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The importance of a liberal arts and sciences education
History offers us perspective. Scholars like Goldin and Kutarna have called our attention to events in the Renaissance. In the middle of this age when the human, reason and science were taking centre stage, a popularist uprising broke out. The grounds were ripe for it. The elite were prospering, high culture was captivating but the poor were left behind.
The revolt was led by a fiery preacher Savonarola and he carried it to the heart of Florence, the leading city of the Renaissance. He stirred up the crowds by prophesying that dangerous hordes would come from the north, he railed against the corruption of the ruling elites, damned the influence of outside powers, called for the establishment of a ‘popular’ republic and promised he would ‘Make Florence Great again’ or, in his words, make it ‘richer, more powerful, more glorious than ever’.
He communicated in short pamphlets and incendiary speeches. His campaign was hugely successful. The elites were vanquished and in what we know as the ‘bon re of the vanities’, many ‘corrupt’ works were destroyed.
In time, of course, his movement lost momentum because it couldn’t deliver what it promised. Eventually he was tired and he confessed that he had just made up his visions and prophesies. They were the alternative facts of an earlier era. It wasn’t pleasant while it lasted but is a counsel to hold our nerve and our values when the latest Savonarola rolls into town.
The Renaissance has a lot more to teach us than perspective on popularists. Central to this remarkable era of human flourishing, which brought to an end the long period of the Dark Ages, was a rediscovery of the West’s classical past. Engagement with the ideas, art and architecture of the ancient world brought new life. Western history was made whole again. It wasn’t that the Christian thought of the time was displaced, rather it was expanded and reshaped. In that refashion, the foundations were laid for the modern world.
For reasons I will come to shortly, when it comes to knowledge of this past, we have created a new Dark Ages. Understanding the great sweep of ideas and culture of Western history has not been viewed as an integral part of education for some time now. That vast city of ideas has slipped below the waves of currency. Submerged like some intellectual Atlantis.
Certainly, there are individuals and the occasional institution who have made it their task to dive below the surface and again survey the vastness of this great city. There is the odd subject or teacher that takes small groups on a torch lit dive to a single building or perhaps even the exploration of a famous arrondissement. The remainder of the city is obscured in the murky darkness.
Once, it was an expectation that we would know the outlines of history and culture. Of the classical and biblical worlds, have a grasp of the great conceptual richness of the Middle Ages, know about the Renaissance itself, the Reformation and Enlightenment that created the momentum to the modern world. That is no longer the case.
Today, we need to think about more than human history but also the history of the physical and biological worlds. The greatest gain in knowledge since the Renaissance has been our scientific understanding of the universe.
Together, there are now three great histories we should now have at least an outline of in our mind: The history of the physical universe, the history of life and the history of humanity. What is extraordinary in our time is that they are one history.
Humanity’s impact on life is so great that this era of the physical universe has already been named by geologists as the Anthropocene.
The Value of a Liberal Arts and Sciences Education
What then do we gain from understanding these three great histories? We gain vital underpinnings for making a more civilized world: choice, perspective and judgement, meaning, creativity, excellence and literacy.
Choice and Plurality
Let us begin with choice and plurality.
The story of life with its central drama of evolution has much to say about why we are programmed the way we are. But we also know it is not just genes but ideas that shape our behaviour. We readily recognise how our early lives and distinctive experiences shape who we are. However, our personal experiences only account for a limited portion of the ideas we develop and that shape who we are. Ideas like genes also come from our distant ancestors. They are passed on to us through the language we use and the stories we learn.
If we know where these ideas come from we are in a far more powerful position of choice. If we know what is guiding us we also know that we could, like those before us, choose to live out of a different set of ideas.
If you read the great German Enlightenment philosopher Immanuel Kant and sense passion in throwing off the authority of priests and princes then you truly appreciate why ‘freedom’ and ‘reason’ have a magnetic appeal to the modern mind. He may be as much a parent of our minds as those who raised you from a child.
Not knowing our cultural past is like not having a memory of our growing up. Our loss of cultural knowledge is probably a lot worse than that. Imagine how little you would know about yourself if your memory only went back a week.
Also, knowing we could live based on a different set of ideas or world views is what secures a peaceful plurality, which is the foundation of civilized society. We live in a time where plurality is under threat from all sides. There are forms of political correctness, some very present on university campuses, especially in the United States, that seek to limit the perspective available. Equally there is authoritarian popularism hostile to the voices of a diverse society.
Perspective and Judgment
With the knowledge that we could choose differently comes perspective. The triumph of freedom and reason as the cornerstone of government is not a law of physics, it is just an idea that has captured our minds for a tiny period of human history. There is no certainty it will continue to do so unless we choose to argue for its value and ensure that we pass it on as it was passed on to us, hard won from authoritarian rule of many forms.
Twined with perspective is a greater capacity for judgement. A historical perspective acts as a powerful corrective to our hardwired cognitive biases to overrate short-term risks and under-rate long-term risks. When these biases are corrected, we can far better calibrate the apparent chaos of the short-term. With the corrective lens of history, the world looks far less threatening and volatile. That perspective is very empowering.
Equally, our biases tend to make us take longer-term threats less seriously. In human history, we know unsustainable social and economic structures eventually rupture unpredictably in revolution. Biological history tells us that ecological systems can collapse rapidly once a tipping point is passed. From earliest times, myths have warned us of both truths. Some are so powerful, like the story of the Great Flood, that they defy our cultural amnesia although we tend to relativise them to children’s stories rather than hold on to them as icons of insight for all.
With historical perspective comes meaning. There is nothing more grounding than having a sense of belonging to a story much larger than our own. One of the wonders of modern science is that it gives an ability to find our place in the history of the universe.
There is something profoundly grounding when we contemplate that we are formed from star dust and have a lineage through an extraordinary chain of the creatures of the planet. We deepen these senses that are part of something larger when we see our place as heirs to the history of people who came before us.
Creativity and Excellence
The ability and confidence to access that history expands our capacity for creativity and excellence. It was a point made beautifully by the English poet and educator Matthew Arnold when in a similarly troubled time he wrote a poem called Dover Beach. It sums up for his time much of the argument that we are in an age of huge potential but an ignorance of the past is taking us down a troubled path. He put it this way at the end of that poem:
for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight, Where ignorant armies clash by night.
He wrote his answer in his book Culture and Anarchy in 1867. ‘We need to know, on the matters that most concern us, the best that has been thought and said in the world; and through this knowledge, turn a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits’. Only the gravest hubris would think ‘the best that has been thought and said in the world’ was thought and said in the last 50 years.
If we don’t know the reference points of the past we will only ever have a shallow reading of the works of those who did. Without a knowledge of biblical and classic stories or those of the Golden Legend of the Middle-Ages, of the characters of Shakespearean theatre, we in turn will have a palette for expression with fewer colours from which to paint our pictures of the world. As a result, they risk being less precise, with contrasts drawn too sharply and cheaper in their humour.
Answering the Critics of History
If there is such a value in having this type of understanding why did we abandon it? The reasons are various and important because if we are to recover the past we need to take account of why we rejected it. Histories like these require some sort of canon – a selection of works that represent ‘the best of what has been thought and said’, painted, sculptured and composed.
Here is where the trouble begins. Current orthodoxy in much of the humanities opposes the notion of a canon, arguing: it has created the powerful to advance their own interests; it shouldn’t be the point of reference because women and minorities are under-represented; is objectionable because it implies progress out of which colonisation springs; devalues non-western; and anyway there is no such thing as objective goodness, truth or beauty.
There is something to be said for all these arguments and each needs to be accommodated.
A canon needs to be open and debated rather than closed and established by authority.
The role of power in culture should be explored but since it will always exist it is better to understand it rather simply reject culture because it exists.
The works of women and minorities should be given due place within an understanding of how gender and discrimination have shaped history but also within one that still accurately places the lighthouse of thought and culture by which we have navigated.
We can be more humble about the notion of progress without giving up on the idea that we have and should strive to improve the human condition.
We can explore our tradition without any sense of devaluing the other traditions. Moreover, unless we truly understand our tradition we won’t properly understand, therefore be able to respect, what a tradition is let alone have much to bring to the conversation with those deeply versed in their own world views.
Finally, in a world where the logical extrapolation of post-modern scepticism about truth and goodness are ‘alternative facts’ about climate science and a justification of the return of torture by the democratic state, it should give us pause to think that those sceptical and post-modernist claims have dangerously overreached.
Liberal Arts and Sciences at Ormond
The provision of a liberal arts and sciences education was central to the founding vision of the College. Our Scottish founders saw that an education in the classics, which is the focus of English universities, had to be brought up to the present and to embrace strongly a scientific understanding of the world. [Later in this edition, we highlight this through an article about Hebert Strong]. The notion of bringing the riches of the past into conversation with the present is the very meaning of our motto Et Nova Et Vetera, quoting as it does a passage from the Bible.
As a College, we have recognised that we need to make it an explicit project to return to those roots because a Liberal Arts and Sciences philosophy guides neither the national school curricula nor that of the university. This project aims to work within the existing university curriculum and to supplement it.
Within the curriculum, we will encourage all our teaching staff to continue and expand their current practice of providing historical and cultural context for the content students are learning on campus.
In supplementing the curriculum, we look to those who have been and remained committed to this agenda in other places. The modern approach to a liberal arts agenda was pioneered in the United States in the 1920s and 1930s beginning at Columbia University with the creation of courses that introduced students to the great books of western culture. Today, a range of universities in the United States still have versions of a great books program, the most notable being Columbia University, The University of Chicago, The University of Texas at Austin, and Boston College.
Our approach is a little broader than great books and extends to great works so we could include music, art and architecture on the agenda. Our view is that a similar logic needs to be extended to the world of science.
We will start by supporting student self-direction and then move to creating a more formal extra-curricular offering.
To support self-directed exploration, we are creating a shelf in the library with the 100 works that changed western history. We are creating these through a conversation with students and staff. It will include books of philosophy and literature, CDs of music, and books with images of the pieces of art and architecture.
For students interested in giving more of a liberal arts dimension to their courses, we have created guides to university subject selection. One of these guides will enable a student doing any course to use their ‘breadth’ subject to select subjects that give them a liberal arts flavour but also alert them to the very large gap in the University offering for anyone wanting an overview of Western civilization.
In parallel, we will offer a set of guides to the big histories of the biological and physical universe so that students can easily get their hands on them.
We are creating two more formal extra-curricular offerings.
The first, we will be offering a ‘Great works that changed history’ as a summer and winter intensive. This would be based on the flipped classroom intensives we have been piloting in the last few years. It would enable us to offer 20 students at a time, a rich experience and give us the chance to refine a course.
The second, a course on the ‘History of Life and the Universe’ as an introduction to the two other great narratives and offer them as winter and summer intensives.
In time, we will look to add to that offering to ensure students can access the breadth required for a liberal arts and sciences education.
We recognise that changing the educational agenda doesn’t happen quickly but we believe it is important to begin that work. If we want to head down the path of hope rather than despair, the path of the more civilized world, then we could do worse than recover the resources to grow our capacity for choice and plurality, perspective and judgement, meaning, creativity, excellence and literacy.