The Liberal Arts and Time’s Arrow

“Liberal Arts Education” as a concept is unfortunately dominated by its own legacy.

When most of us think about the liberal arts our thoughts tend to look backwards.  Some of us fondly recall our own liberal arts educations and the value we perceive it to have had for us.  Or we think about what we’ve been teaching for years and years.  Or we hearken back to the invention of the modern liberal arts in the late nineteenth century or to the classical liberal arts of the middle ages.

If you listen carefully, you can almost hear us thinking, “If it was good enough then, it’s good enough now…”

But it’s easy to miss something important.  To understand what a liberal arts education is we should not simply look at the lists in the course catalogs of bygone eras.  Instead we should look functionally at how those lists fit into their time.  Generically, what the liberal arts are is a collection of intellectual disciplines that are appropriate to the training of generalists in their time, of subjects, the mastery of which provides a foundation, a launching platform, for the leaders of an age.

I think that, often, both those who feel an imperative to discard the liberal arts and those who feel the imperative to preserve them come at the question with the wrong idea.

A higher education system that well serves the society that supports it will have a diverse array of parts. Some parts need to be tuned to producing experts at delivering current practice in the professions. Some parts need to be highly specialized, training people to be experts at producing the things of today and solving immediate problems to create the things of tomorrow. And some parts need to prepare people to solve the problems we don’t yet know that we have. And we need to train people who can move back and forth among the various experts, who can consolidate their work into emergent solutions for emerging problems. And we need people who have broad capacities to examine and understand the very system in which all the above perform. And some parts of it train people broadly prior to their becoming one of those specialists so that the narrowness of their training does not become a liability.

The mistake that the discarders make is to see the importance of the practically trained and the expertly trained as telling us that we do not need the more generally trained.

The mistake of the defenders is to think that yesterday will always tell us how to train those generalists of tomorrow.

Our challenge as educators is to look forward to figure out what the liberal arts for the 21st century should look like. It’s not an easy task, to be sure. But the first right step to take is to be sure we are facing in the correct direction.

Author: Dan Ryan

I'm currently an Academic Program Director at I've been a professor at University of Toronto, University of Southern California, and Mills College teaching things like human centered design, computational thinking, modeling for policy sciences, and social theory. I'm driven by the desire to figure out how to teach twice as many twice as well twice as easily.

One thought on “The Liberal Arts and Time’s Arrow”

  1. Well said. To briefly defend the defenders, I think that rather than saying that yesterday's liberal arts will be best for the generalists of tomorrow, some of us are saying that disciplinary thinking and expertise has a structure that reflects our current knowledge. We try to do is structure the majors to best give students a solid basis in what knowledge we currently have. This is of course based on “yesterday,” but as far as science goes, yesterday is all we got. I guess you want the yesterday to be as close to today as possible, but that matters in some courses more than others. Of course, we could all try to be more current, but much of the content in research methods and statistics courses are pretty timeless, as far as I am concerned. Of course, I try to bring in modern examples, but the concepts themselves are fairly old. I probably spend more time thinking about what is pedagogically appropriate for general psychology, or research methods and statistics, than what is appropriate for the 21st century, and I think that is actually the way it should be.

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