Adapting the Liberal (& Conservative) Arts for Long-term Flourishing in a Fractured Republic

““The liberal arts do not conduct the soul all the way to virtue, but merely set it going in that direction.” –Seneca 

“We must remember that intelligence is not enough. Intelligence plus character–that is the goal of true education. The complete education gives one not only power of concentration, but worthy objectives upon which to concentrate. The broad education will, therefore, transmit to one not only the accumulated knowledge of the race but also the accumulated experience of social living.” –Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. 

An ancient Roman philosopher and a twentieth century African American civil rights leader can have more in common than we realize. It is both the similarities and differences that are important for us to consider in these difficult times. Last week, I briefly explored the adaptable role that really old books could have in tackling modern problems, especially in terms of our blind spots and shortcomings. In our fractured republic, we also need to situate the study of books and ideas in the context of what is often referred to as the liberal arts. The liberal arts seem more important than ever for personal and mutual public flourishing. 

In the ancient and medieval worlds, the liberal arts were a set of knowledge-based disciplines designed to educate the free citizens for responsible leadership and participation in society. Despite the biases of those cultures, a good case can be made for adapting a more inclusive approach to the liberal arts for lifelong learning for all people in our modern setting. 

Encyclopædia Britannica sums up the framework of the traditional liberal arts as a “curriculum aimed at imparting general knowledge and developing general intellectual capacities in contrast to a professional, vocational, or technical curriculum.” Traditionally, the curriculum consisted of “the seven liberal arts were grammar, rhetoric, and logic (the trivium) and geometry, arithmetic, music, and astronomy (the quadrivium).” 

Often, modern discussions about college education options distinguish the liberal arts from state colleges and STEM colleges (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics). Again, Encyclopædia Britannica helpfully sums up the nature of most liberal arts colleges as including “the study of literature, languages, philosophy, history, mathematics, and science as the basis of a general, or liberal, education” with an emphasis on ”three main branches of knowledge: the humanities (literature, language, philosophy, the fine arts, and history), the physical and biological sciences and mathematics, and the social sciences.” 

In the last few decades, many classical educators have significantly adopted and adapted the patterns of such traditional liberal arts for primary and secondary education. Famously, early twentieth century author Dorothy Sayers discusses what has become foundational to many current homeschool and classical movements in her talk on “The Lost Tools of Learning.” I think it is fair to say that the classical movement has reflected a desire to develop a deep and coherent vision of learning and curriculum in contrast to the kaleidoscopic visions of public education. 

In terms of Yuval Levin’s analysis of The Fractured Republic, which I believe so well characterizes our time, one can see how classical education works to consolidate education against the diffusion of postmodern and political tendencies by which public schools try to hold on to too many conflicting values in focus and function. It seems that schools lack the resources of time, money, personnel, and attention to pursue so many different values. 

The more I read of great thinkers and leaders such as Martin Luther King, Jr., the more I see patterns of liberal arts thinking that integrate different strands of study, from theology to political science and from economics to ethics. I also see biographical patterns of knowledge-rich learning and extensive reading that help fuel such profound interdisciplinary thinking for the promotion of long-term flourishing for persons and institutions. 

Liberal Arts for Learning How to Know

By considering the best elements of classical education and liberal arts colleges, I do believe that we public school educators can develop cost-effective, high-quality approaches to education that will help our students grow as persons, community members, citizens, and conscientious, knowledgeable workers in the twenty-first century.

For some time, I have been gathering an expanding file of liberal arts pieces that cover many important issues. One of the most interesting recent pieces comes from a recent posting to The Chronicle of Higher Education by University of Birmingham about “Humanities and the liberal arts: Creative thinking for fractured times.” This post captures the relevance of seeking education beyond superficial utility and economic concerns. The most common theme to this approach to education involves learning to look “at things from multiple angles in an open and critical way” in contrast to simply seeing issues in terms of polarized, black and white categories. 

In technical and medical situations, University of Birmingham notes that “[w]ithout understanding the cultural and social forces that shape human choices, technical solutions will fail.” One such example concerns the African Ebola pandemic,” in which “some medical teams failed to understand the social and cultural nuances of burial, and how these would aggravate disease transmission….” It was with a mix of understanding social and religious views while integrating medical interventions that the thoughtful caregivers were most able to help people during that pandemic. In such cases, we can see that STEM education need not be antithetical to liberal arts education.

These issues of learning how to know things seem a bit neglected in our time, and that neglect relates to our crisis of trying to figure out whose version of knowledge and authority to trust concerning Covid-19 issues. (Classically, the focus on “learning how to know” would fit with philosophy’s branch of “epistemology,” which is also known as “theory of knowledge.”) Increasingly, I am reading on how central knowledge-building should be for students, and the classical area of epistemology needs some further treatment in upcoming posts. 

For public schools, we face and sometimes hold anti-traditional attitudes about knowledge that have ironically become traditional. Our most adept cognitive scientists (e.g. Daniel Willingham) and educational theorists (e.g E.D. Hirsch) have increasingly provided evidence that supports developing a student’s broad knowledge-base as what best prepares the student for higher-level problem solving, literacy, and creativity (all of which is very compatible with classical liberal arts thinking and its modern variants). However, a common knee-jerk reaction is to dismiss knowledge building as something that can merely be looked up with Google and a hold-over from the far-too-distant past. The problem with this assumption is that it misses essential cognitive insights about how people need to have ample knowledge internalized (memorized and otherwise built into mental schemas) so it can be used for complex thinking and problem solving. These sorts of insights are lost in trendy attractions to learning methods that bypass more careful considerations of how to link complex thinking to essential knowledge building. 

The cognitive-science-based arguments of our present time connect surprisingly well with classical notions of building knowledge (the grammar stage in the classical Trivium) so that one can better work with logical and rhetorical challenges–including solving complex problems, exploring multiple perspectives, and employing creativity. Unfortunately, well-meaning philanthropists, educational reformers, and policy makers are often unaware or avoidant of the issues of knowledge-rich education. 

Developing More Inclusive Liberal Arts

Knowledge building and the reading of old books is an important part of the liberal arts for our time and the future in order to promote long-term flourishing. However, there are some challenging discussions that we need to have concerning inclusion and diversity. Hopefully, we can pursue these discussions in amicable and empathetic ways that will promote effective and equitable education so that all our students can flourish. There is no easy answer to this but I do think that we need to have really old books in hand and also some more recent old books from the last three centuries as we trace and discuss the liberal arts, justice, and equality issues that have emerged and become more complex in recent centuries. Along with Martin Luther King, Jr., I’ve got Booker T. Washington and W.E.B Du Bois cued up on my reading list, followed by others who have much to contribute to the great conversation of the past and the even greater conversations ahead of us. 

Invitation to Reflect and Consider: 

  1. Do you tend to see education from a liberal arts, STEM, vocational, or other perspective? How so? 
  2. What knowledge from the past has been unfortunately resigned to special studies or majors in college? (e.g. political science or history majors) How is this problematic? 
  3. What knowledge is behind some of the complex thinking that you do or need to do? What did it take to build that knowledge into you? 
  4. What great ideas from past eras seem most important to our time? What authors might we bring into conversation from the distant past, the more recent past, and from our own time? 

For Further Listening, Reading, and Reflection:

Mortimer Adler: The Paideia Way of Classical Education, by Robert Woods 

The Paideia Proposal: An Educational Manifesto, by Mortimer Adler

Where Do We Go from Here: Chaos or Community?, by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Great Tradition: Classic Readings on What It Means to Be an Educated Human Being, edited by Richard Gamble

C. S. Lewis on Liberal Arts Education,” by Gregory Dunn

Education’s End: Why Our Colleges and Universities Have Given Up on the Meaning of Life, by Anthony Kronman

Modern Scholar: How to Think, The Liberal Arts and Their Enduring Value, (audio course) by Michael Drout

When Can You Trust the Experts: How to Tell Good Science from Bad in Education, by Daniel Willingham

Unlocking the Science of How Kids Think,” by Daniel Willingham

Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing Our Children from Failed Educational Theories, by E. D. Hirsch

Classroom content: A conservative conundrum,” by Robert Pondiscio

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