In praise of the liberal arts

PUBLISHED : Monday, 03 June, 2013, 10:20am
UPDATED : Monday, 03 June, 2013, 10:20am

The Latin term studia humanitatis is probably unfamiliar to most people. But what about artes liberalis, the medieval name for liberal arts? At least that “looks” familiar. It means the arts (that is, learning) that were appropriate for a free man (in the classical Greek sense of a man who is not a slave).

It is the opposite of artes mechanicae, a vocational training that prepared young men to become weavers, blacksmiths and the like. At the time, the liberal arts were not aimed at preparing a student for a livelihood, but for further study of medicine, law and theology.

We can also go to Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. Under the entry for Liberal Arts, it says “of, belonging to, or befitting a man of free birth, also, of, belonging to, or befitting one that is a gentleman in social rank”.

If that does not suffice, try another entry: “the studies especially in a college or a university, that are presumed to provide chiefly general knowledge and to develop the general intellectual capacities … as opposed to professional, vocational or technical studies.” That should give most readers a general idea on what liberal arts education is, and what it is not.

Perhaps the staunchest advocate for liberal education in America before the mid-20th century was Robert M. Hutchins, former president of the University of Chicago. The world got to know about the so-called Great Books Project under his leadership as well as that of Mortimer Adler, an editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

For Hutchins, liberal, from liberalis (from which the English word liberty is derived), means free; so liberal education is a “free education”, or “an education that can set you free”.

All nations on earth claim they have the rule of law in their legal systems, but do they?

If the question is, “Free from what?” his reply is, “Free from ignorance”. So the most succinct statement of liberal education is that it is an education that sets you free from ignorance.

How can we achieve that? We can learn from the past experience and wisdom of the great minds of over 2,000 years in history. Hence the Great Books project.

Little has been written about these programmes, especially in this part of the world. Perhaps it is because they are small in size and number; or perhaps their commitment to college (i.e. undergraduate) teaching is not part of the mainstream. Our lack of exposure means that we do not know what we have missed.

So what is a liberal arts college like? Hugh Hawkins, retired professor from Amherst College in Massachusetts, one of the best in that category, describes it as thus, “a four-year institution of higher education, focusing its attention on candidates for the BA degree who are generally between the ages of 18 and 21, an institution resistant to highly specific vocational preparation and insisting on a considerable breadth of studies … [that hopes to develop] interests and capabilities that will enrich both the individual learner and future communities.”

From this brief introduction, we may gather a few common characteristics among liberal education institutions. They are small, residential colleges that are not located in urban areas for the most part. They devote themselves primarily to the education of the undergraduates. They usually have a small student body. As a result, students get to know each other and faculty members inside as well as outside of the classroom.

Because classes are small and because instruction is mostly provided by professors themselves – and not by teaching assistants – frequent interaction between students, between students and teachers, is a normal state of affairs.

That environment, and the learning atmosphere it creates, can hardly be found in universities with large campuses. If we understand what liberal arts education really is, and are honest with ourselves, then we have to say nothing like it exists in our higher education system today.

The fact that everybody uses the phrase “liberal education” all the time does not mean we have it. All nations on earth claim they have the rule of law in their legal systems, but do they?

Not only do we not have that kind of training, our universities have shown no sign of any aspiration towards that lofty goal. Lingnan was set up to be one. It did not make it.

Just ask the former president Chang Yuk-shee, who has just retired.

Ronald Tend is the founder of MEA, a promoter of liberal arts education