It may be easy in our democratic society with its public access to general education to take for granted the presence and value of the liberal arts. It is assumed that every school boy and school girl will have at least some exposure to the liberal arts curriculum in addition to the basic skills that are required to manage a household and gain employment. And yet the liberal arts represent nothing less than a revolution in human consciousness in so far as they invite us to think outside of the immediate instrumental concerns of survival, safety, belonging and success. The liberal arts generally teach how to think critically and comparatively to compare and contrast, to look for similarities, differences, and relationships. Not only this, but they teach us how to think about the larger questions of life. They challenge us to explore the vital domains of human knowledge and life experience, including the religions, humanities, arts and sciences. Behind these liberal disciplines are an array of assumed methods, style, approaches and methologies, each one with its own devoted followers. But to become truly liberally educated and not a narrow academic specialist is to learn how to “read” and “speak” many of these semantic languages, including the languages of symbols, myths, metaphors, analogies, ideas, narratives, creations, performances, discoveries, theories and practices in order to make meaning of our experience and to cultivate a capacious way of life.
When the various liberal arts are segregated from each other and knowledge is compartmentalized, as is commonly the practice in our current educational system, we miss out on the challenge of doing comparative and integrative thinking. Higher human intelligence involves the ability to make connections between many kinds of phenomena, and between many domains of knowledge.
One of the values of “conversational salons” as an extension of the liberal arts is that they have the potential to bring together persons from highly diverse psychological temperaments, religious and secular affiliations, social, economic and political orientations, occupations and careers, educational and training experiences, worldview perspectives and life style approaches for the purpose of finding common ground in their shared humanity and shared quest for a more fully human life…while continuing to respect their differences.
Those societies where this kind of critical and creative dialogical experience becomes rare or non-existent will tend to retrench into opposing cabals and isolated camps with no ability to listen to, understand, respect, value, converse and cooperate with others. Such a society will increasingly consist of “ignorant armies that clash by night,” to borrow a phrase from Matthew Arnold, that great 19th Century champion of education and culture as a great hedge against totalitarianism, plutocracy, philistinism and anarchy.
Today we need not only a renaissance of the liberal arts in our public and private institutions of basic and higher education, but we also need to encourage the rise of tens of thousands of small, grassroots wisdom communities and conversational salons that celebrate the liberal arts and the art of dialogue as a way of life. Otherwise, our civilization will continue to be rich in technology and poor in making meaning out of the vast and increasing plethora of experience. Without the thoughtful and reflective, hospitable and conversational habits that the liberal arts instill, our lives will be filled with noise instead of meaning.
Note: In each of the pull down menus below a simple question is asked: What is this domain of knowledge and why does it matter? I would invite you to read the wikipedia articles at your leisure and then attempt to offer a brief cogent and constructive answer of your own.
- Classical Education & Freedom From Specialization (theamericanconservative.com)
- Hollistic Innovation: The value of a liberal arts college (davidnoahperelman.wordpress.com)
- Tolstoy endures – but here’s why the liberal arts might not (washingtonpost.com)