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"Why" A Liberal Arts Education?

by Headmaster Ben Davis

I recall my first teaching assignment. Full of high-minded ideals and the ambitions of engaging intellectual grandeur, I began my inaugural sixth grade humanities lesson with a simple directive: "Please open your textbook to page one." As particular adolescents are often predisposed to doing, one boy mustered enough courage and contempt to boldly profess to me, "Why?" Although it was unlikely that his intent was to initiate a philosophical discussion on the ultimate purpose of education, it occurs to me now that his question is rather a relevant one, whose ultimate answer I doubt we have sufficiently considered.

Contemporary society has much to say on the particulars of educational practice, though little of its purpose. Any statements thereto are at best mere talking points usually devoid of any substantive implications. Consider, for example, the recent attention attributed to the acquisition of '21st Century Skills' in education.123 This notion, that is the cultivation of a pupil’s mind only as it pertains to a career, trade or profession, has recently swelled in popularity, and for the purposes of this editorial, any proponent of the spirit of this pedagogy shall henceforth be referred to as the "modernizer."

Though seemingly a vogue and progressive idea, vocational training has its precedence rooted in antiquity. In ancient Athens, formal education was not available to all as it is in present society. Boys of wealthy and elite families received an education of an intellectual, moral, and physical nature, while the poorest members of society, and slaves, received purely technical instruction. Of this practice, Aristotle remarked, "And to young children should be imparted only such kinds of knowledge as will be useful to them without vulgarizing them. And any occupation, art, or science, which makes the body or soul or mind of the freeman less fit for the practice or exercise of virtue, is vulgar."4 It was Aristotle’s contention that a vocational education alone "absorb[s] and degrade[s] the mind," because it lacks the instruction necessary for the development of virtue. This kind of education makes a man “vulgar” and less free.

With education considered in such a narrow context, the modernizer misses the fundamental, humanizing element inherent in a liberal arts education. The conception of '21st Century Skills', you see, takes us not one step further in answering the adolescent’s simple and profound question, "Why?" Supposing the modernizer answers, "So pupils will be better prepared for a particular career," necessitates the same proposition, put differently, "To what end?" Supposing the retort is then, "Because it is good for society," again necessitates the same fundamental question posed in yet another manner, "Why should society be benefited?" Round and round the circular fallacy spins until the modernizer ultimately recognizes the objective value of a particular principle. Until he finally concedes to an objective truth, such as the study of a particular thing is a good in itself, or as Socrates extolls, "…beautiful too, as are both truth and knowledge," the sixth grade boy yet has no ultimate reason to go about the difficult work of learning his declensions or comprehending the language in Shakespeare.5

At Classical Preparatory School, we recognize the goodness of particular ends in themselves. Aristotle exhorts this kind of education, saying, "It is evident, then, that there is a sort of education in which parents should train their sons, not as being useful or necessary, but because it is liberal or noble."6 We seek to study those things which are inherently good, thereby "humanizing" us, or refining our minds in accordance with man's historical search for wisdom and truth. C.S. Lewis refers to this canon of intrinsic good as 'the Tao,' saying, "It is the doctrine of objective value, the belief that certain attitudes really are true, and others really false, to the kind of thing the universe is and the kind of things we are."7 In orienting the learner's mind to such things, we develop in students an innate ability to think critically and for themselves, and cultivate a store of historical intellectual thought against which to consider new ideas or experiences. Unlike the modernizer's conception of education, a pupil who is afforded a foundational training in the liberal arts is intellectually prepared for the demands of all vocations rather than a particular field only. He also has, perhaps even more fundamentally, a training of the heart. That is, as Plato described, he understands and loves what is right and beautiful, and conversely hates what is wrong and detestable.

When my sixth grade student first posed his question, "Why," I didn't have much of an answer. Although frustrated at the time, I am now indebted to my former pupil for encouraging me to consider such an important question.

Ben Davis
Headmaster


1 "Framework for 21st Century Learning", P21 Partnership for 21st Century Learning.
http://www.p21.org/about-us/p21-framework

2 “21st Century Skills”, ASCD.
http://www.ascd.org/research-a-topic/21st-century-skills-resources.aspx

3 Kyle Moroney, “Michigan Principal Shares Maker Movement STEM Program at the White House,” MLive, July 5th, 2015.
http://www.mlive.com/news/grand-rapids/index.ssf/2015/07/holland_christian_principal_sh.html

4 Aristotle. Politics. The Internet Classics,
http://classics.mit.edu/Aristotle/politics.8.eight.html

5 Plato. The Republic. The Internet Classics,
http://classics.mit.edu/Plato/republic.7.vi.html

6 Aristotle. Politics.

7 C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, Reflections on Education with Special Reference to the Teaching of English in the Upper Forms of School (New York: HarperCollins, 2007), 701.

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