The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

Matt § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-05 01:49:12
Greg Linch § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 18:05:52
Robin § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 05:11:02
P. Renaud § A leaky rocketship / 2014-11-04 04:13:09
Jay H § Matching cuts / 2014-10-02 02:41:13
Greg Linch § Matching cuts / 2014-09-16 18:18:15
Inque § Matching cuts / 2014-09-05 13:27:23
Gavin Craig § Matching cuts / 2014-08-31 16:33:56
Adam § Matching cuts / 2014-08-28 07:44:59
Tim Maly § Sooo / 2014-08-27 01:35:19

What Are the New Liberal Arts?
 / 

In the medieval university, the seven classical liberal arts were split into two categories.

The trivium included modes of argument and thought: logic, grammar, and rhetoric.

The quadrivium were the sciences, bodies of knowledge with particular content: geometry, arithmetic, astronomy, and music.

Brittanica identifies the liberal arts of the modern university as literature, languages, philosophy, history, mathematics, and science.

Wikipedia’s more expansive definition is arguably better: art, literature, languages, philosophy, politics, history, mathematics, and science.

But what are the emergent liberal arts — liberal arts 2.0?

I think the best way to think about this is not to think of the “new” liberal arts as supplanting the “old,” but as a complementary set, like painting, architecture, and sculpture as the new, humanist plastic arts during the Renaissance. Like the trivium and quadrivium, we have the octet of “modern” liberal arts and a set of newer concerns.

With that proviso in mind, here is my fairly conservative attempt at a list:

Art

Design

Photography

Music

*

Languages

Literature

Philosophy

*

History

Politics

Economics

*

Mathematical Sciences

Natural Sciences

Biological Sciences

*

Food, Ecology, and the Environment

What do you think?

Update: Let me just clarify that I’m not just using these terms in the way that they’re understood in colleges and universities. So by “economics,” I don’t only mean what you learned in ECON 101 or the work of professional economists, but a broad and flexible consideration of labor, exchange, incentives, and value as they affect… anything.

Likewise “photography” doesn’t just mean snapping pictures but learning how to read, think, produce, and talk about images, whether still or moving. Art is the aesthetic dimension of anything independent from its use. Design is the aesthetic dimension of anything dependent upon its use. And “aesthetic” is about beauty, yes, but also perception. “Food” is about cooking and eating, but also about our relationship to plants and animals and to each other and our industries oriented around nutrition. Maybe “ecology” would be a better (or at least more encompassing) term. Languages includes speaking, writing, typing, and natural and programming languages. And so on.

These are sciences with a body of knowledge, yes, but they’re also ways of thinking about things, the world, individual people, societies. Your average boring object sitting on your desk or table right now can be thought of in terms of its history, its design, its economics, its politics, its physics and chemistry, etc. And if you take a look at the newspapers, blogs, and books you read, they’re usually doing one or more of these right now — reframing a problem that you thought about one way in the light of another.

“Music” or “Astronomy” are still disciplines, but they don’t mean the same thing that they did in the Middle Ages. The liberal arts for the new millenium doesn’t just change what the arts are — it changes what they mean.

Robin’s note: Weird, new comments seem to be broken on this post. Don’t worry, we’ll continue the conversation on another one, soon.

Tim’s note: Comments are back!

42 comments

Are you just talking about liberal arts in a university setting? I’ve always assumed that Kottke’s formulation referred to a set of ideas & skills that exist independent of the academy. And I think that’s a much more interesting idea.

Either way, to me the main thing is you gotta take the trivium — logic, grammar, and rhetoric — and absolutely blow them up multimedia style. In liberal arts 2.0, you learn the “grammar” of film and video. You learn how to manipulate an image in Photoshop. You learn how to quickly evaluate the quality of a Wikipedia entry!

I’d give “Design” two more slots to expand into, and if I’ve got to jettison “literature” and “philosophy” to do it… so be it! Not 100% sure what the extra two dimensions would be, but one would be something like “Cognitive Science” or “Understanding Human Experience” or something. It would basically be about understanding the human brain and body in the context of actually designing and making things in the world.

And I think “Statistics and Probability” should have a slot all its own. I think that’s, by far, the most important thing you’re going to get out of Mathematics, so I’ll swap those.

More later — but I’ve got a beef with “History” and “Politics” too :-)

Dan says…

I’m interested in thinking about a modern trivium too. But I think stats probably goes there, right alongside rhetoric. When we think about why your average educated individual needs to know about statistics, it is not because they must be able to compute a standard deviation, but because they need to be able to argue with and about data.

I’m thinking about both academic and non-academic contexts. This is the stuff you’ve got to know about and pay attention to. And if you look at, say, Kottke’s? or Snarkmarket? This is what gets paid attention to.

My first impulse was, yes, totally, let’s make this about digital media. But when it came down to it, “design” and “photography” were the two big ones that jumped out. Design is big, yes, but so are all the rest.

I think the thing about it, at least for me, is that all these terms shift. History and politics or economics don’t just mean what you study in school. All of these things, in effect, become modes of thinking similar to grammar or logic or rhetoric.

Mathematics includes statistics. That’s part of what moving from “geometry” and “arithmetic” to “mathematics” means.

Languages doesn’t just include natural languages. Food doesn’t just include cooking and eating. And so forth. All of the terms get reconfigured.

I’m looking forward to hearing a critique of the discipline of history from the co-composer of the “American Intellectual History” song. :-)

And what is “understanding human experience” if not philosophy?

Oh man, don’t get me STARTED. For as smart as they were, Plato and Aristotle didn’t know ANYTHING about the brain. Kant, Wittgenstein, great stuff — but I’ll read that for fun, and then base my real work on insight gleaned from cognitive science experiments, fMRI scans, etc.

P.S. Just kidding, I don’t read Kant for fun.

Philosophy isn’t about the brain. It’s about reflecting on the meaning, structure, possibility, or desirability of whatever it is that you’re doing. If you don’t like “philosophy,” let’s say “theory” or “critique.” And without spending some time thinking about that, you won’t even know what it is you’re looking for with your fMRIs.

Also, Robin — a hypothesis: Aristotle forgot more about human anatomy than you’ll ever know.

I’ll nitpick: Aristotle was significantly more familiar with non-human anatomy than with human anatomy. Aristotle’s ideas on neuroscience (“consciousness resides in the heart”) were certainly off-base. And of course, there is the infamous case of the teeth…

I’d also like to hijack this discussion to ask what you think we should teach kids in grades 1-4. I have a list I’ve been working on to replace the old curriculum: hygiene, ecology, taxonomy, astronomy, arithmetic, algebra, etymology, foreign language, folklore and mythology, foreign culture.

My guiding principles being: 1) things that are fun to learn and to teach 2) general principles that have a lot of applicability in later schooling 3) things that will stick in young minds (based on my own experience: not history)

Philosophy and biology are just in different businesses. As Aristotle himself said, just as you can define a house by what it’s made of or what it’s used for, a physician and philosopher will both treat the soul in different ways.

A sailor can navigate by the stars without knowing anything about celestial mechanics. I need to see some statement of philosophy either validated or refuted by some new knowledge about the physiology of the brain before I’m willing to concede anything here.

And let me just saying it again: philosophy isn’t limited to sitting around and reading the history of philosophy, just as politics isn’t limited to studying the history of systems of government. These are basic ways of approaching different kinds of phenomena. The modus operandi of philosophy is to ask “when we say ____, what do we mean?” Again, if you can’t spend at least some time considering the ramifications of that question, you can’t turn to biology or history or anything else to solve your problems for you.

I also want a citation for this “consciousness resides in the heart” business.

Ha ha, only Peter Li would include etymology in his grade 1-4 curriculum!

Great question, though. I’d definitely include something about art — gosh, maybe even art history. Art projects — building things out of real, physical materials — are what I remember best about grades 1-4.

I guess you could extend that to simple machines. What if, in grades 1-4, you became a total master of gears, levers, pulleys & springs? What a neat intro to physics.

I am totally with you on myth & folklore. Because the thing I *really* remember best about grades 1-4 is reading D’Aulaire’s Book of Greek Myths over and over again. Those stories are always seductive, but never more than when you’re eight. At that age they’re basically narcotic.

Here’s my list:

Composition

Visual Literacy

Design

Performance/Presentation/Publication

*

Mathematics & Statistics

*

Humanities

(Languages

Literature

Philosophy

History)

*

The Human Sciences

(Politics/Cultural Studies

Economics

History)

*

The Natural Sciences

(Physics/Chemistry

As far as Aristotle believing consciousness resides in the heart, perhaps I overreached. He did believe that sensation, motor impulses, and memory reside in the heart. Admittedly consciousness is different.

Aristotle based most of his ideas of human anatomy on his understanding of animal anatomy, and he believed all animals have sensations but only humans have thoughts. So it’s not so surprising that he doesn’t seem to nail down the seat of thought anatomically. But given his ideas on the brain and heart in general (below), it seems suggested to me that he believed thought and consciousness also reside in the heart.

Citation-wise, his anatomical ideas are scattered between both philosophical and scientific texts. The anatomical in relation to the psychological is summarized without much explanation in Parva Naturalia. Here’s a secondary summary from the introduction to a translation of Parva Naturalia and De Anima:

“[To Aristotle, ] the heart is at once the physiological and psychical centre of man. . . . He rejects the doctrine of Plato and Diogenes of Apollonia, who regarded the brain as the organ of mind. To Aristotle the brain is merely a regulator for the temperature of the heart; the brain is bloodless and cool, and the blood and warm vapours from the heart rising to this are lowered in temperature. By this physiological device, conjoined with the service of respiration, Aristotle supposes that the system is maintained in a heat-equilibrium”

Aristotle’s Psychology, A Treatise on the Principles of Life (De Anima and Parva Naturalia) By Aristotle, William Alexander Hammond

So, the heart: psychic center. The brain: heat sink.

Now, in Aristotle’s defense, he had some good anatomical observations that lead him to these conclusions, for example the fact that the heart was the first organ he saw developing in the chick embryo (he broke open eggs at different stages of development to track this). Of course, Aristotle’s science was limited by the techniques he had available.

What occurs to me as an intriguing question is whether Aristotle’s science was also limited by his philosophy: did his background in a priori reasoning and just-so stories hold back his potential as an empiricist?

The infamous case of the teeth is actually a good example. Scientists like to make fun of Aristotle for his assertion that men have more teeth than women (Historia Animalium). To paraphrase Bertrand Russell: maybe he should have bothered to look in his wife’s mouth. But others suggest that Aristotle probably did look in some mouths, and he just happened to find women who were missing teeth or whose back molars had not come in.

Unfortunately, Aristotle’s statement on teeth is not accompanied with any explanation or details of where he derives the information from. So is his failing simply in not looking, or is it in not reporting his methods? I would submit that the second type of failure could result from his philosophical background. He was pretty good about detailing his empirical observations in his more scientific work, but when he writes as a philosopher, even when he bases his conclusions on empiricism (as in the question of where the sensations reside) he does a poor job of referring back to the evidence.

Anyway, to get back on track, I think the original question was whether “understanding human experience” is a philosophical or neuroscience issue, and clearly it is both. But I agree with Robin that for a modern curriculum it is important to get the neuroscience side right. Bringing Aristotle into it complicated things because he had both philosophical and scientific ideas on the subject.

Robin: totally agree that art, music, and basic mechanics projects would be excellent. One of my favorite and most educational toys was Capsela.

Etymology is a good early topic I think because it informs spelling, phonetics, vocabulary, language study, and cultural understanding.

Here’s the list I came up with shortly after concocting the term for a talk I did in early 2007:

Graphic design, freakonomics, photography, programming, film, remixing, video games, food, advertising, internet life skills, journalism, fashion.

I needed a way to describe what the hell it is kottke.org is about and liberal arts 2.0 seemed like a shorthand that people might understand, especially when accompanied by the list. Basically, an elevator pitch. Making the list took about three minutes and it’s almost completely descriptive so grain of salt and all that.

Programming! Of course! Gahhh I can’t believe I didn’t think of that straight-away.

Actually, those are *all* terrific. And here’s what’s important: Young people would excitedly sign up to learn about that list. Would they do the same for a list that was “math, literature, economics” — even if they were promised these were the NEW, AWESOME versions of those subjects?

I think we might have to go deeper in our reformulation. “Advertising” becomes a new liberal art — and of course the payload is design, cognitive science, psychology, rhetoric (!), economics, and history.

I am deeply influenced here by Howard Gardner, the scholar of education & creativity, who argues that the best way to get into the big topics is through very focused entry points. You learn the skills of history, the modes of thinking, not by taking a class on HISTORY — you learn ‘em by taking a class on the Holocaust, or on the Civil War, or Rome, etc.

Basically, if a list of new liberal arts maps in any way to the existing department structure at some university, I think it’s a little suspicious :-)

Juvenile comeback: I think you’re a little suspicious! ;-)

Less-juvenile comeback: I’m totally guided by the same interdisciplinary teaching model as your buddy Gardner. That’s how I teach. I do think though that when it comes to things like the Civil War or the Holocaust, that your set of approaches really does often come down to some combination of history, literature, politics, economics, photography, etc. Not that they don’t mix and match. These are tools, not content-containers.

More-forward thinking comeback: I said from the outset that my list was conservative, but I do think there’s a different value in identifying the liberal arts NOW vs. identifying the NEW liberal arts, i.e., emergent since 1800 or 1900 or whatevs.

I think Jason’s list is more the latter, which is good! In particular, I really think that PHOTOGRAPHY (still or moving, film or digital, the science of light and images) is the most important new liberal art.

JOURNALISM is another, honest to goodness, scienza nuouva. Sorry I missed it.

DESIGN morphs from architecture and becomes both physical and visual, engineering and fashion.

LANGUAGES is also new — philology is only 200 years old, dictionaries not much older, linguistics 100, and serious attempts to code language between 50 and 150. And being multilingual takes on a different importance in a more thoroughly globally interconnected world.

Anyways, if I had to hang my hat on any four NEW SCIENCES, it’d be those.

Dan says…

Perhaps its only because I have a poor memory, but I think its a waste to spend too much time teaching content in elementary school. I’m all about the skillz.

Myths—which I noted in my K-8 teaching experience were fantastic texts for kids—should be taught precisely b/c they get kids to read and teach them to tell stories. Pick a good variety and they also serve as a sort of intro to multi-culturalism.

So my list:

Reading and Writing (in many genres)— i.e. have the kids run a newspaper, perform plays they’ve written, recite poetry before audiences, tell one another stories…If they learn history, it will only be because their teacher gives them a whole bunch of pictures and letters and they have to tell a story explaining what happened through them, or because they find some good children’s histories to read

Music — singing and instruments(perhaps electronic); performing student-composed music on simple instruments, perhaps as accompaniment to a student-written play

Math, logic, and programming — games, a bit of rote, and lots of problems

Mechanics, arts, cooking/chemistry and natural history — students build stuff, mold stuff, mix stuff, and collect/categorize stuff (and they make cool Websites, catalogs, or booklets to describe and present their work— everything is an excuse to learn to write more effectively)

Group games and sports — including dancing of various varieties (the main goal here must be to help students leave behind their dignity, with it propensity to stifle creativity)

Dan says…

Regarding Gardner, the book Robin alluded to is titled _The Disciplined Mind_. He agrees with Tim: bore deep into a single, important topic; use that topic to induct students into the methods and practices of the disciplines.

So, I guess, Robin needs to be suspicious of himself.

Dan’s Dancing Child Care:

Creo Novus Absque Dignitate

(Create the New Without Dignity)

Whoah. Tim, your characterization of languages as new — & your accompanying chronology — officially just blew my mind. I had no idea the systematic study of language was so… young!

English Literature departments only date to the mid-19th century. Before that it was all Latin and Greek in English and American universities. Novels were things that women read. (If you trace the demographics, they still are. Take that, self-important male writers!)

I’d hesitate to include “Journalism” for reasons that echo Dan. I want students to be able to be able to write—to convey information effectively (and perhaps with just a touch of style) using language. Especially with the nearly-dead print newspaper, I’m not sure that teaching “journalism” makes any more sense than teaching “novel writing.” Teach responsible writing, and the ability to distinguish between fact and opinion, but the latter has as much to do with logic and critical reading as anything else, doesn’t it?

(And I also want to emphasize that “composition” was linked in my system to “design” and “visual literacy.” I agree with Tim’s characterization of what he calls PHOTOGRAPHY as one of the important innovations of the 20th century, but would take the same issue with the word that I did with “journalism.” Film is disappearing, and the layout of text, artwork, images, and design elements are of equal importance in “visual literacy” as light striking a chemically-treated medium.)

In their own way, grammar, rhetoric, and logic are systematic theories of language, but serious non-normative and/or comparative study of language in the way we’d recognize it today is a phenomenon of the Enlightenment and (especially) Romanticism. (See where knowing something about history is useful?)

Journalism is something different from writing and something different from history or politics or science. We need to be able to read, write, and think about things that are happening now. Reporting is different from research or writing. And while I have nagging doubts about the idea that everyone should produce some kind of journalistic text, it’s clearly the case that nonprofessional journalists are going to make a bigger and bigger contribution to the news. So as readers, viewers, writers, makers, and takers of news, we need to know something about it.

“Photography” is both the oldest term (um, 19th century) and the term that I predict will last, that will describe still and moving pictures, and TV and celluloid and digital, when “film” is either long gone or denatured, like “online newspaper.”

I can absolutely support the teaching of myths to elementary school students, but 1) it has to be done in connection with astronomy; 2) “myths” must include the original Star Wars trilogy; and 3) kids ought to know actual history! It doesn’t mean they need to be able to recite Presidents or dates of conquest. But a big sense of our shared human and terrestrial past is just… I don’t know. I think it’s essential.

Should we do a Snarkmarket pamphlet on the New Liberal Arts?

I imagine a facing page treatment, like a book in translation. Each contributor gets:

Left page: Your list.

Right page: Your manifesto/argument/defense.

And maybe some suggested readings thrown in there, too. Other fun things TBD.

Can we convince JKottke to write the introduction??

Write it for him, quoting together what he’s posted, and put some Twitter messages as running heads. Perfect.

Theresa M says…

Food definitely needs to be on the list. The politics of of eating. Self sustaining gardens. City gardening. Slow foods. Eco-gastronomy.

What about ecology?

Just to consolidate a few of the above under a crystallizing heading: STEWARDSHIP. Not just one semester of it, either.

In addition to IMAGERY, NARRATIVE, and MYTHOLOGY, I’d create a layman’s course, studiously avoiding legalese (and pre-law), on LAW & REGULATION.

Here’s my take on it. The way I understand Liberal Arts is that they are not skills, they are not necessarily “practical” studies, i.e. an Economics major is not learning something that will train that person for any specific job, rather they are academic disciplines focused on acquiring some kind of universal higher truth, i.e. they are timeless disciplines which will be relevant for all time regardless of what modernizations or societal changes may bring about and therefore must always be studied by as many people as possible; it is not new disciplines we need, it is a new approach to *teaching* the trivium and the quadrivium. It is easier to understand what I mean with the latter, because of the way the scientific method operates, it is constantly building off of what it learned yesterday and thus easier to keep it relevant. The former, the trivium, by contrast, is a bit more difficult because what is meant by “grammar,” “rhetoric,” and “language,” has changed significantly since the Enlightenment. Rhetoric as Aristotle understood it, is quite at odds with how Kenneth Burke defined it and understood it in the 1930’s. The different schools of thought on the subject are whether the new theories are valid or useful, or if Rhetoric is the same today as it was when Aristotle wrote “The Rhetoric,” i.e., some say rhetoric is simply dissecting speeches into ethos, pathos, and logos, while for others, it is more about how symbols are used to create meaning.

The problem with the liberal arts in the 21st century is does not necessarily lie in the subjects taught in a “liberal arts academy,” rather it is how expansive and relevant an approach is taken to pursuing them. My groups are:

Humanities:

Aesthetics

Linguistics

Philosophy

*

Sciences:

Mathematical Sciences

Natural Sciences

Quantum Sciences

Inventing new categories like Photography, Journalism, Advertising, etc. limits and excises some important, long standing “liberal arts” concepts that need to be considered. Photography itself, the process of capturing light to produce an image, is nothing without a deeper understanding of aesthetics, physics and philosophy. Similarly, Journalism is even more specific and even less of a liberal art. Journalism schools teach a very specific style of writing, research and story telling that is much different, and much less universally applicable than teaching effective writing more broadly. If we are going to overhaul the Liberal Arts framework, replacing the trivium and quadrivium ” with “graphic design, photography, and journalism” we need to make sure that “Liberal Arts” is still about big ideas, critical thinking, and the pursuit of universal truth.

Then again, I am a liberal arts student so I’m probably just talking out my ass.

And talking out of your ass may be the greatest liberal art of all. First philosophy!

@gboone: I like “Quantum Sciences” on your list. In my head that would also include stuff like the study of complex systems, probability, etc. — more than just quantum-scale physics. But either way, smart addition.

Yes — I read ‘quantum sciences’ and went “whoa.”

I can’t believe no one has mentioned Anthropology…

I want to jump back to Robin’s fMRI fixation and consider the modern discipline of psychology. In so doing, I want to convince you all that the liberal arts should be conceived as running orthogonally to the disciplines.

What makes a good—and I mean a really good—research psychologist? I’ll posit three elements:

1. an ability to frame answerable questions drawing on the tools of the discipline (be they scanners, flashcards, stopwatches, or statistical methods)

2. the ability to pick a worthwhile question; the power to scale up from small study to significant finding

3. the ability to convey new knowledge to a world that might be resistant to it.

This list could also distill down to:

1. science

2. humanities

3. rhetoric

That is:

1. framing answerable investigations; getting durable knowledge

2. asking big questions; judging value; understanding purpose

3. conveying; expressing; persuading—broadly: communicating

Which all maps pretty well to:

1. Truth [most limited, yet most powerful]

2. Good [most important, b/c foundational]

3. Beauty [most expansive, and most delightful]

And we’re back to Howard Gardner. Or Aristotle.

My point: we shouldn’t try to pick out the disciplines that fit inside the liberal arts. We should see how the disciplines encompass the liberal arts.

Now think of history.

It’s got a form (NARRATIVE) that communicates ideas very effectively.[Rhetoric/Beauty]

It produces trustworthy knowledge about the past by effectively gathering and classifying data (ARCHIVING–DATA-MANAGING, be that data machine-readable or not).[Science/Truth]

It serves the broader purpose of supporting a big, crazy, changing world by showing how un-natural that world is: how it evolved haphazardly due to a thousand tiny contingencies (De-NATURALIZING).[Humanities/Good]

@Dan: truth/science, good/humanities, and beauty/rhetoric also maps very nicely onto Kant’s Three Critiques:

Pure Reason (how is knowledge possible?);

Practical Reason (how is ethics possibile?);

and Judgment (how is aesthetics possible?).

But! I guess what I’m skeptical about are the following.

1) Communication and beauty aren’t the same thing. At all.

2) Value in the sense of the good and value in the sense of the useful are related but aren’t quite the same thing.

3) “Durable knowledge” really does mean different things across the disciplines.

4) There is and has always been a “liberal arts” that is like the trivium and a liberal arts that is like the quadrivium, arts of form and those of content/disciplinarity. Going back to the Greeks and Romans, there are even practical liberal arts like architecture and medicine. The liberal arts have always been heterogenous. So there is no reason why we should be unduly anxious about purifying away discipline- or media-specific modes of inquiry.

Ah, I intended no purification.

Rather, I’m happy to continue talking about what new disciplines and media-specific modes of inquiry grab our attention these days. That’s ultimately what I gather this book-project to be about. But I think the truth/beauty/good nexus ought to help as a tool for assessment. If a new mode or discipline does not contribute notably to all of them: it’s incomplete.

As for beauty and communication, I’m sticking to my argument that at the very least they map onto one another in a non-trivial way. Maybe we can think of beauty as an old-timey measure of communicative effectiveness. Communication is preferable because it’s more expansive a term. I want “beauty” to be more evocative. And since the New Liberal Arts take design so seriously, I think beauty ties together visual and written rhetoric nicely.

Value: in the end, unless you have a sense of purpose, of the good, I don’t see how you can have a measure of utility.

Durable knowledge: exactly! I want us to think about the disciplines as a whole host of wonderful knowledge defining traditions. The liberally-trained individual need not be fluent in all of them, but knows they exist.

Why have I written these posts:

1. Much of the New Liberal Arts discussion in the other post, while exciting and fascinating, strikes me as a tad superficial: lots of gee-whiz, lots of practical power, but maybe not asking “why” and “what for.” By all means, let’s discuss the New Beauty of today, or the New Science, but only if we also consider the New Humanities.

2. As a kind of response to the anti-humanities fight at the beginning of the other thread. My argument here: the humanities are not truly separate from the sciences. Without considering the value of scientific knowledge, it’s, well, valueless. Humanists (be they trained as philosophers, historians, or scientists) need to ask fundamental questions about science.

More writing about Thoreau!

Ha… I’m sensitive to the superficial point, b/c I think it might be right. These NLAs are going to carry the thumbprint of the fads, obsessions, and enthusiasms of 2009. But I think that’s okay. We’re not trying to etch a new list of liberal arts in stone; we’re trying to push the conversation forward, to poke and prod. And to that end, teasing things apart and taking a few risks is better than just saying, “oh, you know what? Turns out it was truth, beauty and good all along. Yup.”

That said: Maybe we should have a little meter in the corner of every page that rates each NLA according to the axes of truth/beauty/good :-)

Yes! Axes! That’s what I’m talking about.

Some liberal arts are just a little more meta-arty than others. Evaluating, discriminating, and questioning value is one of those. (And yes, I just did that.)

I have always liked the idea that at their core, the liberal arts carry with them a particularly humanist sense of value, without necessarily all of the philosophical commitments of humanism. Essentially, this boils down to the idea that knowledge and the transmission of human learning is good, that it benefits us spiritually, ethically, practically, even when its benefits aren’t obvious on any of those counts.

We’ve had a big fat slug in our off-site chart of new liberal arts, titled “ethics.” And next to it, someone typed — without any sense of irony, I swear — “needs development.”

I don’t know if “ethics” does the trick. But some sense of philosophy-ethics-humanism, that can try to reason in this light of understanding value, of a science of the self that can answer or at least continually pose that philo-humanist a priori question — “when we do X, what do we mean?” — yes, I think we have to say that we need that!

Or fuck it, liberal arts moratorium, because we need better batteries.

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