelligent young men and women today, brought up in schools that don't teach them to read, don't teach them to spell, don't teach them vocabulary, and watch as they struggle to express the thoughts, feelings, and emotions they have but cannot put into words to understand the magnitude of the crime being perpetuated against the young. They are being raised as slaves, because they are being denied the tools they need to release their potential into the world.

Cranberry said...

Under MIT's "SCHOOLS, DEPARTMENTS, DIVISIONS, SECTIONS, AND PROGRAMS"
School of Architecture and Planning
Architecture (Course 4)
Media Arts and Sciences (MAS)
Urban Studies and Planning (Course 11)
School of Engineering
Aeronautics and Astronautics (Course 16)
Biological Engineering (Course 20)
Chemical Engineering (Course 10)
Civil and Environmental Engineering (Course 1)
Electrical Engineering and Computer Science (Course 6)
Engineering Systems Division (ESD)
Materials Science and Engineering (Course 3)
Mechanical Engineering (Course 2)
Nuclear Science and Engineering (Course 22)

School of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences
Anthropology (Course 21A)
Comparative Media Studies (CMS)
Economics (Course 14)
Foreign Languages and Literatures (Course 21F)
History (Course 21H)
Humanities (Course 21)
Linguistics and Philosophy (Course 24)
Literature (Course 21L)
Music and Theater Arts (Course 21M)
Political Science (Course 17)
Science, Technology, and Society (STS)
Writing and Humanistic Studies (Course 21W)

Sloan School of Management
Management (Course 15)
School of Science
Biology (Course 7)
Brain and Cognitive Sciences (Course 9)
Chemistry (Course 5)
Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences (Course 12)
Mathematics (Course 18)
Physics (Course 8)
Whitaker College of Health Sciences and Technology
Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology (HST)
MIT-WHOI Joint Program in Oceanography and Applied Ocean Science and Engineering

It's a liberal arts school. One may study these disciplines at MIT, should one wish. That's all that is needed--because although the Great Questions can be really fun to contemplate, there is no way for anyone to know if a student is seriously considering them--or marking time.

You are attempting to make a distinction between a "tech institute" and a "classical liberal arts school." Math and science are liberal arts, so even a tech institute without a School of the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences would qualify.

Allison said...

If your defn of "liberal arts school" is "offers some courses in the liberal arts" then any school offering an accredited bachelor's degree counts. Yes, you can receive a bachelor's of science in "Humanities and Social Science" at MIT. But that isn't what makes a liberal arts school.

MIT offers composition and performance classes in most musical instruments. That doesn't make MIT a music school (even though it has John Harbison and Evan Ziporyn as profs.) Harvard has an engineering degree program for undergrads. That doesn't make Harvard a tech school.

It's a question of culture. And the MIT culture is "tech school".
(I went to MIT as an undergraduate and received a math degree.)

Dean Smith once described it as "more action-oriented and less contemplative than many other universities". That's really the point: a liberal arts education was (is?) supposed to be contemplative.

I could try to describe MIT culture, but it would be too far off topic, I think. Let's just add these examples:
MIT's fight song is the Tech Cheer:
E to the U du dx, E to the X dx!
Cosine! Secant! Tangent! Sine!
3 point 1 4 1 5 9!
Integral radical u dv
Slipstick, slide rule, M.I.T.!

MIT's song, The Engineer's Drinking song, has a hundred verses. Here's my favorite verse:
My father peddles opium, my mother's on the dole
My sister used to walk the streets but now she's on parole
My brother runs a restaurant with bedrooms in the rear
But they don't even speak to me, 'cause I'm an Engineer

During an extremely extensive hack known as the Cathedral of our Lady of the All Night Tool, (you can read about it here:
http://tech.mit.edu/V112/N56/cathedral.56n.html

hackers wrote the "commandments":

o - I am Athena thy Goddess
Thou shalt not have false gods before me.
ox1 - Thou shalt not take the name of OLC in vain
ox2 - Thou shalt not eat at Lobdell
ox3 - Thou shalt keep holy the hour of Star Trek
ox4 - Honor thy professors, for they are the source of grades
ox5 - Thou shalt not decrease entropy
ox6 - Thou shalt not connect PWR to GND
ox7 - Thou shalt not sex toads
ox8 - Thou shalt not exceed the speed of light
ox9 - Keep holy the month of IAP for it is a time of rest
oxA - IHTFP
oxB - Thou shalt not sleep
oxC - Thou shalt consume caffeine
oxD - Thou shalt not take pass/fail in vain
oxE - Thou shalt not covet thy neighbor's HP
oxF - Thou shalt not divide by zero

The culture is not monolithic, but nearly everyone understood all of the above references. The culture is really distinct from a Yale or Williams or Northwestern, let alone OSU or ASU.

Cranberry said...

MIT is a liberal arts school. ITT Technical Institute, although they offer Bachelors Degree Programs, is not. Caltech, by my definition, is a liberal arts school. A facility preparing students to become dental hygienists is not.

SteveH said...

As an engineer (Michigan), I quite appreciate Allison's description of the culture. (She forgot to talk about the MIT Splash courses for kids.) Maybe it's just an anti-sentimental implementation of a liberal arts education, although at Michigan, the engineering school is a separate universe. Our department had closer ties to our counterparts at MIT and UC-Berkeley than we had to our own computer science department.

I can't say that talk of a liberal arts education gets me very excited. Perhaps that's because I've never seen a good implementation. I hope it's better than the distribution courses I had to take in economics and sociology.


In terms of K-12, do IB programs lay claim to more of a liberal arts education than a program dominated by AP classes?

Allison said...

I don't know of any school but Hillsdale College that actually teaches a liberal arts education anymore. UC Berkeley, Michigan, Williams, whomever all have replaced the real disciplines with the "therapeutic model", as Victor Davis Hanson puts it, and with "centers" and "studies majors" rather than the rigorous core curriculum:
http://www.city-journal.org/2008/18_4_classical_education.html

"Until recently, classical education served as the foundation of the wider liberal arts curriculum, which in turn defined the mission of the traditional university. Classical learning dedicated itself to turning out literate citizens who could read and write well, express themselves, and make sense of the confusion of the present by drawing on the wisdom of the past. Students grounded in the classics appreciated the history of their civilization and understood the rights and responsibilities of their unique citizenship. Universities, then, acted as cultural custodians, helping students understand our present values in the context of a 2,500-year tradition that began with the ancient Greeks...

At its most basic, the classical education that used to underpin the university often meant some acquaintance with Greek and Latin, which offered students three rich dividends. First, classical-language instruction meant acquiring generic methods of inquiry. Knowledge was no longer hazy and amorphous, but categorized and finite. Classical languages, like their Western successors, were learned through the systematic study of vocabulary, grammar, and syntax. Such philological study then widened to reading poetry, philosophy, history, and oratory. Again, the student learned that there was a blueprint—a structure—to approaching education. Nothing could ever be truly new in itself but was instead a new wrinkle on the age-old face of wisdom...

Second, classical education—reading Homer, Sophocles, and Aristotle, or studying the Delphic Charioteer and red-figure vase painting—conveyed an older, tragic view of man’s physical and mental limitations at odds with the modern notion of life without limits. Love, war, government, and religion involved choices not between utopian perfection and terrible misery but between bad and worse alternatives, or somewhat good and somewhat better options—given the limitations of human nature and the precarious, brief span of human life. Humility permeated traditional liberal arts education: the acceptance that we know very little; that as frail human beings, we live in an unforgiving natural world; and that culture can and should improve on nature without destroying it....
A therapeutic curriculum, which promised that counseling and proper social attitudes could mitigate such eternal obstacles to human happiness as racism, sexism, war, and poverty, likewise displaced more difficult classes in literature, language, philosophy, and political science. The therapeutic sensibility burdened the university with the task of ensuring that students felt adjusted and happy. And upon graduation, those students began to expect an equality of result rather than of opportunity from their society. Gone from university life was the larger tragic sense. Few students learned (or were reminded) that we come into this world with limitations that we must endure with dignity and courage rather than deal with easily through greater sensitivity, more laws, better technology, and sufficient capital."

Allison said...

even more to the point:
(from same VDH article)
Perhaps their unspoken premise is that if universities do not believe in the value of teaching Western civilization as part of a mandated general-education curriculum, then why not simply go to the heart of the matter and offer computer-programming skills or aeronautical-engineering know-how without the pretense of a broad education? And who is to say that paid-by-the-hour instructors at the online University of Phoenix are less responsible teachers than their traditional counterparts? After all, their market-driven employers must serve a paying constituency that, unlike traditional university students, often demands near-instant results for its fees.

Anonymous said...

We might want to consider a new term. I do not consider St. Johns and MIT to provide the same type of education.

I think part of the problem here is that most of us consider a liberal arts education "a good thing." Additionally, some of us do not want to exclude universities that we like (CalTech, MIT, IIT) from this "good thing."

I'd suggest that (a) MIT provides a good education, but (b) it is qualitatively very different from the education offered at St. Johns.

Can we find a non-charged term to distinguish them? That allows that they are both good, but not terribly similar?

N.B.: Victor Davis Hanson is referring to St. Johns, not MIT when he is discussing a liberal education.

-Mark Roulo

Tracy W said...

Cranberry It would be hard to run an experiment. I can think of no parents who would agree to sign their child up for an education aimed at life as a maid, for example.

Okay, it's hard to run an experiment. This I think is a reason to avoid making such claims with such confidence.

More generally, as evidence is never perfect, I think you could contrast students who did say a straight engineering course with ones who did a liberal arts course, or draw on evidence from countries that do stream at an early age - after matching students demographically and with IQ.
Or compare lives back in our grandparents generation when people did leave school early on.

We can argue about the relative merits of lawyers and engineers, but the distinction between the liberal arts and the utilitarian arts isn't the same debate. The liberal arts are very useful.

Good point, and one that Sister Joseph misses with her "in contrast".

When I write of the "utilitarian, or servile" arts, I think of the sort of curriculum (so-called) which black students were offered in the days of segregation in the south.

When I read something like "the utilitarian or servile" arts I think of poncy European aristocrats snobbing the nouveau riche for actually earning their money rather than inheriting it.

Tracy W said...

llison:
A true liberal arts education studies history, literature, classics, art, philosophy, mathematics, and science to come to answers to these questions.

However agreement on the answers to those questions are miles off.

Classical learning dedicated itself to turning out literate citizens who could read and write well, express themselves, and make sense of the confusion of the present by drawing on the wisdom of the past.

Didn't appear to help with WWI.

Students grounded in the classics appreciated the history of their civilization and understood the rights and responsibilities of their unique citizenship.

Of course they couldn't agree about what those rights and responsibilities were, and since the rediscovery of the classics since medieval times we have seen long and often bloody fights over the Right of Kings, the correct role of religion in society, the abolition of slavery, universal adult male suffrage, universal adult female suffrage, etc.

First, classical-language instruction meant acquiring generic methods of inquiry.

Then why did Francis Bacon have to spend so much time coming up with an inductive method for scientific inquiry?

Knowledge was no longer hazy and amorphous, but categorized and finite.

So in other words, studying classical language produced misleading knowledge about the reality of knowledge, for example the classification of species is hazy and amorphous, as evolutionary theory would predict the lines between species are blurred. In economics, Hayek has produced a compelling argument that much valuable knowledge in the world is not available explicity, in a way that can be categorised, (Hayek argued from that about the virtues of the price discovery process). The study of statistics and of risk also currently is at the state that much knowledge is hazy and amorphous, eg it's not even clear what it means to estimate a probability for a single event (eg, back in June 2008, what was the probability of Obama winning the 2008 US presidential election, but we can have opinions about how likely that event is).

Nothing could ever be truly new in itself but was instead a new wrinkle on the age-old face of wisdom...

I bet relativity theory in physics was a massive surprise to anyone brought up in this belief system.

All in all, if this argument about what happens when you study classical languages is true, then it strikes me as an excellent reason to strike the classical languages from your list. I don't actually believe in Victor Hanson's arguments, I don't see any reason why merely studying Greek and Latin would turn otherwise rational people into fools who believe that knowledge is categorised and finite, and that nothing could ever be truly new in itself. But if you do believe in his arguments, and you have an interest in the truth, you should be keeping your kids well away from Greek and Latin.

Humility permeated traditional liberal arts education

Humility apparently passed Sister Joseph by entirely. Or perhaps she didn't have a liberal arts education.
Other non-humble examples that spring to mind are Bertrand Russel and John Maynard Keynes.

Tracy W said...

agisterGreen: A true graduate of the liberal arts can do anything, anywhere, with ease and aplomb.

A remarkable claim. Quite frankly I don't believe that a "true graduate of the liberal arts" could, say, design a space shuttle, or work as a diver on a deep sea oil rig without some rather specialised training in the first place. Any evidence to back it up? Or are you just embarking on the true scotsman fallacy, where any liberal arts graduate who can't do anything anywhere with ease and aplomb is by definition not a true liberal arts graduate?

MagisterGreen said...

Quite frankly I don't believe that a "true graduate of the liberal arts" could, say, design a space shuttle, or work as a diver on a deep sea oil rig without some rather specialised training in the first place.

I think you misunderstand the nature and goal of the liberal arts. They are not the end, but the beginning. The liberal arts does not preclude specialization but rather equips one to go on to specialize in any area. The true liberal arts education begins as early as possible and, practically speaking, ends when one is in one's teens. After that the world is one's oyster and one is limited by external factors - means, availability, willingness, etc... - rather than internal ones. We spend more time in school today than ever before in history, yet the reason isn't that we're learning so much more but we're extending childhood further and delaying that specialization into one's 20's or even 30's. Apprenticeships, true specialization, once began between the ages of 10-15. These teens did not come to their new jobs as newborns into the world, ignorant of how to read, write, and reckon. They may not have been composing Spenserian stanzas or computing cubics in their heads, but that isn't the point. They were equipped with the tools they needed to do that, should their desire or destiny lead them in that direction.

The goal of the liberal arts isn't to give people skills, no matter how useful or utilitarian those skills may seem because such an education is, by its very nature, limited and thus servile. A liberal arts education says to an individual "Here is what you need to do what you want." while a utilitarian education says "Here is what you need to do what I (or he, or they, or the State, or the community, or the priests, or society, etc...) want." The former is what you say to a free man, the latter to a slave.

Tracy W said...

The liberal arts does not preclude specialization but rather equips one to go on to specialize in any area

So you are now dropping your claim that " A true graduate of the liberal arts can do anything, anywhere, with ease and aplomb"?

And I am even more doubtful that a liberal arts education equips one to go on and specialise in any area. Could a congentially blind person from birth go on to specialise as a fighter pilot merely because they had a liberal arts education? Could a man become a wet nurse merely by having a liberal arts education?

If we exclude those situations of fundamental disability, how is a liberal arts education different from not having one? After all, no baby has had a liberal arts education, yet babies eventually grow into adults who specialise in all sorts of things. Why should a liberal arts education be essential to specialisation? Frederick Douglas never went to university but first escaped from slavery and then specialised in being an abolitionist speaker, as did Sojourner Truth.

The true liberal arts education begins as early as possible and, practically speaking, ends when one is in one's teens. After that the world is one's oyster and one is limited by external factors - means, availability, willingness, etc... - rather than internal ones.

I am interested in the evidence behind this. You are claiming apparently that the recipient of a true liberal arts education has no internal hangups, for example, no phobias, no tendency to procrastination, no problems with a bad temper. This is yet another remarkable claim, do you have any evidence to support this? Or are you going to quietly drop this claim?

They may not have been composing Spenserian stanzas or computing cubics in their heads, but that isn't the point. They were equipped with the tools they needed to do that, should their desire or destiny lead them in that direction.


Well yes, they had brains. The question is what a liberal arts education adds to the starting point of being a human.

A liberal arts education says to an individual "Here is what you need to do what you want." while a utilitarian education says "Here is what you need to do what I (or he, or they, or the State, or the community, or the priests, or society, etc...) want." The former is what you say to a free man, the latter to a slave.

There is a big difference between what people want, and what they get. Education in the Communist countries was aimed at what the state wanted, not at freeing the mind. Yet people in Communist countries still showed, even after decades, a freedom of thought. Once the Communist states stopped using force to maintain their power, they were overthrown. State control of education did not result in state control of knowledge. The failure of the Communist states to keep themselves in power makes me think that any education is valuable in freeing minds and letting people think for themselves, it makes me think that a lot of worries about mind control are ridiculously overblown.

MajisterGreen - did you have a liberal arts education yourself?

Allison said...

Tracy,

You don't have to agree with VDH. But perhaps you should have read it directly instead of just my limited outtakes. Commenting that being grounded in the classics was supposed to make people AGREE on e.g. rights and responsibilities seems to be a "statement against interest". Reading Homer, Aeschylus, and Aristophanes or Plato and Aristotle leads most to see that an awful lot of systems and ideas have been tried, and yet, our human frailties remain, as does evil, greed, and corruption by power, and as such, low and behold, we don't all agree. That you can't see that seems to indicate you could have used more classical education, not less.

re: Hayek, Bacon, and Einstein: Hayek would agree with much of the classics, especially the notions of the limitations of humans; Bacon's inductive reasoning wouldn't have come out of the therapeutic reasoning we've got in our liberals arts schools now, and Einstein's statement that the speed of light is constant in all references frames is pretty much the statement above all statement in physics that objective truth DOES EXIST, despite what our feelings tell us.

But really, you'd have to argue with if you'd actually read the piece.

The nonsequitur that since Communist states failed, it must have meant their education system failed to keep the states in existence, therefore we should worry less about whatever we teach is..well, an nonsequitur.

So, since you go on to argue about what people want and what they get:

What is it you want out of this thread? You don't want us to lift up the-studies-formerly-known-as-liberal-arts. What do you want in an education? Anything's fine? Since nothing works anyway, or because all things are good enough?

Tracy W said...

Reading Homer, Aeschylus, and Aristophanes or Plato and Aristotle leads most to see that an awful lot of systems and ideas have been tried, and yet, our human frailties remain, as does evil, greed, and corruption by power, and as such, low and behold, we don't all agree. That you can't see that seems to indicate you could have used more classical education, not less.

My apologies, Allison, I was not clear in my earlier comment. I was not disagreeing with you about the existance of human frailities, I was being skeptical about the idea that studying the liberal arts made people aware of human frailities who wouldn't have otherwise been. Liberal arts graduates have indulged in many silly ideas.

Bacon's inductive reasoning wouldn't have come out of the therapeutic reasoning we've got in our liberals arts schools now

Perhaps, perhaps not. You don't cite any evidence one way or another and I don't have any evidence to hand to form an opinion myself so I'm going to keep an open mind on this particular statement. The reason I cited Bacon was to cast doubt on the hypothesis that classical language meant acquiring generic methods of inquiry - heaps of people before Bacon had learnt Greek and Latin, but he still introduced some new and valuable ideas about methods of inquiry. I don't see how this implies one thing or another about current liberal arts schools' graduates.

And yes, Hayek may have agreed with a lot of the classics. The reason I cited him was because he produced some strong arguments (to me at least) that much knowledge is not categorised and finite. As I said, I don't actually believe Victor Hanson is right when he claims that studying classical language leads to believing that knowledge is categorised and finite, he doesn't cite any evidence for this claim, and I have a couple of friends who studied Latin and Greek at university and they have never showed any signs of believing anything so daft. I was criticising Victor Hanson's arguments, not the practice of studying Ancient Greek and Latin itself.

Einstein's statement that the speed of light is constant in all references frames is pretty much the statement above all statement in physics that objective truth DOES EXIST, despite what our feelings tell us.

No argument from me on this point. My point in citing Einstein was to point out that there are things that are not merely a "wrinkle on the age-old face of wisdom." As I said, I was criticising Victor Hanson's arguments.

But really, you'd have to argue with if you'd actually read the piece.

I think you forgot to add a word or two to this sentence as I can't figure out what you mean.

The nonsequitur that since Communist states failed, it must have meant their education system failed to keep the states in existence, therefore we should worry less about whatever we teach is..well, an nonsequitur.

Allison, the definition of non-sequitor that I am aware of is an argument where its conclusion does not follow from its premises. My implicit conclusion was that the intent of an education system can be to produce people who believe one thing, and yet still people can wind up supporting another thing, the argument I gave were the examples of the Eastern European states, where the general populace overthrew their system of government despite decades of education aimed at indoctrination into the wonders of the Communist system. I don't see what other conclusion could be drawn from the example of the Eastern European Communist states education and overthrow. Perhaps there is some other evidence that you could bring to bear that outweighs my example, but I fail to see how my argument is a non-sequitor.

Also, is there any evidence that could convince you that forms of education other than the liberal arts could lead to a freeing of minds?

Tracy W said...

What is it you want out of this thread?

A decent argument for liberal education. I am emotionally inclined to value liberal education, but of course me being inclined to value something doesn't mean that that something is right, so I want to hear the best possible arguments for a liberal education, which involves attacking all the arguments I do hear for it. The more arguments that I come across that I can't attack, the more confident I can be about the value of a liberal arts education.

Or alternatively, if there are few good arguments for a liberal education, I can change my view on that.

What do you want in an education? Anything's fine? Since nothing works anyway, or because all things are good enough?

At the moment I am inclined to think that lots of an education is good. Also enough reading and writing and maths to let a student be able to study any subject they want at university - I think education should be about opening doors. I am of course open to other ideas, I certainly am not sure enough about my ideas to the levels of mathematical proof, and having criticised Victor Hanson and Sister Joseph for their absolute certainties I should, for consistency sake, try to avoid such arrogance myself.