The Resurrection of the Universal Human: The Future of the Liberal Arts

By Camilo Garzón

“The question (overt or implied) now asked by the professionalist student, the State, or institutions of higher education is no longer ‘Is it true?’ but ‘What use is it?’ In the context of mercantilization of knowledge, more often than not this question is equivalent to: ‘Is it saleable?’ And in the contest of power-growth: ‘Is it efficient?”

—Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition

The Universal ManA term that designated an individual capable of knowing almost all possible spheres of knowledgehas died. TheFutureofLiberalArts

Education has begun specializing entirely too muchtoday’s university experience is often limited to field-specific classes within one’s major, effectively restricting the scope of a student’s education. Thus, my claim is the following: The Universal Mana term that designated an individual capable of knowing almost all possible spheres of knowledgehas died. But to resurrect him, we need to understand what has killed him. Education, or what has recently been conceived of as a liberal arts education at Rollins, has. It is the education that some have decided to undertake and make common, or “normal,” which has prevented individuals from understanding every sphere of knowledge. To further examine this debate, let’s go to the root of where and how the idea of a liberal arts education originated.

 WHAT ARE THE LIBERAL ARTS, AND WHAT IS THEIR HISTORY?

The liberal arts are what are considered essential for a human to know and develop the intellectual ability to critically think and undertake any human rolethese roles are not necessarily those that are considered strictly vocational or professional, but are roles that are part of the human experience. To understand the concept more thoroughly, the story of the liberal arts is as follows. Mesopotamia was the cradle of civilization because of one major factor: water. Both riversthe Tigris and Euphratesprovided a highly fertile soil for the seeds of civilization to bloom. Later, in ancient Greece, trade continued to be the key in coastal cities such as Miletus to providing a space for philosophical inquiry. The profits from trade resulted in the economic success and according work specialization of merchants in coastal cities, which allowed some people to explore philosophy and ideas, whereas before this shift, their time would have been spent farming, among other agricultural activities. Ideas expanded to reach other places and influenced other ideas.

A clear account of the history of the liberal arts is detailed in an article by Rollins’ visiting professor Erik Kenyon, titled “Augustine and the Liberal Arts.” In ancient Greece, the curriculum began with grammar. If the family had sufficient money and political aspirations, then the children would proceed with rhetoric. Additionally, back then, math and science were the preparation for the study of philosophy. Later in history, the medieval curriculum prepared students for theology and philosophy through the study of the trivium (i.e., three roads: grammar, dialectic, and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (i.e., four roads: arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy). Emperor Julian ‘the Apostate’ banned Christian teachers from teaching pagan authors. Augustine grew up amidst this controversy. In Milan, while teaching, Augustine was exposed to a circle of intellectuals committed to exploring their Christian faith through Platonist approaches to philosophy. His idea was that we can learn about ourselves as rational beings by reflecting on activities that express our rational nature; the liberal arts provide the most natural starting point in this search for self-knowledge. If you are walking near our own Knowles Memorial Chapel, just look at the rose window and see how it presents the medieval curriculum, with personifications of the trivium and quadrivium flanking Philosophy.

WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF A LIBERAL ARTS EDUCATION?

The educated are concerned with ideas and understanding. This is what Aristotle called the potentiality and actuality of being educated. What does all this Aristotelian jargon mean? Basically, it means that an educated person is one who is able to reach judgment based on a sound estimate of when people expound their conclusions in the right or wrong way. This person has to be able to have knowledge in practically all subjects. An education that enhances reason and judgment and that reflects our values and biases is a true liberal arts education. We need to learn how to measure quantitatively, but more than that we need to be taught how to be good critical thinkers and analyzers. Thus, to educate oneself is a never-ending process, and one of more questions than answers. To be educated, we need to learn to question sources, to question who gives us the information, to question the authorities in the fields, and to question what we know and how we know it.

IN THE PAST, WHAT WAS THE RELATIONSHIP OF ROLLINS TO THE SPIRIT OF THE LIBERAL ARTS?

Curiously, Rollins’ eighth president, Hamilton Holt, had a twofold relationship to the liberal arts.

One relationship casts him in a favorable light. William Webster Lloydwho was Rollins’ first professor of ancient languagesreturned in 1935 to celebrate Rollins’ 50th anniversary. Lloyd had once proposed conducting a seminar called “Straight Thinking,” which aimed to combat the “illogical, sophistical, unfair, dishonest thinking” that was “a general habit” of teachers, according to him. In Lloyd’s view, this course would allow “the utmost liberty to the student’s mind.” Although the class was never taught at Rollins, upon his return, Lloyd found Holt’s emphasis on collaborative learning and approach to education to be innova- tive. Holt centered his teaching and leader- ship in Rollins to be more democratic from the student’s viewpoint, and he geared Rol- lins’ approach to be student-oriented and cooperative between the student and the professor. The Conference Plan (which was formed after a five-day national conference led by John Dewey—one of the most impor- tant American philosophers of the twentieth century—at Rollins in 1931) is an example of this legacy. This plan established a relation- ship of mutual mentorship between profes- sor and student. The transmission of knowl- edge would not come vertically as in the old Cartesian model, but from the newer Dewey model of co-inquiry in which all members of the classroom would learn, including the professor.

The other relationship, however, casts a shadow upon his innovation. John Andrew Rice, Jr. managed to polarize both faculty and students by objecting to various poli- cies of Holt. Which policies was he speak- ing out against? Rice was a clear and harsh critic of a variety of approaches to educa- tion, such as lecture, over-reliance on “great books,” memorization, and counting credits by time in the seat. He was a proponent of Progressive education philosophies concern- ing student-centered curriculum and class- room community, which were also defend- ed by Holt himself. After three years, Holt asked Rice to resign, an act that resulted in a nationally reported Association of Ameri- can University Presses’ investigation that eventually reprimanded Rollins and exoner- ated Rice. By Rice’s own account, the only one man who ever understood him was John Dewey, which we will come back to. Rice went to Asheville, NC, and started his own experimental, and afterwards widely recognized, liberal arts college—Black Mountain College. What does this tell us about Rollins nowadays? By reflecting on what happened and what we are going towards now, it tells us more than what some can bear.

In The Sandspur’s article titled “What’s The Purpose of College?”, Meghan Mitchell addresses the teleology of a college education. However, although she raises certain facts regarding education at Rollins and liberal arts, it falls short. In the article, Mitchell writes, “If education was the main purpose of college, then more emphasis would be placed on community colleges or online courses that cost less for the same knowledge.” She is right, indeed, that education is not the only vital point of college. If it was, then we would not get “educated” here. Education does not just mean learning facts or memorizing them to ace a test. It also comprises of social interactions and adaptability to what is coming afterwards in professional life. Mitchell goes on to writes “We attend college to get a degree and use that degree to be hired at a high-paying job to then pay off student loans.” Some go to college so that they can get a high-paying job after graduation. That is evident. But if your main goal after graduating is to get a job, aren’t you in the wrong place? Why are you paying one of the most expensive tuitions for a private institution in the country if what you want is to get technical knowledge that will eventually get you hired, especially when you can get this more specialized pre-professional education by a lesser investment?

COLLEGE STUDENTS WERE ONCE CALLED GREGOR SAMSA, AND NOW THEY ARE COCKROACHES THAT ARE BEING FED TO BUSINESSES AND CORPORATIONS.

Language is needed for the development of the highest and most important aspects in a culture, and then Rollins gets rid of not only the foreign language proficiency requirement, but also the cultural area electives for International Business, by creating other similar majors. Let me elaborateI am coming out from a night of a late-night studying session in Olin Library to get a midnight snack. Then I find a banner about the fact that “Rollins Launches Two New Majors: Business Management and Social Entrepreneurship and Business.” There are indeed some courses in both majors that teach how to become an ethical business individual. But Business Management in a liberal arts college seems to be a contradiction of terms. Some might say it is not a contradiction because we have the College of Professional Studies (CPS). But CPS is still under the liberal arts umbrella of Rollins College, and those who choose this path still need to fulfill general education requirements. Are we getting rid of classes that tackle more profound knowledge in certain majors so that we can get more paying students in the seats? The democratic ideal demands liberal arts education for all. But in the United States, what we have seen is that we want people to have access to technical education and specific schooling rather than a universal liberal arts education. To give education to all, or to give liberal arts education to all, seems to be an important dichotomy to consider.

 BUT THEN, WHO SHOULD HAVE THE OPPORTUNITY TO EDUCATE THEMSELVES?

Another article in The Sandspur, written by Taylor McGowan as a response to Peter Schmidt’s “At the Elite CollegesDim White Kids,” tackled this. I felt it was not enough, especially with this introductory quote: “There are countless more academically undeserving college students walking around a university.” Yes, there are many college students walking around colleges and universities, but how do you judge who is academically undeserving? From which standard and perspective are you analyzing this? How are you assessing and categorizing all these students to support this claim? According to Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to education. . . Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms.” Now, it’s true that this article says that all humans have a right to an education, not specifically to a liberal arts education. However, as the article also says, education shall develop fully the whole individual while promoting greater respect for human rights and freedoms. This is what a liberal arts education strives to do.

The problem is not with accepting athletes, or paraphrasing from Taylor’s article: “white kids with connections.” The root lies in the fact that college students were once called Gregor Samsa and now they are cockroaches that are being fed to businesses and corporations. Cockroaches that still are fed with a cannon of “great books” for specific disciplines. But, who decides what is in the cannon of the great books? The great books were the ones that had endured with the common voice of mankind. But has there been a common voice? Yes, but it is not representative of the other voices that really have existed and exist still, just the one that has been more widely acknowledged or even imposed.

THE VALUE OF LIBERAL ARTS RESTS ULTIMATELY IN NEITHER THE CONTENT IT TEACHES NOR THE SKILLS THEY INSTILL, BUT IN THE OPPORTUNITIES THEY PROVIDE FOR RATIONAL ACTIVITY AS A WAY OF LEARNING ABOUT OURSELVES AS HUMAN BEINGS AND THE WORLD WE ARE IN. WE HAVE AN IDEAL OF WHAT ROLLINS AND A LIBERAL ARTS EDUCATION IS, BUT WHAT IS IT THAT WE ARE REFLECTING IN REALITY, AND WHERE SHOULD WE STRIVE TO GO?

In reality, there is not enough time to learn. Dr. Alexander Boguslawski, Rollins’ professor of Russian studies, stated how the ideal college student would not need time to work but just to study and learn. However, we live in a society where the vast majority of students have college loans, scholarships, and are working more than one job. Mitch Verboncoeur, Rollins class of 2014, suggested how Rollins could provide better commitment with the students’ academic and personal endeavor. Community engagement is where Rollins is trying to tackle the apathy of the students right now. But Mitch suggested something different, and simple: intellectual engagement. If you can engage the people in the community, why not engage their minds first? But there is a difference between learning about economics, and experiencing and discovering things for ourselves. Can we combine both subject-object relations in that sense? John Dewey believed we could. He thought that education was a continuing circle of balance in which the whole human organism could be adjusted to an environment. Truth and knowledge are then processes of continuous reassessment of convictions and pre-established notions that help establish the equilibrium at which this balance aims. The experience of doing and experimenting, especially with the arts, are routes into experiences that are vital for that inquiry towards truth. That is why, when you are liberally educated, you do not only get a diplomaa productbut you also get growth: the betterment of the human as a whole.

And that is why Rollins has been one of the leaders in liberal arts education, thinking about it, restructuring it, and moving forward with it. What happened in Rollins’ five-day national conference on the liberal arts in 1931 with John Dewey, and happened again in 1997 with Rita Bornsteinbuilding on Dewey’s pragmatic concepthas to happen again, but now led by its own students. This is the dialectical moment in which Rollins has to continue being a leader in the conversation and the development of a liberal arts education by inviting other institutions, leaders, and thinkers to discuss where we are going towards now, reviewing what has been before. Verboncoeur said, “You can train a carpenter to do something. But train them to think, analyze, understand, create, and they will have a better approach.” Elaborating more on this, we can be cogs in machines, or we can become the ones that create the machines. But then again, what to study? Study everything that you can. A question always comes to the surface after that statement: But what am I going to do with it? What good is this degree for? The question is answered with a better one: How can you not use it when what you are learning is how to think and resolve problems analytically and critically?

Thus, as a matter of conclusion, the last question is this:

WHAT IS THE PURPOSE OF A TRUE LIBERAL ARTS EDUCATION IF IT IS NOT TO TEACH US TO BE BETTER HUMAN BEINGS?

A true liberal arts education will continue to open perspectives. And a genuine liberal arts institution will continue to actualize potential universal humans when the students are educated, challenged, opened, mentored, guided, and enhanced so as to be- come better human beings with opportunities to think on a variety of perspectives they can use to solve the problems of the present. The contribution Rollins might have to this conversation comes by offering a valuable perspective in the plurality of present views regarding liberal arts and how they will evolve in the future. After the announcement of having an avid defender of the liberal artsDr. Grant H. Cornwell, a philosopheras our 15th president, there is a promising horizon to look forward to. Dr. Cornwell suggests an education “of the whole person, cultivation of multiple ways of knowing, promotion of critical and creative thinking, [and] development of skills for lifelong learning.” For liberal arts to regain what it should strive to uphold, it should be “assessed as an undertaking with civic value, rather than as a commodity with market value.” The value of liberal arts has a civic value wherein the individual will develop and grow to achieve its full potential in a world that needs critical thought and analysis more and more. The value of liberal arts rests ultimately in neither the content it teaches nor the skills they instill, but in the opportunities they provide for rational activity as a way of learning about ourselves as human beings and the world we are in. The resurrection of the Universal Human must start now.

 

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