A New Liberal Arts


(the liberal arts, circa 12th century)

The traditional liberal arts (logic, rhetoric, dialectic, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music) arose for two reasons: to preserve knowledge and to render young men fit for positions of influence. Knowledge had pretty much been wiped out in western Europe with the fall of Rome, and winning it back again was hard work. The resulting strategy was to train young men in the arts, and to establish scriptoria in monasteries where any surviving texts could reproduce themselves through monks’ hands. Information that survived from the ancient world was thus uploaded into a distributed network of texts likely to survive any calamity – and for the most part, it did. Learning the liberal arts also gave young men the credentials for joining the segment of society that did all the reading, thinking, and writing, which came to be a disproportionately powerful class of people: if they were not the ones in charge, they were the ones who presided over the networks of influence used by those in charge (and so, they were medieval equivalents of internet hubs).

Universities were built around scriptoria and the teaching of the liberal arts – along with the teaching of the “higher faculties” of Theology, Law, and Medicine (the business schools of their day). The liberal arts remained relatively stable, at least in general form, while new continents and moons were discovered; and their descendants still govern universities’ general education curricula. The goal of teaching “everything a well-educated person should know” is still with us, and in their attempts to meet that goal, universities still offer main dishes that draw upon medieval ingredients. A typical gen ed curriculum features Writing (Rhetoric), Critical Thinking (Logic and Dialectic), Math (Arithmetic and Geometry), Science (Astronomy), the Arts (Music), and some sort of “Culture” or “Diversity” class (as a sort of “oopsies” apology for medieval hegemony).

But here’s a shocker: the conditions giving rise to medieval universities no longer obtain. It’s certainly not clear that what the young men of A. D. 1320 needed to know is what people of the 21st century need to know. Indeed, it’s far from clear that we should believe there is a single set of things everyone needs to know. If we’ve learned our lessons from Darwin, we ought to expect that some wide variation in educational curricula would be a good idea: for we do not know what the future will expect us to know, and in the absence of any plan, a broadly varied onslaught is a good strategy.

Some colleges may be well-situated to continue to teach some version of the traditional liberal arts. They have small classes that dive deep into historical texts, and they track how students evolve from one insight into others. Other schools try to teach big populations, and can’t track individual development, and have a more applied orientation. Still other schools might specialize in one sort of training (like business or engineering), and not care so much about other stuff. “What everyone needs to know” should vary among all these schools, it would seem, given their different missions. And this is a good thing: as I said above, variation is what we need when the future, whatever it may be, is bound to come as a surprise.

So it would be a good idea for traditional liberal artsy-type curricula to remain in force in some places. But there is also room for some experiments at updating the medieval curriculum. With that in mind, I have my own variation to propose – a new set of liberal arts for students who want to be well-equipped for the world as we now find it.

  1. NETWORK SCIENCE: We spend most of our waking hours on the Internet, and most of what we do supplies ore to data-mining agencies whose operations are perfectly opaque to us. It might be a good idea to learn how we’re being used. Students should learn how the internet works – how algorithms can be deployed, how information is used, and ways information can be stacked, gamed, or skewed – basically, what we might call “the uses and abuses of information for life”.
  2. THE NEW NEWS: News isn’t what it used to be. It’s written in response to real-time measurements of user hits, and skewed to provoke our appetites. This has a huge effect on how events are reported – or whether they are. Again, knowing how we are being gamed might help to make us better consumers, and changes in our consumption will inevitably reshape the news.
  3. WAYS WE’RE STUPID: We all fall prey to my-side biases, the Dunning-Kruger effect, and other cognitive shortcomings. But we are smart enough to be able to learn what these shortcomings are, and we can develop our skills at self-diagnosis, so at least we can be on the lookout for the sorts of errors we’re liable to make as we go along.
  4. EPISTEMIC HUMILITY: It would also be good to learn the lessons of Socrates – that in every case, we might be wrong, and that it’s through honest, open, respectful, and critical discussion with others that we can learn how we’re wrong. But typically we are clueless about how to do this without resorting to bitter name-calling, as anyone who has explored a comment thread can attest. This might be a good skill to teach.
  5. NEED-TO-KNOW SCIENCE: It also would be nice to know – wouldn’t it? – what scientists are looking into these days, and what they think may be possible in the near future – alongside reasonable accounts of what evidence there is for their views, as well as how one figures out what sorts of tests or findings would refute their theories. This would give us valuable content knowledge, but also insight into how evidence works, and how any theory – no matter convenient it is, or how much we like it – can be laid low by empirical findings.  
  6. HOW NOT TO GET BOXED IN BY A PROBLEM (AKA, CREATIVITY): Very often the problems we face are result from how we conceive a situation. By reframing it, we can discover possibilities we hadn’t seen before (“thinking out of the box”, as the slogan goes). While there’s no sure-fire method for doing this, there are plenty of practical exercises that demand creativity and mental flexibility, and some effort spent in this direction can encourage the hope that, with some creativity, what seems like a no-win situation can actually be reconceived and become a new opportunity. Not always, of course. But sometimes, and that’s good.
  7. HOW TO DO POLICY: It’s easy to have opinions about what has to happen, but a lot harder to think through implications of policies aimed at making it happen. How do we craft policies in ways that take all factions’ concerns into account, but still manage to get something done? How do we minimize the harms of unforeseen consequences? These are hard challenges, no doubt, but ones we will always face, and some practice with them will make us better at them.

My suggestion is that these subjects (with more dignified names, of course) could become a new liberal arts, at least for some schools: a new basic toolkit for educated people. Students who spend time studying these matters could easily combine what they learn with the work they go on to do in their own particular degrees (Accounting, Philosophy, Zoology), confident that what they learned will integrate with further studies and also be relevant to their lives.

Again, this is not meant as a “one size fits all” solution. We need people with all sorts of training and preparation. But it is a “one size fits many” proposal, and maybe even “most”. These new liberal arts would be undeniably useful for a thick swath of people bound for influential positions in our society. In this regard, they serve one of the original purposes of the classical liberal arts tradition. Regarding that other purpose – to guard against a massive calamity that wipes out everything we know – well, these days, that would take a calamity of enormous proportions. We can try as we might to try to safeguard ourselves against such an event; and such a curriculum also might be helpful for that purpose as well.

About Huenemann

Curious about the ways humans use their minds and hearts to distract themselves from the meaninglessness of life.
This entry was posted in Historical episodes, Items of the academy / learning. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to A New Liberal Arts

  1. This is fantastic and very timely, thank you. We absolutely need to learn more about how we learn. Becoming mindful of the myriad ways we are hijacked and hijack ourselves into believing false narratives is the only way I see of mitigating our increasing polarisation.

    I think the biggies here are “ways we are stupid” and “epistemic humility” (which I see as being the same subject). The point of these should be to foster a spirit of healthy skepticism. You could read Descartes’ project as being about bridging the gap between the one true certainty (“cogito” etc.) and the chaos and uncertainty outside of subjective experience. He had to come up with trickery to do that. But why are we so afraid of uncertainty? How about we learn to embrace doubt as a positive value that pushes us forward to new scientific and moral discoveries? We should reject and be suspicious of certainty, and instead be content to have “beliefs”, accepting that (a) these must conform to the facts as they are known to us for the time being, and (b) we must be flexible enough to accommodate new data and even discard these beliefs if not borne out by the facts. Is this such a dreadful way to live? Never knowing anything, but being more or less secure in one’s beliefs until the time comes to adapt / change / discard them?


    • Huenemann says:

      Thanks! and great question about devaluing certainty. It seems to me that all along in education we need good models of how to tell someone they are wrong, and how to be told you are wrong, without any fuss. Teachers for the last generation have promoted self-esteem, which is a good thing, but it needs to be paired with the lesson that we can be wrong – totally, utterly wrong – without being any less of a person for it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Jaime Lugo says:

    Fantastic post! – it would be amazing if you could develop this idea further as this will become a reality.

    in the case you are no longer interested in the topic, i would appreciate to know the references that gave you the inspiration on theseideas.


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