Incensed professor discusses liberal arts
My disenchantment with American education, including the Universities over which I once swooned, is that, like the Church at Ephesus, Universities (at least in this country) have left their “first love.” In the Academy’s attempt to lure students into its voracious maw, it has sold itself primarily as the way to get ahead financially and socially. This was always the case, from the Middle Ages on, but the Academy in 21st century America seems less and less likely to provide the basic Liberal Arts education of which they were once justifiably proud. The study of history in particular seems slighted – many college students seem to think history began with their own births. However, from what I understand of other General Studies teachers, they, too, have left their first loves. I wonder how many English Departments, immersed in 21st politics rather than the study of literature, can be said still to be proponents of the Liberal Arts. Literary theory, which was supposed to have died in the 1990s, according to one prominent literary doyenne, is still alive, and I can assure you that, as far as I am concerned, feminist theory, “queer theory,” and Marxist historicism have thumb-weighted the balance of the Liberal Arts to the point that criminal prosecution for fraud seems only fair. (I should add that I would be dismissed by these experts as an unsophisticated “essentialist,” which means that I am still looking to the Humanities for the essence of what it means to be human. These pooh-bahs find such naïveté ludicrous. I plead guilty as charged.)
It would take more than my 1000 words to discuss how the Universities have allowed themselves to bloat into expansion. The student loans provided by the government have allowed the Universities to inflate their charges into bubbles of blight. At the same time, they seem to be turning out more “technopeasants” than they do educated human beings. Now there are still Universities that do well by their students, but even at the most famous American Universities, nonsense runs rife.
If you have read this far, you may well be thinking “What does the Incensed Professor mean by well-educated?” You may be surprised to learn I will tell you. Education is more than job training; it ought to be training in learning how to think and to be the heir of that civilization that rests in the Humanities properly understood. The Humanities are those studies that deal with what it means to be human and how to think about it. Even scientists start here.
The first course of study for everything else is what was known in the Middle Ages as the trivium. Those aiming for advanced degrees went on to the quadrivium, which consisted of arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. Now these studies were about what things were and how they related to each other. For instance, Music was theoretical harmonics or the relations between quantities rather than Hanon’s finger exercises for piano. For that matter, all these quantities could be either stationary or moving, but fortunately my point is not to justify the quadrivium. I don’t have to bother my hoary little head about how Plato or the Pythagoreans worked all this out. I only have to make the point that the quadrivium was considered preparatory to the study of philosophy! Really, unless you are disposed to theology, “the Queen of the Sciences” (where “Sciences” means “organized studies” and not merely induction), it is philosophy by which we have to run our lives. This is where the Liberal Arts must inevitably head.
But before we get to the dizzying heights of philosophy or theology, we still have to learn the basics of how to think. The trivium, the study of (Latin) grammar, logic, and rhetoric are designed for that purpose and were the studies that led to a medieval Bachelor of Arts degree. If you know how language works, you can use it; without precise grammar, effective communication is problematic at best. If you can tell whether an argument is logical or not, you have the rudiments of the ability to think properly. If you can then make your argument rhetorically pleasing, you have the basic skills that lead you to success – and finally civilization.
To the trivium, I would add history and literature as essential studies of being human. History, which is one of the Humanities rather than a “social science,” tells us what human beings actually do. It is sort of a field study. On the other hand, literature is a theoretical study of what a human might do, if put under certain conditions. Its credibility lies in whether we can believe a human might act in this way. When you add to these two studies the other things only humans do – music, art, drama, and the like – you have become the heir not only of the West but of the entire world. (You really don’t think birds trill operatic arias, now do you?)
It is certainly possible to get a good Liberal Arts education without going to University. Milton seems to have learned more in his father’s library than he did at Cambridge, and it was never a social requirement of the British upper classes that they go to University, though I suppose they may do so more often these days. But however you can get truly educated, it is not a “trivial” matter. It is of the essence of civilization and your own wellbeing. The less the Universities do in imparting this human – and humane – knowledge, the less they are worth attending. The more technopeasants the Academy creates, and the less their professors are genuine scholars, the poorer the education is that these institutions provide. If you can find a melodious “Singing School” that truly educates you, you should go. If you hear only untuned music emanating from the campus, which so many famous Universities now trumpet out, Milton’s father’s library is still available, in e-books.
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