Liberal arts holds its own place in education | June 12, 2018

In ancient and medieval Europe, a training in the liberal ‘arts’ formed the foundation of an individual’s education before they moved on to developing an expertise in a specific area. The ‘arts’ had two tiers, the trivium and the quadrivium. While logic, grammar, and rhetoric formed the trivium, with its emphasis on clear thinking, writing and persuasive communication, the quadrivium, through the disciplines of arithmetic, music, geometry and astronomy emphasized on the relevance of numbers to study the nature of patterns (music), the understanding of the dimensions of space (geometry), the relationship between heavenly bodies and earth(astronomy) and more importantly, the properties of numbers themselves(arithmetic) for better understanding of other disciplines.

After getting a solid grounding in the ‘arts’, students went on to specialise in medicine, theology, literature etc. Science and mathematics were an integral part of the ‘arts’ curriculum as evidenced by the disciplines that constituted the quadrivium.

Nothing reinforces the fact that modern scientific disciplines are as much a part of the arts as the fact that as recently as 150 years ago, the study of nature constituted a branch of philosophy called natural philosophy and its practitioners were naturally, natural philosophers.

Modern fundamental disciplines owe their roots to the quest for wisdom, and as tools, techniques, and knowledge were accumulated over the decades, the need for specific specialisations emerged and led to the birth of newer areas of study. The history of scientific disciplines such as physics, chemistry, biology, geology is no different.

Whereas there was an appreciation of the unity of all knowledge and the meaning of the ‘arts’ conveyed this understanding, the proliferation of multiple disciplines in the modern era, with its emphasis on narrow specialisations and vocational training, has led to the idea of the ‘liberal arts’ being interpreted narrowly.

To the layperson, it refers collectively to those disciplines that constitutes the humanities and the social sciences, and to some others, also that of creative pursuits such as painting or design. This has led to the perception of the existence of a rigid dichotomy between the ’sciences’ and the ‘arts’ and a seemingly unbridgeable divide.

Nothing can be far from the truth. It is imperative that the meaning and scope of the liberal arts be re-examined and clarified in the highly technological 21st century. Science is as much an integral part of the liberal arts curriculum as the humanities are. The swiftness of technological advancement and knowledge generation in the past 100 years has been unsurpassed in human history.

From the use of technology to better the human condition, employing science and technology to unravel the mysteries of the past, to understanding the nature of the universe, to effects of climate change brought about by human activity and its impact on the evolution and extinction of certain forms of life and our place in it, among many others, science has a critical role to play in our lives, and hence, its understanding is important to the foundational education of the individual. It is imperative for science to again become a vital part of the modern liberal arts curriculum.

Clearing well entrenched misconceptions about the true meaning of ‘liberal arts’ may be a more difficult task than employing an alternative phrase to describe the same concept. “Liberal education” embodies all elements of this concept. While it lays emphasis on critical thinking, effective communication, exposure to a wide range of discipline, interdisciplinary specialisation, and good citizenship, it is appreciates the importance of all branches of knowledge. It values and provides exposure to not only the humanities, and the fine arts, but also subsumes in it the soft and the hard sciences such as the social and natural and physical sciences. It recognizes that science is too important to be left to the scientists, and the human condition cannot be understood without appreciation of the forces that shape our lives and the environment we inhabit.

Santosh Kudtarkar is a professor at FLAME University