Thursday, December 15, 2016

A quick thought about a liberal arts education

Before the very idea of a liberal arts education becomes entirely subsumed in concerns about marketability and utility and the the equally horrid buzzwords of twenty-first century pedagogy, it's important to remember something that was distinctive about it once upon a time. 
Its goal was never the same thing as that of professional education. If you study business, you are doing so in order to go into business. And, that's right and good. 
But, that's not what studying literature or philosophy is in the first instance. Sure, lots of people get degrees in philosophy and then go on to study more philosophy in graduate school. That's fine. And, it satisfies to some small degree that hated and hateful question: "What are you going to do with a degree in that?"
No, the point of a liberal arts education, once upon a time, was the education of a person, a person who could go on to do a lot of different things. That person was a person who was going to be able to think liberally and philosophically and humanistically (and mathematically and logically and ...). (Such a person would be an intellectual in the best sense, not that we have any value for intellectuals these days.) That education involved a specialization, but as Oakeshott argued, that specialization was itself a training in the ability to delve into a subject, to explore more deeply, to dedicate oneself. It wasn't, or didn't have to be, a commitment to do this thing professionally or for the rest of one's life.
I don't know how many people recognize this as valuable anymore or how many realize the importance of leisure and non-utilitarian, non-box-checking approaches to the world to this pursuit, but I think we are paying a price and will continue paying a price in the polis for the loss of this idea of education.

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