"The point of liberal arts is not the teaching of a content. But rather, the teaching of Abelard’s basic instinct to question, to maximize the capacity of human intelligence, and push what we know and what do forward in order to make a new world." according to Valerie Strauss, Reporter — Washington, D.C and runs The Answer Sheet blog.
|Photo: Cecilia Gaposchkin|
Students across the country are leaving home to begin college careers. Those beginning at liberal arts colleges will almost inevitably misunderstand, or not understand, the function of a liberal arts education. And those of us who work in higher education and understand innately the multi-leveled value of a liberal arts education must do a much better job of explaining it.
Last spring I taught a course on Medieval France that included a unit on the emergence of the university. I spent a discussion period with my students reading through the prologue of Peter Abelard’s (d. 1142) Sic et Non. For me, this is the document that gave birth to the purpose and importance of university education.
It defines what is, and how to teach, the critical inquiry within a scholarly context that led to the foundation of the University of Paris and ultimately the system of higher education based on liberal arts learning to which we are, mutatis mutandis, the inheritors. It was a great class. It was a great class in large part because it ended with the students having their “aha moment” about what exactly they were doing in college. It was what we call a “live question” – a historical issue that had direct relevance to their contemporary experience, giving meaning – giving understanding – to their college experience. But this was itself alarming since they are attending one of the country’s premier liberal arts institutions.
A productive answer can start with just where the liberal arts came from in the first place. The “Liberal Arts” (artes liberales) go back to the ancient world, well before the rise of the university around 1200. They were the skills (artes) taught to free men (liberales) – that is, non-labourers or slaves. They were what trained free men to be able to think independently, and thus be competent to participate in governance and society. In time, there were seven of them: grammar, logic, rhetoric, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. The trivium (the first three) had to be mastered before undertaking the quadrivium (the next four), since a basic understanding of the laws of language and logic were necessary to take on knowledge (artes again) on which they were based. Their teaching was based on canonical texts. Cicero for rhetoric; Boethius for music, and so forth. With the collapse of the Roman Empire and its institutional structures, learning in the West moved into the monasteries. But it remained rooted in the teaching of the seven liberal arts. After the elementary skills of reading and writing, basic education was rooted in mastery of the canonical texts that defined the seven areas that made up the trivium and the quadrivium.
Source: Washington Post (blog)