ABOUTORABI: The not so liberal arts

What to think of self-styled defenders of the liberal arts who refuse to take seriously the father of Western philosophy? That is the question raised by certain condemnations of Yale’s partnership with the National University of Singapore. Singapore’s censorship laws, argue the outraged, are inimical to the liberal arts spirit. A truly humanistic education demands political and academic liberty — especially freedom of expression.

Plato was one educator who would not agree. In the Republic, Socrates notoriously argues for extensive artistic censorship. Education, for Plato, was more than the exercise of the intellect; it was inculcation in the knowledge of virtue, preparing the student for a life ordered by the love of goodness. Therefore, says Socrates, morally ambiguous stories, like Homer’s, “must cease, for fear that they sow a strong proclivity for badness in our young.” Far from obstructing education, censorship went hand in hand with the pedagogue’s project of providing an ordered curriculum in the true, the beautiful and the good.

Likewise, the Middle Ages, an epoch devoted to the liberal arts, hardly conceived of them as license to study whatever one liked. Rather, the liberal arts curriculum was a strict progression from the foundations of learning — logic, grammar, rhetoric — to the sciences of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. These studies were believed to train the mind’s essential abilities, laying the foundation on which all further endeavors could be erected.

The assumptions underlying these old, programmatic theories of education strike us as odd. We are used to thinking of the liberal arts as vaguely coextensive with the humanities, and we have emptied the term so far of its curricular significance that the so-called liberal arts colleges are the likeliest to boast minimal or nonexistent general requirements. This suits our liberal, democratic disposition. Why should anyone else be able to tell me what education means?

And yet: Is that not partly the point of education? Should we not trust our educators, not only to be more knowledgeable than we about their specialized academic provinces, but to be wiser, and to know better than we do what will make us wise?

Such was the role of the educator in premodern philosophies of education, and such is the natural relationship between teacher and pupil. The causes of its decline have been manifold: academic specialization, and the concomitant loss of a general theory of wisdom; the overeager application of egalitarian prejudices to education; and a lack of principle and courage on the part of administrators. But none of these causes was inevitable or stands as an immutable fact. Each was the outcome of human choice, and each is open to human re-evaluation.

Similarly, can’t something be said for that most reviled Yale-NUS policy, the ban against on-campus political parties and protests? Are we not we Yalies familiar enough with students whose learning comes a distant second to their social and political advocacy? I know I’ve been guilty of this fault, and I’m surely not the only one.

Yale would be a better place to study if liberalism (and reactive conservatism) could take a back seat to the liberal arts. There’s something topsy-turvy about devoting the bulk of one’s energies to politics during the short period of life when one is theoretically freest to live contemplatively — to ascertain (no easy task!) the principles to ground future practice.

And the same cart-before-horse mentality is what most bothers me about the current epidemic of anti-censorship indignation. Leave aside Plato’s arguments; look at human nature. Most societies have not been liberal. History would suggest that the common sense of humanity regards censorship as a natural function of government. If a commitment to freedom of expression is to be tenable, its advocates have to recognize this fact and admit that such freedom must follow from arguments produced by the kind of inquiry the liberal arts embody. By insisting on the opposite — that freedom of expression is a prerequisite for the liberal arts to flourish — opponents of the Singapore project do exactly what they want to avoid: they treat a political dogma as though it anteceded the life of reason.

This is not a comprehensive defense of Yale-NUS. Frankly, I have little zeal for a venture of which the primary motive seems to be brand marketing. Still, let me conclude by pointing out that Yale-NUS boasts something Yale College doesn’t: a robust core curriculum mandating serious study of literature, philosophy, political thought and the sciences, both social and natural. Students might not read de Sade, but they will read Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, Confucius and the epic poets of ancient Greece and India. I wonder: which school has a better understanding of the liberal arts?

Bijan Aboutorabi is a senior in Trumbull College. Contact him at bijan.aboutorabi@yale.edu.

Comments

  • The Anti-Yale

    The Triplum.

    Literature / Philosophy / History—three courses taught (not in tandem but in triplum) chronologiclly, semester by semester, from Homer, Aristotle and The Peloponesian Wars to Faulkner,Sartre and the World Wars. It was a decade long experimental program created by the liberal arts faculty at Ithaca College during the Viet Nam years, many Ph.D’s who’d missed tenure at Cornell (thank God) and wound up as excellent teachers, not publishers, on South Hill, the new Ithaca campus.

    If nothing else, it gave me a sense of chronology: Who and what come where.

    I’m not sure I trust “our educators, not only to be more knowledgeable than we about their specialized academic provinces, but to be wiser”.

    I don’t know about the ‘wiser’ but I do trust them to get the chronology straight so I can asses for myself whether or not there is something called “the evolution of human thought” (title of a booklet by E.B. Szekely ).

    So far, I see no evidence of an evolution. We are a lot stupider than the ancient Greeks—who at least KNEW we were stupid and said so.

    PK

  • River_Tam

    Mr. Aboutorabi, like everyone else at Yale these days, forgets that the liberal arts actually included disciplines like geometry, astronomy, and music.

    Goethe didn’t just write Faust – he also invented a barometer. How many DSers could even explain how it works? How well do they understand Aristotle’s work on optics and how many of them know that some sharks give birth to live young hatched in eggs carried within their mother (something that Aristotle discovered)? Ibn Rushd is now on the syllabus, but how many DSers would be able to work their way through his medical writings? And Leibniz gets read for his philosophy, but no mention is made of his (much more famous) work in developing calculus and topology.

    Until Yale gets serious about its distributional requirements, there are going to be very few Yalies who really get a full liberal arts education.

    • eli2015

      “Rather, the liberal arts curriculum was a strict progression from the foundations of learning — logic, grammar, rhetoric — to the sciences of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy.”

      • River_Tam

        Hm, my bad. I missed this line. Too bad he makes mention of it and then never returns to it, but instead insists on equating “liberal arts” with ‘what we learn in DS’.

        • WilloughbyChase

          River_Tam, you must have been in a rush yesterday. Did you miss this line in the last paragraph as well?

          “Still, let me conclude by pointing out that Yale-NUS boasts something Yale College doesn’t: a robust core curriculum mandating serious study of literature, philosophy, political thought and the sciences, both social and natural. ”

          I also cannot see how you could possibly read into this column that the liberal arts mean “what we learn in DS.”

    • ldffly

      What is the overarching wisdom generating continuity among these various modes of thought? These people weren’t just polymaths. Leibniz’s philosophy, in particular, was a reflection of an overarching understanding of reality. Did the calculus generate the Monadology or vice versa? Take your pick, but continuity between the two there was.

      Would any modern American university dare to offer a single vision of wisdom as the guide for its curriculum? Fat chance. It would take a systematic outlook on human character and reality. The philosophers hardly have much use for such ideas, so would anybody else have any use? Beyond that is the matter of campus politics. The competing constituencies on every campus would see to it that that project failed. Today’s student is condemned to attempt to be a little polymath. Pick up that wisdom stuff on your own.