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.
Once books were burned to extinguish the spirit of the Enlightenment, our generation have a much more effective way: we just ignore them. Ignore them long enough and they will die and so will much of the traditions and learnings that make us a little special. As Richard Livingstone once wrote, "We are tied down, all our days … to the commonplace. That is where contact with great thinkers helps. In their company we are still in the ordinary world, but it is the ordinary transfigured and seen through the eyes of wisdom and genius. And some of their vision becomes our own".
The aim of liberal education is human excellence. Its object is the excellence of man as man and man as citizen. It regards man as an end, not as a means. It is the education to free men whilst technical and vocational education treats men and women as a means to an end, mere units of production. Only a liberal education gives one the mental prowess to bring clarity to problems and comprehend how a particular issue affects another and to recognise that the method to solve one issue may not be the same to solve another: a lesson that seems to be lost to most of us today. I’m not saying one should not specialise in a particular area, but only the liberal artist has the means to operate in many different fields, to understand what is important in other areas and intelligently make contributions.
If one thinks the liberal artist lives only in the world of ideas, I am not writing this very well. One product of a liberal education is the ability to live easily in the world of ideas however another result is the facility to excel in the practical world too, because a student of the liberal arts understands the relationship between both. Even better, thanks to a liberal education if one finds oneself in a situation such as a job that’s particularly nasty, one will at least understand it and by understanding it, be in a position to begin to change it.
There is no special magic in the liberal arts. This is probably why we began to neglect them. Where is the novelty in the ability to read, write, speak, listen, understand and think? We all do these things. The problem is, we took these skills for granted and now, as a society we don’t do them particularly well. If you are reading this you were probably born human, therefore the most basic choice, what species to belong to is not one we as individuals can make. What we can choose is whether we wish to be ignorant brutes or work towards our actualisation as Homo sapiens.
Others argue that the liberal arts were the education of the elite and therefore are we not better without them? Historically only the rich could afford a liberal education and there was a belief that only those with sufficient leisure time and intelligence could learn the liberal arts and only those who had political influence actually needed them. History has a way of playing tricks and something wonderful happened, the ideas percolated through society and the result was democracy; the aim of which is the equal opportunity for us all to develop to the limits of our potential. This is not socialism, nor neo-conservatism, it is democracy. However democracy, a weak sapling that was nurtured in the British House of Commons and which pollinated the world when it flowered during US and French revolutions was almost immediately under attack by those who would trim and prune and shape it to suit their own ends. The masses won political influence and demanded to be educated but it was decided that the masses should only be trained to read newspapers, write technical reports and balance books. What we learned of Newton and Dante we learned from ‘dumbed down’ textbooks as the originals were seen as too difficult to read. This meant very few of us have learnt our mathematics from the symmetry of the Inferno, or poetry from the prose of the Principia and as the Enlightenment enjoyed its greatest moment, by failing to live up to its own ideals, it almost immediately began to be devoured by its success. History shows if we are ignorant of the liberal arts, our democracy is devalued, malignant forces who entertain with simple messages gain influence, artifice wins over truth and we all end up as enslaved as our peasant forebears who were bonded to the land they worked.