A liberal education is focused on teaching knowledge ‘for its own sake’.
The two words ‘liberal’ and ‘arts’ might stand somewhat awkwardly in our current landscape, the phrase implies freeing the human being through a study of a curriculum exposing pupils to a wide range of influences, arts, ideas, opinions and facts so that they can acquire an understanding of the human condition and reach their own conclusions and judgements. An education for freedom.
Many ‘knowledge-based’ curriculum programmes claim to embrace the ‘liberal arts’ but fail to understand the enormity of teaching knowledge ‘for its own sake’. It has been said that the aims of a liberal education are to have ‘no aims’. And, on occasions when aims are proscribed for the liberal arts they are often wooly enough to encompass all sorts of interpretations, for example the aim for the liberal arts that Daniel Denicola suggests is: ‘the activity of living as a human being and one’s life as a whole’. Or, in one word, ‘flourishing’.
In the title I have added the word ‘sciences’ as the ‘arts’ in their original meaning covered areas that were to later become ‘science’. However, it is useful in our understanding of knowledge for its own sake to see why the addition of ‘sciences’ to the liberal arts can be problematic. In The Closing of the American Mind, Allan Bloom writes of the destructive nature of ‘modern’ (enlightenment) science. He paraphrases Jonathan Swift and his idea that modern science has lost the human perspective, and that science should ‘understand man as a man, and not as a geometric figure with flesh on it.’ A liberal arts and sciences education would restore, as Bloom puts it: the ‘self consciousness’ about science that is connected to ‘poetry’. This is echoed by Michael Oakeshott who makes the rather disparaging comment that ‘chemistry has never outgrown its character as a sophisticated kind of cookery.’ He makes this distinction: science that is liberal is science that is taught as ‘one of the great intellectual pursuits of mankind,’ rather than in fulfilling a utilitarian need for more ‘first class surgeons, engineers, chemists, psychologists, social scientists etc…’
This is what sets apart a liberal arts and sciences education. It is resistant to utilitarian, managerial, instrumental, vocational and simple ‘utopian’ arguments as to why we educate. Knowledge for its own sake is anti-utility and training. It is against the idea of knowledge as cultural ‘capital’ or ‘literacy’. It resists the ideas of knowledge for social justice or mobility. This impacts on the choices made for what is ‘in’ the curriculum.
Raymond Williams drew a distinction between the ‘industrial trainers’ who want to train the working classes for jobs, the ‘public educators’ who want a common curriculum for all and the ‘classical humanists’ who want to preserve high culture through a liberal arts education for the elite. These distinctions are salient, we still hear their echoes. The training for jobs that don’t yet exist – soft skills – vocational qualifications; the need for all to have a common core curriculum; and the threat of having to dumb down an education based on the finer things in order to make them accessible for the children of the majority – even a struggle for Matthew Arnold who wished to transform as many people as possible by providing them with access to ‘the best that has been thought and said’.
The liberal arts approach is anti-training because it refuses to leave children with the impression that there is only one way to think, rather it wishes young people to realise they are free to think and reason. The pupil becomes free. As William Deresiewicz describes it:
Creating a self, inventing a life, developing an independent mind…
An independent mind is not developed if your school has trained you in certain skills for the jobs market. An independent person free to ‘invent’ their life cannot do so if their curriculum has reduced their thinking due to a narrow range of subjects. One can’t create a self if one is subject to a daunting regime that wishes to stifle your individuality.
RS Peters identified three different strands in liberal education:
- Knowledge for its own sake.
- Broad and balanced.
- Non-dogmatic – because authoritarianism restricts the reasoning power of the individual.
Any approach to the curriculum that wishes to prepare children for the world of work cannot be described as a ‘liberal arts’ approach. Neither can one that intends to drive children towards certain outcomes such as being socially mobile, or in competing with the outcomes from other countries. An education driven by technological imperative or a diet of knowledge that is to enable school leavers to become high earners cannot said to be liberating. Any outcome which is to improve the lot of the nation economically or socially is not liberal because this reduces the self to a ‘geometric figure with flesh on it’.
Education as commodity, with qualifications as capital to be exchanged for certain vocations is anathema to a true education for its own sake which is a cornerstone of a liberal arts and sciences approach to curriculum. All acronyms such as STEM or STEAM are anathema as they are endowed with economic justifications. Culture as capital leads to children muttering: ‘Why am I doing this, is it in the exam? Why am I doing this it’s not relevant to the job I’m going to get? Will this make me more likely to get a top job?’ In answer to the question: ‘why do this rather than that?’ RS Peters suggests:
It is… the attitude of passionate concern about truth that informed Socrates’ saying that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’.
The focus should be on the curriculum they are being taught, not some far off abstract aim. Pupils are learning to engage fruitfully with knowledge to examine their life, our life, and the expression of those lives.
This is why, in the liberal arts, there is an emphasis on the pursuit of truth. This truth is to be found in ‘great’ books, authentic experiences and a discursive ‘dialectical’ method of teaching. Children learn important knowledge, they have great experiences – cultural, physical, thoughtful. They learn to debate, write, make speeches, play sport and make art, they learn other languages for the joy of having their minds expanded by different ways of seeing and interpreting the world. And they learn sciences to explore the wonder of the world. Through the breadth of curriculum experiences or, as Arnold called it, ‘the whole circle of knowledge,’ they are expected to learn the importance of truth – and that there are different ways to truth – some more objective and logical, and some more subjective, spiritual and emotional.
The central problem for a liberal arts curriculum is the charge that it is only for the leisured elite. James Burke recently suggested on the Radio 4 PM programme that most jobs will be taken by Artificial Intelligence within thirty years – algorithms networked and learning by themselves for themselves. What will education for humans be for if we are all part of the leisured class? He added that it is ‘our open ended self awareness that makes us sentient and creative humans.’ It is this ‘humanist’ echo that reverberates throughout a liberal education.
But I digress.
The liberal arts curriculum has a moral imperative behind its construction. It is taught through direct instruction, through dialogue, debate and discussion and through pupils creating their own responses to drive the conversations forward. The essay form is central as are other means of subject specific communication. The whole curriculum being subject based means there is also a need for ideas to be brought together through, what Christine Counsell refers to as, ‘intelligent inter-disciplinarity’ rather than ‘crazy cross curricularity’.
A liberal arts education is an aesthetic education. As Keats put it:
“Beauty is truth, truth beauty, that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
It is rooted in the realm of passing on beauty, on truth but not in a way that just admires the ruins of the past. It is a conversational education. What is included in the curriculum are not pieces of work – the ‘best’ as suggested by what might be talked about at a middle class dinner party or broadsheet newspaper – the best here is something that defines us, a pretence to the universal maybe – but it helps us work out who we are – what it is to be human. It is subjective in this sense but is given a moral imperative through its underlying pursuit of wisdom and truth.