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Teaching the Liberal Arts in the American Context
Heresy on the liberal arts?
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By Anonymous, June 27, 2009 in Uncategorized

Our discussion of liberal education early in the 2009 Institute with Susan Hanssen and David Whalen was well-timed and stimulating, but left me troubled and concerned about our conversations around this issue.

I should probably preface these comments by noting that I find Cardinal Newman's arguments about the unity of knowledge and the need for education to promote "a philosophical habit of mind" both sublime and compelling. I became enamored with liberal learning in college, and made many of my own academic decisions—including the study of classical languages, history, literature, philosophy, and politics—as part of a personal quest to attain this type of education.

Yet some 25 years after my initial college experience, and having studied and worked in an array of fine universities, I find myself teaching in a liberal arts institution but surrounded by faculty who are too busy and too specialized to interact much about liberal learning. I also labor amidst students who are solid American pragmatists, with little evident interest in cultivating that philosophical habit of mind, and far greater concern about job opportunities after college that will justify the substantial fiscal outlay they are making in their higher education.

On the personal front, while I have enjoyed my ongoing educational journey, and have had many moments of enlightenment (especially encountering Plato and Augustine), I am not certain that these pursuits have actually bestowed upon me a philosophical habit of mind of the sort Newman characterized. Nor do I have a clear sense that many of the students I have worked with over the past two decades, either at the graduate or undergraduate levels, have truly partaken of liberal learning, despite my best attempts to orchestrate their educational experiences along these lines. This is no crisis of confidence on my part, mind you, but rather an attempt at candor.

I do not know if my observations here represent excessive pessimism, or simply a failure of us all to live up to Newman's standards. Perhaps my perceptions about the paucity of liberal learning in America spring from the inescapable plague of disciplinary specialization. Maybe the ideal of liberal learning is simply overwhelmed by our intensely pragmatic and materialistic culture in early 21st century America. Whatever the sources, I find myself increasingly entertaining the notion that relatively few individuals in our society may ever develop a philosophical habit of mind. And so the question then becomes how to pursue "liberal learning" against the expectation that we shall ever see widespread success in this endeavor.

I do think that ISI would do us all a favor by not simply extending our opportunities to discuss the liberal arts, but also by tracking down and profiling institutions that DO seem to be having general success in producing significant numbers of students who achieve a philosophical habit of mind—and helping the rest of us understand what is being done in those places, in terms of curriculum, pedagogy, faculty conversation, and so forth, to make this happen.

Tags: Education, Colleges and Universities, The Liberal Arts

2 Comments
Anonymous on Jun 29, 2009 at 1:06 pm

"Maybe the ideal of liberal learning is simply overwhelmed by our intensely pragmatic and materialistic culture in early 21st century America. Whatever the sources, I find myself increasingly entertaining the notion that relatively few individuals in our society may ever develop a philosophical habit of mind. And so the question then becomes how to pursue "liberal learning" against the expectation that we shall ever see widespread success in this endeavor. "

This is Henry Adams in a nut shell. Only Henry Adams says it laughing at himself--what more, he seems to say, can an old Puritan of an Adams like himself, believing in the total depravity of human nature, expect? Can the Patriot Adams ever hope to silence the old pessimism with New World, democratic optimism?

As I teach this book over and over, I am convinced that Adams's response is the best: the golden age of liberal arts universities occurred during the golden age of Christian humanism--the Summa coinciding with the Pange Lingua--and while that is merely a historical coincidence, there may very well be a historical logic behind it.

"Relatively few individuals may ever develop the philosophic habit of mind." No, this cannot be the spirit of a teacher. Every soul has the divine spark in it. As Pieper points out, even the manual laborer can participate in the spirit of genuine leisure--a notion as old as the Sabbath. This is the hope that has to inspire the teacher. Henry Adams saw it clearly: that Spes Nostra is fed at the Sedes Sapientiae. If our hope dies, it is absurd to blame it on our society, our hsitorical moment, or our students. The failure will only be in us.

In the university setting, in any school setting, as Frederick Wilhelmsen suggests, this requires both a risk on the part of the administration in granting freedom to the professors/teachers; standardization, teaching the test, mound of paperwork reports, kill the teacher's spirit of liberal learning. Then again, it requires real dedication on the part of teachers to drum up, before every class, that spirit of leisure ("I would be here reading and thinking and talking about this material even if you all had stayed in bed!") before each and every class period. This is idealisitic in the extreme--but methinks G. K. Chesterton managed to drum up that spirit before every article he dashed off for the newspaper, and one can feel the rush and the fun of thought in Aristotle and Aquinas as well. Perhaps most of us teachers cannot sustain the spirit so consistently as these greats, and therefore our students reflect back only the occasional flashes from us.

Gabriel Martinez on Jul 1, 2009 at 10:43 am

I second Stephen's suggestion that ISI could do something in addition to conferences. Perhaps they could offer encouragement, direction, suggestions, and (proportionately small) grants for interaction among faculty and with students, across disciplines and outside of the classroom: reading groups, trips, visiting lecture series, etc..