Liberal Arts in the Modern University

Humanity in the contemporary world.
By Lorna Fitzsimmons

Everything that lives, lives not alone, nor for itself. —William Blake

These words epitomize the sense of interconnectedness reaped from a liberal arts education. Blake’s profound awareness of and respect for all forms of life—his “deep ecology,” as Blake scholar Mark S. Lussier describes it—is meaningful as we consider the value of the liberal arts curriculum.

At present, in an era of globalization and socioeconomic instability, we face challenges as individuals, communities, and nations and as participants in broader ecological systems. Opportunities for global interrelationships appear to be ripening, yet our common humanity is sometimes overlooked and our sense of integrity compromised.

Social change, fragmentation of familial structures, and new cultural interactions can be causes of distress, exploitation, and tragedy. Clinical psychologist Barbara Killinger, in her 2010 study Integrity: Doing the Right Thing for the Right Reason, helps us grapple with the effects of two major changes in our times, what she terms “a move away from relationships” and the “seduction of greed.” The insidious crime of identity theft is symptomatic of these changes. Never before have we had to deal with such a crime on such a phenomenal scale. Identity theft is the fastest-growing crime in the world, and estimated losses, according to Killinger, amount to over $2.5 billion a year. Beyond its financial impact, identify theft causes anxiety and loss of trust, corroding the fiber of social relationships. Even children’s identities are being stolen.

Such crimes are only the tip of the iceberg: they are the manifestation of an erosion or destabilization of values and institutions that is not specific to any region, nation, or group but rather is happening around the world.

Vitality of the Liberal Arts

The liberal arts curriculum is an important and timely antidote to such problems. The liberal arts are indispensable, of course, in their own right, and are rightly defensible as intrinsically valuable. There is no question of that. To conceive the field, further, as a social undertaking that facilitates an awareness of responsibility for the other is not to succumb to shallow instrumentalism but rather to celebrate its multidimensionality, which is rather like a rose window—at once beautiful in and of itself and quiddative to the social fiber. Against actual or potential conflicts, a liberal arts education fortifies our resolve for peaceful interactions, respect for cultural differences, and considerate contributions to the public sphere. As Victor E. Ferrall Jr., president emeritus of Beloit College, argues in Liberal Arts at the Brink, “‘thoughtfulness’ as ‘a habit of mind’” is a “precious resource” cultivated by liberal education. It fosters responsible citizenship.

The liberal arts help us think outside of our habitual frameworks about who we are. Through the liberal arts, we cultivate awareness of the “inescapable network of mutuality” to which people of all ethnicities and races belong, as Martin Luther King Jr., in “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” wrote so eloquently. Similarly, Mahatma Gandhi perceived that “the truly noble know all men as one.”

The liberal arts in the modern university help people think outside their narrow specializations while encouraging respect for all belief systems, a tolerant openness to peaceful coexistence. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger, in his essay on Friedrich Hölderlin’s poem “In Lovely Blue,” speaks of “dwelling” as a kindly authenticity facilitated by conversations with poetry. Today’s liberal education provides expanded opportunities for dwelling through knowledge of translations of poetry, philosophy, visual culture, music, and social and natural science discourses from around the world, and hence for reflection on how other cultures have understood the limits and potentialities of human relations to nature, society, and the self—both in the past, as in the medieval Persian masterpiece by Farid ud-Din- Attar, Conference of the Birds, which images the self as armor and allegorizes its transcendence, and in the present, as in Chinese Nobel laureate Gao Xingjian’s intercultural drama Wildman, which draws together Asian and European performance traditions to engage with ecological issues.

A liberal arts education serves as a candle or torch that enables people to perceive what it means to be human from different perspectives while warming the heart toward others and guiding the mind throughout the course of life. Boethius, in the Consolation of Philosophy, speaks of our need “To build a lasting home / Unshakeable by winds.” The habits of conscientious and compassionate thinking nurtured by the liberal arts provide us with frameworks with which we can tackle the “thunderous winds” and “seething sea” and cultivate lifelong learning. The liberal arts imbue the fleeting moment with monumentality, enabling us to cross the threshold of temporality and face adversity with dignity and integrity, regardless of our walk of life.

As T. S. Eliot stresses, such fortitude cannot be inherited; it is obtained by labor. It could be said that what Eliot conceives as the poet’s obligations and capacities, in “Tradition and Individual Talent,” are applicable to all of us. The poet in us is nourished by the intimacy with the past embodied in the liberal arts. The relationship is interactional, though, rather than one of sheer obedience. As we interface with the thoughts of others, our minds are transformed, and we, in turn, accrue transformative power. We develop the power to recreate the world.

The Liberal Arts Today

Scholars in the modern university lament the lack of diligence and the general decline in academic standards. As a solution, labor scholar Richard Wells, in his 2013 essay “Labour Studies, the Liberal Arts, and the Sociological Imagination,” supports the value of sociologist C. Wright Mills’s concept of the sociological imagination in liberal arts curricula. Mills’s approach to liberal education enables students to understand how their personal troubles are related to social issues. Cultivation of the sociological imagination relates individual lives to larger structures and historical change and motivates involvement in the public sphere.

The great Roman orator Seneca upholds loyalty, in his Moral Letters to Lucilius, as the “most sacred virtue of the human heart,” making us true to others and ourselves. As the philosopher perceives, the liberal arts cannot inculcate loyalty any more than they can teach “candor, or modesty and self-control, or thrift and frugality, or mercy that spares another’s blood as if it were its own, and knows that no human being should make wasteful use of another human being.” They can, however, ignite the flame and, by enhancing our self-reflexivity, help us develop respect for others.

Such respect is essential to our current aspirations to be citizens of the world. As the philosopher Martha Nussbaum observes in her 1997 book Cultivating Humanity, through liberal education we develop powers of reasoning without which “genuine dialogue” between people cannot take place. Such dialogue is needed within and between nations. Liberal arts curricula must also be responsive to the changing needs of students. Nussbaum defends the pluralistic ideal of liberal education and calls for it to be a means by which students explore other societies as well as their own.

While students in China and other Asian countries are making great and rapid strides in learning the English language and European cultural history, Western universities still lag behind in preparing future generations for global interrelationships. Liberal studies in the modern university must expand opportunities for students to gain knowledge of other cultural traditions, such as the “New Confucianism” and the rock music movement in contemporary China. As Yong Zhao argues in Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization, the traditionally broad American curriculum, designed to develop the “whole person,” should be fortified, not diluted, and more American students encouraged to learn that such “wholeness” is enhanced through knowledge of other cultures and respect for diversity.

Such broadened, cross-cultural horizons are at the heart of the liberal arts. Descended from the traditional subjects of the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music), today’s liberal arts are a vital interdisciplinary force. Psychologist Aniruddh D. Patel’s comparative 2008 study of language and music using technology-based methods of cognitive neuroscience, Music, Language, and the Brain, is a prime example of the integrated extension of the traditional trivium study of language and the quadrivium study of music. As the engineer George Bugliarello suggests in his article “A New Trivium and Quadrivium,” the modern liberal arts must continue to expand beyond the traditional trivium and quadrivium by integrating technology as a methodology and topic of inquiry in order to face contemporary challenges and to develop scenarios to try to prevent deleterious outcomes of engineering applications. Today’s world entails issues of the mechanical arts, the traditional exclusion of which from the liberal arts has contributed to students’ inadequate preparation for modern life.

The problem of identity theft with which I began is a case in point. Computer-mediated identity theft has escalated in part because of a lack of forethought and regulatory practices during the development of computer technology. This crime makes us aware of how important it is for critical discussions about the ethics of engineering applications to be integrated into liberal arts curricula. The range of pertinent issues with which today’s liberal arts should engage students, such as genetic engineering, cloning, implants, and artificial intelligence, is constantly growing.

The broad liberal arts curriculum both helps put fashionable trends in perspective and impels innovative integrative learning that cultivates new directions in thought and impassioned action toward social justice.

Looking ahead, though, as the liberal arts grow in new directions, the professoriate still needs to uphold the value of older fields such as music, philosophy, or foreign languages, which are being imperiled by budget cuts. The university brings to communities lessons in diversity, heterogeneous insights that we cannot allow to be compromised by a financially driven administrative mentality.

Hence, as administrators target liberal arts courses as profitable venues for distance education, the professoriate is compelled to institute stronger mechanisms to ensure the quality of instruction and the integrity of students’ performance. Invigorating assessment must be at the forefront of our plans to curtail the current erosion of standards within liberal arts curricula. Higher enrollment may not be such a panacea if tertiary institutions do not reach out to primary and secondary institutions to ensure that objectives are properly met. The professoriate is responsible for making certain that the meaning of a university degree is not stolen.

I conclude by returning us to the words with which we began, “Everything that lives, lives not alone, nor for itself.” This collective orientation is essential to keep in mind as institutions consider changes to the curriculum or procedures that manage it. It is important not to approach the topic from a solely departmental or institutional perspective but rather to take a larger vantage point that considers the interconnectedness of the parts of liberal arts curricula, and, in turn, the latter’s relationship to a healthy pluralistic society in which individuals engage with issues (whether local, regional, or global) with an informed sense of fairness and compassion.

Lorna Fitzsimmons is professor of humanities at California State University–Dominguez Hills.