Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog


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So, I’m going to try to calm down here.  I got up very late (for me) this morning, and I’m feeling a little frantic.

Today I don’t have the time to write this, since I’ve got to teach almost immediately.  Tomorrow, I’m going to have the aftermath of today.

But let me try to outline where we’ve gotten so far, as far as I am able.

The purpose of a liberal education is to form free men–to make us self-governing people in two senses of the word (that we can control  our own personal habits and actions, and that we can participate in the governing of our city-state/nation/whatever).

That has been the rationale for a liberal education as far back as there has been any form of it.  It’s a Western-only phenomenon, and at Western-only cultural ideal, but in the West it has never been anything else.

Over the years, specific Western societies at particular times have had different ideas of the content of such an education, but the content has always fit into a few broad categories.  History Philosophy Literature Mathematics.

Philosophy, to the ancients, included what we now call the biological and material sciences (and astronomy) as well as things like ethics, logic, and politics.   From the Roman period onward, literature has always included both the study of at least one foreign language.  For the Romans, it was Greek.

The Greeks, Romans and Middle Ages put a fair lot of emphasis on the study of music, which they justified as a form of studying mathematics.  After the Enlightenment, music faded out in favor of increasiningly more sophisticated levels of pure mathematics itself.  AB would like to change the emphasis on higher math in the Sixties and Seventies to one that included and possibily stressed statistics and probability.  He could do that, but the broad category (mathematics) would not have changed. 

So that’s where we start, at the purpose for which a liberal arts education was invented and and its content and persistance over time.

At that point, you have no idea IF I agree that that purpose is really what a liberal arts education does.

But you also have no idea if I DON’T agree with it.

I was getting to it, really, but in the world from which I come, you FIRST provide an unbiased and untendentious account of the situation you’ll be discussing and only THEN do you start throwing your personal opinions around.

I’m sticking to it.  I think it’s a good and sensible way to proceed, and better than any of the other methods I’ve run into, lately or otherwise.

Where I seem to have suddenly gotten into trouble was when I started in on trying to take these two claims–a liberal arts education will teach us to be a self-governing people, with government over ourselves and the ability to participate in our government–and take them apart, and see if they actually did what they claimed to do.

I started with the “control of ourselves” thing, because I have always thought that this was where the claims of a liberal education are weakest.

They’re weak, I think, not because a liberal education in particular is weak on this count, but because ALL education is weak on this count. 

The claim that by education we can form the characters of men didn’t start with Aristotle, and it didn’t stop with him.  It’s the reason for anti-bullying programs and diversity training seminars even as we speak. 

All teachers, all over the world, at all times, seem to think that “education’ is the key to controlling behavior.

Quite frankly, I don’t think it’s ever worked, and I don’t think it ever will.  I do not think that character is changed by education alone, no matter what kind the education is.

I don’t think that’s how character formation works.

This is not a flaw in the theory and purpose of a liberal arts education. It’s a flaw in the theory and purpose of almost ALL kinds of education.

I then tried to outline what I thought education COULD do about character, and why I thought a liberal arts education was uniquely good about doing it. 

I also noted what ought to be obvious.  Men and women do develop good character without a liberal arts education, or any education at all.  And men and women do develop a bad character with a liberal arts education, and with all the other kinds of education besides.

Education–any kind of education–will not guarantee character in any direction at all.

Lack of education–any kind of education–will not guarantee character in any direction at all.

But I do think that education can certainly HELP in the formation of character, and that some kinds of education are better at helping build good character than others, just as some others are better at building bad.

And what I started out trying to do, in that last LA post, was to outline what this was and why it was helpful.

I also tried to point on the ways in which this advantage would be of value to an individual living now.

I did not say that this particular value to the individual living now was the only possible value any individual at any time could derive from a liberal arts education, nor did I say that this particular value was restricted to people who lived in the therapeutic culture. 

I gave a specific example for a specific time and a specific place. 

I did not say that this example exhausted the possible examples for this time and place.

I did not say that this example was unique in any sense, or that other examples of the same advantage (the ability to understand that we have defined “human” in radically different ways at different times and places and that the definition of “human” in this time and place is neither set in stone nor necessarily a good idea) couldn’t be produced for people living at other times in other cultural definitions of the human.

I just did as I was requested, and pointed out a value a liberal arts education COULD have to an individual living now.

I’ll try to get back to this later, when I’ve had a little time to breathe.

Written by janeh

September 29th, 2011 at 10:03 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'Intermission'

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  1. OK. Where I come from we begin with a thesis statement, in case someone falls asleep or has to go to the bathroom within the first week. And when we make a flat statement of fact we’re not endorsing, we don’t say “the barn is red” but “Joe Smith says the barn is red.” That doesn’t mean my way is the only way.
    However, days of “I didn’t say I believe X” and “I didn’t say I don’t believe X” slow matters down. May I suggest you indicate when you have made a full statement of your beliefs and comments would be appropriate?
    At that point, I’ll repost my comments from about Part 6. They still appear to be pertinent, and I suspect they will be then, too.


    29 Sep 11 at 5:33 pm

  2. OK. A good succinct explanation of the liberal arts program. Quibbles:
    If we’re going to insist on meaningful, rigorous liberal arts degrees, then we as a nation will have to stop using them as the union card for professorships. Otherwise, sooner or later we wind up saying, in effect, “I don’t care that he’s the greatest evolutionary biologist since Darwin: he just can’t grasp the modern novel” or “Well, he can pack them in for Classics, but we can’t use him: I’ve got a pet cat with better math skills.” Whether we regard the university as a place of teaching or as a center for research, getting the best researchers or the best teachers has to take precedence over the credentialing program. The more difficult we make the creentialing process, the more we sharpen the dilema.

    We also have to understand why a generation of university professors with sterling liberal arts educations chucked all this out, and have some program to keep them from doing so again. When a bridge collapses or an prototype plane crashes, you do NOT go out and build another one from the same blueprints–not without understanding the failure.

    All three reasons for literature sound reasonable, but I see no reason why they should lead to the same books taught in the same ways, and none of them is the “best of type” argument from a few years ago. Here the Devil really is in the details, and I want to see them before I’m sold. When the same authors show up with different reasons, I can be a very hard sell.

    Keep in mind that a lot of things would be beneficial taught with sufficient rigor, and always be sure it’s the right things to be taught, and not just the rigor.


    30 Sep 11 at 5:48 am

  3. When the White Knight
    Retires from the field
    Must the Black Knight
    Await then her return
    Let trochee follow
    Upon iambe
    Til that time passeth.

    Triumph cheap, scorn’d
    The only fate more dire –
    Victory, unearned.
    The Black Knight, sacred
    Holds yet his honor.


    1 Oct 11 at 12:35 am

  4. “Never kick a man when he’s down. He may get up.”


    1 Oct 11 at 8:10 am

  5. AB? Done with your happy dance now?

    A brief return to reality: What Jane has done is describe the education beyond necessary technical training needed to maintain a self-governing society. I have disagreed with her on certain points of emphasis, and with her method of presentation. I have suggested matters still to be addressed.

    You have neither done any of those nor actually refuted her. To do THAT, you need either to establish that no education other than the technical is necessary, or to propose an alternate program for such education and make a case for its superiority for the purpose.

    Do one or the other, and make yourself useful.


    1 Oct 11 at 10:41 am

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