Thursday, August 30, 2007

Liberal Arts

For the last two years that we have used the 5th edition of Sticks and Stones, a collection of student essays, I have found that the essay "Liberal Arts: A Practical View" by Mark Jackson, to be very helpful in getting first year students at OSU to think about what we might mean by the term Liberal Arts, especially because the majority of our students are NOT liberal arts majors but rather majoring in science-math-engineering-ag science etc. The question of "What's Liberal? And why arts?" is discussed by Drew University president Robert Weisbuch in his essay about several summer vacations reading, talking, and musing on teaching. He says:

In fact, there is so much to know about everything -- about musical composition, baseball, gemology, wine, lyric poetry, and, yes, even television.

A sense and a sampling of that plenitude struck me that first summer as one definition of a liberal-arts education. The liberal arts do not occur in nature or in culture. They are the academic organization of knowledge and learning, but they are the free spirit of inquiry more than they are a set of topics or fields. Our job, as educators, is to thrill our charges with a sense of that plenitude and with some experiencing of specific worlds of it.
I totally agree that our job is to arouse enthusiasm amongst our students for the vast realm of knowledge and how we can add to it. However, his definition changes the following summer when his reading group disagreed about a book on "Listening to the Other." Weisbuch then quotes Hannah Arendt:

I recalled the comment by Hannah Arendt, the political philosopher, that "the more people's standpoints I have present in my mind while I am pondering a given issue, and the better I can imagine how I would feel or think in their place, the stronger will be my capacity for representative thinking, and the more valid my final conclusion, my opinion." To reach a conclusion, she must first see things from every perspective, including those foreign and even, and especially, opposed to her own gut reactions.

That summer, the island taught me that the liberal arts are the opposition to talk radio, to fanaticism of all kinds, including our own, that another characterization of the liberal arts consists not in wonder worlds alone but in a cherishing and empathic practice of difference. The notion of reaching beyond the self is the liberal arts.

And again, I agree with this characterization of being open. In fact OSU's motto is "Open Minds" - which sometimes is seen as a "liberal agenda" - though with the word Liberal used politically. (I remind students that in the phrase "liberal arts" the word liberal means "free" as in the free Romans - therefore middle class or wealthier elite - free / at leisure / to study, as contrasted to the slaves with no leisure to study who learned crafts - carpentry, metal work, etc - an early version of Vocational Ed? This is a point that Weisbuch seems not to get or at least overlooks.)

Weisbuch goes on to explain his next insight:
My liberal-arts epiphany the following summer came not from reading but from staring out at the lake on a cloudy day and thinking about the previous sentences from the previous summer. It occurred to me that thought isn't enough -- that if the kind of education we practice is meant to connect us to others, it should include something more active, more worldly.
And that's right - ideally we are not ivory tower hermit scholars / the romantic image of the writer alone.

Finally, Weisbuch concludes:

On this dreamy lake, though, as the wind picks up to carry away such frivolous thoughts, the answer comes to me. Instead of adding on something, imagining anew, we simply do what the liberal arts are all too good at doing, and exile what does not belong. This liberal-arts education thing? From now on, how about we just call it college? And anything else isn't. That's all. Let it sink in. But taking together my five summers of desultory thought, I have a final one. Let us make certain, when we say college as we once said liberal arts, that we don't describe an island. The mainland calls. We are equipped.

We are equipped and I hope we are equipping our students with critical thinking and interactive participation in socially constructed knowledge - something that Web 2.0 makes much easier. At any event, at the end of a cooler summer and looking toward classes starting in 3 weeks, it is good to recall exactly what it is we liberal arts educators try to do.



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