What are the “Liberal Arts,” anyway? | By Chris Berger

The liberal arts are suffering from an identity crisis.  This crisis entails an inferiority complex, existential bafflement, even self-loathing.  Faculties of Arts in the Canadian and American universities talk much of the value of a liberal arts education through their social media, and beseech young people to “broaden their minds” and to learn to think “critically”; the workplace benefits seldom go unmentioned either.  That this type of messaging is being pushed hardly comes as a surprise: virtually none of us as students or graduates of the social sciences, humanities, and fine arts is unfamiliar with the jokes solicited when we declare our majors (“Do you want fries with that?”).  Nor is it a surprise that this messaging typically fails to impress.  The reasons for this ill standing of the so-called “liberal arts” in today’s halls of learning and why they are in such dire need of vindication are pertinent questions, but the real question is one the liberal arts ought to ask of themselves rather than of their skeptics: what are we ultimately after when we study the liberal arts?

The apologists for the liberal arts consistently miss the point, which is that answering for the post-graduation rewards is of merely secondary, contingent, and incidental importance.  But rather than lament crass careerism (which is now so often the liberal arts’ wont), I wish to submit a supplementary explanation, one that looks introspectively within the liberal arts themselves.  We are told much about what the liberal arts give us today, in our time and place, but we are not told what these arts actually are.  In other words, the notion of liberal arts, of what they are and what they “do,” has become confused; I would say the same of the notion of education.  It is possible that the liberal arts themselves may be to blame for their own conundrum.

The liberal arts are a branch of education, and just as neglected as the question of what the liberal arts are is the question: “what is education?”  These two questions are intimately linked and I will treat them both under the term of “liberal education.”  Liberal education has a long history.  Despite the modern connotations surrounding the term “liberal,” liberal education does not refer to an education in matters of the political Left, but to a liberal because liberating type of education.  What does liberal education liberate?  Education’s root in the Latin educare, which could be translated as “to lead” or “to lead out” or “to raise up,” may offer some helpful hints.  For those familiar with Plato’s famous dialogue Republic, the imagery evoked by educare reminds us of the scene of a newly freed prisoner ascending from the Cave’s darkness to the light above.  Indeed, the great minds throughout the history of Western thought have followed this lead in associating education with the leading out or the raising up of a person, and we still imply something similar when we speak of a cultivated person (think cultivating a plant in order to help it grow upward).

To draw from Republic a little further, one might recall that Socrates’ City in Speech is “Justice writ large,” and that Justice is a state of being of the human soul.  The formation of the just polity is an image of the formation of the just or well-constituted soul: it is an image of education, of liberal education that transcends the mere accumulation of facts.  If we follow Plato’s example for the sake of argument, we would say that the goal of the truly liberal education, hence the goal of the liberal arts in the universities, is to help students realize justice, or constitute and cultivate their souls in a fitting manner.  This cultivation, Socrates suggests, entails prioritizing the conflicting passions and longings of the soul, be they pleasurable, spirited, or theoretical.

This will sound like heady and high-minded talk, I know.  But as out-of-sorts as it may seem when matched against our modern democratic sensibilities, it is the root and core out of which has grown the tradition of liberal education, of which our idea of the university is an heir.  That the above description of liberal education does sound bizarre to us is very telling, and hints at a break or a shift somewhere along the line between the understanding I have briefly described (call it classical liberal education) and our understanding (what we commonly call our liberal arts).

Conspicuously absent from the contemporary understanding is the idea of the “soul.”  Once upon a time, the soul, or the animating principle of an otherwise inanimate and simply material body, was thought to encompass the passions and desires that prompted us to action, made us love, made us angry, and that made us care about how we lived our lives as human beings.  Where exactly this idea went and why it went there makes for a fascinating and eye-opening conversation; a number of works have been written in meditation upon this question, and there are a few that I would recommend highly (Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind would be a great place to start).  But for our purposes here, I will leave it at saying that the absence of the soul and its passions from our notion of education is precisely the reason for our inability to articulate what the essence of the liberal arts is.

George Grant, a twentieth-century Canadian theorist of political philosophy and religion, was prescient in noting that our places of higher education are fast becoming (or have already become) “multiversities.”  The university, as its name implies, invokes a sense of a whole or a unifying, central goal guiding the learning-in-common students share with one another.  This guiding unity that originally held the educational journey together reflected the soul’s longing for self-understanding, for attaining that which is most needful for completion and happiness.  That former unity has been largely supplanted by specialization, and our longing is frustrated as a result.

Laurence Cooper, in his book Eros in Plato, Rousseau and Nietzsche (intriguingly subtitled The Politics of Infinity), sums up this longing, or eros: “that what binds the whole together for us is desire, or lack, rather than knowledge.”  Remember the old Socratic saying “The only thing I know is that I know nothing”?  This now-clichéd phrase hits upon what every soul passionately seeks: completion.  A philosopher, a lover of wisdom, would say that this completion is approached by contemplating the big questions.  But prior to this is the nagging, sometimes frightening but always exhilarating feeling we all have that we lack something, and that we passionately desire to satiate that soulful hunger.  Longing presents itself in many forms, from curiosity to lust, but at the root is always the desire for infinity, for experience in things beautiful and lasting.

In times past, the myriad questions asked by serious minds were grounded and brought back together by the perennial and powerfully-felt need to understand one’s place within or as a part of the whole of things.  In short, education sought liberation by revealing the fundamental and permanent questions and alternatives that presented themselves to human beings as distinctively human beings: these are questions of the good, the just, the beautiful, happiness, love, friendship, and the good life, to name some of the most hard-hitting for me.  Liberal education liberates us so that we can grapple with these questions.

I hold out hope that the source of longing within the human soul for that which is above and beyond itself can be reinvigorated, and thereby jump-start, re-unify, and re-define what it means to study the liberal arts and what it means to be a liberally educated human being.  Only when the soul and its longings are reintroduced as the guiding themes of higher learning will the true worth of liberal education be remembered by those who attempt to pursue it.  How this can be done is better left to another conversation for another time, but far greater and more serious minds than mine have offered powerful insights into this great question, and it is with them that the journey can begin in earnest.  As the Delphic Oracle commands: “Know Thyself.”