A New Liberal Arts

for the new century



As the first decade of this fast-moving and competitive 21st century moves along, the whole subject of the college Liberal Arts, and how they fit in with the needs and uses of the society at large, is now due for discussion and re-evaluation. We live in a period of great change but the colleges, with their a strong interest in maintaining an image, a familiar catalog curriculum, and of course a staff and the student customers, have been slow to adapt. By now colleges are now fairly large businesses and as such, standing under the final control of state legislatures or private boards, they tend to proceed with small and cautious steps into the future educational world.

In the post WW II period of economic expansion, there was a need in the business world for a kind of well-rounded, verbally facile person who had a general knowledge of our cultural background. Such a person, who could talk with anyone on an educated conversational level, went easily into a personnel, sales or eventually an administrative position in an expanding business. The slogan everywhere was about "the well rounded person", and that fit the bill well enough for the time being. But as times changed, we found there was ever more need for people who knew a great deal about certain things, rather than a general smattering of many things.

We are now living in a clearly business oriented society, one which values up-to-date knowledge of a long roster of expanding techniques, where the final word is finally some variant of the bottom dollar. We may cloud the crassness of this view with an occasional bow to the Humanities as our spiritual source, but the new Global World is economically and not culturally based. The first few years of the new millennium have made that quite clear.

American Education has graduated into the business world, mainly in order to survive and it is surviving as the new "Ed-Biz", conscious of education's bottom-line economic base. On the other hand, Education is conservative with a long memory, and still adheres to the old notion of the universal value of the Liberal Arts tradition which was so well accepted in l960. Colleges and Universities are organized with standard Departments of English, Philosophy and Art, all properly staffed with tenured professors, while the Graduate Schools are even more firmly cemented by staff and stated aim, into their traditional Ph.D. spawning functions. Attacking the humanistic tradition is about as unpopular as attacking Motherhood and Apple Pie, or more recently the matter of Family Values. And so we continue on as before.......

Many students are coming out of college with a B.A. in English, which was always a popular major, but little hope for the future unless they plan graduate study and teaching. But good teaching positions are now hard to find in a world which has at last realized that this is one of the last areas to offer job security for life. True, a college graduate with an attractive personality, good imagination and a generous helping of luck may still get into Education, while some will fare well enough in the business world. But what about the others, is there anything better than waiting on table, or driving taxi?

Let me try to clear the air by distinguishing between the academic "tools and techniques" studies as against the other "commentative studies". In the first group we find most of the Sciences, always strong in their use of specific tool-disciplines, whether biology, physics or geology. Some of the social sciences share this hard-edge learning, with large amounts of statistics in Economics and Sociology, along with abundant use of computer technology in data-analysis. These will qualify as what I might call "hard knowledge", which has a clear place in our expanding technology.

The investigative world of science cannot be separated from the spiritual world which constitutes the other facet of Man's nature. I am going to classify the humanistic part of the Liberal Arts as "Commentative Studies", and this does not denigrate their value at all. It is most important to be able to think critically, and to be able to discuss your thinking with a group around the seminar table. What is important here is the opening of minds to examine and discuss anything and everything, and it is the quality of the discussion which may be more important that the topic being discussed. Reading Chaucer and Steinbeck, we are not just reading historical information about the world of 1400 or 1940. We are discussing the general human condition, in short we are also discussing ourselves.

But there is very little specific technique involved, so the student brought up on an English Curriculum will miss much of the grit need to digest harder fare. Even chickens know to swallow gravel to break up grains or corn. The humanistic side of the Liberal Arts needs more than a requirement for a non-mathematical introduction to Physics or Astronomy to give the grit needed to process the new world which we are now entering. Discussion of literary motifs does not involve the same rigor as analysis of complex problems in statistics, in laboratory experiments and in computer based problem solving.

The best answer I can suggest to a student planning the college career, is to think ahead and consider doing a full range of work in two fields. fields. With a Double Major, one side can be on the commentative side of the Humanities, learning how to read insightfully, how to consider and discuss with perception. But on the other will be one of the Science disciplines with full-tilt, pre-professional introduction into fields which use computer technology as a basic tool (rather than just as a better typewriter) to analyze complex data into meaningful information. The value of this two-horned approach avoids the divided two-world dilemma which C.P. Snow adumbrated a generation ago, one which is still not squarely faced or solved.

However studying two separate fields, even if it is a good step in the right direction, may further perpetuate the Snow dichotomy, since they may remain quite separate with little sense of integration. The danger will be not so much the narrowness of the chemist, who possibly reads a good deal of literature on his own, as the tunnel vision of the English teacher who would never think of examining the mysteries on the pages of a chemistry textbook. The real problem is trying to interlace and inter-connect two discrepant disciplines, and that will take more than doing the English major in the morning classes, and the science in the afternoon going to the Lab. Sessions. These disparate activities have to be brought together somehow

If I were the hypothetical college advisor to an equally hypothetical student who was facing this problem, I would try to work out something like this: Beside the regular list of courses which add up to the English major requirements, try to look at literature as more than language art and more than social commentary. If you are studying literature, you really have to know a great deal about Language and your knowledge should verge somehow into the field of Linguistics, which can be the intelligent crossover to our problem.

Linguistics is being subsumed now into the new Cognitive Science derived from Psychology, which provide an excellent crossover to the science side of our intellectual equation. Biology comes into focus as the substratum for any consideration of neural pathways in the function of the brain, and Mind finally appears as a mysterious operation which somehow unites ideas with the electro-chemical action of the biological brain. Here literature and language and neuro-psychology are inextricably involved with each other's fields, and this can be a unifying HyperField for a forward looking college student.

But there are many other possibilities which are not listed in the college Catalog. The archaeologist needs a thorough knowledge of geology to determine the role of time on the artifacts he is examining; it is not enough to submit his ideas to geologic experts who may not understand the details of what he needs to make a determination. And there is the new field of Palaeo-botany which tries to find the exact flora of an ancient site as key to the climatology of a remote period. History has regular questions about the role of chemistry in land deterioration, also human toxicology, as a result of lead-burning to reclaim silver, and many other questions which are still not on our register. Only a well versed pharmacological bio-chemist can investigate the roster of plant materials from our disappearing small societies worldwide, used to counter or modify our ailments. Even the copious if discordant data on Evolution must be re-planned and re-plotted on programs designed to get the optimal display of the material, the only way to see where current work in the area is going. These are only examples, a thinking person will think of many more, and each direction depends on a thorough double-disciple training in the college years, which can verge toward either industrial positions or on the other hand, or toward academic, high-end research. Something to think about!

Literature has traditionally been associated with the art of printing and our traditional libraries of books, but we are now faced with a great revolution in the shape and use of written materials. Characters are now coded in numbers so as to be immediately transferable worldwide electronically, so we have a new avenue for our access to writing and literature. The book with its solid "codex" or block-form format, is no longer the only way of purveying literature. The new electronic avenue for conveying written information is shapeless and instant, perhaps more akin to the elector-chemical operation of the brain than print on paper. So now the college English Major must be knowledgeable in a wide range of the electronically based media which can display visual images as well as language-coded information.

Literature takes on a new meaning as we watch in our reading the interplay of written wording with visual imagery. Before this we had the art of book illustration with a few pictures inserted along with text, but now images can be part of the new kind of combined literature written in the electronic techniques of the hyper-media. No English student should be without awareness of these new shifts of taste and technique, and this might be the time for the college English major to take courses in design from the Fine Arts program, to go along with required courses in the programming and display of standard written text.

In other words, I am suggesting two avenues for the integration of two kinds of knowledge from the Science and the Humanities camps, with the hope that if some intellectual fusion can take place in the space of the college years, we can have well educated persons versed in both parts of what are now largely isolated fields. I would call this the new "globally aware person" of the new millennium, and believe that by considering ahead what will be learned in the formative college years, we can set a pattern for what is going to be the standard of education in the coming decades.

As things now stand, the cultural and scientific landmasses are shifting ever further apart, and increasing needs for specialization in employment seem to be widening the split. But there is an reasonable answer, which is to set one foot on one side of the divide and one on the other, and prove to us that if you broaden your intellectual span, you don't have to fall into an impossible intellectual abyss.

To be sure, not all of us have capacity for both sides of this equation. And not all of us have the energy and determination to do two fields in college when only one is required for the graduation. If it is just the Diploma needed for a job which is what you are really after, that may be enough and you can ignore what I have been saying. But if you are after a real place in this newly developing world, then consider the double-path journey which I am proposing.

Robert Frost chose well for himself when he faced the diverging paths in the dark woods, but I maintain that if you have the interest and capacity to take both roads, that will make for you even more of a difference.


William Harris
Prof. Em. Middlebury College
www.middlebury.edu/~harris