Friday, September 23, 2016

Why Choose the Liberal Arts?

Mark William Roche, Why Choose the Liberal Arts? Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010. 198 pages. ISBN 978-0-268-04032-1

Mark William Roche is the Rev. Edmund P. Joyce, C. S. C., Professor of German Language and Literature and Concurrent Professor of Philosophy at the University of Notre Dame. From 1997 to 2008, Roche served as dean of Notre Dame's College of Arts and Letters. Roche, in Why Choose the Liberal Arts?, presents three overarching reasons for liberal arts education: "First, its intrinsic value, or the distinction of learning for its own sake, the sheer joy associated with exploring the life of the mind and asking the great questions that give meaning to life; second, the cultivation of those intellectual virtues that are requisite for success beyond the academy; a liberal arts education as preparation for a career; and third, character formation and the development of a sense of vocation, the connection to a higher purpose or calling" (10). These three reasons serves as a sort of road map for the book. In part one of the book the author argues that a liberal arts education engages the great questions of life. It asks questions about the purpose of life. In part two Roche shows how a liberal arts education cultivates both intellectual and practical virtues. He suggests that a liberal arts education "helps students develop formal virtues, such as the ability to listen, analyze, weigh evidence, and articulate a complex view" (52). Forming character is the focus of part three. The author states, "Often neglected within a culture that elevates critical thinking is formation, the goal of helping students develop virtues, build character, and gain a sense of vocation, the moral and social purpose of education" (102). A holistic education is the subject of the final section of the book. According to Roche, "The threefold value of a liberal arts education involves an experience of intrinsic value, the development of formal skills and capacities, and a recognition of greater purpose and service to others, including a modest overestimation of one's abilities, with the recognition that one must stretch to reach one's potential" (149). Roche believes that a liberal arts education "entails the goal of educating the whole person" (6). The author believes that a liberal arts education will not only prepare the student for a career, but even more important, it will help them to fulfill their personal calling.

What are the liberal arts? The author explains that its origin is found in the ancient world. Roche writes, "The term has its origin in the medieval concept of artes liberalis, the seven liberal arts that were appropriate for a free man in contrast to the artes illiberalis or artes mechanicae, which were pursued for economic purposes and involved vocational and practical arts, which prepared young persons to become weavers, blacksmiths, farmers, hunters, navigators, soldiers, or doctors" (5). The seven liberal arts were made up of the trivium--grammar, rhetoric, and dialectic--and the quadrivium which was made up of geometry, arithmetic, music, and astronomy. These areas have been expanded in our own time. Roche states, "In contemporary liberal arts education, in contrast to the specialized orientation of professional or technical curricula, students receive a general education that is a broad grounding in the diverse disciplines" (5). In other words, a liberal arts education is not professional training, technical training, nor training for a career. It is the cultivation of the mind and moral character. Education is in some sense should make us human. Roche asserts, "the liberal arts ideal entails the goal of educating the whole person, which presupposes a meaningful community of learning and a rich residential experience. Its success demands intensive intellectual dialogue among students and between students and faculty across the diverse spheres of human inquiry and concerning the highest of human values. The formal dimensions of discussion and active student engagement are as much distinguishing characteristics of a liberal arts education as is the curricular content" (6). Let us try to unpack these ideas. First, he suggests that the goal of liberal arts education is to educate the whole person. This seems to imply educating the mind, soul, and body. This idea has been an emphasis in the Jesuit community since its founding. There is a tendency among some who want to say education is only about educating the mind. However, historically, liberal arts education has emphasized educating students intellectually, morally, and religiously. Second, he argues that education does not only occur in the classroom. It is something that occurs outside of the classroom in conversations between students and faculty, and students with students.

A liberal arts education is built upon Socratic questioning and active learning. Roche states, "For Socrates it was clear that we learn effectively when we pursue questions ourselves and seek the answers ourselves" (6). This is what is called active learning. The author writes, "The student is actively engaged in the learning process, asking questions, being asked questions, pursuing often elusive answers in dialogue with others" (6). The learning is actually taking place inside of the student. Some people false believe that education is knowledge being "poured like water from one larger container to an emptier one" (6). This reminds me of a conversation I had many years ago in Tastee's  Donuts. The owner's wife that many of my students were making bad grades. She was wondering why I was not learning them. I could not because learning is a personal responsibility. To learn anything we must be actively involved. Socrates second principle is that active learning take place when it is meaningful to the student. This happens when students "are engaged in meaningful discussions, asking questions that will determine who they are and what they think about life's most significant issues" (6). What is a person? What is life's purpose? A third principle beyond active learning and meaningful learning is "engaging great issues through a question-and-answer format" which prepares the student for "further learning" (7). To know something means more than the ability to repeat what the teacher said which seems to be a common practice in formal schooling. Instead, it is to be "able to give reasons and arguments for that truth; this level of reflection ensures that the student will be able to defend a view against the arguments of future opponents instead of simply succumbing to their persuasive rhetoric; will be ready to apply knowledge in changing circumstances; and will be equipped to build on existing knowledge and extend it, via the same principle of searching inquiry and rational reflection, into new areas" (7). This is why indoctrination is not real education. True education helps the student to think for themselves. It provides them with the tools to be life-long learners. Education means to "lead out, to bring out from within" (7). In Montaigne's essays on education he encourages students "not simply to listen and receive wisdom based on authority, but instead grasp the value of doubting, learn to own knowledge independently, and to be able to apply it in new and unexpected contexts" (7). Many studies have documented that students "learn more when they are themselves existentially engaged and active in the learning process, and when they themselves generate their own questions" (8). This is the type of education pursued in liberal learning. Roche asserts, "Liberal arts students are frequently engaged in those activities that involve student-centered learning, such as small discussion classes, seminar papers, discussions outside of class with peers, service learning, study abroad, and independent research projects, including senior theses" (8). This type of learning is most prominent is small residential liberal arts colleges. However, liberal learning can take place in other contexts. This type of learning can even "resurface" in graduate schools which emphasize the great questions and "foster a community of learning" (10).

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