Jeremy Whitty is an Associate Professor in Operations and Quality at IE and also the Course Director for the MSc. in Pharmaceutical Medicine at Hibernia College.
In 1952 RM Hutchins wrote the ‘Great Conversation’, a call to arms to keep liberal arts alive in education. For those of us who believe in the value of liberal education his writing is as relevant today as it was over fifty years ago. What follows is a personal summary and exposition of his essay.
Across the globe universities and schools are abandoning the liberal arts in favour of technical and financial courses. The Liberal Arts are seen as anachronisms best indulged in by a few doddery professors or teachers with too much time on their hands. We live in an age of technology. The philosophical drive of technology shall bring mankind to material affluence and whatever ‘self realisation’ means it will be achieved through the advance of technology and commerce. It is a little ironic then that IE Business School, one of the worlds’ leading business schools, has become IE University and the exposure to the liberal arts is seen as essential in forming competent and moral executives. It recognises that, based on the destruction of Enron, the spying scandal at HP, the sub-prime catastrophe , alumni with a knowledge of the liberal arts and who possess a moral compass are probably better equipped to bring good judgment to business decisions and therefore ensure the long term viability of organisations.
We are often told that we live in a time unprecedented in history. This is probably true, but there are no social nor technological changes that have occurred or are likely to take place that make liberal education irrelevant; in fact they make the need for it more important. In times of uncertainty, when we seem to be staring into an abyss as one age, the age of oil, gives way to another that has yet to be defined, who else can we turn to for guidance than the works of the greatest thinkers who, over twenty five centuries have faced no less demanding situations and yet always asked, how can we better live?
From the Renaissance to 1900 the liberal arts were seen as the bedrock of civil society. I hope that their neglect over the last hundred years will be soon corrected, and not seen by misguided communal animus as a sign of progress. Progress is not students leaving school as functioning illiterates, rich in material comforts but intellectually and spiritually impoverished with no idea how the world they live in came to be, what forces shaped it and what questions might possibly begin to improve it.