Cultivating the intellect
by Anne Schmiesing
I have a few brief additions to the discourse about the purpose of education. First, in the last issue of the Concourse, Jason Negri seemed to equate “liberal arts” with the humanities. That is a common view, but is it a right one? Ben Brown, in the April 12 issue suggested that the humanities ought to “include parts of mathematics and natural science.” My understanding is that the humanities are those disciplines (i.e. philosophy, theology, history and language) which concern human affairs and conventions. Although humanities may exclude mathematics and studies of natural processes, the liberal arts are broader and ought to include not only the humanities, but mathematics, the natural sciences and perhaps some other disciplines as well.
Consider the medieval model of liberal arts—the trivium (grammar, logic and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (music, geometry, arithmetic and astronomy). The multiplicity of disciplines suggests that truth is best understood when examining it from a variety of perspectives, and that a person formed in the liberal arts would be a well-rounded person with knowledge of a broad range of subjects. The specific branches of learning held up as the medieval ideals also suggest that a liberal education is intended not only for personal edification, but also for practical purposes. Though logic is certainly beneficial for the personal attainment of truth, the three components of the trivium seem oriented toward the molding of a person not only so that he will be conversant with truth itself, but also capable of engaging the society around him and disseminating truth. The components of the trivium, especially grammar and rhetoric, involve, to some degree, interpersonal communication skills.
To address the legitimate concerns aired by Jason Negri and others, if part of liberal education is the teaching of communication skills, perhaps as modes of communication develop—as they have with the rise of computer technology—liberal education ought to be adapted accordingly. Note, however, that writing is not listed in the hierarchy of the trivium and quadrivium, but is taken for granted as something a learned person would know, just as computer communication skills should be today. Both are essential for a modern educated person, but neither writing nor computer literacy is considered to have a place in the hierarchy of knowledge. I think all the participants of this discussion have agreed that computer skills (as well as some other skills) are necessary in today’s world, but the underlying question has been what should be the place and extent of required training in computer skills in a liberal arts institution. I have addressed to some degree the place, but the amount is left for further deliberation. I believe that a proper liberal education alone—not merely an education in humanities—can make students more marketable, and a liberal arts education will only enhance professional training.
Finally, with Ben Brown, I uphold the value of a liberal arts education “for its perfecting and fulfilling of the human person” (as he put it). Only a liberal education, aimed at perfecting human persons can be good in itself. Even if it falls short of its goal—as it inevitably will—it is still of great value for the effort. I question, though, the value of “education for its own sake” in the case of a poor or inadequate liberal arts education. Brown identifies education with a cultivated intellect, but what is a cultivated intellect? If the intellect were a garden, would we call it cultivated if it were full of weeds? That is, if it loved what was base while erroneously perceiving the object of its nurturing as something good? Perhaps we could say one’s intellect is developed or “grown” by an education—whether that education is good or bad—but it can only be cultivated by an education not only seeking truth, but also adhering to truth.
Anne (Lodzinski, ‘96) Schmiesing