A Liberal Education is a Self-Reflexive Education: Defining the Liberal Arts

Many terms are thrown around to define a liberal education. The most common one, I’ve found—at least within universities—is to contrast the “artes liberales” (the liberal arts, or those studies done for their own sake) with the “artes serviles” (‘servile’ arts, or those done out of necessity), as Rome passed the distinction down to us.

I don’t think that definition does much good, and in many cases it might be actively harmful. The single greatest contributor to the education that students receive and which faculty aim to impart is the way that our education is described and discussed; this, because when so many ends of an education are presented to us, we will gravitate towards those talked about most often. So when we define liberal education with reference to that liberal-servile dichotomy, we introduce all sorts of out-dated and anachronistic implications for education today—not least the idea that liberal arts students should not ‘taint’ themselves with ‘worldly’ or ‘servile’ concerns. This definition for the most part simply does not apply to liberal education in the twenty-first century.

The other common definition given is in some ways the opposite of the liberal-servile distinction, and it is to talk about some unique characteristics of liberal arts colleges: “small class sizes”, “residential colleges”, “learning how to think”, “breadth and depth”, and so on. In some ways this definition works, because it does conjure in our minds the idea of what makes a liberal arts college distinct to large research universities, for instance. But on the whole the definition is useless, because it gives students nothing to aim at in our education, and gives faculty nothing to impart: a liberal education is simply defined, here, by institutional structures. Even more than that, the definition is time-limited and in many cases geographically limited too—not all of these aspects are unique to a liberal education. They are by and large the distinct aspects of American liberal arts colleges from the mid twentieth century to the present day.

So where are we left? Is liberal education left forever in the realm of the undefinable, with every new book presenting a different definition? Besides, would clarity through a neat definition reduce what liberal education could mean to different students, somehow limiting us?

A Self-Reflexive Education

I’ve come to define a liberal education as a self-reflexive education. Self-reflexivity is, to my mind, the heart of a liberal education, its feature that is both timeless and common to all countries’ traditions and institutional structures (it shows, too, how a liberal education does not require an institution to be achieved). It is a definition that works not by negating other forms of education, as in the liberal-servile distinction, and nor does it refer to specificities of a liberal arts college in its definition. Here, liberal education is separated from the liberal arts and liberal arts colleges; and, most importantly, understanding liberal education as a self-reflexive education gives students and educators alike something to aim at—it gives us a bigger picture, a bird’s-eye view of ourselves even while we are in the midst of our education.

What does self-reflexivity really mean in relation to a liberal education? What makes a liberal education unique is that one has the freedom to critique and question one’s education even while in the middle of it. Instead of a unidirectional transfer of knowledge, liberal education always has a cycle embedded within, whereby students try to understand what we are learning from broader systems and structures, even if that means questioning and trying to understand the very system of education of which we are a part. It could mean something as small as discussing with a professor a given book or reading to understand its broader context (in which case one is self-reflexive about what else there is to learn and understand); or, at its broadest level, it might mean reading and writing intensely on education itself, seeking to understand what structures shape our education as a whole.

The latter aspect of the self-reflexivity of a liberal education can be seen clearly at almost all liberal arts colleges by the fact that the educational institution itself is one of the most frequent topics of conversation among students and faculty. In my experience, we students always want to see and understand clearly the institution of which we are a part, and then quite often to change it, which means we believe in the power to change the circumstances of our own education. This is the self-reflexivity in action: seeing education at its broadest level, and attempting to see one’s present situation within it—and then, quite often, setting out to alter that situation in order to improve what we’re learning and, ultimately, to improve ourselves.

For Example

Taking rigorous notes in a seminar or a lecture, going away later to study them and then remembering them during an exam is not a liberal education. Reflecting on why we have lectures, seminars and exams, how they help us to learn, and what other systems we might have is a liberal education.

Reading a book because a professor assigned it is not a liberal education. Asking why your professor assigned it, and what else they might have assigned instead, is.

Criticising your professor or your university for assigning a given book (perhaps one that reinforces old or dangerous stereotypes) is not a liberal education. Discussing openly in class the value and harms of reading and discussing such a book is.

Writing an essay that you don’t want to write for no other reason than that the syllabus says you need to is not a liberal education. Talking to your professor about what essay you do want to write, and why you should be allowed to write it, is fit for a liberal education.

Thinking your education ends when you graduate may indeed mean you have had an education, but it doesn’t mean you’ve had a liberal education. You’ve only had a liberal education when your high school and college years are seen as the foundations of a life of learning. (Yale’s famous report of 1828 put this: “The Object is not to finish (the student’s) education, but to lay the foundation and to advance as far in rearing the superstructure as the short period of (their) residence here will admit.”

A Metaphor for the Self-Reflexivity of Liberal Education

Las Meninas Liberal Education Self-Reflexive Education

In the first ever lecture I attended at Yale-NUS College (a lecture itself on the nature of a liberal education, during orientation week) my professor spoke about Velásquez’ painting Las Meninas. Typically of an education, four years on I now feel the description was largely lost on me at the time. But it must have done some good to still remain with me now. I remember Professor Rajeev Patke speaking about Modernity, and the rise of self-reflexivity in art and literature: the focus, in Velásquez seventeenth century, gradually moved away from faithful representation of the world as we see it and towards representation of subjective experience. In Las Meninas, Velásquez depicts himself standing before a large canvas which he is painting, but we cannot see what he is depicting; to the figure’s right is a mirror upon the wall, which reflects two figures (themselves outside the scene depicted). Las Meninas becomes an image of self-reflexivity: the painter stands both within and without the canvas he is painting; he gazes forward at his work as his hand creates it, but upon seeing himself reflected there is led to an inevitable and a perpetual reflection about the very nature of the activity he is engaged in. Much like an education—and especially like the process of a liberal education.

But why then should you pursue a liberal education?

The definition of a liberal education as a self-reflexive education should by now hopefully be clear, but the question remains: why should you pursue it?

You should pursue a liberal education because it provides you with, to use the Yale report’s term, the “superstructure” of lifelong learning. It furnishes you with the “discipline and furniture” of the mind, so that almost nothing throughout life is beyond your intellectual powers. It gives you the freedom to know you can come to know everything, most of all yourself.

You should pursue a liberal education because it allows you to understand not just any one thing, but rather what is common to all things. It gives you a bird’s eye view from which to see the world and any activity you’re engaged in.

Pragmatically, it changes your time at high school or university. When you have the mindset of seeking a liberal education, there are very few things you must do. Rather, you start to see how you can twist every assignment and every class to get exactly what you feel you need out of them.

Far from seeing your education as something to get through, when you pursue a liberal education you start to see your education as something enabling you to get to something else. Your four years at college or university are just the beginning of a life of being able to learn anything and everything you want to learn.

Should I mention grades? Well, only to say that it will likely do your grades no harm to be reflexive about your education and to go about it as an adventure. Professors surely prefer to teach students who are engaged and who know what they want to learn, students who write essays not because they have to write them but because there are ideas they want to test and to figure out.

Do you need to go to a liberal arts college to get a liberal education?

In short: no. I maintain that you can get a liberal education from within any institution, or even through self-learning alone. What matters is merely that you desire an education, and that you are self-reflective about the process of going about it, seeking always what you know you need to get out of it.

But, in saying that, I firmly believe going to a liberal arts college will make it much easier, and will offer aspects of an education that you simply cannot gain elsewhere. A professor who has helped me more than anyone else to understand the nature of a liberal education describes the experience of being at a liberal arts college by using Emile Durkheim’s term: “collective effervescence”. The experience of being in a “living and learning community” with hundreds of other students and professors all committed to exactly the same end is unlike anything else. You’ve all read the same key books, so can discuss with anyone, during any mealtime, any idea you happen to be thinking about. And, if you’re all equally self-reflexive about your education, a depth of insight is enabled. There’s an emotional and an intellectual seriousness which I believe comes from being a part of such a living and learning community.

Why the definition matters

Does the definition of a liberal education as a self-reflexive education merely restrict what an education could be? Might it hinder more than it helps, or might it miss too many facets of a liberal education to prove useful?

I believe the definition is valuable because it restores education to being about the individual. If a liberal education is a self-reflexive education then, by definition, only you can get yourself an education, and only I can get myself one. The definition allows us to escape whatever we might dislike about the institution of which we are a part, and to escape even many of the outdated strictures of national education systems which encourage mindless conformity more than anything else. It makes an education all about us, as individuals: and it pushes us to continually challenge ourselves, seeking always a deeper and a greater understanding of our own lives and the world around us. A self-reflexive education is, after all, one that encourages above all the Greek dictum to “know thyself”.

The definition does a number of other valuable things, such as:

  • Avoiding reductive dichotomies between a ‘worldly’ education for your career, and one for self-cultivation, for your inner life. If a liberal education is a self-reflexive education then what matters more than whether what you learn serves your career or your soul is whether you are reflective about what you’re wanting out of your education, and how there might be other ends to it.
  • It links us back in a long tradition to most of the key philosophers and theorists of education: to Plato, to Cicero, to Augustine, to Kongzi and Ibn Tufayl, to Newman and Mill, Humboldt and Dewey. Not all of these thinkers wrote about ‘liberal education’, but they did all deal with how we can understand the process of education, its ends, and how we can pursue it.
  • It gives us a means of determining the kinds of activities within an education that are appropriate to the kind of education called ‘liberal’. For instance, pure training in a skill or a book is not appropriate to a liberal education unless it reflects on the ends of learning that skill or reading that book. Merely rote-learning for an exam may have educational value, but unless we are reflexive about that process as part of our education, it doesn’t have value as a liberal education.

Implications of a self-reflexive education

Most of all, understanding a liberal education as a self-reflexive education allows us to ignore those aspects of our education done for tradition and institutional requirements alone, and to restore the focus to our own individual experience of an education. Nothing matters but this: that we get out of our education what we need. This applies both to students, and to educators.

Should institutions choose to adopt this understanding of liberal education I believe it would provide much-needed clarity on what ends, subjects, and activities are appropriate to such an education. It may also give, at a time when liberal education’s value is often questioned, a way of responding to critics by escaping dangerous dichotomies like the liberal-servile one.

But ultimately, understanding the self-reflexivity of a liberal education is about you and me, and our own place within an educational institution. Whatever the institution does or does not do then matters far less in the process of getting out of an education what we need from it.

My Capstone Thesis: Liberal Education Between Self-Cultivation and Citizenship

Today I completed my senior ‘capstone’ thesis at Yale-NUS College. My topic was liberal education—a rather broad and ill-defined topic, but then again part of my project was to uncover what exactly is meant by the term, and what exactly constitutes the education I have supposedly received over the past four years. Supervised by Professor Pericles Lewis, the inaugural president of Yale-NUS, my essay attempted to shed light on the implicit means and ends of a liberal education, all the while moving beyond the kinds of platitudes one might find on a college website.

Two starting points of liberal education, and education in general, as I see them:

  1. A liberal education is a self-reflexive education, defined by how one can question and critique one’s education from within (as I was doing with my thesis, for instance). Other forms of education do not feature this self-reflexivity, but are primarily a unidirectional transfer of knowledge.
  2. The education that students ultimately receive and which faculty aim to impart is determined first and foremost by the way that liberal education is described, explained and discussed. This is because, stuck inside our education, we view as its end whatever ends are most visible to us.

These are ideas which have defined my approach to my own education. Perhaps they come as a result of having attended so many educational institutions, where one by necessity begins to see education from a broad perspective. And they are ideas that I tried to demonstrate and shed light on through the capstone, albeit indirectly: by focussing on assessing key rhetorics of liberal education in history, I hoped that both the self-reflexivity of liberal education and its ultimate ends would be reflected out of the project. The metaphor for it is best demonstrated by Velásquez’ Las Meninas, where the painter stands before the canvas he paints, and yet sees there himself, and his own reflection: the work is the beginning of a continual questioning and critiquing. My project was both a reflection on liberal education, and a reflection of one.

I end the paper with a call for a modern notion of Bildung, or self-cultivation, as Wilhelm von Humboldt and many of the German Romantics used the term. One of the key dichotomies in education today is how it must be both a private, selfish, individual education, undertaken for no other reason than one’s own personal development; but that at the same time we must educate ourselves to be societally useful, that is, to be useful as citizens. The tension is a defining one for the rhetoric of many educational institutions, and in the daily lives of many students: we want our education to be inwardly-focussed, but know we must contribute through our later work.

The genius of the notion of Bildung is that it links the one notion to the other: that by educating ourselves as individuals, we enable ourselves as citizens. It is therefore no longer either/or—either self-cultivation or citizenship—but one before the other (I have argued this in slightly different terms before). Bildung must be drawn out and untethered from its nineteenth century Romantic roots, but from it, I argue in my capstone, we can develop an institutional rhetoric that escapes the dichotomy. And of course, here we return to the two notions I started with—the self-reflexivity of liberal education and its ends achieved through discourse—for institutional rhetoric has the power to shape the education that we as students seek, and which faculty aim to impart to us.

Perhaps I will publish the thesis here at some point. At the very least, it has been interesting to build upon, in an academic way, many of the ideas that seem to have been floating around this blog since my high school years.

 

“We need to rediscover the public good ethos of education”

“There is a certain ‘follow the money’ culture that has been promoted over the past decade that has narrowed some of the wider debate around the overall value of participating in education. It’s not just a private good, it’s a public good. We need to rediscover that ethos.”

Brilliantly put by new Minister for Education Chris Hipkins in a Stuff.co.nz article published today.  And there’s even more:

“A university education is not just about making yourself more employable,” he says. “If you talk to employers about the skills and dispositions they want a graduate to have, they want critical thinkers, people who can digest large volumes of information and make sense of it, who can be analytical. They are talking about the profile of a graduate across a huge breadth of programmes.

“I think we go down a very dangerous path if we say that a university degree is preparation for a particular job. We know that university graduates tend to be pretty adaptable and flexible.”

There are initial statistics to back up the new government’s free tertiary education policy, too: University of Canterbury reported a 20% spike in arts-subject enrolments for next year over 2016 figures. It might be too early to tell if this is a direct response to the Government’s policy, but that high a figure gives a certain indication. And it makes sense: when you’re choosing what to study, not being forced into the “return on investment” logic will lead students naturally to where they can contribute most, and that might just not be in STEM subjects.

This is incredibly promising, and heartening to see the new Labour-NZ First Government straight away attempting to change the fundamental narratives of education, not just policy. I’ve written my own thoughts on the need for a narrative, or “ethos”, shift here; so it shouldn’t be a surprise that I’m so excited about this kind of interview with Hipkins.

The Gate of Wisdom: On Education and Democracy in New Zealand, or, Why We Need the Liberal Arts

 

“To be taught to write or speak—but what is the use of speaking, if you have nothing to say? To be taught to think—nay, what is the use of being able to think, if you have nothing to think of? But to be taught to see is to gain word and thought at once, and both true.”

          — John Ruskin

 

“The eyes are not here

 There are no eyes here…

  Sightless, unless

  The eyes reappear.”

         — T. S. Eliot, The Hollow Men

— — — —

“He opened our eyes.”

That is what my grandparents always said appreciatively about the great, late professor John Beaglehole, scholar of Captain James Cook and one of this country’s foremost public intellectuals. During the many hours they and their classmates were lucky to spend with Beaglehole in his office at Victoria University and at his Karori home they saw a life and a mind filled with the best that had been thought, said, and created in New Zealand. My grandparents’ eyes were opened—opened to the history of this country, the inspirations and the consolations of art and music, and to the idea of a meaningful life spent in service to ideas and causes one believes in.

How different will be the recollections of university students today. We seem, often, to be exhorted not to open our eyes or to create meaningful lives, but rather to go about nothing more than maximising the monetary return on our educational “investment”—as if our time at university were no more than a matter of picking the right stock and knowing when to sell. That there might be more to an education than a ticket to a first job is a possibility rarely discussed, never praised; that we might learn of morals and values, or a sense of our responsibilities as individuals and as citizens, seems altogether too hard to believe, let alone to write about. Our present educational zeitgeist was summed up neatly by the Productivity Commission’s recent report on “New Models of Tertiary Education”, in which higher education has become naught but a matter of efficiency—professors, reduced merely to staff; students, to future workers. The report recommended that the government only fund university study based on the number and type of workers the country will need. It was all very well if we are intent on educating a nation of employees. Less so, if we are to be a country made up of citizens.

New Zealanders seem to me to be a people who understand implicitly that dollars are impotent when it comes to measuring the important things in life. Things like being able to take a walk in fresh air along the local beach, or the importance of our children having, you know, a childhood, rather than studying all night from age five. Whatever side of politics one lies on, I’ve always thought that we shared an essential belief in a Kiwi way of life being more important than money; that we all implicitly push against a system that sees children becoming automatons for the sake of economic gain.

So what I don’t understand is why, then, when it comes to our universities, we are a country that has so quickly and so readily given up the belief that there might be another kind of value in them. Values like individual discovery and civic responsibility: the opening of one’s eyes to what a good life might look like, and a belief in the power and obligations of citizenship. Why do we not see that it is precisely our education that determines the kind of values we see throughout life? Or how, in our eagerness to educate ourselves, and our children, merely for a first job, we miss out on the real ‘value’ that an education can provide? And why do we not remember, ultimately, that it is our education system that determines this country’s future: whether we slide easily into a winner-takes-all politics of the Trump era, or whether we are able to preserve some sense of community and some of the values we think to be uniquely our own?

This is about the future of education in this country. It’s therefore also about the future of our democracy. But most broadly, it’s about the victory of one kind of value at the ‘expense’ of all others: the extension of the tyranny of money and metrics into the very last place that can assert and preserve the value of all that is unmeasurable, including those things we New Zealanders value most highly.

It seems clear where we are heading. Yet thankfully these days distance seems not so tyrannical, and most of the time even beneficial. Might we use it to our advantage, looking with clear eyes at the future we are so eagerly running towards—and might we then step back from it; chart a different course?

— — — —

An article in a major New Zealand newspaper late last year called it the “Bachelor of Bugger All”—yes, that very kind of education that John Beaglehole so dedicatedly taught. The cheap formula summed up the prevailing attitude. Even people close to me have said similar about the Bachelor of Arts, in barely more polite terms. While clearly the ‘BA’ debate is alive and well in this country, what we don’t often think about is how circumstantial the terms of the debate here in New Zealand are—how our very understanding of the Bachelor of Arts is a result of the relative oddities of the development of our tertiary education system.

The history of the ‘arts’ is a long one. The term itself comes not from any reference to art or culture, but from the Greek idea of the ‘liberal arts’—liberal meaning done freely, or without compulsion, and arts meaning simply ways of doing things. In New Zealand we seem to have honed in on the less important of those two words, for it is the ‘liberal’ that matters more than the ‘arts’. The term ‘arts’ has no useful value on its own, for any way of doing something is an ‘art’.

The liberal arts always were contrasted with what can be called the instrumental arts—instrumental as in, done to achieve a productive, utilitarian end. For instance, writing is a skill that must be trained at, and when I write I attempt to manipulate words in order to persuade. Similarly, a pilot manipulates the controls in the cockpit of an airplane in order to safely fly passengers between two destinations. Instrumental arts require deep skill, as well as years of training and practice that often happens best in an educational institution.

But the liberal arts, by contrast, are not learned or studied for such practical ends. Learning about philosophy, or history, or reading literature (centrepieces of such an education): we study these not to get a job in these fields, but rather because these traditions help us to answer prior, human questions. Questions like what instrumental skills are worth learning, or what work one should dedicate oneself to; what a healthy democracy looks like, and how we can contribute to one. The liberal arts help us to determine what is worth wanting and what is worth doing, before we go about achieving those ends through instrumental arts we possess or may learn. The liberal arts are not productive in the way we usually understand the term (as immediately economically useful) and are therefore frequently criticised as useless, or impractical. But their role might in fact be to help us determine what is worth our valuing, and why.

It can be tempting here to keep the liberal and the instrumental arts dichotomised, to assume that one is for the more intellectual, the other for the more practical person. But in reality the one is useless without the other; they are two sides of the same coin. Knowing, from the liberal arts, what is worth doing and what is worth wanting is of limited ‘use’ if one cannot go about also achieving those things. We may decide that a given vaccine is of great importance to human health worldwide, but without instrumental arts like biology we cannot go about producing it. Contrariwise, knowing how to do many things, or how to produce a certain good or service, could be actively harmful if one does not first know whether that good or service is worth producing, worth humans’ wanting. Instrumental arts—science—created the atomic bomb, but no one asked the prior question of whether it should be created.

The one is not more important than the other, but the order in which we learn them does matter. This is something the American higher education system has right, amidst its many failings. In the United States, almost all undergraduate degrees are ‘arts’ degrees as we would understand them in New Zealand (they refer to theirs, more properly, as a system of ‘liberal education’). At Yale, for example, the only degree options at the undergraduate level are a BA or a BSc with Honours, completed over four years. And even under the BSc option, a number of what are called ‘distribution requirements’ necessitate that all undergraduates take a set of courses across all fields—philosophy, literature, history, art, science, math. All undergraduate degrees in America are ‘arts’ degrees as we call them.

That’s right: no law, no medicine, no commerce at the undergraduate level in the United States, those very vocations that here we seem to believe must be studied from age 18. In America, one studies these instrumental arts at a postgraduate ‘school’, once you have first spent four years immersing yourself in the liberal arts, so as to have a broad sense of the world before embarking on a narrow discipline of study. This strikes me as a sensible system, as I’ve come to see the interests and aspirations I held at age 18 change over the course of my education. For just how many young Kiwis know upon leaving high school what vocation they should dedicate themselves to for life? Where here in New Zealand I might have been forced to immediately turn youthful interests into a career, in my liberal arts education I’ve had the freedom to explore, to attempt to open my eyes to the world before specialising at a postgraduate level. In the words of the former president of an American undergraduate college, a liberal arts education is first and foremost about “making the inside of your head an interesting place to spend the rest of your life.” A rather essential undertaking, one should think.

(I wonder, too, whether the United States’ economic success could in fact be due, at least in part, to the liberal arts system; whether their economic productivity could even be because of this time taken for intellectual breadth, rather than in spite of it.)

When we talk about ‘arts’ degrees, we are trying but failing to talk about liberal education: the idea that every young person should have the opportunity to explore and to survey what life offers before embarking on vocational career training—the opportunity to have their “eyes opened” to the world before inevitably closing off parts of it. This is not such a radical idea. One might even say it is common sense.

But the irony is this: it is liberal education, the asking of “what” and “why” before “how”, that allows us to see other kinds of value in the world aside from the kind with dollar signs before it. The more we view the value of an education in terms of a “return on investment”—the more we favour pre-professional and vocational courses at the undergraduate level—the more quickly we move away from the very kind of education that most allows us to see and to understand a plurality of values; the less capacity we have to understand other values in education, like individual development and civic responsibility. It is an inexorable shift towards a society and a world of only one kind of value, and great minds have worried it may be irreversible.

We are talking about education here, yes. But education is about the kind of world we want to live in—what values we hope for our children to have, what priority we wish to give to all the different spheres of human activity. The kind of education system we shape in the coming decades will shape the kind of New Zealand we have in the decades after. Forgive me, then, for thinking the ‘arts’ degree debate has very great consequences, and is worth more than a flippant article about a “bachelor of bugger all”. Forgive me for worrying that I and my peers might not be able to speak reverently in old age about a professor who “opened our eyes”—who showed us what a good life, and a healthy society, might look like.

— — — —

Institutions we have long taken for granted seem these days to be, like New Zealand itself, on more shaky ground. Democracy most of all has taken a battering, or at least is being stretched to the limits of its political possibilities. Democratic engagement is at an all-time low in many parts of the world, at the same time as the consequences of politics have arguably never been greater. Young people feel disengaged, disenfranchised; many baby boomers, with sheer voting power, seem intent on a fallacious golden-ageism, putting up barriers at the same time as young people seem most to want them taken down. Fraying of the social fabric is producing an extremism reminiscent of the early to mid 20th century, and we in New Zealand feel perhaps for the first time thankful for a distance from Europe and the Americas. Yet we worry, nonetheless, of when and how our own politics may take a similar turn.

A democracy is made up of citizens. That citizens are individuals is self-evident, but it is rarely recognised that the inverse does not hold: not all individuals are citizens in a sense that has any meaning. To be a true citizen an individual must think themselves one. They must see themselves as political subjects, and therefore political actors; they must recognise their own power to shape politics and the responsibility that the benefits of citizenship require. One is born a citizen only in law. In fact, one must become a citizen. We learn to be one.

Might there be a relationship between an ever-increasing vocationalism at the undergraduate level—characteristics that encourage, even necessitate, a coldly rational individualism—and the fragmenting of and disengagement from politics? In other words, when we educate ourselves only for jobs instead of to “open our eyes”, do we lose sight of ourselves as being more than individual workers—do we lose sight of ourselves as citizens?

I do think there is a relationship. And I worry it might be very strong.

For there is an uncanny resemblance between the kinds of questions a liberal arts education requires us to think about, and the kinds of skills and thought that being a citizen requires. The relationship isn’t a chance one: the very system of the liberal arts, from where we still today derive our notion of an ‘arts’ education, is a product of Athens—Athens, the democracy, from where the concept of citizenship itself first came to be.

It is the task of citizens to first and foremost answer fundamental questions about their community. Questions like: how should we live? What do we value most highly? Who in our community is deserving of care and protection? These are questions of what we should do, and what we should want—the kinds of questions we learn to answer not through any practical or vocational training, but through having our eyes opened to the world. Literature, philosophy, art and history: we struggle with understanding their ‘value’ precisely because their value lies in helping us to determine what to value. We read a novel and learn of how others have lived across the ages, we see how people could act in certain situations. We judge our own lives and our own communities against the results, coming to conclusions about what to want, what to do—conclusions which through our power to vote and to act politically we then introduce into a healthy democracy.

Instead today we are all concerned with the secondary questions, those of how to do things. How to ‘solve’ a housing crisis and how to protect our rivers. But we are simultaneously trying to grow our economy: increase our exports, raise tourist numbers. Remember that the housing crisis is a housing boon to property owners, and unswimmable rivers are the result of a thriving farming industry. When we only focus on the ‘how’, we will reach divergent conclusions, for individuals see far less the effects of their own self-interest on other members of the community. We think that every ‘problem’ supposedly has a solution, yet because we never ask all the prior questions—because we do not know how to ask the human questions —we trip over ourselves, contradict ourselves, and then we wonder what’s going wrong. Technocracy can only ever answer the how, never the what or the why; it takes a stab at the ‘public interest’, so frequently forgetting that ‘interest’ can mean much more than money.

A healthy democracy, with an engaged and aware citizenry, goes hand in hand with a liberal education, an education for life rather than for a career. In literature we read of what another life might be like: we are put behind Rawls’ veil of ignorance, and learn what life is like when we cannot afford a home, or when land we have known to be sacred is taken from us and then soiled. In philosophy we learn a vocabulary for life’s important things: a vocabulary of morals and values, and an understanding of what foundations these values must stand upon. In history we learn not to repeat our ancestors’ mistakes; in art, we are called to live more honestly. We all need to have a common language with which to talk about the prior, more human questions that come before technocratic action, and this language is the result of an education worthy of citizens, rather than one solely for our careers.

Stuck inside the straitjacket we have all been educated into, it is often difficult to see how what our democracy needs may be different to what our economy needs—how human value may lie somewhere other than economic value. Yet that is what we must see if we at all believe that education affects the health of our democracy, not just the productivity of our workforce.

— — — —

In the Rutherford Building of Victoria University’s campus in central Wellington hangs an enormous painting, over ten metres wide and three metres tall. Its scale is the first thing one cannot help but notice: it towers over you, envelops you, makes you feel quite tiny. But because of that it also seems to give us something to aspire to.

Painted by Colin McCahon in 1970, it is one of his works to declare ‘I AM’ in giant letters that soar above us. We might read the assertion of I AM differently in different times, but recently this declaration has seemed to me to be a challenge, asking us: WHO ARE YOU? The painting is sure of its self, but are we, New Zealanders, sure of our selves?

Between the ‘I’ and the ‘A’ of ‘I AM’ there is, in McCahon’s iconic scrawl, a passage of text that reads:

“Teach us to order

our days rightly,

that we may enter

the gate

of

wisdom.”

A statement of education if there ever were one. For what is wisdom but knowledge that we can apply to our lives?

The painting was purchased on behalf of Victoria University by Tim Beaglehole, son of my grandparents’ professor John, a man who himself opened so many of his students’ eyes during his life as a professor and later as chancellor of the university. Tim sadly died two years ago, yet I recently came across a video of him explaining why he thought the Victoria University art collection must have this painting.

In the video Beaglehole explains that a passage like the one above is, on the one hand, a religious text. Isn’t a secular university then an odd place, he asks, for a religious painting to hang? “But I didn’t see it that way at all”, Tim explains: “because I think a university too is concerned with the whole nature of life—and what we can make of it.”

We all need an education of the Beaglehole kind as individuals, if we are to live lives filled with meaning. And New Zealand needs its young people to have an education that opens their eyes to the whole nature of life, and what they can make of it, if this country is to find its own way in this Oedipus-like century, a century in which nations are seemingly intent on ignoring all prophecies and one day in desperation putting out their own eyes.

 


Privately circulated first in May 2017. Thank you to all who provided feedback and comments on the first drafts of this essay. 

Feature image of McCahon’s Gate III from Victoria University of Wellington’s Victorious Magazine, Autumn 2014.

The John Ruskin epigraph was added in September 2018 after a summer’s reading of Ruskin and my realisation that his whole project was concerned with giving sight.

On The Uses Of A Liberal Education: As “Lite Entertainment for Bored College Students”

Mark Edmundson Harper's On the Uses of a Liberal Education, as Lite Entertainment for Bored College StudentsIt is teacher evaluation day. The professor’s final spiel for the semester has just concluded, and they leave the classroom so we can sum up a semester’s worth of learning and frustration in a five minute questionnaire. “Please rank, on a scale of 1 to 5, how well this professor helped you to engage with course concepts.” Student translation: “Please rank, on a scale of 1 to 5, how annoyed you at times got with this class, how funny and relaxed the professor was, whether you’re satisfied with the grade you think they’ll give you, and don’t forget to take into account whether you’re having a good day today”. The reductionism of the activity extends to the point of absurdity, but perhaps teacher evaluation is, after all, merely the catharsis at the end of a tragedy. That tragedy is the failure of a given class to live up to the promise of a liberal education—a tragedy replayed in thousands of classrooms at hundreds of universities.

It doesn’t always happen like that. I’ve had fantastic classes that have challenged me in precisely the ways I think a liberal education should. But the experience of just “making it through” a class is one that everyone has, all too often—both students and professors.

In September 1997, Harper’s Magazine published a section titled “On The Uses Of A Liberal Education.” The section contained two essays, each making a very different point largely because of the very different perspectives from which the two authors looked at education. First was Mark Edmundson’s, which acerbically described liberal education as “Lite entertainment for bored college students”.

Edmundson is a professor of English at the University of Virginia, and his essay is written in the tone of a disgruntled traditionalist. Those are two positions that I should, technically, find it hard to relate to. And yet parts of the essay resonated. They resonated in the way they captured the promise of liberal education and its on-the-ground failure in too many classrooms at too many universities. But most importantly, the essay resonated in how it captured the individual responsibility of both students and professors to recapture what they believe a liberal education should be about.

Edmundson begins his essay with a picture that should be familiar:

“A college student getting a liberal arts education ponders filling out a questionnaire that includes an opportunity for him to evaluate his instructor. At times it appears that the purpose of his education is just to entertain him.”

I do wonder whether it is a mistake to set up liberal education as depending so heavily on the image of the classroom. The classroom is but one component of a real education, yet frequently Edmundson seems to talk about them as if all education happened in the class. Regardless, he uses this image, and what it means for professors, to explain how education and consumer culture have moved closer and closer together. When a student praises Edmundson for “presenting this difficult, important & controversial material in an enjoyable and approachable way”, he finds himself rejecting the complement.

“Thanks but no thanks. I don’t teach to amuse, to divert, or even, for that matter, to be merely interesting. When someone says she “enjoyed” the course — and that word crops up again and again in my evaluations — somewhere at the edge of my immediate complacency I feel encroaching self-dislike. That is not at all what I had in mind… I want some of them to say that they’ve been changed by the course. I want them to measure themselves against what they’ve read.

Consumer culture leads students to seek “enjoyable experiences” in their education. Admissions departments have become marketing departments, Edmundson muses, and he thinks its no surprise that students expect the pleasant, fun view of the college they had from the brochures to continue while they’re there. Students necessarily search in their education for what the marketing departments told them they were buying.

“Is it a surprise, then, that this generation of students — steeped in consumer culture before going off to school, treated as potent customers by the university well before their date of arrival, then pandered to from day one until the morning of the final kiss-off from Kermit or one of his kin — are inclined to see the books they read as a string of entertainments to be placidly enjoyed or languidly cast down? Given the way universities are now administered (which is more and more to say, given the way that they are currently marketed), is it a shock that the kids don’t come to school hot to learn, unable to bear their own ignorance? For some measure of self-dislike, or self-discontent — which is much different than simple depression — seems to me to be a prerequisite for getting an education that matters. My students, alas, usually lack the confidence to acknowledge what would be their most precious asset for learning: their ignorance.”

And from this, we get a vision for what liberal education should be about.

“The aim of a good liberal-arts education was once, to adapt an observation by the scholar Walter Jackson Bate, to see that “we need not be the passive victims of what we deterministically call “circumstances” (social, cultural, or reductively psychological-personal), but that by linking ourselves through what Keats calls an ‘immortal free-masonry’ with the great we can become freer — freer to be ourselves, to be what we most want and value.”

And then, a vision for what the world will look like if we don’t live up to liberal education’s ideal.

“What happens if we keep trudging along this bleak course? What happens if our most intelligent students never learn to strive to overcome what they are? What if genius, and the imitation of genius, become silly, outmoded ideas? What you’re likely to get are more and more one-dimensional men and women. These will be people who live for easy pleasures, for comfort and prosperity, who think of money first, then second, and third, who hug the status quo; people who believe in God as a sort of insurance policy (cover your bets); people who are never surprised. They will be people so pleased with themselves (when they’re not in despair at the general pointlessness of their lives) that they cannot imagine humanity could do better. They’ll think it their highest duty to clone themselves as frequently as possible. They’ll claim to be happy, and they’ll live a long time.”

It was the very end of Edmundson’s essay that struck me as most important. Where it was sometimes strange to relate to Edmundson’s disgruntled style and his position as a professor, I think his summing up places the burden squarely on every individual student and every professor for making their education what it should truly be about. And rightly so.

“Ultimately, though, it is up to individuals — and individual students in particular — to make their own way against the current sludgy tide. There’s still the library, still the museum, there’s still the occasional teacher who lives to find things greater than herself to admire. There are still fellow students who have not been cowed. Universities are inefficient, cluttered, archaic places, with many unguarded comers where one can open a book or gaze out onto the larger world and construe it freely. Those who do as much, trusting themselves against the weight of current opinion, will have contributed something to bringing this sad dispensation to an end.”

Edmundson’s essay presents that powerful statement of individual responsibility in education. This was what I disagreed most with Bill Deresiewicz on, when in his book Excellent Sheep he seems to place the burden of responsibility for liberal education on university administrators. I said then that I think the right tools for a proper education—a “self-inflicted wound” as Deresiewicz calls it—do exist at universities, but it is entirely for students to want them, to look for them and to use them.

NZ Media on the BA Degree: “Bachelor of Bugger All”

The BA’s reputation has been progressively eroded – no-one seems to know exactly how or why. It became seen as the degree for people who didn’t know what they wanted to do. The degree for layabouts seeking fewer teaching hours. The degree for lightweights without the smarts to do anything else.

And then came the jokes: “What did the arts graduate say to the science graduate? ‘Would you like fries with that?’

In a world of high university fees and high youth unemployment, the acid of negativity seems to be finally etching its mark.

In the face of falling enrolments, Otago University plans to cut about 16 staff in five arts departments. Victoria University is restructuring its language departments, with job losses, after student numbers fell up to 30 per cent in five years. Auckland University arts enrolments have dived 9 per cent since 2010. Nationwide, arts deans are desperately talking up their degrees and reshaping their structure to make graduates more employable.

It’s one of the first questions prospective BA students ask Liz Medford: Is it going to get me a job?

The Victoria University careers manager has been dishing out advice for 29 years. She’s surveyed 300-odd employers since 1996 and their demands have barely changed – verbal and written communication, analysis, problem-solving, teamwork.

“The skills of a BA are just as useful today as they’ve ever been.”

What has changed is higher fees and parents and students opting for the security of a degree that appears more marketable. But there has to be time for exploration, she says.

Stuff.co.nz, “The university debate – a place for passion or a ticket to a job?”, 17 December 2016

As I’ve previously written, vocational or professional degrees are about how to do things—how to be a lawyer, or a doctor, or a businessperson—whereas an arts degree is about what you should do. The BA is about having time and space to explore intellectually so that you can then make a properly informed decision about the vocation you wish to commit to—which can then be studied at the postgraduate level. It’s an expensive use of time, to be sure—but it has always seemed to me far more expensive to wake up one day towards the end of a vocational degree, or even later, only to have worked out that that’s not what you want to do for the rest of your life.

That’s why I’m such a proponent of the US higher education system, because the BA and BSc are structurally built in as the only option for an undergraduate degree. It’s a real shame that articles like this one—in addition to propagating nasty generalisations and stereotypes—fail to point out alternative systems, taking ours as universal.

A Guide for Non-Americans: What is “college” and how does it differ from university?

An introduction to American higher education and the liberal arts for New Zealanders and Australians considering tertiary study in the US

Applying as a New Zealander to study for university in the United States was a daunting process. There were so many things I’d never heard of: the SATs, the Common App, “safety schools”, “reach schools”, financial aid, liberal arts, to name just a few. But I think what made the process most daunting right from the start—and what made it difficult to find the right information—was that I didn’t understand the fundamental terms to describe the university itself in the American system.

Americans do not go to university for undergraduate study. They go to “college”. In New Zealand everyone talks about going to “uni” straight out of high school, and we’ll be choosing between doing law, medicine, commerce, engineering, architecture, and other vocational degrees. But when you go to American universities’ websites to look at studying those things, you’ll soon see that all of them require a “college” degree as a prerequisite. And no, that doesn’t mean a high school diploma, despite us in NZ using “college” to refer to high school. This can all be overwhelming and can make little sense for those of us in countries that follow a roughly “British” model of education, and it’s something I get asked about often. So here’s a brief guide.

The first thing to know is that in the American system of higher education (that’s what we call “tertiary” education), you can only complete a Bachelor of Arts or a Bachelor of Science for your undergraduate degree. That’s right—no BCom, MB ChB, LLB, BAS, BE etc. In the United States, your undergraduate degree will only be a BA or a BSc, with honours, and it will take you four years to complete. (There are some exceptions to this rule, but they are in a very small minority). The “honours” part is usually not optional, as it is in Australia or New Zealand—if you get into the college, you’re going to do the honours part of the degree. This is why you’ll often hear many top schools in the United States called “honours colleges”, because simply by being admitted, every student is doing an honours program—it’s not something you apply for in your third year of study depending on how well you’ve done so far, as it is in New Zealand and Australia.

The term “college” itself comes from the fact that traditionally, higher education in America was conducted at liberal arts colleges. There were no universities. Yale was Yale College, not Yale University. Harvard was likewise Harvard College. These were usually small institutions at which students spent four years (as they do today) and completed a BA(Hons) (as they do today), and what made them truly unique was that all students lived on campus accommodation for all four years of their education (as they do today). Very often, professors lived and dined with students as well (as they often still do today!) So “college” is a physical place where you live and study for four years while completing your undergraduate education.

Universities later grew up around the colleges and began to offer professional or vocational degrees, which in the American system can only be studied at the postgraduate level. Yale University today, for instance, is now comprised of fourteen “schools”—one of which is Yale College, the only part of Yale to offer an undergraduate education. The other thirteen schools all offer postgraduate degrees, and twelve of them offer professional/vocational degrees—law, medicine, architecture, business, and so on. And yes, you first need an undergraduate “college” degree (or an equivalent undergraduate degree from another country) to gain admission into one of the “schools”.

So “colleges” are now often small parts of overall universities in the United States, but they remain an important centre for the whole institution. Sometimes, the original colleges declined to set up larger universities around the small college—these are now usually referred to as “small liberal arts colleges”, where the whole institution still only offers a BA or a BSc with Honours. Examples are Pomona College, Swarthmore College, Amherst, Williams, Wellesley, Haverford, Middlebury, Carleton, to name some of the better known ones.

One other thing to note is that because you live on campus in the American college, you will be placed in a specific residential college for your four years of study. While studying at Yale College, for example (itself one of the fourteen schools of Yale University), I was placed into Branford College, one of the fourteen constituent residential colleges that make up Yale College. Each of the fourteen colleges is its own residential community with student rooms, a dining hall, a courtyard, and other facilities. (Fourteen is not a significant number; it’s merely random that that is the number of schools and colleges at Yale.) Each residential college will have a “Rector” or a “Head”, who is responsible for your residential life, as well as numerous other staff. Residential colleges truly are like smaller families or communities within the larger college, which itself is a smaller part of the overall university. (That’s a lot of uses of the word “college”—I hope it’s all clear!)

In New Zealand and Australia, as well as many other countries, we have a certain disdain for “arts degrees”. The implication is that students who do an arts degree either weren’t smart enough to get into a program like law or medicine, or simply wanted an easy time at university. I got a great deal of flack from friends and friends’ parents when I was applying to US universities when they heard I would be doing an arts degree—they assumed I was giving up and wanted to party at university, as is often the stereotype here in New Zealand. But in the United States, this couldn’t be further from the reality, since all undergraduate programs are what we call “arts degrees”. The American model of higher education is entirely built around the arts degree, and it is virtually impossible to study anything other than an arts degree for your undergraduate education. Even doing a BSc for your undergraduate years will require you to have taken many courses in the humanities and social sciences—the BSc is essentially an indication that you majored in a science subject at college, and intend to pursue some kind of science-related study for your postgraduate degree.

This emphasis on the arts in the American system, and the impossibility of doing any professional or vocational study for undergraduate education, gets to the heart of what makes higher education in the US truly unique. It all comes down to “liberal education”, or the “liberal arts degree”. The term is widely misunderstood, even in the United States, and yet it’s critical to understanding US colleges and to determining whether study in the US might be for you.

Here’s how I explain liberal education: whereas university study in Australia and New Zealand is concerned with learning how to do things—how to be a lawyer, or a doctor, or a businessperson, and so on—undergraduate college education in the United States is intended to be about learning what you should do. 

Let’s delve into this a bit more. Undergraduate liberal arts colleges in the US—and those based on the US model, like Yale-NUS College in Singapore, where I study—often sell themselves based on the breadth of education you’ll receive. The idea is that whereas in Australia or NZ we immediately do highly specialised professional degrees and learn little outside that subject area, in the US undergraduate education is about broadening one’s mind, trying a whole range of subjects, and essentially having four years to explore intellectually before committing to a “vocation” which you will study at the postgraduate level. You’ll choose a “major”, which is the area you think you’re most interested in, but often there is a “common curriculum” or “distribution requirements” that forces you to take a range of subjects and classes outside that area. At Yale-NUS, for instance, one’s major (mine is Philosophy, Politics and Economics, for instance) is only 30% of all the courses that you take during the four years.

Breadth is an important characteristic of the liberal arts, but it is not the defining characteristic. What breadth achieves—and the reason all liberal arts colleges offer it—is that the point of your undergraduate education is to figure out what you want in life. Liberal education is about having four years to learn not about how to do things, though that may indeed be a part of your education, but instead to explore so that you can work out what you should want to do. Instead of asking during your undergraduate years, “How do I be a doctor, or a lawyer, or a journalist?”, liberal education is about asking “Should I want to be a doctor? Or should I be a writer instead?” It’s about using classes, and professors, and books, and mealtimes every day in the dining hall with friends and teachers, to learn about yourself for four years before committing to a profession or a vocation. With those four years of exploration, you should then be much more confident in the decisions you make about what to do with the rest of your life. And, of course, you then specialise to become a lawyer or a doctor during your postgraduate study.

Another way of explaining it is that university in Australia or New Zealand trains you to be a specialist in a certain subject area in which you’ll work for life; college in the US educates you on what it means to be human, so you’re more sure of what you should later train to be.

There are, of course, advantages and disadvantages to each system. In the US you’re more likely to become a well-rounded human being with wide-ranging knowledge and interests, and you’re more likely to be confident and sure of what vocation you choose to commit to by the time you think about postgraduate education and beyond. The downside is that you spend an extra four years doing this, whereas in Australia and New Zealand (as well as South Africa, India, and really anywhere that has developed its education system from the British model) you would spend that time specialising and then beginning your career earlier. You can therefore find yourself further behind in a career than those who had studied the vocation for their undergraduate study. A college education, then, is a luxury; not everyone can afford it, and we should remember that this kind of choice in education is a huge privilege.

Which system better suits you is therefore an individual choice, though I personally am a strong proponent of taking the extra time to learn about ourselves and the rest of our lives that comes from the American system. I think it encourages people to discover what truly matters to them—what kind of interests and work you’re willing to devote your life to. Without being very sure of the decision you make in the Australian and New Zealand education systems, you might find yourself waking up in your mid-twenties realising that the degree you’ve spent five or more years training for is in fact not what you want to do with the rest of your life. That’s a costly and disappointing realisation to have. Studying at an American college, by contrast, will give you a foundational understanding of yourself—will have (if it lives up to its ideal) helped you answer the questions of what you should do with your life, rather than how to do it—that will help you be a good person, whatever you later go on to do. Of course, you can have this kind of education for yourself in an Australian or New Zealand university by structuring your own education: you can do a BA(Hons) as you would in the United States. This is a great option, but you will need a degree of self-motivation and determination that you might not need at college in the US; here, you’ll face the stigma attached to “arts degrees” and won’t have the encouragement to explore intellectually that you would at a US college.

I’ll leave it there, and further note only that the picture I’ve painted of US colleges is a kind of ideal type. The degree to which colleges live up to that ideal will depend on the institution, and even down to the classes you take and professors you get—but nonetheless the fundamentals stand. That’s a brief primer on colleges vs universities, and what truly makes the American “liberal arts college” unique. Feel free to leave a comment or contact me if you have other questions, and I can always delve into specifics on other college-related questions in another blog post.

To end, here’s some additional reading I strongly recommend to anyone who is interested in the US higher education system and the difference between education and training:

Why Teach?, by Mark Edmundson

The Voice of Liberal Learning, by Michael Oakeshott

College: What it Was, Is and Should Be, by Andrew Delbanco

In Defense of a Liberal Education, by Fareed Zakaria