Liberal Arts Education | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Liberal Arts Education

 Current theories of liberal arts education entail opposing notions of selfhood and institutional relevance. To Robert E.
Simon Fraser University
Burnaby, BC. The academic quadrant, designed by Arthur Erickson (Corel Professional Photos).
Northrop Frye, writer
Frye's enormous influence derived from his insistence that literary criticism is a symbolically co-ordinated discipline that outlines the shape of the human imagination itself (photo by Andrew Danson).

Liberal Arts Education

The goals of liberal arts education are not those of vocational and professional training. They are often viewed as pre-professional since, while conceived of as fundamental to citizenship, they address the whole person in recognition that our moral and spiritual identities develop best through participation in a society that perpetually renews the rights and responsibilities of membership. Liberal arts education is evolving in the face of increasing understanding of global cultures which inevitably modify traditions of universal truths. This leads educational theorists such as Martha C. Nussbaum (1997) to argue that professors and students should be encouraged by institutions of learning to see themselves as citizens of the world rather than of nation states. The classical models of Athens and Rome have long been revered as the foundation of humanist learning, since men in those city states respected laws selflessly on account of their transcendent cosmology. Socrates's respect for the laws that took his life is the ultimate example of this ontology. But, since the imperial virtues of Athens and Rome were delimited by legal, ethnic and gender exclusions as well as by slavery, today's theories of a core curriculum for future citizens in democracies replace the certitudes of the classical past by validating dialectic which requires that professors and students in the humanities confront the necessity of epistemological uncertainty and probability.

Current theories of liberal arts education entail opposing notions of selfhood and institutional relevance. To Robert E. Proctor (1998), whereas citizens identified with the Roman Empire free from a personal sense of self, the rediscovery of humanism by Plutarch in Renaissance Italy overlaid classical texts, particularly those of Cicero, with an inward-looking selfhood. Still, Proctor thinks it proper to formulate a classics curriculum that precludes the Judaeo-Christian tradition, Enlightenment reason, and Freud's psychology which granted more power to the unconscious than the conscious mind. Opposed to acquisitive consumerism and cultural narcissism as much as Proctor, Mark Kingwell (2000), despite finding "the pluralistic conditions of late modernity" inescapable, unlike Proctor champions utopian dreaming to promote universal values in the face of plural subjectivities. Such pedagogical differences about communities of learning have featured in North American liberal arts education since the nineteenth century. One question remains basic: are residential colleges requisite to liberal arts education? While Ivy League universities first housed professors and students together because of theological factionalism, less than 1% of American students now reside in college. Challenged by technology and distance learning, the liberal arts are also rendered less available by the wealth and prestige that stratify private and public universities. Competition among elite universities for professors and students and for government, foundation and alumni funds has led to the adoption of corporate business models that, according to Benjamin Ginsberg (2011), increase the power of boards of trustees and reduce instructors' involvement in program and curricular planning. Also problematic is the professionalization of the faculty that heightens the prestige of research productivity rather than of teaching, a trend that widens the gap between teachers and students. In residential colleges students learn from others who pursue various disciplines, but the professionalized faculty in research universities is isolated in enclaves structured by administrative divisions that may lead lo unintegrated duplication of pedagogical matter across different departments. Commentators go so far as to treat duplication as a sign that university education promotes the ignorance inherent in fragmentation. Research institutes on campus foster interdisciplinary learning for faculty but less so for undergraduates.

The rising cost of undergraduate education, given large classes with hundreds of students who have access to part-time instructors but not to senior professors, is leading citizens to question the value of degrees that burden offspring with large debts without assuring access to professional employment. In 2012 student protests in Quebec garnered international notice because of doubts about the value of university services to students and about the democratic issues raised by increasing corporatism on campuses. The situation is not improved by community colleges which jettison job-training diplomas in the search for university status. This desire for prestige aggravates society's equation of degrees with tickets to employment. The history of the liberal arts reveals that traditional disciplines, far from being averse to the professions, are pre-professional in a deep sense: general education grounds students in explorations of what they want for their lives.

That the liberal arts evolved from discourses of discovery goes back to symposia in Greece between 450 and 300 BCE and to medieval universities in Europe. The Greek mind, witness Plato and Aristotle, questioned the whole of life, finding all existence worth analysing. Despite differences, Plato and Aristotle opposed mindless materialism and scepticism because they held that real knowledge of the universe is attainable and that cognition is a spiritual process and the noblest activity. Plato's tenet of the soul's immortality appealed to Christian ascetics and apologists so that up to the Renaissance, European scholarship respected ecclesiastical and monastic ideals, and universities were constituted less by a curriculum of studies than as self-governing bodies of masters and students. By the end of the twelfth century, the term 'university' implied that faculties of theology, law and medicine operated with master teachers. The first universities were Salerno (specializing in medicine and overtaken by Montpellier), Bologna (specializing in law, requiring prior education in arts and controlled by adult, alien students) and Paris (where the arts school was a prerequisite to theology, law and medicine). At Paris, and Oxford later, students often left upon finishing a six-year-long arts degree (grammar, logic and rhetoric). Evolving from a cathedral school, the University of Paris turned against monastic preservation of knowledge. Cathedral schools, located in cities and linked to vital elements of daily life, privileged mental originality: students caring less to be monks wanted to enter royal service or the ecclesiastical hierarchy. In the first quarter of the thirteenth century, Aristotelianism was taught at Paris, Thomas Aquinas renewing the unity of theology and philosophy and reformulating Christian notions of a personal, incarnate creator. Through the sixteenth century, universities hardly changed curricula, the basis of recruitment remaining church, law and medicine. Yet, since a minority wanted to study abroad and since visiting scholars were licensed to teach while being directly paid by students, new methods of learning entered the curriculum. In the Reformation, study abroad habituated students to foreign peers and mentors.

Liberal Arts Education in Canada

Liberal arts education in Canada followed no single model. In the nineteenth century, British theological and philosophical movements founded universities: Anglicanism, Catholicism, Methodism, Presbyterianism and Scottish Common-Sense Theory informed clerical training and lay education. This sectarianism subsided after Confederation. The early twentieth century saw universities based on service models of the American state university and on its German-inspired commitment to expert research. Despite traces of tension between religious and secular principles, the post-secondary system in the 1960s and 1970s, in accenting applied science and commercial patents, began to devalue the humanities that did not borrow paradigms from the social sciences, one consequence being that liberal arts education is now mostly found in small, private colleges in the USA. In Canada, where colleges have sought university charters, most research campuses, far from upholding colleges and collegiality, are most accurately defined as "multiversities."

Positivistic definitions of liberal arts education do not suit functions that have historically involved contraries. It is valued for training leaders and providing standards of general civility; a foundation for the professions, it challenges routine management of daily affairs; opposing otherworldliness, it induces society to confront ultimate questions, replacing sectarian ideologies with global perspectives; it informs national identity but demands cross-cultural respect. Liberal arts education appreciates the dialectic of means and ends, of institutional systems and personal insight. Without seeing why Socrates resists Plato's systematizing and Christ does not defend systematic theology and without sensing how humanists like Erasmus and Swift rejoiced in irony and doubt, it is hard to see why so many commentators today feel there is a crisis in university education.

Liberal arts education is often upheld for intrinsic worth based on Classical and Renaissance humanism. But this standpoint is moot. If this education operates over against vocational and professional training, it sees itself as serving applied science. Before further probing its theory, let's digest what individuals exposed to the liberal arts are said to know: the rules of artistic expression in a range of media; the conventions governing effective speech, writing and thinking; the history of institutional, literary and metaphysical discourse; the principles explaining the moral and spiritual development of individuals and society; the political structure of countries, nations and empires; and the reasons why learning necessitates the continuous rediscovery and rewriting of the past. This knowledge is delivered by departments of fine arts, humanities and social sciences. The alleged crisis in advanced education raises the following questions: do universities administer their disciplines harmoniously or encourage fragmentation; do not the disciplines flourish professionalism and specialization to the detriment of synthetic learning?

According to provocative surveys offered by Harry R. Lewis (2007) and Andrew Delbanco (2012), such questions have not been tackled by the presidents of elite American universities from their conflicted beginnings. Certainly, unresolved tensions in institutional thinking strain the nineteenth-century British apologies for the liberal arts by John Henry Newman and Matthew Arnold. In The Idea of a University (1852-58), patristic knowledge makes Newman oppose utilitarianism: the desire to know God and to transcend the self constitutes human uniqueness. From this standpoint, liberal knowledge is necessary and sufficient; it needs no other teleology to justify spiritual contemplation. Although conversant with the medieval university's involvement in church and state, Newman's view of the institution as the site of universal knowledge evades secular and ecclesiastical models. A community of scholars, his university is free yet accountable: a realm for discovery and research, it institutionalizes Socratic idealism so that professors and students quest in common. In surroundings where students teach themselves as peers, the intellect learns to see itself as its best object and the acme of culture. Such liberalism anticipates little of today's corporatism and professionalism. Emphasizing universal knowledge that is less moral than spiritual and stressing propagation rather than advancement of knowledge, Newman promotes impractical dualities. He ignores the theories of applied research developed in German universities after 1800 and marginalizes the history which shows medieval universities giving priority to medicine, law and theology and treating the arts and sciences as pre-professional foundations.

Arnold admired Newman's ideas of liberal education. A long-time inspector of schools, Arnold called for a state system of secondary education based on philosophical opposition to the philistinism he linked to industrialization and religious dissent. In Culture and Anarchy (1868), he connects literary criticism and sociology, drawing on William Blake's visionary challenges to common sense and on Edmund Burke's political gradualism. Arnold's theory of knowledge upholds organically lived life by elevating conduct, uncertainty and probability over scientific positivism and doctrinal fundamentalism. His Literature and Dogma (1873) is germane to the liberal arts since it replaces the hermeneutics of medieval theology by the authority of the Bible's poetry. However, this stance makes one wonder how much his educational theory was shaped by the dogma it opposes.

Allusions to Joseph Butler's The Analogy of Religion (a text vital to university teaching of ethics for a century after 1740) in Literature and Dogma confirm an idealistic view of natural theology. To Arnold, the "not ourselves" in nature elicits sublime consciousness. The language of the Old Testament is "thrown out at" this vast object of consciousness, serving life's great concern-conduct. Biblical language is poetic, not scientific, because its authors were tentative rather than metaphysical: they did not claim to grasp the objects of religious awareness. Voiced by Sophocles or Isaiah, revealed religion is the expression of the grand necessity of righteousness. Revealed religion is less a matter of miraculous vision than of grasping how humans use words. Knowing letters-the best that has been thought and said in the world-involves appreciating lived moral imperatives and the divine nature. One knows God not by logical deduction but by a rule of conduct-not of human making-into which humans are born: divine rules are a medium humans cannot evade. One way to accept Christ is to appreciate the fallibility of the gospel reporters: the more they are seen to be self-deluded, the more transparent Christ becomes. Arnold urges readers to see misapprehension in their testimony as an index of Christ's superiority. To extract Christ from fallible narrators is criticism's high task. Similarly, one must see orthodox divinity as a literary mistake. The nullity of systematic theology appears in patristic misunderstandings of righteousness. Arnold rejects Newman's claim that Catholic dogma is true because it has reformed the grossest absurdities: Christ's church is an anti-ecclesiastical institution that opposes traditional religious aestheticism and reformed sectarianism while consecrating absolute individualism.

Arnold's textual and critical issues are problematic since they erode his case. On what basis does he balance individual and institutional values? How exactly does he express the educational system and prescribe righteous conduct? He does not explain how biblical poetry resists its creators nor how readers may attain the sublime while discrediting literary mediation. (Such tasks had to wait for postmodernism.)

Liberal Arts Theory

George Grant and Northrop Frye advanced liberal arts theory by reacting to Arnold. Grant's essay, "The University Curriculum" in Technology and Empire (1969), holds that, since positivism so dominates life that institutions cannot test themselves with idealism, Arnold's liberalism is irrelevant because it has been co-opted by capitalism, universities merely turning out those who run society and ignoring the dialectic essential to learning: power displaces wonder in the realm of science, and universities claim utility through the dogma of private and public corporations. To Grant, liberalism is the propaganda of technology upheld by multiversities. Agreeing with Arnold that education in the ancient world sought via free insight the essence of collective life, Grant accepts, too, that this leisured education confronted tensions between human and non-human perspectives. But he insists that necessary debate about teleology has been subjected to statistical and empirical method. Bitterly he claims humanities teachers vitiate their studies by professionalism and by scepticism imported from Europe. Scorning historicism since it will not defy complacencies about progress, he blasts non-evaluative analysis in the humanities which he links to Frye.

For Grant, humanities professors evade social relevance by preaching the sufficiency of liberalism and promoting antiquarianism. They have lost authority to address both immediate and ultimate meanings by adopting unassailable, opaque expertise. Claiming that liberalism falsely legitimates technology by subjecting ideas of human excellence to the dogma of the powerful in society, Grant sees the humanities subsiding beneath the performing arts. The humanities submit to a curriculum that guarantees there can be no serious criticism of the university or of the society it ought to serve.

By contrast, Frye's attitudes to Arnold and liberal arts education as expressed in essays on Canadian culture in Divisions on a Ground (1982) are optimistic. Frye defends idealist assumptions: cultural visions will liberate society through universities, the purpose of which is to create a counter- environment. True scholars are detached but not withdrawn from life so that they may effect a classless society as the final goal of culture. Frye concedes that advanced knowledge becomes unintelligible to more and more people who find it mysteriously elitist. What liberal arts education can militantly do is liberate students to the power of voice so they may combat the confused ignorance of modern life. Like Arnold, Frye stresses the reciprocity of word and idea when insisting that students be taught the instrumentality of language. The university's mission, he argues, is to foster the conditions under which literature may be widely appreciated. In this he upholds a phenomenon that cannot be viewed as progress but needs leisure (the semantic root of scholarship). Despite his social aim, Frye defends liberal education in Blakean terms: leisure is less conduct than self-conscious freedom to weigh conduct against personal goals. Freedom is less the privilege of not having to work than the choice to work in the light of a reasonable conception of self and society. Disdaining the middle-class ideology of Newman and Arnold, he will not limit education to preparation for work. Education encounters real life; it does not adjust students to social illusions and mundane banality. Frye nears Grant's criticism in alleging that faculty have, as professionals, adopted leisure-class norms. He despises the illusion of autonomy that leads faculty to think upper- level teaching preferable to service instruction: research-minded professors think teaching a burden, betraying the dialectic of participation and detachment vital to a society that will criticize itself continuously if it is to free itself from illusion.

Judging from the work of Grant and Frye, the liberal arts crisis has been with us for at least four decades. If the function of universities is increasingly challenged by multiculturalism and by public-policy changes brought on by debt and deficits, cultural criticism that probes how elites harm public discourse and the common good is more relevant since the publication of Christopher Lasch's The Revolt of the Elites and the Betrayal of Democracy (1995) which claims that the governing classes are no longer tied by philanthropy to community and posterity. Its larger claim is that elites hide behind euphemisms that flatter minorities while devaluing intellectual argument and moral imagination. The context in which elites exploit political slogans makes right- and left-wing stances redundant. Lasch holds that arguments from the left and the right embody scepticism and nihilism. Educational theorists who ignore pragmatism as an object of historical and philosophical study manifest a curious religiosity: to them, diversity is a slogan that hides minorities behind beliefs closed to rational criticism.

Spurning the social construction of reality, like Samuel Johnson, Lasch warns intellectuals how remote they are from material life. Their claim to create alternative worlds is flight from the unenlightened; battles over canons abandon the democratization of society through literary culture. Careerism underlies intellectual posturing with linguistic indeterminacy and problematic selfhood in literary theory. Vanity leads academics to think tenure unrelated to writing for the public good. Lasch similarly attacks the academy's condescension to minorities; students are denied experience beyond their horizons in the name of pluralism, educational double standards robbing them of wider culture. Such teaching of ignorance Lasch traces to the lack of faith in the substantial reciprocity of the inner and outer worlds. The left and right engage in shouting matches that assume academic radicalism to be subversive, but academic radicals do not defy corporate control of universities. Rather, corporate control harms universities by diverting resources from the humanities to military and technological research, by reducing the social sciences to quantification, by displacing plain language with bureaucratese, and by forming administrations that lower educational vision to the bottom line. Ultimately, Lasch challenges the university's absorption into the corporate order and berates the knowledge-class for failing to subvert vested interests.

The stance in John Ralston Saul's The Unconscious Civilization (1995) strongly resembles Lasch's. Saul attacks managerial classes for subverting university education and boosting anti- intellectualism. Their ideology discountenances individuals who doubt and think; passive consumers are preferred. Saul faults universities for degrading citizenship: there is no scope for Socratic doubt in a system dominated by notions of intellectual property. Corporatism that stresses marketing of knowledge and ties educational reform to employment blinds the university to illusions of practicality and restricts it to managerial redundancy. Thus chronically weakened, the university reduces the humanist tradition to the narrowest medieval scholasticism. Far from spurring elites to transcend self-interest, universities succumb to corporatism and worsen the crisis in communication. Instead of placing cultural memory on a humanist foundation, universities follow market trends.

Saul suggests that the public may rightly fault universities for ignoring general education and competing with technical institutes. But are universities victims of the ideology of business competition? Is liberal education an illusion? Peter Emberley's Zero Tolerance: Hot Button Politics in Canada's Universities (1996) takes on these important questions with a querulous tone. Surprised by intolerance of universities' leisured authority, he laments that the search for the "elusive riches" of truth is not widely esteemed. Like Frye, he holds that the university serves society by offering it a higher ideal and endowing it with decency and grace. But his metaphors are precious and mixed: university is a "safe haven" in which freedom, God and death are explored; an "oasis" of serenity and mystery; a "ship" on a boundless ocean; an "odyssey" of the soul; and a "gothic mansion" filled with "secret rooms and hidden staircases."

In presenting the university as an exclusive source of moral and aesthetic value, he secularizes religious terms; in equating the university with liberal arts education, he is not mindful that it is a professional and political institution; he does not integrate his claim that uncertainty and hesitancy mark scholarly culture to his assumption that true education is a connoisseurship that attains meaning only in that culture. In asserting that education is distorted if students see themselves purchasers of their instructors' services, he ignores history. His utopianism about the university expands when he says that it alone sows salutary doubt in a culture blindly set on a single path of human progress and that tenure represents society's acceptance that leisure delimits scholarship. His allegations that the crisis in universities derives from administrators and faculty who grew up in the sixties are provocative and have been deployed by more recent commentators such as Lewis and Ginsberg. But Emberley's scorn for postmodernism along with his reluctance to rethink relations between the needs of students and society weaken his advice that universities above all need a robust public relations campaign.

Emberley's apology for the liberal arts shows that educational theory is more than ever challenged since disputes between corporate right and cultural left erode the idea of the university, with the right insisting on vocational training and the left disparaging tradition as Eurocentric and capitalist. Regrettably, undergraduate programs increasingly follow corporate models. As Grant foretold, even drama, music and art programs place skills over liberal education. So do programs of criminology and economics in social science and literary theory in the humanities. Administrations de-emphasize core curriculum while not caring to keep teaching and research in creative tension. Neither is equally rewarded nor equally the basis of hiring. Expertise outweighs service to community, as prestige overmatches collegiality. Teacher-student ratios are sacrificed to budgetary cuts while specialist courses proliferate and rotate less frequently, making it harder to complete degrees in four years. As government funds shrink, fund-raising campaigns grow more important, but these further weaken the curriculum since corporate gifts encourage learning that may be marketed. Service to the public and to average students who most need a core curriculum is minimized by the propaganda of excellence that dominates fund-raising. Revealingly, movie and sports analogies figure in the rhetoric heralding faculty recruitment. One might expect public relations officers to invent a more apt paradigm of the professor than 'star.' The following questions closing this article raise pedagogical and ethical issues that seem to require public debate: should universities use public resources to create private companies that market goods to taxpayers who fund their inventions; do intellectual property offices that patent applied science serve campus well- being; do universities constantly revise official commitment to liberal arts education given the changing face of Canada's citizenry; are they renewing administrative structures so that pedagogical flexibility will draw intellectual energy from the contraries inherent in cultural pluralism?

Further Reading