Transcript of talk by tutor Ben van den Bosch given at WISDOM’s Great Books event, January 30th, 2016.
One day, a scientist challenges God to a contest. The Scientist says, “My modern technologies are so far advanced that I now know how to generate life itself. With my lab equipment I can make a mouse, and it’ll be just as good as any mouse you ever made. Why don’t we test it out? The point of this contest will be to prove that the modern world no longer needs you.”
On the day of the contest, God comes down and meets the scientist in a big field. The scientist has hundreds of lab assistants with him, and they have set up on one side of the field numerous tables covered with all kinds of complicated equipment and paraphernalia. They’re all wearing clothing that makes them look like astronauts.
God shows up by Himself. He’s wearing overalls with oil stains.
As the contest begins God reaches down, scoops up a handful of earth and begins to carefully mold it into the shape of a mouse.
The scientist bends down and he collects a pinch of earth and is about to drop it into a beaker, when God says to the scientist; “Hey, whoa, buddy… make your own dirt.”
My topic for today’s talk is The Liberal Arts: why are they valuable?
Now, based on the fact that you are all here attending a Great Books event, I’m guessing you may not need a lot of convincing when it comes to valuing the Liberal Arts.
If you did, I might direct you to Dorothy Sayers, who in her essay ‘the lost tools of learning’ speaks quite well on the topic of a liberal education. This essay was very helpful to me as I was formulating this talk.
I don’t think I’m necessarily the best person to convince you, but I am very excited to give this talk anyways. The reason for this is not so much because I think I can do a good job or because I think you should hear what I have to say, but rather because I know that one of the best ways to become inspired yourself is to try to inspire others.
And I myself often need a little boost in terms of being motivated to continue to pursue the best education I can get.
So: Are the Liberal Arts valuable?
Let’s start with some arguments that say they’re not.
I object! It would seem that the Liberal Arts are not valuable because they’re just not practical. What do you DO with a liberal education? I mean sure, SOME people could become professors or writers, or maybe world-famous musicians, but that’s not going to happen to most of us. Most of us have to go out and find some real work. Learn a skill, get a job, make enough money to live on, provide for a family… these are the practical considerations that we have to value. How is reading a book or listening to opera going to help me with those? I just don’t have time to pursue artsy stuff.
Here’s another: I object! It would seem that the Liberal Arts are no longer relevant. Anything that I want to know, I can just look up on the internet. Why would I bother reading a book about something when I can just watch a video online? Seriously, computers have replaced the need for any further education.
So those are some objections to the value of the Liberal Arts. And you can understand why it could be easy to start thinking this way. It’s a fast moving world that we live in. Does a liberal education really continue to have value or relevance out there in real life?
On the contrary, of course it does. The value of the liberal arts is inherent. It’s not something that can change with the times, or with your mood, or with your financial situation.
In terms of being relevant I would say that the liberal arts are (if possible) more relevant out there today precisely because things move so quickly. Sometimes the world requires people who are adaptable. And adaptability is a benchmark of liberal education. This world also needs people who can take a step back and say “whoa… slow down… you’re moving too quickly. What’s the rush? You’re missing steps here.
You have to be able to have a ‘vision of the whole’, so to speak: the big picture. Ask important questions like what are we really trying to accomplish with all this progress and efficiency? And why?
It’s a liberal education that gives us that ‘big picture’ view. So what are the Liberal Arts anyways?
Most sources will tell you that the Liberal Arts are those studies which are aimed at a more general, universal knowledge and an increased intellectual competency. They are not aimed at any sort of immediate practical purpose, but rather at broadening our horizons.
Things like literature, philosophy, theology, mathematics, Social sciences; we consider these Liberal Arts. A good way to look at it is that the main point of a liberal education isn’t telling you what to think: it’s showing you how to think.
The liberal arts stand in contrast to studies that involve technical expertise or practical knowledge, like learning a specific trade. If you’re training to be an electrician, for example, that’s not a liberal art.
In the Middle Ages the Liberal Arts were dived into two categories. These two categories were called the trivium and the quadrivium. These are Latin words which signified a type of crossroads: a meeting of paths. A trivium is where three roads meet; a quadrivium is where four roads meet.
The trivium comprised the three studies (the three pathways) of what they called grammar, logic, and rhetoric. These studies were considered an initiation into learning. And they were also seen as being foundational for further studies in the quadrivium, which comprised the four subjects of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy.
These two categories of study: the trivium and quadrivium were named liberal arts because they were seen as the studies proper to a free man. The Latin word liberalis meaning ‘of freedom’ – that which is appropriate for a free man.
At that time a free man was usually anybody who had the ‘free’ time to spend on such things. So if you were a landowner, you could afford to read books and play the piano. If you were a peasant, you didn’t have that luxury. You had to have some kind of trade, and you had to work pretty hard at it to survive.
Hence the distinction we still have today between what we still call liberal arts, as opposed to subjects that have to do with professions and trades.
Now, of course we live in a very different time. The education system has changed somewhat since the Middle Ages. The division of classes and labour has changed. The word “liberal”, you may have noticed has undergone some interesting changes, but I won’t get into that.
What I’d like to look at is this notion of the Liberal Arts as that which befits someone who is free.
What do we mean by freedom? When we think about freedom we probably mean something more than not having to do manual labour.
When we say ‘freedom’, do we mean freedom from constraint? What about freedom from darkness and confusion, which are types of constraint?
Freedom usually means more than just the absence of constraints; it usually means that we have the ability to act, to speak, to think, as we see fit. And, I would add, the way that we should “see fit” would be in accordance with the Truth. If we’re going to remain free.
So the ability to act, speak and think. In other words, the truly free man is the man who is fully alive. He flourishes in God’s creation the way he was meant to. He thrives.
The man who is free in this way will engage with the Liberal Arts, not just because he happens to have the time to do so, but also because he desires to do so; because they are worth pursuing as valuable in themselves. Because in studying these things he finds Truth. He finds beauty. He finds goodness. If he doesn’t use his freedom to pursue these things, then what is his freedom good for?
Freedom is valuable precisely because it allows us to pursue that which is truly important.
It is also the Liberal Arts that help us to achieve true freedom in the first place. A liberal education is the education that frees us. It allows us to walk in the light of the real world.
How? Because it reveals the world to us, and allows us to engage with the world.
Let’s look at the trivium: the classical foundation of all learning: Grammar, logic, rhetoric. What are these?
Grammar is all about learning language. We tend to think of grammar in a smaller way, as just those persnickety little rules (like where you’re allowed to use a semicolon); which is a part of it, but grammar in the broader sense is really about learning language in general. All of the language: basic literacy, you could say. A dictionary will tell you that grammar is “The whole system and structure of a language, or of languages in general.”
What is logic? – It’s how we think. It’s how we make decisions. Every decision we make, we have a reason for doing that. Sometimes the reason isn’t a particular good one; sometimes we don’t even know what our reason is – but there is a reason there, somewhere. The formal study of logic is really about clarifying our thinking to help us process and express information as best we can. How do we explain the things in the world around us? How do we recognize a good reason from a bad one?
Rhetoric – is how we express what we think. Am I able to explain myself in a way that is understandable and interesting? Am I able to persuade you into believing what I have to say? How do I present information to the rest of the world? That’s rhetoric.
So this is the trivium. And you can see how these studies build on each other and how they lay the foundation for further learning. First we have to learn a language (Grammar). That’s pretty basic. If we want to learn anything at all, being able to use language is a good place to start.
After we learn the language, we have to learn how to use it (Logic). How do we define our terms? How do we speak accurately? When I listen to someone else speak can I detect a mistake in his reasoning?
After we become good at using language properly, we can learn to really use it well by expressing what we have to say eloquently (Rhetoric). All that learning is able to really come to fruition when I can open my mouth and say “hey! Look over here – this is the Truth! We should listen to the Truth, for He is noble and has good things to say!”
So the studies in the trivium really build on each other. And you can see how they later become such important studies as things like literature and philosophy. And you can also see how they lay a good foundation for every single thing you could possibly want to learn about afterward. Everything.
The trivium is just this: 1) How we understand language, which is the medium for all thought. 2) How we think clearly. 3) How we express ourselves clearly. This is just the way we process information; the way we engage with the world; the way we can think at all about pretty much anything.
Dorothy Sayers says that the trivium doesn’t really consist of “subjects” per se, but rather our method of dealing with any and all subjects.
Again, the liberal arts are less about “what” we are learning, and more about “how” we are learning. And when you really know how to learn properly – you can learn anything.
Focusing on the “what” of learning is like memorizing where to put my fingers so that I can play my favourite song on the piano. Which is cool, but it doesn’t really get me any closer to being able to play other songs.
Focusing on the “how” of learning – that lets you read the music. And sometimes it seems like it takes more work. But the music theory – even though it’s not in itself an actual song – once you have it, you can learn how to play any song you want. And guaranteed you can learn it faster and better than just memorizing where to put your fingers.
Focusing on the “what” of learning and neglecting the “how” would be like learning everything about the way a car engine is put together without having a basic understand of the principles of mechanics like a lever, or an inclined plane. You know – why the car is put together that way.
You could be the best engine mechanic in the world. And then one day you’re on the highway and you get a flat tire.
“Oh no! My technical expertise does not cover this situation. I studied engines, not tires. What do I do?” Do you hitchhike?
The point is this: learning all the “what’s” about something isn’t a bad idea. It’s probably a great idea.
But if you don’t learn any of the “how” or any of the “why” then all your knowledge is incredibly limited. There will only be a small amount of reality to which your knowledge applies. And you might end up stuck on the side of the highway.
If however you do understand the “how” and the “why” you are adaptable. You’ll be used to problem solving. And you’ll have the confidence to know that you can tackle problems you haven’t encountered before. That’s real confidence.
It really only takes a small amount of basic mechanical understanding, and the willingness to go for it, and you can figure out how to change a flat tire. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never done it before.
So those are some examples illustrating why the practical applied technique of any subject is not quite as important as the underlying theory that supports and explains it.
Like, why is it important to study this particular subject at all?
Now all of this is not to say that practical knowledge is not important. Of course it’s important. We have to know how to do particular things, obviously. We should be good at our jobs. Technical skill is important.
Music theory, for example, only bears fruit when you do play a particular song. But what should come first is precisely the ability to learn the technical skill as best you can.
How do I best go about learning this particular skill? Why is this particular skill important? Once I know this skill, can I use it in a variety of situations?
The liberal arts education doesn’t just give you a bunch of learning. It gives you learning itself. It gives you the passion for learning. It feeds the flame of our already roaring curiosity.
And it gives you the confidence and the adaptability to deal with any situation you find yourself in. Even the unpleasant ones. Especially the unpleasant ones.
When I first arrived at college – my first time at university – an enthusiastic homeschooler, I arrived and I felt completely lost. People talk about being in over their head, well I was in over my head and I didn’t even know where the surface was.
“Oh, I have to take notes for a two hour lecture on history… who learns like that???”
“This professor wants papers handed in according to Chicago style. This professor wants them handed in according to the MLA style. What does that even mean? Whoa - there’s a lot of very specific rules involved here.”
“How do I check my student email?”
The reason I was in danger of drowning in college was because there were a thousand little things that I had never encountered before. And it was scary. But because I had the benefit of a really solid liberal education back at home – and because my parents had taught me to figure things out – I figured them out.
It took me a while. There were a lot of little practical skills that I had to learn. But each one I was able to pick up pretty quickly because I knew how to learn. And more importantly I knew that I loved to learn.
If I had gone to a public high-school, I probably would have known a lot more of those specific skills heading into college. But without the adaptability and the passion that my homeschooling gave me, I know that I would have failed in my first semester.
So that’s the type of college preparation that’s really important.
One of the coolest school-books that I worked on back when I was a kid doing homeschool, was a book called “Information Please”. This book (or series of books) consists entirely of a list of questions from a variety of subjects that you have to answer.
Questions like this: “Name two mollusks that you might eat for lunch?”
“In-boxing – what is a rabbit punch?”
“How many binary digits make up a byte?”
There were even questions like: “if your family is leaving home for a week, what services should you discontinue while you are gone?”
I’d like to note that asking my parents was usually not a permissible source of finding the information. Also – the internet was not even around yet.
Now why are any of these questions important? – They’re all examples of very specific practical knowledge that you can’t apply to a wide range of situations.
But the point of this book was not the specific answers. I mean, you did have to write down specific answers to these questions, and it had to be the right answer, but that wasn’t the main point.
The point of “Information Please” (like the point of the liberal arts) was to enable me to know how to access information. And to be excited about finding it – like a game.
How do I find the right library book to answer this question? If the book is THIS thick – how do I access the information I need without taking all day?
The point was that I knew how reference books worked. I knew how to find an expert and phone them up and have a conversation. I knew where to find stuff.
Often-times you just have to ask somebody. There’s somebody out there who can show you.
By the way, just having a conversation – any conversation – you need grammar, you need logic. Having
Rhetoric really helps.
I can pretty much guarantee that by now I’ve forgotten most of the answers to the questions in my
‘information please’ book. But it was working on that book – and having my education conducted in that way – that really enabled me to remain afloat in university.
In response to the second objection that I raised earlier: isn’t it easier to just look everything up on the internet? - NO. It’s not.
Why not? Well, ok, each individual question that you have, by itself is probably easier to look up on the internet. It just is. The internet is an incredibly versatile and helpful tool. But when you use that tool to the exclusion of all others, you become dependent upon that tool. You yourself, when you walk away from your computer, are not adaptable. You are not confident; you’re probably not even competent.
You end up serving the tool, instead of having the tool serve you. That’s not what we want. We want to know how to think ourselves; not just have some electronic box think for us.
What about the first objection that I raised: the liberal arts are not practical. I mean, by definition, they are not practical. They don’t have any immediately measurable results or application. Not practical.
And living in the real world – shouldn’t you consider the practical stuff first? We gotta eat, right? I mean come on isn’t it lunch time yet? Why is this talk taking so long? Practical stuff is important.
That joke that I told at the beginning of my talk gets used a lot to try to prove a certain theological point. But the point that I’d like to make with that joke is this: that scientist probably had more technical skill than anyone else in his field. He was probably a genius in his field. Outside of his field… well…
He didn’t know how his field of study interacted with other fields. He didn’t really think about anything outside of what he knew how to do. And he’s forgotten who the origin of all things is.
A Liberal Arts education probably could have helped him with that.
Not to be down on scientists, scientists are great, but you know how the greatest scientists in history were able to discover the things they did? – Precisely because of their impractical liberal education.
Is knowing how to think really practical?
I would ask instead: Is there anything else that’s more practical? Why don’t we consider some analogous questions?
How practical is it to eat healthy food? How valuable is it to have clear eyesight? Well – you could think it’s dependant on your career, right?
A hockey player needs to eat healthy and see clearly. He has to skate with speed and endurance and track the flight path of a puck at 100 kmh.
But let’s face it – I’m not going to make a career out of playing hockey. A more reasonable career option for me is probably working in an office, where I’m sitting down pretty much the whole time. I don’t need to be athletic. I don’t need to react quickly. It doesn’t take a lot of physical strength.
Everything I need to see is within a couple feet, which is close enough for my vision. I don’t even need to wear my glasses. And I could probably get away with eating nothing but candy, right?
Whether or not being athletic is part of my job description, eating healthy and seeing clearly will have a huge impact. What about my basic energy level when I arrive at work? How motivated am I going to be? How lethargic? How did I arrive at work – did I drive? Well, I need my glasses to get to work then. What If I drop my paperclips on the floor?
Being able to see clearly, and getting proper nutrition – these have a massive impact on your whole standard of life. And there’s lots of ways there going to have an impact on your job. No matter what that job is.
Why do I consider these questions analogous to the liberal arts?
Because we are starving for the Truth, and the liberal arts give us the food of knowledge that we crave and that we need in order for our minds to be healthy.
We are walking in the dark. And the liberal arts illuminate the world so that we can see.
In one of my classes last semester I had a student who described learning about philosophy and religion as putting a pair of glasses on your soul.
The liberal arts know what your prescription is.
When we consider education of course we’re often considering the education of children. How should we prepare them for adult life? The three stages of the trivium fit perfectly the three stages of learning
that a child goes through – so this is perfect. Obviously we want to give children the best, most freeing, education that we can.
But I’ve spent most of my time here discussing education in a more general sense (in a less practical sense) because a truly good education is not something limited to children. It’s not something that has a stopping point.
The more we are willing to give serious time and energy to the liberal arts, the more they will reward us. No matter what career you are in or end up having – whether it’s a technician with a talent for the
trombone, or a plumber with a passion for poetry, you will find the liberal arts beneficial. And you will find a practical application for your knowledge.
I am convinced that you can always find a practical application for even abstract knowledge. You want to know why?
Because all knowledge is one. What does that mean?
It means that all knowledge comes from the same source. All of creation – all of reality – springs forth from God, and his intention is that everything works together in a perfectly designed harmony.
That’s what He wants. That’s the way it’s supposed to be.
Not that everything is literally the same thing but that every unique individual piece of reality comes together to participate in one unified exultant dance that we call the universe.
And then the dance turns back to its original source.
It gives me something to think about later on when Mr. and Mrs. Barter are attempting to make decent ballroom dancers out of us.
A liberal education often doesn’t focus on the individual pieces of reality. Sometimes it does, in a way. But more importantly it lets you see the connections.
All knowledge is supposed to be ONE. The question is how do we WIN it?