Same Coin, Two Sides: Resurrecting the Liberal Arts Ideal

There are truths on this side of the Pyranees, which are falsehoods on the other. 

~Blaise Pascal


Have you noticed that the same behaviour can be described in diametrically opposed ways, depending on different people’s perspectives? For example, if you were taught, “If you have nothing good to say, then don’t say anything at all”, couldn’t you also be accused of being “passive aggressive”? Or maybe you’re an introvert who thinks best when thinking alone, and often finds the banter of your colleagues trivial; you’ll probably find people accusing you of poor social skills. A man who is careful with his money becomes a miserly cheapskate,  a confident woman becomes a bitch, and an optimistic person becomes a pollyanna. And so on.

I find the same thing in education.

According to leaders of the progressive camp like Ken Robinson, modern public schools are “factories” where young people are dehumanized and forced into categories that betray each young person’s unique character. According to Seth Godin, “Large-scale education was never about teaching kids or creating scholars. It was invented to churn out adults who worked well within the system.” A central villain is the lack of choice; each student is compelled to learn what other people are learning, regardless of whether he or she finds it interesting or relevant. And teachers reinforce factory discipline by lecturing from the front, demanding that students listen and regurgitate.

But when I see that same school system, my perception is very different. I don’t see the straw man above. The upside of this vilified institution is the liberal arts ideal. The idealists of the past who built the system of the present viewed the liberal arts as the ideal. (I haven’t found many who consciously wanted a factory.) In my opinion, our current system is at its best when it emulates this ideal. Unfortunately, this ideal has receded from popular consciousness as the progressives’ negative “factory” critique has gained popularity.

In the liberal arts ideal, public schools exist to introduce young people to a variety of disciplines and ideas that they’ve probably never encountered or considered. “Exploratories” is a virtue – students experience a variety of courses in academics, business, trades, performing arts and physical education. Yes, students may not like basketball, woodworking or reading Shakespeare, and they may employ that classic of resistance, “it’s boring”, but school might be the only place they ever get to expand their “zone of relevancy”. Unlike the progressive demand to teach what’s “relevant”, the liberal arts ideal asks, “If they’ve never tried it, how do they know they won’t like it?” I remember hating Technology 8 at the beginning of the year, but by the end I found woodworking and drafting to be wonderfully creative activities. My preconceptions would never have allowed me to find these passions without being “compelled”. In the early years of my Bachelor of Arts degree, I discovered a passion for political philosophy; my preferred choices, history and English, became my minors. And I was grateful that I had to take algebra right to Grade 12; otherwise, my university economics courses would have been much more difficult. (When I was a teenager, I was sure that math was irrelevant. I was wrong.) So, I am grateful for the need to take a wider range of courses beyond my initial preferences.

A liberal arts education also believes that a broad exposure to a variety of disciplines provides a general education. This general education, in turn, forms the basis of creative and critical thought. As Professor Robert Harris has said, “Knowledge of many subject areas provides a cross fertilization of ideas, a fullness of mind that produces new ideas and better understanding.” Content isn’t “factoids” or “information”, as the progressives like to (mis)characterize it; content is the very essence of what we use to think comparatively, critically and creatively. [Thus, if we have to look it up in Google, the thought has probably passed us by.] The distinction between skill and content, as I’ve argued before (here and here), is simply unsustainable.

Finally, the liberal arts ideal views the teacher as an active leader at the center of the class discussion. It’s probably close to the “sage from the stage” approach that the progressives so dislike.  Ideally, the teacher engages in a Socratic dialogue with his/her students. Through continual questioning and discussion, students learn to explain and understand their beliefs and knowledge, and potentially change their mind in the face of other points of view. It’s not a comfortable practice, to be honest. Nobody likes to hear ideas that contradict their own. But it does make young people engage in conversations that they might otherwise not participate in.

Do public schools (and my own teaching practice) always reach this liberal arts ideal? Of course not! But it seems to me that this ideal – an ideal that goes back to antiquity – would be a better model for school improvement than what the progressives have been promoting since the days of Rousseau. Since we don’t know what we might be doing in 20 years (a meme that all progressives seem to accept), isn’t a broad, liberal arts education better than allowing adolescents to personalize their education based on a narrow range of experience?

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1 Comment to "Same Coin, Two Sides: Resurrecting the Liberal Arts Ideal"

  1. Robert Lussier's Gravatar Robert Lussier
    January 16, 2012 - 10:45 am | Permalink

    21st century learning implies evolution in the ecology of organizational culture in education. Learning styles and multiple intelligences can be found in all ecosystems. Educational leadership as pollinator; teaching and learning as gardener. Growing minds! A paradigm shift at the local level with global implications.

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