Thursday, June 11, 2015

What is a Liberal Arts Education?

I have been thinking lately about what it is that constitutes a liberal arts education. I have concluded that it's not just a broad-based education, but rather an understanding of the interconnections and interrelatedness of the various fields of knowledge and understanding.

I have talked about the relationships among knowledge, understanding, and spontaneous orders before. Math and the natural sciences are all realms of knowledge-production. The social sciences, philosophy, and the humanities are all realms of understanding-production. And yet, the way we teach students, we teach each of the disciplines as though they were completely isolated realms of knowledge, with the result that they become increasingly separated from each other in their methodologies and understanding of the world.

The result of this is the fragmentation of knowledge and the rejection of understanding itself. Which is precisely the postmodern condition.

But it doesn't have to be that way. The fact is that knowledge is in fact connected -- that is what "understanding" is really all about, how things are interconnected. That can range from the way humans are interconnected (the topic of the social sciences) to the way everything is interconnected (the topic of philosophy and of religion). This is why philosophy was and is the cornerstone of a liberal arts education. You cannot have a liberal arts education in a regime of fragmented knowledge and a rejection of understanding. A liberal arts education requires understanding how everything is related to each other. And if we are going to really connect all of the disciplines to each other, we need not only understanding to bring knowledge together, but beauty to bring knowledge and understanding together, as beauty is the unification of the two realms.

Further, without such a unification into understanding, you cannot improve student morals. Only as you come to understand how interconnected everyone and everything is can your moral sphere expand. The more you include in your understanding, the wider your moral sphere. A moral education is thus a liberal arts education, which is a unified, interdisciplinary (philosophical) education. These cannot be unwound.
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