Last week I tried to expand a bit on the concept of the Liberal Arts as "the skills of a free man". I described the purpose of the ancient and medieval liberal arts education as being to develop a general and adaptable set of skills that allowed the liberally educated person to understand and reason about the world, and I attempted to contrast this type of education from being trained to perform some one task or set of tasks well.
The classic set of liberal arts is: Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric, Arithmetic, Geometry, Music, Astronomy
Some of these disciplines are defined rather differently now than they were in the pre-modern world, and the modern world presents its own particular challenges to understanding, so I think it's worth thinking a little on how one might update this list.
Darwin goes on to list thoughts on a slightly different set of arts: history and literature; writing and rhetoric; philosophy; language, grammar and linguistics; mathematics; natural science; computer science; and social sciences. Please go and read his thoughts; this post is my response.
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Even though I took a concentration in the sciences in high school, and went on to major in engineering, I appreciate and share the goal of producing broadly educated individuals who have a sense of the way different disciplines interrelate and who have had practice in writing, in forming arguments, and in taking account of the whole human person in their work in the world.
But I don't think liberal arts colleges always succeed in this goal, particularly today. I think there are three major problems here:
- Number one: the leftist political slant of nearly every liberal arts department in the country. Slant is inevitable, but it shouldn't always be in one direction, and departments ought to conscientiously try to correct it. They don't.
- Number two: Education isn't broad, general, and adaptable, and it limits the ability of the educated person to think and reason about the world, when mathematics and physical science are absent or only afterthoughts. It's utterly ridiculous to call an education "broad" and "adaptable" when the graduates have only a vague understanding of the physical laws that govern the world they live in; a poverty of knowledge about the human body, the organisms that inhabit its surroundings, and the materials that make those surroundings; and ineptitude with the mathematical language in which we express relationships among all these things.
- Number three: the declining academic standards of those colleges. Some of this is associated with the leftist slant, in my opinion -- not that leftist slants are necessarily less academically rigorous than rightist slants, but "slant" is generally expressed by ignoring whole points of view and areas of study. Theology, Western civ, and military history, once important aspects of their fields, are gathering dust. If it was a rightward slant, we'd see different things ignored. That's part of it. Another part of it is simple grade inflation and reduced reading loads. The physical sciences and engineering just have not suffered from this as much.
To sum up: I don't think a lot of liberal arts colleges really are delivering what Darwin describes as the mission of the liberal arts.
I haven't much advice about how to fix political slant or grade inflation, but I do know something about the sciences and mathematics. And here I will try to strengthen my liberal-education cred a little bit more: Even though in college I specialized in chemical engineering, and even though in graduate school I had to get even more narrowly specialized, at heart I am a science generalist: I enjoy being at least a little bit conversant in everything much more than I enjoyed becoming an expert in a tiny little area of materials science. This is one of the reasons why staying home to educate my children attracted me more strongly than going on to look for work in research, when it was time to make a decision. I could maybe make an argument for a liberal sciences major to complement the liberal arts major: why not develop a generally adaptable set of skills that would allow the person so educated to understand and reason about the physical world and its laws? (Bonus: the objective nature of physical laws insulates such a program, just a bit more, against political slant and grade inflation.) I could even point to my chemical engineering major and suggest that it comes pretty close to actually embodying a liberal science/engineering major, since the curriculum is a fairly broad combination of science and technology areas (particularly if you take biology electives). It's really why I felt so comfortable there as an undergraduate.
Here are some thoughts. I am cribbing a little bit from what I wrote in Darwin's comboxes.
Mathematics. The key to making math work as a liberal art is to think of it as a means of expanding cognitive abilities. It isn't all calculation - it is a means of understanding the world and what is in it, how stuff moves around, interferes with other things, increases and decreases. Many people don't get to see the beauty of mathematics, even if someone has been wise enough to show them its utility.
MrsDarwin wrote in response to that comment,
One of the ways I've tried to make our homeschooling different from my own experience is that I'm trying to present math as a mode of thinking, not just as an exercise in memorization....
I, like Darwin, worked my own way through Saxon Math, but although I learned much about following formulas exactly as they were presented to me, I learned little to nothing about mathematics as "understanding the world and what is in it, how stuff moves around, interferes with other things, increases and decreases"....But that could also be because math and science had never, not even in my early years at school, been presented as anything other than formulas or drudge. I do think that if I had been inculcated with an interest in, if not a love for, math from an early age, my later studies would have borne more fruit. But I also think that having a good instructor would have been key.
Mind you, not every scientist or engineer winds up with the attitude toward math that I have. But my experience was that (except for proof-based geometry and much later, in graduate-level continuum mechanics, which sounds like science and was taught by an aerospace engineering professor but is really math) it wasn't in my mathematics classes that the "beauty" of math happened. It was in science and engineering classes. It is in the study of "stuff" that it becomes clear how math works its magic on it: setting limits on the world, describing how that stuff moves around, increases and decreases. Writing a mass balance on a differential element of a spherical shell -- a basic problem in introductory chemical engineering -- always felt beautiful to me.
Yeah, I am kind of a weirdo. Please don't roll your eyes at me.
That being said, I would think that proof-based geometry would tie in neatly to the liberal arts curriculum. You could easily put a historical emphasis or logic emphasis on it, or even use it to substitute for a different type of logic course. I plan to use proof-based geometry as the main way of including logic in my homeschool curriculum.
But geometry is so useful with such wide application that it goes beyond logic. Geometry, the calculus specific to understanding related rates, and maybe a study of functions -- any of these could be applied to a wide range of intellectual activities.
Sciences. If you have to only have one science, I nominate physics. For one thing, it gives you a shot of putting all that mathematics in context -- of working together with mathematics to demonstrate how we use it to grasp the world. For another thing, even elementary Newtonian physics does a good job of demonstrating how things are not always as they seem -- how we become fooled by the specifics around us into misunderstanding general laws. Air resistance and friction and frames of reference create so many red herrings! For a third thing, it's the most "generally applicable" of all sciences. Biology is just chemistry at bottom, and chemistry is just physics at bottom. For yet another thing, it encourages the contemplation of the fundamental nature of the material world. It is the interface of creation.
But since "general" is the aim, it might be better to have a little physics, a little chemistry, a little bio, and then maybe an elective in some other area of science.
How to design such a course in order to create scientifically literate citizens would be instructive. And difficult: to take two whole semesters of the chemistry program, for instance, barely scratches the surface of chemistry. You would want to design it from scratch, not just rely on the introductory material that science majors have to take. You want a "chemistry for liberal arts majors" that isn't just code for "chemistry for people who hate math and need an easy way to get the science credit the stupid college says they have to have." And in many universities that would be hard: the chemistry department will want to save its best teachers for its own students (the chemistry majors). So unless you have buy-in from the department chair, and professors who have a passion for sharing their subject with students in other majors, it'll be so hard to put together a quality science series.
Languages. In countries where English is not the spoken language, I would require the study of English for the same reasons that the medievals studied Latin and Greek: it is a modern-day lingua Franca. But here in English-speaking North America, I would advise learning a second language: not so much for the ability to converse in the language or to read its literature, but for the cognitive development and deep knowledge of "how language works" that comes from translating one's thoughts into another idiom. I don't think you can really understand your own language until you have studied a different one for long enough to get its grammar and it's mode of thought. Sure, you could learn about language by studying linguistics instead. I have never taken linguistics, so I can't really judge. But my instinct is to say that you can learn enough of what is generally applicable about language by delving into the process of learning one language well.
Computer science. Darwin had some thoughts about this in his post. I agree with them. If you are going to have a basic understanding of the social forces that shape the modern world, then at this point in history you need to have an understanding of computing. I suggested "a notion of the algorithm" as the fundamental concept around which to build a liberal computing art. Darwin has some more ideas. Whatever you include, I think it would be instructive to include a little bit of computer programming: just enough to demonstrate the thought process that goes into instructing a computer to execute step-by-step instructions. See how a loop works, and an if-then command. Experience the frustration of accidentally dividing by zero. Debug something: discover how important accuracy really is when you are dealing with a machine that cannot guess what you really meant. Understand a tiny bit of what makes human intelligence so unlike machine language, and appreciate the human accomplishment that is inventing computer languages.
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I think what I have written here demonstrates a piece of my educational philosophy, or maybe you could call it a bias, or a theme that pervades my understanding of learning. It is this: To acquire mastery of a skill is a way to acquire generally applicable knowledge.
This has certainly played out in my own life. I could not appreciate the general beauty and utility of mathematics until I exercised my mathematical knowledge in wrestling with physics and engineering problems. I could not have taught myself Latin and Spanish (enough to teach them to children) without the experience I had being taught French -- a specialization! -- to fluency. To the extent that I understand the notion of an algorithm, the process of formulating a problem in the way a machine can understand, and other abstract aspects of computer science, I understand them because I have written computer programs, and struggled to debug and improve them.
I think you can't really learn linguistics until you've learned to speak a language. I think you can't really say you appreciate music until you've attempted to play an instrument well.
You might argue, well, linguistics is more than learning the grammar and vocabulary of one single language. Music is far more than convincing a French horn to emit the notes written on the page. Mathematics is more than a mass balance. And so forth and so on. You need context.
Yes. You need context. But I think it isn't so terribly hard to start with a practical skill and work outward to generalize it. One could argue that the necessary context is provided by acquiring practical skills in a variety of fields -- as mathematics, physics, and philosophy work together to create context for the understanding of creation.
Or we could put it this way. The liberal arts are supposed to educe an individual who has a general and adaptable set of skills. I argue that to be able to specialize -- to be able to dig deeper -- to be able to apply knowledge -- to make the abstract practical and concrete -- to check one's theories against the problem of the physical universe is itself a "generally applicable skill" that is utterly necessary in order to reason about the world.
And you can't acquire that generally applicable skill without practice specializing, without practice developing expertise in something, without practice in "practical skills" here and there, without asking yourself if reality confirms that your thoughts are correct.