In Support of A Liberal Arts Education

We are misunderstanding the nature of education. We are misunderstanding how individuals relate to society. Can education be valued by what we earn? What price on literacy? What price on understanding our Mauritian society with all its complexities?

“Mark Zuckerberg has said that the most important insight that he had in order to found ‘Facebook’ was psychological, not technological. He realised that the internet at that point was still a world of anonymity and people wanted a place where they could be themselves, where they could reveal their true identities, and that was one of the core inspirations behind ‘Facebook’ – that people could actually be themselves and communicate with their friends like themselves. We still need to marry the scientific and technological skills with a basic understanding of human beings. And that understanding of human beings is something we can get from a novel, or a poem, or a work of history…”


I have taught the Humanities or what some people call a ‘liberal arts education’ for many years, and I recently learned with great sadness about the plan of the University of Mauritius to scrap the undergraduate degree in Humanities from the programmes of study.

It is absolutely true that parents want to know that their financial investment will help their sons and daughters secure a livelihood. Students themselves want to know that what they are doing fits into a larger plan. University leaders are busy solving the daily onslaught of myriad problems and trying to satisfy unquenchable demands for new resources; as a result, reflection on the ultimate purpose of education often takes a back seat.

In an age of increasing specialisation and ever greater emphasis on immediately practical goals, the number of students who choose a liberal arts education is declining over the years, and a need has arisen to articulate the diverse values of the liberal arts. To students and families who are sacrificing time and money and are eager for a practical return on their investment, its value is of course not immediately apparent. Students and families need help in understanding how the liberal arts contribute to personal development and career opportunity.

The term “liberal arts” has its origin in the medieval concept of the “artes liberalis”, the seven liberal arts that were appropriate for a ‘free’ man (the Latin “liber” means “free”) in contrast to the “artes illiberalis” or “artes mechanicae” which were pursued for economic purposes and involved vocational and practical arts, which prepared young people to become blacksmiths, farmers, hunters, navigators or soldiers.

The seven liberal arts included three basic arts focused on developing a skill with language: grammar, rhetoric (or oratory), and dialectics (or logic). These were known as the ‘trivium’. Added to these were the four advanced mathematical-physical arts: geometry, arithmetic, music, and astronomy, which were known as the ‘quadrivium’. In the Middle Ages, when people studied the liberal arts, it meant studying those things which were seen as the acquisition not simply of a specific skill but a broad array of knowledge – a kind of wisdom that would take them through not just the first job, but the second job and the third job.

We are all living in a world where globalisation and technology are transforming our lives so much that it is quite possible that in five years’ time those who will be joining the labour market after their university studies will be working in a company that has not yet been founded, and in ten years’ time may work in an industry which does not exist today. So what exactly is the kind of training that young people need?

It is that broad set of skills, wisdom, knowledge that is imparted through a liberal education. The fact that we live in an age of extraordinary technology does not mean that we do not need these broader skills because the fundamental insight we still need to succeed in this world is not just about technology. It is about how human beings use technology.

Mark Zuckerberg – the man behind Facebook — has said that the most important insight that he had in order to found ‘Facebook’ was psychological, not technological. He realised that the internet at that point was still a world of anonymity and people wanted a place where they could be themselves, where they could reveal their true identities, and that was one of the core inspirations behind ‘Facebook’ – that people could actually be themselves and communicate with their friends like themselves. Besides, Mark Zuckerberg planned to be a psychology major at Harvard University before he dropped out.

We still need to marry the scientific and technological skills with a basic understanding of human beings. And that understanding of human beings is something we can get from a novel, or a poem, or a work of history. Writing a clear essay, for example, is still the most powerful way to think and analyse. So while liberal arts majors start off with lower salaries, at the end of their lives they more than catch up.

As a society, we need the ability to understand each other. We are living at a time when globalisation, technology and capitalism are powerful factors which are all driving us apart. These factors are segregating us in terms of education, social class, and in terms of those people who are able to surf the world of globalisation and technology and those who are not. All these forces are pulling us apart. And perhaps it is the extraordinary force of liberal arts education that can try to bring us together by at least a common conversation.

We can talk about things that we agree with, and things we don’t agree with so that we can together find a way to come together at least in our understanding that we do actually have a common destiny. That is the greatest gift that a liberal education could give us as a lesson in our personal lives but also in our public lives as citizens. When the Greeks invented democracy, they decided they needed to train people not just to hunt and farm and fish, but they needed also to train people to be citizens. And I think this is even more important today as we find ourselves in a world where we in many ways we do not feel we are citizens of the same common space.

By the way, the word ‘liberal’ in ‘liberal arts’ does not in any sense refer to the political sense of ‘liberal’ as in ‘neo liberal economy’. It refers to ‘liberal’ in its original Latin sense, ‘pertaining to liberty’  The entire purpose of a ‘liberal arts education’ was to prepare young people to exercise those skills of citizenship and wisdom that would allow them to live as free men and women.

At the heart of a ‘liberal arts education’ is the liberty of thought and speech which seems to be under considerable strain in the wake of recent events happening in Mauritius as illustrated by the refusal of the government to take sides on the issue of child marriage or on the anti-LGBT demonstrations. The whole purpose of liberal arts is to hear people out and to be able to listen even to opposing views. Freedom of thought and speech is not freedom for people we like, as is so patently obvious from the fierce partisanship of our political world, for ideas that we are comfortable with, but for ideas that we find objectionable – or even ‘offensive’.

Perhaps the greatest proponent of freedom of speech is John Stuart Mill, the great philosopher of the 19th century, who in some ways articulated the idea behind the spirit of democracy best. He said: “However unwillingly a man of strong opinion may admit the possibility that his opinion may be false, he ought to be moved by the consideration that, however true it may be, if it is not fully, frequently, and fearlessly discussed, it will be held as a dead dogma, not living truth.”

We all believe in things passionately, but as ‘dead dogmas’, not as ‘living truths’ because we do not argue about them enough. We do not confront people who argue against us. We turn our backs to them. We must instead turn our faces and minds, debate with them, argue with them, explain to them why we think we are right and why we (or they) can be wrong. We will thus discover that no matter who we are talking to, there is always something we learn from the exchange. There is always some way in which, in this contestation of ideas, a greater truth will emerge.

Viewed from this perspective, we realise to what extent the political sphere in Mauritius and elsewhere is infected with a kind of anti-intellectualism which goes against the ethos of any liberal arts education – anti-intellectualism coming either from the ‘right’ with its ‘post-truth’ and ‘alternative facts’ and its denial of facts, science and reasoning (e.g. Trump’s repudiation of climate change) or from the ‘left’ with its arrogance, self-righteousness and posture of moral superiority.

Major changes happening in the world are redefining the metrics of excellence for higher education. Some, including at the University of Mauritius, are advocating a business model approach to higher education. I beg to disagree on this point. If the only way we should judge whether a university education is worth is by what our university is earning or by a student’s earning power after his or her education, we are missing the point.

We are misunderstanding the nature of education. We are misunderstanding how individuals relate to society. Can education be valued by what we earn? What price on literacy? What price on understanding our Mauritian society with all its complexities? Even credit cards know that some things can’t be paid for.

 


* Published in print edition on 29 June 2018

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