Scholarship or Expertise? Wisdom or Knowledge? Why we Need the Liberal Arts Concept

An inaugural speech presented in receipt of the Distinguished Professor Degree from the New Bulgarian University

“A Liberal-Arts Education challenges your values, shakes your assumptions and changes your life.”[1]


The King, in Alice in Wonderland, gives the White Rabbit some excellent advice: “ “’Begin at the beginning,' the King said gravely, and go on till you come to the end: then stop.’”” I shall follow his advice. The start is at the Academy, where Plato transformed his learning from Socrates into a concept of what a person should learn in order to be a whole person.The first reference to this comes from Cicero, and what is described was essentially the model of education in the West until challenged by the rise of the modern perception of science[2]and of materialism. Essentially, the model stood the test of time remarkably, and Einstein, Fermi and Bohr were all products of that same Liberal Arts system.

What Plato had in mind was best summarized by Mortimer Adler when he wrote: “It produces citizens who can exercise their political liberty responsibly, and cultivated people who can use their leisure fruitfully.” Such a person would represent the essence of freedom and would combat the enemies of humanity; ignorance and prejudice. The product of this system would be able to think and reason clearly and critically. Much later, this need for the complete education was encapsulated by Francis Bacon[3] in the following terms: “There is no great concurrence between wisdom and learning.

In essence, the Liberal Arts tradition was comprised of two elements: the Trivium, which consisted of Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic; and the Quadrivium that contained Arithmetic, Geometry, Music (more as Mathematics) and, Astronomy/Cosmology. The aim was a universal one of developing human qualities that were important no matter what you did in life, while at the same time making you an instrument for the protection of Liberty. The division into the Trivium and the Quadrivium was seen as a separation of the essence of logic and the ability to convey that knowledge, and how to reason embedded in the Trivium, from the arts of measurement, observation, and quantitative abilities necessary to lend precision.  The approach is a broadly philosophical one putting all things together critically through careful reasoning, measurement, and argument. The necessity of melding the two parts was put very well by John of Salisbury in the twelfth century: “Just as eloquence, unenlightened by reason is rash and blind, so wisdom without the power of expression is feeble and maimed.“[4] It is no accident that one of the highest degrees awarded at a university is the Doctor of Philosophy, though I wonder how many people receiving it know why.[5]

So, this was the road to Wisdom and Scholarship for well over fifteen-hundred years; and to be fair is still the foundation of many excellent institutions of higher learning, including, I am happy to say, the New Bulgarian University. But, if we look at the Oxford English Dictionary, under he word Liberal, we find this disturbing entry: “Originally the distinctive epithet of the arts and sciences that were considered worthy of free men.” Why “Originally”—what happened?

The Liberal Arts tradition fell victim, to a range of pressures and forces,which are outlined below:

  • The sheer amount of information. There was a time when learned men of means could maintain a library of just about everything in the realm of published wisdom. A scholar attempted to know it all, and see the way that it came together into a broad picture with meaning. With the Age of Exploration, the Enlightenment, the Reformation, and the rise of Science and Rationalism, it became virtually impossible for any one person to keep abreast of the deluge of new information, ideas, and paradigms. So, knowledge became compartmentalized in order that it might be handled effectively. Descartes took away any central meaning to knowledge, and looked for new ways of arranging it. Practicality began to compete with, and, in a sort of intellectual Gresham’s Law, drive out Purpose in learning. The original Greek root of University implied somewhere to find one’s place in the broadest possible sense. This was to be seriously challenged by the division of knowledge into boxes or “disciplines.” The relationship among these disciplines naturally began to fade as specialization within them grew in order to process the explosive growth of new ideas and discoveries.
  • The rise of the Research University: This arose mainly out of the Prussian tradition after 1860, and is often associated with the name of Alexander von Humboldt. It was based on the idea that scholarship should be “productive,” challenging the “knowledge for knowledge’s sake” tradition. This narrow view of “usefulness” was also reflected in the Morrill Act of 1862, in the US, that set up the Land Grant Colleges in the United States, which the Act described as follows: least one college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts...” (my emphasis).  In the United States, where the research university was to flourish, this “usefulness” was married to a strong tradition of anti-intellectualism that was seen to compromise the American obsession with “Getting the Job Done.”[6] These two elements together, in an increasingly technocratic society, were a fundamental challenge to the Liberal-Arts tradition, which provided the glue that held the university together. As a consequence, expertise began to ease outscholarship, and even punish it in the interests of a “modern” society built on science. Darwin unwittingly encouraged that process by taking the “meaning” out of human life when he demonstrated it was all due to random selection going back to the apes.
  • The rise of the market for education: As more and more people were drawn into higher education it ceased to have the elite role it formerly held. At the same time, higher education became a requirement for more and more fields of employment as a “certification mania” took over. State legislators who regulated large public universities pressed the “utility” argument because they felt that the university should “serve the state,” though this was construed in a narrow economic and professional sense of measurable improvements to the economy and well-being of the people, rather than their broader education. “Problem-solving” became a familiar term and life itself ended up as a problem as means displaced ends. The student moved into the category of “customer” and, even worse, “commodity” which is where we stand now.


The Current State of Liberal Arts in the USA

If we start by looking at some figures, it may show the picture more clearly than several paragraphs of explanation:


In 1900, 70% of students in America were enrolled in LA institutions

In 2000    5% are enrolled in LA institutions

In 2002, 85% of students said their goal in being at university is to “secure enough training to get a job(or a better job).” Nothing more.

In 2002, 14% of students surveyed had no idea what an LA education is.


Initially the problem might have been the explosion of science, and somewhere,along the line, the separation of higher education into Arts and Sciences,which is totally contrary to the use of the term “Arts” in Liberal Arts.[7]Science was always in there, clearly and explicitly. We took it out.Now, there is a tendency erroneously to mix the terms “Arts” and “Humanities.”But, the Humanities are only a part of the Liberal Arts concept. The implication is that modern scientists need no exposure to this broader concept of the whole man, and it shows.[8]

Accompanying the rise of modern science came the idea, beginning in the 1920sin the USA, that the Liberal Arts were effete and the hang-out of the rich middle class, in contrast to the “can-do” sciences—it was, in short, elitist.Furthermore, its constant reference to the canon of Western and Classical literature came to be seen as backward-looking, and anachronistic. Yet many of the Founding Fathers of the United States were deeply rooted in Classical thought, people like Jefferson, Franklin and Washington. Yet, they were the ultimate “can-do” people too, being respectively a farmer, a printer, and a surveyor.[9]Look at the architecture of Washington DC; look at the place-names in New York(Ithaca, Syracuse, Troy…). And these people with their “backward-looking”Liberal-Arts approach created one of the most successful “can-do” countries in the world, because they understood what conditions liberate the energies of the free man.

Consolidating the attack on the Liberal-Arts tradition came the rise of the professional schools and the application of modern “management” approaches to running a university. Now, the Greek ideal of finding one’s place in a community of thinkers, gave way rapidly to the provision of “marketable skills” to the economy. Slowly, but irrevocably, universities began the slide into“processing” students for a changing market, moving, in the process, from education to trainingas the driving paradigm. Liberal Arts is in open competition with the market, in the narrowest sense of the word. What is the glue holding the university together now? Maybe naked ambition. The Ph.D has become another form of “certification” in the factory of higher education.

The Liberal Arts tradition also suffered badly in the 1960s, when the whole reason for teaching “Western Culture,” was questioned. It is true that the demographics of the US are increasingly non-Western[10]and so what need have the new Chinese-Americans, or other hyphenated-Americans,of this model of the world? However, most of the objections were coming not from new immigrants, but from the disaffected middle class white students, and a smaller number of Black students. They pressed for, and got, the inclusion of a whole new swathe of “disciplines” such as Black Studies, Women’s Studies,Gender Studies, all of which ended up in the “Humanities” area, making more mainstream students wary of it. At one point there was the concept that the University was a collection of scholars, and one went there to learn from their wisdom. In the 1960s, all that changed, and the students started setting the agenda,which universities accepted in the interest of a quiet life. Well, maybe more than a quiet life because, with 80% or so of a university’s income, these days, coming from student fees, maybe any other attitude is suicidal.?[11]

Those emotional, and at least, much more interesting days of the 1960s, have given way now to the meteoric rise of the “professional” school, which is all-too-often determinedly anti-intellectual, and contemptuous of the Arts and Humanities. “What sort of job are you going to get with a degree in English Literature?” summarizes the attitude there. But, what sort of Public Administrator or Businessperson are you going to be if you do not have a clue where any country is[12];that there are other cultures, or that business should be about something more than buying and selling, otherwise why is it in a university? After all, if you look at a global map of suicide rates, you will find that the “rich” countries are where everyone is jumping out of tall buildings. The main medical problem in the USA is stress. Is the answer to sell these people more? No,unless it’s Prozac.[13] Obesity is an epidemic according to the Centres for Disease Control taking the cult of consumption into the suicidal domain, and “shopping” is classified officially as a disease by the CDC[14]. That’s what happens when you have no-one looking at the big picture. Are all those “can-do” subjects really so useful? If so, why are we in such a mess when so many more of us are “educated,” or certified at least, and yet increasingly ignorant about history, geography, philosophy etc.?

As universities become more and more “knowledge factories”[15]the problem deepens. Increasingly, universities are “measured” on “results.”Results? The results will always be some measurable quantity, such as the number of faculty research papers in the dizzying profusion of journals to“meet the quota.” The atmosphere has become intensely competitive based on these “output figures;” tenure is disappearing, and the environment in schools becomes increasingly repressive. This is unlikely to foster the “whole man,” or half a man; I would suggest open-ended inquiry is unlikely in a Darwinian struggle for “results.” Quantity, rather than quality is the main concern,whether it be publications, or how many students you can “process” through the system at ever sky-rocketing fees. Education is becoming a short-term investment in the economy, one scholar said, and that is certainly how it feels to those of us who believe a university is more than a diploma mill.

The community of scholars is what makes it all come together, and the Liberal Arts tradition made them feel that they all shared something in common.Chemistry is as much part of the Liberal Arts as anything else, for instance.Who would have thought that we would see the day when seven or so British universities decide to eliminate their Chemistry departments for lack of interest? Well, that has happened. Here we are on the edge of understanding the meaning of life through DNA and a whole new concept of regenerative medicine and biochemistry opening up. Here we are pushing the envelope of how our universe works, and we are closing Physics and Chemistry departments. How could anyone not be interested? It defies reason, but the facts are that universities are willing to do without something so fundamental to our understanding of ourselves in every aspect. If the students are not interested,then the mistake lies there, not with “redundant” subjects of a fundamental nature. Are we intending to do without these people? Wemust make them interested—that is where we have failed. Students now classify these as the“hard subjects.” They are only hard if you are indifferent to challenge.Universities are “short-changing” the future. The indifference to true learning is shown, in my experience at least, by the fact that large numbers of students never bother to collect their papers that are graded. As long as the grade is posted on-line, that is all they want to know. That echoes the idea of just wanting to become certified for a good job. How did they get these attitudes—did we fail them in the 1960s through the trivializing of intellectual life, the pursuit of agendas, and the marketing of higher education?

Now,generations brought up in the increasingly isolated “disciplines” have no reason to speak to each other—and maybe cannot? They certainly are not interested so to do. Only tiny, and insignificant, numbers (proportionally) of students take the challenge of studying abroad in the United States and challenging their identity by explaining it to others. At least in Europe, theErasmus and Socrates programs not only facilitate this but make it easy for the student to get credit, and face no disadvantage. 

The sense of challenging the orthodoxy (as signified by the quotation from Bacon earlier)is unlikely in a “results” environment, which does not encourage challenge—just lame cooperation. The focus in universities is shifting from the end to the means. In fact I think it fair to say that all-too-often, there is no end[16]

The community of scholars concept is also difficult to sustain where much of professional education, and indeed some other forms of education, are taught by distance-learning, unless there is some parallel process of ‘real’ contact. As one American noted: “You can’t download an education.” In addition, a lot of the instruction, particularly in the US, where re-education is much more common, and where many professional courses are offered on apart-time basis, does involve regular contact.

At the graduate level the problem is worse, especially as departments compete for resources in the States and discourage using the system’s full capacity to retain income from credit hours and fees. Of course, this is not true everywhere, but the trend has been a powerful one. Countering this has been the emergence of the “Interdisciplinary School,” which may attempt to reassemble the component parts of knowledge that have been spun off. An example of this would be the teaching of Ecology or Environmental Studies.Nature is a vast machine for processing energy, and anything that plays a part in that process—like our ravenous consumption and combustion—is an essential part. See it any other way, and you will be treating symptoms; not the problem.Then again there is the problematic subject of Economics. In the days of Adam Smith is was, quite rightly, called Political Economy.  Economics is a method of recording and predicting aggregate human behaviour and human values as expressed through the market, supply, demand and price. Its predictive value seems to be fairly minimal at the moment, but the impression exists among many students that Economics sets the values. “We can’t do that because it would not be economic.” The value humans place—and Liberal Arts is all about values—are the important thing, like the crazy way we have valued fossil fuels. Green Economics is an example of seeing the big picture of natural sustainability and putting the horse before the cart. So, there are optimistic signs, and America does have many, often small, private Liberal Arts colleges, and some of the bigger public institutions maintain this tradition against all the trends.[17] Liberal Arts is not dead yet, just under siege and in decline.

So, how do you put the big-picture back, reinstate the glue to give our universities some greater purpose than slavishly serving the market? Well, as we said about economics, it all comes back to values; and we do not value a Liberal-Arts education in the main[18]. Humanities and Science alike are chasing declining student interest.[19]This is just a reflection of a lack of direction in society, which favours the short-term gratification approach, which is one reason for the decline of the family. The universities and scholars in general, must provide leadership and vision. Both of those lay behind the foundation of the NBU, and must never be allowed to weaken. Scholars mustbelieve in something and pass it on to the young—and it can never be a package of tool-skills. This institution believes in the Socratic Method, devilishly difficult though it is to implement: faculty retreat into the security of their own disciplines;students prefer to remain silent. But, that has to be challenged; otherwise the students will never challenge themselves. We can reveal to them things they never knew about themselves. Plato saw this as a pre-requisite for leadership and participation in a free society—it still is. The 1960s challenged, instead,the very idea that anyone should lead, and instead universities should become“socially relevant" and “democratic.” What you had instead was anarchy.The US is subject to continual scandals in the Business sector, and low respect for Public Office, so well exemplified by the cronyism that rendered the Federal response to Hurricane Katrina disastrously and fatally ineffective. That was because the scholars gave up, and the technocrats won.NBU must never give up. In a rapidly changing world, if we don’t see the “big picture,” and root our education in a search for values, then we are unlikely to survive, or want to.

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