The murmur of the snarkmatrix…

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The New Liberal Arts, 1912

From The Atlantic Monthly:

Can we not devise a system of liberal education which shall find its foundations in the best things of the here and now? Literature and art are all about us; science and faith offer their daily contributions; history is in the making to-day; industry pours forth its wares; and children, no less than adults, are sharing in the dynamic activities of contemporary social life. Not in the things of the past, but in those of the present, should liberal education find its beginnings as well as its results. Fortified by the resources, interest, and insight thus obtained, it can be made to embrace areas of culture and power which are relatively remote and abstract.

David Snedden, “What Of Liberal Education?,” January 1912.

I also like Snedden’s joint emphasis on production and consumption, writing and reading, new notions of culture and media, usw. (It’s public domain, so I’m going to go ahead and quote a lot of it and put in bold the ideas I think are most important):

To produce little and consume much is a characteristic of parasitical forms of life; but to produce well and consume badly gives us, in the human sphere, narrow, illiberal, self-limiting, and ultimately self-destroying individualities. The modern world insists on specialization in productive activities as the key-note to efficiency; but it must learn to insist equally on the democratization and universalizing of fine consuming capacities as a condition of maintaining the larger forms of social life. One of the vices almost always inherent in certain forms of social aristocracy, is the artificial specialization of some consuming functions.

Are there not revealed in the distinctions here presented the clues to the methods and functions of liberal education? Man stands in a two-fold relationship to the world; he is a producer of utilities, and also a consumer. As producer, he writes books, or constructs machines, or produces wheat, or builds houses, or heals the sick, or conveys travelers; and for any of these activities he can be trained. As consumer, however, he is inspired by books, served by machines, nourished by bread, sheltered by houses, healed by physicians, and carried by railways; and for the wise and profitable exercise of these activities he can also be trained. He specializes in production; but manufacture, and printing, and steam enable him to universalize in consumption. What we call the social inheritance


Tim: that’s a fantastic and illuminating find.

It highlights for me the great shift in the SnarkMagination’s vision for a twenty-first century liberal arts and Snedden’s twentieth century liberal arts.

Those hundreds of comments posted last week, in all their glory, verve, and variety, had most to do with making better cultural producers. They sought not to democratize cultural consumption, but cultural production.

Maybe that’s the reason that Robin perceives an uptake in self-conscious discussions of creativity as well.

It struck me, too, that in a YouTube world of democratized consumers (or in a world where self-important undergrads start up numerous competing literary magazines for which there is a questionable consumer demand — you know who you are), its still really important for people to actively consume. More media requires more eyes, more attention. A community of producers fails if it does not also create a culture of thoughtful consumption and generous response.

Producers, take heed of the new golden rule: consume other’s cultural goods as thou wouldst have others consume thine.

I meant: “in a YouTube world of democratized producers”.

I wish I had that handy cross-out power of the privileged SnarkLords.

Betty Ann says…

Grand offering. I am currently reading John Taylor Gatto’s Weapons of Mass Instruction. He concludes that methods of modern training are completely ill serving and, in fact, unnecessary. I agree and support the notion that a liberal education would also be totally self-designed and self-directed.

That’s funny, because at least for me, that seems to be the BIG idea of the new liberal arts (at least as I’m formulating them) — it’s all about an education in acts of thoughtful reading/consumption, whether of photography, design, advertising, journalism…

I take this to be a point of continuity with the NOLAs (new original liberal arts), the trivium and quadrivium, which are all tilted ever so slightly towards acts of interpretation rather than creation. But it’s also very much the ethos of the web: to think doesn’t mean to invent ex nihilo, but to collect, filter, synthesize. In short, to read.

To collect, filter, synthesize, and transform! How wonderful that the line between creation and consumption is blurry now — when I read a great article somewhere, pick out the piece I like best, add a comment that gives it a different twist or cross-references it with something completely different, I’m doing a little of both.

@Robin: Absolutely. At any rate, even if this has always been true, this is clearer now than it once was.

Look, here’s my take on the reason for this whole project. In the 21st century, it doesn’t make sense for programmers to be the only ones who learn anything about programming, designers to be the only ones who learn anything about design, pollsters the only ones to learn about polls, journalists to be the only ones who learn about ethics and sourcing standards and problems, photographers and filmmakers (and the people who study them) to be the only ones who learn about photography, and so forth. Just as it’s NEVER made any sense for poets to be the only ones to learn about poetry, mathematicians and engineers the only ones to learn mathematics, or musicians the only ones to learn about music.

What I may like best in Snedden’s essay is his take on new media. It seems to reduce to — “We spend a lot of time reading newspapers and watching movies, and a lot of them are garbage. Should we stop reading newspapers or watching movies? No. We need to learn how to look at these things, so we can make them better. And if you just try to ignore these new forms, then you’re complicit in letting them be bad, or making them worse.”

Yet the NLA project goes beyond updating the way-old liberal arts. It expands into arts that were once relegated to the status of trade-work. Today’s design seems less a parallel with music in medieval or early modern Europe than with printing. Printing didn’t get to be a liberal art. Now it does. I think that’s apt.

That expansion probably began with people like Snedden. I’m thinking of the handicrafts movement, Dewey’s school reforms, or of all the practical arts museums built at the turn of the century.

Well, this is the thing! In ancient Greece and early Rome, there were nine liberal arts instead of seven. The two that got lost in the shift to late antiquity were medicine and architecture, in part because they were too “practical.”

There was also a push in the quattrocento Renaissance to include painting, sculpture, and architecture as a “modern” compliment to the liberal arts. So “design” has been flirting at the edges of the liberal arts for some time.

P.S.: This will play out in greater detail in my introduction/history of the liberal arts, but Snedden is in many ways a slightly more forward-looking version of Charles Eliot Norton, the Harvard president who revamped the liberal arts curriculum there in the mid-19th-century. The big push came from the new technical schools like MIT, and the land-grant agricultural schools, who both eventually became more like traditional universities, while schools like Harvard, Penn, Michigan, et al. became more practically-minded.

The big thing in the 19th-century was dropping Greek for chemistry.

On this topic, I think you might like my newest column up at

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