August 11, 2009
New Magnanimous Arts
Any theories as to what this is? It's like somebody ran New Liberal Arts through Google Translate a few times:
A era of digital locals is careening towards college. A manage to buy is rebooting itself weekly. You have brand brand brand new responsibilities right away -- as employees, adults, as well as friends -- as well as you have brand brand brand new capabilities, as well. A brand brand brand new magnanimous humanities supply us for a universe similar to this. But... what have been they?
WHAT HAVE BEEN THEY?
July 31, 2009
Constellations of Intelligence
Matthew Battles takes on academics and corporate types horning in on social media. This paragraph reminded me a bit of the sensibility underpinning New Liberal Arts:
In a thriving networked culture, it should be possible not merely to complement but to replace institutions and corporations with commons-native constellations of intelligence. The mainstream media quakes before the ever-multiplying range of news-gathering alternatives. In the intellectual world, the Infinite Summer—a massively distributed endeavor to collectively read and discuss the late novelist David Foster Wallace’s magnum opus Infinite Jest—is proving the power of social media to build loosely-structured networks of brains to replace the medieval legacy of colleges, faculties, and curricula.
Ultimately, I think some blending of the academy and the social web is inevitable, but it's a genuine dilemma which one will ultimately remake the other after its own matrix. Ultimately, I would bet on the web, and here's why.
For one thing, it's not a head-to-head but a three-way competition. The base of the university is still probably wash after wash of traditional intellectual culture - medievalism, humanism, the Enlightenment. But that's been increasingly uprooted by first state and then corporate bureaucracies. The ethos of digital culture is actually more sympathetic to traditional humanism than corporate office suite. But the technology and economic possibilities of digital culture can also peel away the more futurist-thinking of the capitalist side.
The real clincher, though, is writing. If writers and students and researchers and administrators at universities begin to port their assumptions about how all of these things work into the classroom and the academic conference, then it'll be a relentless wave. Within a generation, nothing will look the same. (Nothing will be wiped out, either - universities, as the archives of the world, retain everything, like the unconscious.)
By the way, if I haven't said it already, Battles's and Josh Glenn's Hilobrow is 100% required reading. I think it's the best new blog of 2009.
File under: Learnin', New Liberal Arts, Technosnark
July 30, 2009
New (Hampshire) Liberal Arts
I was just on New Hampshire Public Radio, live, talking about New Liberal Arts. Sure to be the buzz of Manchester this morning!
July 29, 2009
Mr. Penumbra Would Like This
Each week postliteracy.org presents visitors with a single image, which will often have multiple layers of meaning in its visual content. Embedded within that image, though, is textual content hidden through steganography. The audience must decode the hidden text [...] in order to "read" the entire message.
And this sounds pretty new liberal artsy, doesn't it:
Thus, each post at postliteracy.org requires polymodal literacy—here, visual, interactive, computational, and textual literacies—to decode its full meaning.
Helpfully, they link directly to the tools required to find the hidden messages.
July 24, 2009
New Liberal Arts in the Boston Phoenix
Woohoo! Mike Miliard provides a fine write-up, complete with commentary from Tim, in the Boston Phoenix.
July 13, 2009
Giving Things Away Is A New Liberal Art
The title is half a joke, but half true. Part of navigating the logic, grammar, and rhetoric of this century of scarcity and abundance is going to involve not just working and understanding flows of goods and money, growing and eating things, understanding marketing or images, or managing your attention and identity (or identities), but also trying to figure out what you give away and what you charge for, what you take and what you pay for, and why and how you do all of these things.
Many, many people have been at least as interested in how and why we printed only 200 copies of New Liberal Arts and then gave digital copies away as they've been interested in any or all of the entries. And you know what? I'm kind of more interested in that too -- at least for the past thirty minutes or so.
Kevin Kelly's formulation of what we did is worth repeating: "The scarce limited edition of the physical subsidizes the distribution of the unlimited free intangible." We knew that we wanted to make an honest-to-goodness well-made book*, AND that we wanted everything to be freely available on the web. I don't think there was ever a conversation about doing it any other way.
But I think there's a difference between just selling a physical thing and giving it away for free. One of the things that I think was clever was the "ransom" model that Robin came up with, whereby the free copies were only released after the print run was sold. I think it was the motive of patronage, the aligning of the interests of the purchasers with the freeriders, that made it work.
(Aside: When I was a kid, I remember how the Detroit Lions' football games on TV used to be blacked-out in Detroit whenever the Silverdome didn't sell out. Since the Lions stunk, this happened a lot, and CBS wouldn't even show you another football game, you'd just be stuck watching reruns or infomercials instead of football, which made you hate the Lions even more.)
Janneke Adema keys in on this:
Actually this is just a variant of the delayed Open Access model, in which after a certain embargo time the books or journals are made Open Access. What I like however about the example Kelly mentions of the New Liberal Arts book, a Snarkmarket/Revelator Press collaboration, is how they combine this delayed Open Access model with a community support or maecenas model.
In another, earlier entry, she elaborates:
It looks like we might be slowly returning to the old Maecenas system, or Maecenate, when it comes to culture, flourishing as it did in the old Rome of Virgil and Horace, and still visible today in many a countries’ subsidy system, stimulating (historically) mostly the so called ‘high arts’ which in some cases and some countries have known some kind of patronage or state subsidy for ages (the Dutch system is a good example in this respect).
What seems clear however is that this new digital Maecenic culture will be quite different in many respects from so called subsidy systems. It will be way more ‘democratic’ for one, no longer favoring art picked out by committees of wise experts but directly benefiting those chosen by the public to merit their money. It will also not be a ‘traditional’ Maecenic culture in which a few rich people out of philanthropy and the goodness of their hearth give their money to the arts or the projects they endorse. This new Maecenic culture will probably be upheld by large communities of people of all income classes, all offering a little money to support their favorite band, artist or cultural entrepreneur (think of those small labels again).
The new digital Macenate! Just typing it gives me shivers of delight.
Until I read Adema's post, though, the way I'd been thinking about it was less classical, and maybe less flattering. I was thinking about Polish farmers in Prussia.
Okay, I'll explain. Max Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism begins with a weird and probably a little racist anecdote about Catholic farmers in the Eastern province of Germany. The farmers, and young people from the farms who'd emigrated to the cities, didn't seem to respond to economic incentives. They were traditionalists: if you showed them a new way to farm that yielded more crops, unless the difference was overwhelming, they didn't care; they'd just do it the way they always did it. If you paid them more for their crops to try to get them to produce more, they'd work less, because they could live off of the same amount of money they'd always had.
Actually Weber very smartly avoided the racist conclusion - that the Polish farmers were congenitally lazy -- that most of the Prussian farmowners who employed these Polish workers had made. Instead, he concluded that to work your butt off to make more money than you could most likely spend was actually a very strange way to live - that it wasn't, as some of the early economists and social engineers thought, a natural and universal response to maximize utility, but a historically contingent phenomenon.
He spends the rest of his startlingly brilliant book trying to trace the conditions under which that phenomenon could have emerged based on the startling economic success made by Protestant sects in Western Europe and the United States, all of which hinged on new notions of work and personal austerity that turned out to be, quite accidentally, a primary engine in the development of modern capitalism as it emerged in the West.
So, where am I going with this?
Well, the NLA model is like a color negative of the noncapitalist peasant. I say a color negative because the economic conditions have actually reversed. The peasant could earn more, but he didn't really have any place to put it. Once his physical needs were met, he had no reason to keep working. He would curtail the potential abundance of nature when the scarce physical resources were purchased.
What can do is the opposite - to unlock the potential abundance of the artificial once the scarce physical resources have been paid for. Instead of stopping work - stopping the flow of goods and closing the circuit of circulation - this opens it up. This is only natural.... Read more ....
File under: About Snarkmarket, New Liberal Arts, Self-Disclosure, Snarkonomics
July 9, 2009
Language and the New Liberal Arts
So I'm sitting here, working on making a plain-vanilla hypertext version of New Liberal Arts so folks can read it on their phones, Kindles, whatever, and cleaning up all the extra cruft to make it work -- you can just cut-and-paste from the PDF, it'll be easy, Robin says, forgetting that it's set in opposing faces that sometimes get out of order, that the all-cap fonts turn into gibberish, and that there's a freaking secret message in the thing --
And, maybe just naturally, or maybe as a function of what I'm doing, I am totally blown away - again - by Diana Kimball's "Coding and Decoding" and Rachel Leow's "Translation."
Seriously. Just check them out. They're so elegant and complimentary - Rachel's is about a kind of patient mastery and deep connection to other human beings past and present, Diana's about ambient awareness of linguistic symbols that we discover but whose deciphering is always going to be incomplete. Originally, I was going to write a separate NLA entry for "Languages" - when I first read these two, months ago, I realized that I had nothing I wanted to add.
File under: Language, New Liberal Arts, Recommended
Next Time, Bigger And More Humble
Selected early reviews of New Liberal Arts:
Kevin Kelly, "Innovative Publishing Model":
It really doesn't matter what's in the book. The model is brilliant, if you have an audience. The scarce limited edition of the physical subsidizes the distribution of the unlimited free intangible... As it happens, the PDF reveals that the content is pretty thin. But it did not have to be. Their premise is great (the new literacies), and their biz model innovative. We can hope they try again. I am impressed enough with the experiment to use this model on my next self-published book.
The readers at Book Cover Archive: "This may be the only use of Century Gothic I'll ever appreciate," "friggin sold out! love that quarter binding..."
Aside from the PDF’s inherent weaknesses as e-book format, this is a pretty cool idea. The tiny press run gives value to the hardcover, certainly pays for the free PDF giveaway, and gets the interest up for the next book to be thusly released... In any case, given that it took only eight hours for New Liberal Arts to sell out, the Snarkmarketers might want to think of printing more next time.
Mark Allen: "New Liberal Arts is a free PDF ebook about things Jason Kottke often refers to as “Liberal Arts 2.0” and is written by a lot of really smart people about some really interesting topics such as brevity, micropolitics, mapping, reality engineering and a bunch more. It also has an innovative publishing model. It’s only about 35 pages of content, and each page is a discrete, bite size idea that will likely send you off in a completely new direction for the rest of the day."
And nobody (besides late-rising Californians) has even seen the physical book yet! (Which, just to be clear, is a perfect-bound paperback, not a hardcover.*)
July 8, 2009
Are you on the east coast, or (gasp) in the Eastern Hemisphere, and can't wait until your copy of the New Liberal Arts is delivered or late-rising Californians post the free PDF?
You can already read four of the New Liberal Arts entries for free, online, now:
July 7, 2009
The Real Reason to Make Books: You Get to Make Book Covers
While I'm here: Wow, I really did not expect those books to sell out so fast. Now I wish we'd printed twice as many. But, a limited edition is a limited edition! PDF coming soon.
I hate to bump the New Liberal Arts off the top of the front page - go check it out! Buy it! Do it now! - but I've got a related meatspace publishing story to tell you. My Chronicle of Higher Education forum contribution on scholarship and teaching in 2029 - "The Faculty of the Future: Leaner, Meaner, More Innovative, Less Secure" - is out now, but the online version is sadly behind a very 2009 subscription firewall. So you'll have to have a login to read what Mark Bosquet, Anthony Grafton, Joseph Hermanowicz, Evelyn Hu-Dehart, Peter Stearns, and Cathy Ann Trower wrote. But here's my piece as it appears in full:
How is academe different in 2029? Let's begin with the basics: reading, writing, and teaching. If anything, Google is even more important. The 2009 author/publisher settlements that allowed Google to sell full access to its book collections didn't revolutionize books in retail, but subscription sales to institutions did fundamentally alter the way libraries think about their digital and analog collections. Access to comprehensive digital libraries allows teachers at any institution to compile virtual syllabi on the fly, seamlessly integrating readings, assignments, communication, and composition..... Read more ....
Automated subscriptions powered by Google's search services deliver articles on any topic or keyword of interest instantaneously; hyperlinked citations and references appear with the original document, as threads in a continuing conversation, creating the first genuinely hypertext documents.
Apple's popular iRead application (launched in 2011) enables reading, writing, and recording on virtually any device. Some teachers and students still use laptops or tablets, but others prefer handhelds, like phones or game consoles. But users' inherited assumptions about the casual use of these devices make both teaching and research more closely resemble the activity of online social networks than traditional lectures, seminars, or conferences. Courses typically emphasize collaborative research leading to immediate publication of short bursts of text. Reader feedback then powers incremental improvements and additions.
The curriculum, especially in the humanities, valorizes thoughtful curation and recirculation of material rather than comprehension or originality. The traditional unidirectional model of knowledge transmission (best represented by the now-deprecated "lecture") has been effectively discredited, although it persists through habit, inertia, and whispered doubts about the efficacy and rigidity of the new model. Many professors periodically pause to lecture, but only apologetically, or when distanced by ironic quotation marks.
The 'teens are as widely remembered for technical innovation and radical dissemination of knowledge as the '20s are for job loss, technological retrenchment, and economic concentration. In 2019, when Google used its capital to snap up the course-management giant Blackboard and the Ebsco, LexisNexis, and Ovid databases, it effectively became the universal front end for research and teaching in the academy.
Many university presses were shuttered in the transition from print to digital, especially those affiliated with public universities looking to shed costs following the catastrophic collapse of the University of California system following state budget cuts in 2020. The remaining presses make up for lost textbook sales by hosting blogs where established scholars and high-octane amateurs brush shoulders (and compete for shared advertisement revenue). These in turn drive production of traditional monographs, whether published electronically, in print, or both. Scholars also directly market their services as virtual lecturers to students and other institutions. All authors now have a broader view of their audience, across institutions, disciplines, and peer levels.
Everyone is excited, but everything is uncertain. No one knows what will happen next. Just like 20 years ago
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Learnin', New Liberal Arts
NEW LIBERAL ARTS: On Sale Now
Listen, I think you are really going to like this book. It's a distillation of so many of the themes we orbit around here at Snarkmarket, presented through the prism of many minds, all very different, and all wrapped up in the form of a slick, slim volume that you'll be happy to hold in your hands.
And again—I don't want to give anything away, but—there's a secret that can only be unlocked if you possess the physical object(s).
Keep in mind: This project isn't over! Really, it's only now that it can begin. We've collectively created a coherent piece of work worth sharing with the world. But, as New Liberal Arts itself tells us, ahem, on page 41:
Ideas succeed not by being good or bad, but by being sold effectively.
As it happens, I think we've got some really good ideas in here—but we do need your help selling them. And there is a lot you can do to pitch in. Blog this, tweet about it, Facebook-share it, or best of all, recommend it directly to a friend (or three) who you think might like it.
Together, we'll sell these books, by hook or by crook*, and then—here's the fun part—together we'll ask: What next?
*Or in eight hours, apparently.
July 6, 2009
NEW LIBERAL ARTS: Get It Tomorrow
A project that began earlier this year now bears fruit: slim, rectangular fruit.
New Liberal Arts, a Snarkmarket/Revelator Press collabo, is 80 pages long, with 21 pitches for new liberal arts from some of the smartest minds we could find. The pitches range from attention economics to video literacy; you are gonna love what you find in this book.
It goes on sale tomorrow at 9 a.m. PST, so be sure to check in early—there are only 200 copies. Each one is $8.99. The idea is that after we sell those, we'll release the PDF, so when you buy a book, you're also buying a little slice of free for everybody. Or something like that.
But bear in mind: New Liberal Arts has a secret—one that can only be unlocked out there in the world of atoms and new-book-smell, not here in the world of pixels and PDFs.
To warm you up, we'll be posting a few new liberal arts this week. It breaks my heart, because they look so lame here on the blog, without Brandon Kelley's wonderful design—but I do want to give you a taste.
The first, micropolitics, is from Matt. He was the most prolific contributor to this book, with 3.5 entries to his credit, and I have to tell you, each one is an E.B. White-worthy gem—compact, lucid, thought-provoking. I'd pay the cover price for his contributions alone.... Read more ....
June 19, 2009
What Is An Academic Press (2029)?
In my back-and-forth with Robin about publishers' web sites hosting blogs by their writers, I simply assumed that everybody had read these four pieces, forgetting that I hadn't blogged about them yet! Here's my background.
- Macy Halford, "Blogademia"
- Chronicle of Higher Ed, Forum on Scholarly Publishing
- Peter J. Dougherty, "A Manifesto For Scholarly Publishing"
- Benjamin Kunkel, "Lingering"
The Chronicle Forum is particularly worth reading, especially the section at the end on new trends in scholarly writing. Here's one excerpt from Alan Thomas at University of Chicago Press:
There has been a welcome trend, still continuing, for scholars to use the security of tenure to frame book projects for wider audiences within the academy, and sometimes outside it. But for first books, things haven't changed much: The habit of writing to satisfy a dissertation committee carries over into writing to satisfy later professional gatekeepers, without enough regard for the book's potential audience. The peer-review process is sometimes to blame for that (well-meaning readers' reports sometimes have the effect of re-dissertationizing a first book), and we as editors need to help authors sort the good suggestions from the bad. One trend I don't see, but would like to, is greater attention to writing skills in graduate school. When I speak to groups of grad students, I always urge them to cultivate an ability to write in several registers (through book reviews, blogs, journalism, and so on), even as they write their dissertations.
Doug Sery at MIT press also notes that "[t]here seems to be a movement afoot to change the evaluation criteria used by universities for promotion and tenure. Specifically, there is a desire among some academics to allow participation in blogs, online journals, and other new media to count toward their promotion and tenure cases," while Doug Armato at Minnesota writes, "I see the blog form moving into scholarship through more diarylike texts. There is also a more European-influenced urge to write speculative scholarly essays or meditations with minimal footnotes and apparatus."
To me, the most natural way to convince tenure committees to count participation in new media is to get university presses to sponsor it, and the most natural way for university presses to help use new media to get better books is to help shape how it's done. University presses hosting and publishing blogs is Pareto-optimal.
In fact, I think this is going in my own essay on academia in 2029.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Learnin', New Liberal Arts
Jonah Lehrer and The Fourth Culture
I should have read Jonah Lehrer's Proust Was a Neuroscientist a long time ago. Jeffrey J Cohen's excerpt at In the Middle just bumped it to the top of my list. Here's Cohen:
Whereas C. P. Snow argued in 1959 that we require a third culture, one that bridge the noncommunicating realms of art and science, those scientists who have self-appointed themselves as this culture (especially Steven Pinker) carry a fair amount of animus towards the humanities, believing it enough if they communicate their science directly to the masses. Lehrer argues that not only does such a third culture misrepresent what Snow imagined, it often gets the humanists wrong (and misapprehends their artistic sources as well) by not having listened or read attentively. Lehrer therefore calls for a fourth culture, a space of true collaboration, and it is that call I'd like to quote this morning.
And here's Lehrer (as quoted by JJC):
[A fourth culture] seeks to discover the relationships between the humanities and the sciences. This fourth culture, much closer in concept to Snow's original definition (and embodied by works like [Ian McEwan's] Saturday), will ignore arbitrary intellectual boundaries, seeking instead to blur the lines that separate. It will freely transplant knowledge between the sciences and humanities, and will focus on connecting the reductionist fact to our actual experience. It will take a pragmatic view of truth, and it will judge truth not by its origins but by its usefulness. What does this novel or experiment or poem or protein teach us about ourselves? How does it help us to understand who we are? What long-standing problem has been solved? ... While science will always be our primary method of investigating the universe, it is naïve to think that science alone can solve everything itself, or that everything can even be solved ... When we venture beyond the edge of our knowledge, all we have is art ... No knowledge has a monopoly on knowledge.
For my part -- and it's taken me a looooong time to come around to this view -- I think one of the paradigmatic approaches to this problem of disciplinary edges is to spend a lot of time thinking about media. You simply HAVE to think about the brain, the body, culture, languages and codes, history, society, politics, commerce. Guys like Pinker want to settle old scores, spend a lot of time worrying about relativism. The people who are thinking seriously about media (inside and outside of the academy) have already moved on.
File under: Braiiins, Learnin', Media Galaxy, New Liberal Arts, Science
June 15, 2009
How I Spent Last Weekend
This weekend past, I went down to TechShop to make a special bonus for the people who purchase a physical, hold-it-in-your-hands New Liberal Arts book. (Available soon.)
I was aided by this fine fellow (watch in HD!):
In time, this will all make sense.
The New Liberal Arts and the New Professors
So I'm writing a short essay for a forum on the future of scholarship and the profession at The Chronicle of Higher Ed, I think on the New Liberal Arts.
Like you, i've spent a lot of time thinking about WHAT the NLA should be, but relatively little on how that would change colleges, universities, and the lives, research, and careers of professors.
So... What should I say?
June 9, 2009
NLA Video Update
This is turning into the best Tuesday ever.
June 8, 2009
La Gaya Scienza
According to Jonathan Jarrett,the whole humanities vs. science contention is (at least in part) an artifact of the English language:
This here is the ceiling of the old lecture hall of the Austrian Academy of the Sciences, at least as it translates into English. But, what's the French or German for science? `Science', `Wissenschaft', respectively, both of which also mean just `knowledge'. All the Romance languages have some version of Latin `scientia', which likewise means just `knowledge'. And that's what the artwork here was painted to express, wisdom being handed down by teachers and on tablets to a romantic and fascinated world. All kinds of knowledge.
The idea that science means the Popperian world of reproducibility, experiment and testing, by contrast, is modern and English. It's slowly being enforced on other languages' academies, but it's not something that people in the Middle Ages, where geometry was one of the Liberal Arts, or even the nineteenth century, would have recognised. Even now, the German-speaking states almost all have their Akademie der Wissenschaften, France has the Centre National des Recherches Scientifiques and Spain the Consejo Superior de Investigaciones Científicas, and these are the premier research institutions of the humanities in their respective lands. But in Britain, which I know best, the current split between the Arts & Humanities Research Board, now Council, and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Council, previously the Science and Engineering Research Council and previously the Science Research Council, goes essentially back to the difference between the Royal Society, founded 1660 in some form, and the British Academy, founded 1902. I don't know what the equivalent bodies in the USA would be but it would be an interesting comparison. [Note: My guess would be the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. --TC]
Elsewhere we don't have to have this separation, and one of the most interesting things about Snow's piece is therefore its potential to explain why in fact we do. And, indeed, it's pleasant to see that some people have used Science! and graphs and maps to argue that in fact, we don't, we just think we do. As a computing-in-the-humanities sort of guy, I can get behind that.
I don't absolutely buy this, but I think there is something to it. When I translate "Wissenschaft," I sometimes use "science," but more often I find myself writing "scholarship" - which is as close to a word covering both the humanities and sciences in a traditional liberal-artsy sense.
More to the point, I think the science/humanities divide is less a difference in the way Anglo-Americans and contiental Europeans think about the humanities, than a difference in the way we think about science.
In the US, at least, nearly ALL science is seen as applied science -- that is, closer to the PRACTICE of engineering, or medicine, then it is to history or sociology or (god forbid) comparative literature. None of those things can build a bridge or whup those Communists. But if you start to talk about "research," or especially "scholarship," then you start to see commonalities. Someone doing medical research, even for a for-profit purpose, is in a different business from someone working in a clinical practice, just as a lawyer is different from a law professor.
The beef with the humanities seems to be that there are no corresponding practitioners, no practical applications -- with the possible exceptions of K-12 teachers and professional writers (journalists, novelists, historians who write for trade presses). Couple that with a rump humanism that actively valorizes the uselessness, timelessness, and universality of the arts, and you get some misunderstandings at best and real problems at worst.
The shift that's happening seems to be with the younger generation of culture workers. (Here I'm relying in part on Alan Liu's thesis in The Laws of Cool.) One reason why I think the idea of Liberal Arts 2.0 / digital humanism seems to have some traction is that the work that younger people includes more of what we would traditionally call the humanities, and is governed by an ethos that is closer to what we would call humanism. If we begin to think of our technological galaxy as a media galaxy, then we start to see some clearer points of overlap between science culture and humanities culture.
Somewhere Friedrich Kittler points out that there's only been one time before now that the entire West was governed by the same information technologies. That was during the European Middle Ages, when the university's technologies of the book, the library, the postal service, the lecture, etc. were pretty much the only games in town. If you get bifurcated discourse networks, you'll get a bifurcated culture. You can't just try to understand a cultural rift; it will only close once its precondition changes.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Learnin', New Liberal Arts, Science, Worldsnark
May 28, 2009
What Kinds of Math Do We Need?
The role of mathematics in the language sciences is made more complex by the variety of different sorts of mathematics that are relevant. In particular, some areas of language-related mathematics are traditionally approached in ways that may make counting (and other sorts of quantification) seem at least superficially irrelevant — these include especially proof theory, model theory, and formal language theory.
On the other hand, there are topics where models of measurements of physical quantities, or of sample proportions of qualitative alternatives, are essential. This is certainly true in my own area of phonetics, in sociolinguistics and psycholinguistics, and so on. It's more controversial what sorts of mathematics, if any, ought to be involved in areas like historical linguistics, phonology, and syntax...
Unfortunately, the current mathematical curriculum (at least in American colleges and universities) is not very helpful in accomplishing this — and in this respect everyone else is just as badly served as linguists are — because it mostly teaches thing that people don't really need to know, like calculus, while leaving out almost all of the things that they will really be able to use. (In this respect, the role of college calculus seems to me rather like the role of Latin and Greek in 19th-century education: it's almost entirely useless to most of the students who are forced to learn it, and its main function is as a social and intellectual gatekeeper, passing through just those students who are willing and able to learn to perform a prescribed set of complex and meaningless rituals.)
My thoughts are still inchoate on this, so I'll throw it open -- is calculus 1) a waste of time for 80-90% of the folks who learn it, 2) unfairly dominating of the rest of useful mathematics, 3) one of the great achievements of the modern mind that everyone should know about, or 4) all of the above?
More to the point -- what kinds of maths (as they say in the UK) have you found to be most valuable to your later life, work, thinking, discipline, whatever?
And looking to the future - I don't think we have a mathematics entry as such in the New Liberal Arts book-to-come; but if we did, what should it look like?
May 26, 2009
The New Socialism is the New Humanism
We loooove Kevin Kelly around here at Snarkmarket. Robin tipped me off to his stuff and he's since joined Atul Gawande, Roger Ebert, Virginia Heffernan, Clay Shirky, Michael Pollan, Clive Thompson, Gina Trapani, Jason Kottke, Ben Vershbow, Hilzoy, Paul Krugman, Sy Hersh, and Scott Horton (among others) in the Gore-Gladwell Snarkfantastic Hall of Fame. Dude should have his own tag up in here.
But I think there's a rare misstep (or rather, misnaming) in his new Wired essay, "The New Socialism: Global Collectivist Society Is Coming Online." It's right there in the title. That S-word. Socialism.
Now, don't get me wrong. I like socialism where socialism makes sense. Almost everyone agrees that it makes sense to have a socialized police and military. I like socialized (or partially socialized) education, and I think it makes a lot of sense to have socialized health insurance, as part of a broad social safety net that helps keep people safe, capable, knowledgeable, working. Socialism gets no bad rap from me.
I know Kelly is using the word socialism as a provocation. And he takes pains to say that the new socialism, like the new snow, is neither cold nor wet:
We're not talking about your grandfather's socialism. In fact, there is a long list of past movements this new socialism is not. It is not class warfare. It is not anti-American; indeed, digital socialism may be the newest American innovation. While old-school socialism was an arm of the state, digital socialism is socialism without the state. This new brand of socialism currently operates in the realm of culture and economics, rather than government—for now...
Instead of gathering on collective farms, we gather in collective worlds. Instead of state factories, we have desktop factories connected to virtual co-ops. Instead of sharing drill bits, picks, and shovels, we share apps, scripts, and APIs. Instead of faceless politburos, we have faceless meritocracies, where the only thing that matters is getting things done. Instead of national production, we have peer production. Instead of government rations and subsidies, we have a bounty of free goods.
But I think of socialism as something very specific. It's something where a group of citizens pools their resources as part of a democratic (and at least partially technocratic) administering of benefits to everyone. This could be part of a nation-state or a co-op grocery store. And maybe this is too Hobbesian, but I think about it largely as motivated by a defense against something bad. Maybe there's some kind of general surplus-economy I'm missing where we can just socialize good things without risk. That'd be nice.
When masses of people who own the means of production work toward a common goal and share their products in common, when they contribute labor without wages and enjoy the fruits free of charge, it's not unreasonable to call that socialism.
But I'll put this out as an axiom: if there's no risk of something genuinely bad, no cost but opportunity cost, if all we're doing is passing good things around to each other, then that, my friend, is not socialism.
This is a weird paradox: what we're seeing emerge in the digital sphere is TOO altruistic to be socialism! There isn't enough material benefit back to the individual. It's not cynical enough! It solves no collective action problems! And again, it's totally individualistic (yet totally compatible with collectivities), voluntarist (yet totally compatible with owning one's own labor and being compensated for it), anti-statist (yet totally compatible with the state). It's too pure in its intentions and impure in its structure.
Kelly, though, says, we've got no choice. We've got to call this collectivism, even if it's collective individualism, socialism:
I recognize that the word socialism is bound to make many readers twitch. It carries tremendous cultural baggage, as do the related terms communal, communitarian, and collective. I use socialism because technically it is the best word to indicate a range of technologies that rely for their power on social interactions. Broadly, collective action is what Web sites and Net-connected apps generate when they harness input from the global audience. Of course, there's rhetorical danger in lumping so many types of organization under such an inflammatory heading. But there are no unsoiled terms available, so we might as well redeem this one.
In fact, we have a word, a very old word, that precisely describes this impulse to band together into small groups, set collective criteria for excellence, and try to collect and disseminate the best, most useful, most edifying, most relevant bodies of knowledge as widely and as cheaply as possible, for the greatest possible benefit to the individual's self-cultivation and to the preservation and enrichment of the culture as a whole.
And that word is humanism.... Read more ....
File under: Braiiins, Language, New Liberal Arts
April 14, 2009
Two weeks ago I praised Harper's Scott Horton, who in addition to tiptop legal/political commentary regularly serves up poignant and relevant chunks of older texts, and lamented that more bloggers don't mine the past as well or as often as they do the just-this-minute.
I don’t have to impress upon you the need to embrace the new... You have to continue to challenge yourself as a reader - a serious reader. And as one who learns - a serious student. That you have not calcified. That you do not know what you think you know, least of all who or what or where or especially WHEN is important... Get a library card and wander somewhere dusty. Find something real. And then blog about it — bring it into this world. Scan that creaky wisdom, make it sing. We need many things now, but wisdom most of all.
There are actually a whole microclass of bloggers and online commentators who do what Horton does. And I think I've come up with a good name for what they do: paleoblogging.
Like paleontologists, paleobiologists, and paleoarcheologists, Paleobloggers dig up blogworthy material from the past to see what makes it tick. But instead of our prehistorical past, paleoblogging focuses on our analog past, blending in somewhere in the mid-1960s. See after the jump for my abbreviated field guide to paleoblogging.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Learnin', Media Galaxy, New Liberal Arts
April 13, 2009
An Archaeologist of Morning
From Polis Is This, a documentary about the great poet, critic, and Black Mountain college rector Charles Olson:
I've said before and I will say again, I feel a spontaneous affinity for Olson like for no other American historical figure I've ever seen, heard, met, or read about.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Movies, New Liberal Arts
April 5, 2009
The Economist just published a magazine article on the relationship between poverty, stress, and memory in childhood development. It's a powerful thesis, and breathtaking in its scope. But Mark Liberman at Language Log has an equally powerful takedown that walks back some of the big conclusions the article suggests.
Basically, the differences found in the research are actually statistically smaller than you'd think. As debunkings go, this is ho-hum. But I'm much more intrigued by Liberman's Whorfian idea about why we get confused when we start to talk about statistical variation among groups:
This is presumably because a significant proportion of [The Economist's] readers would be baffled by talk of effect sizes or percentiles, while the proportion who are bothered by vague talk about generic differences is minuscule. Such things are not effectively taught or widely learned, even among quantitatively-minded intellectuals. But I also think that there's a linguistic aspect. If Benjamin Lee Whorf were alive, he might argue that our whole society is intellectually hamstrung by the way that English -- like all the other languages of the world -- tends to make us think about the evaluation and comparison of the properties of members of groups. And, I think, he might be right.
The easy and natural ways of talking about group comparisons express differences in terms of properties of the groups involved, or in terms of properties of imaginary generic or average group members: "the working memories of children who have been raised in poverty have smaller capacities than those of middle-class children"; "Those who had spent their whole lives in poverty could hold an average of 8.5 items in their memory at any time. Those brought up in a middle-class family could manage 9.4." Writers and speakers may know what's really going on, at least with half of their brains, but readers and listeners are fooled into thinking that they understand these generic statements, even though in the absence of information about the comparison of distributions rather than the comparison of average values, they're left completely unable to put that understanding to any valid use.
This situation ought to be just as puzzling, at least to members of a more advanced civilization, as the Pirahã's ignorance of numbers is to us.
This kind of cognilinguistatistical analysis just strikes me as so powerful, and so complimentary to all of its various parts, that I wish there were some kind of new program that just devoted to all of the different highly technical ways we have to make sense of stuff: linguistics, statistics, model-building, cryptography, semiotics, paleography, information sciences. I'd double-major in that and philosophy in a heartbeat -- then start a think-tank devoted to high-end hermeneutics.
Also, I would wear all-black tailored suits and a sharp fedora, and ride around in the Batmobile. It would be so, so sweet.
File under: Braiiins, Language, Learnin', New Liberal Arts
March 31, 2009
What Do You Learn Online?
Lifehacker's Top 10 Tools For A Free Online Education reminds me a little of the experience I had a year or so ago browsing The Pirate Bay's top-seeded e-books; a lot of computer programming and software manuals, a handful of natural language lessons, and weird DIY hacks stuff, like instructions on how to build your own solar panels or break out of handcuffs.
Anyways, it strikes me that whether officially or unofficially, plenty of people are trying to learn things using the web, and plenty of other people are working, compiling, and disseminating information to try to help people learn. Some of this is raw information, but a surprising amount is explicitly pedagogical: tips, tutorials, how-tos, complete guides. Whether it's how to beat a Zelda boss or how to get a web server working, people want to teach other, anonymous people how to do it.
I call this practice and this instinct digital humanism, and it is a big part of what the new liberal arts are all about.
I wonder: what do you try to learn online? Or more to the point, what DON'T you try to learn online? either because you don't find what you're looking for there, or because you don't look? Have you ever taught someone how to do something? Prepared a guide, manual, or walkthrough? Do you have trusted sources, portals, and networks, or do you go straight to Google? What's the value that you get from it? What, if anything, is missing?
March 21, 2009
New Liberal Arts Mini-Update
Things are cooking along with the New Liberal Arts: Almost all of the entries are done, locked, and looking wonderful. There are just a few more outstanding -- you know who you are. And the design is shaping up, too!
Plus, I've finalized the plan for the secret physical-object surprise -- the little extra that will make the printed book a real treat.
March 12, 2009
Teaching as Anti-Teaching / Writing as Anti-Writing
My friend (and fellow Penn Comparative Literature alumnus) Mark Sample on what's uncritical about the critical essay:
[C]ritical thinking stands in opposition to facile thinking. Critical thinking is difficult thinking. Critical thinking is being comfortable with difficulty. And this is something else that separates the expert learner from the novice learner: experts are at ease with uncertainty, while novices are uncomfortable with what they don’t understand, and they struggle to come up with answers — and quickly come up with answers — that eliminate complexity and ambiguity. The historian and cognitive psychologist Samuel Wineburg calls this tendency to seek answers over questions “schoolish” behavior, because it is exactly the kind of behavior most schools reward.
I want my students to break out of this schoolish mode of behavior. Instead of thinking like students — like novices, I want them to think more like experts, and I must coach them to do so. It requires intellectual risk-taking on their part, and on my part, it requires mindfulness, patience, and risk-taking as well.
This is the primary reason I’ve integrated more and more public writing into my classes. I strive to instill in my students the sense that what they think and what they say and what they write matters — to me, to them, to their classmates, and through open access blogs and wikis, to the world.
In addition to making student writing public, I’ve also begun taking the words out of writing. Why must writing, especially writing that captures critical thinking, be composed of words? Why not images? Why not sound? Why not objects? The word text, after all, derives from the Latin textus, meaning that which is woven, strands of different material intertwined together. Let the warp be words and the weft be something else entirely.
With this in mind, I am moving away from asking students to write toward asking them to weave. To build, to fabricate, to design. I don’t want my students to become miniature scholars. I want them to be aspiring Rauschenbergs, assembling mixed media combines, all the while through their engagement with seemingly incongruous materials, developing a critical thinking practice about the process and the product.
"Aspiring Rauschenbergs!" I'm way more
committed reflexively attached to writing (writ large) and literature (read wide) than Mark is -- but still, this makes me feel even more excited to seek out new modes of anti-teaching. Let's stay on the move.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Learnin', New Liberal Arts
February 25, 2009
That Coffin Is A Lifeboat
One of my favorite people, um, ever is Charles Olson -- poet, amateur anthropologist, rector of Black Mountain College back when BMC was quite possibly the coolest place to be in the country. (Olson reportedly said, "I need a college to think with" -- something that I often feel myself whenever I take a stab at thinking about the New Liberal Arts.)
Olson's essay/manifesto "Projective Verse" helped build the bridge between modernist and postmodern literature -- in fact, Olson's sometimes given credit for helping formulate the whole idea of the postmodern.
One of Olson's most important contributions to American letters is his book Call Me Ishmael, a wonderful, idiosyncratic but authoritative critical take on Herman Melville and Moby Dick. Here, for example, are the first few sentences:
I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.
Olson himself was a giant -- 6'8" -- and knew a thing or two about spelling things large. (If you want to read more, I highly recommend picking up Olson's Collected Prose -- it's all really, really good.)
Now the University of Connecticut is digitizing Olson's notes on Melville -- which would be cool in its own right, but 100% cooler insofar as Olson's notes bring back a world that doesn't exist anymore:
Olson was one of the first scholars to consider the importance of Melville's reading and marginalia.
In the 1930s, Melville's surviving literary manuscripts, letters, personal papers and journals, and reading library were still, for the most part, in the possession of the family and a few institutional or private collectors. The most substantial collection of Melville materials unaccounted for at that point—and the materials that Olson pursued most vigorously—were the "lost five hundred," the approximate number of books Melville's widow had sold to a Brooklyn dealer in 1892. As a young scholar, Olson was indefatigable in his research; when he located a volume from Melville's library in a grand-daughter's home, in a private collector's hands, or on a public library's shelves, Olson carefully transcribed onto 5 x 7-inch note cards complete bibliographic information on the volume, as well as the content and location of Melville’s annotations and reading marks. Charles Olson’s note cards are, in a few important instances, the only account of Melville’s reading marks in books whose location is now unknown. Olson’s notes also provide scholars with Melville’s marginalia in volumes currently in private hands and not readily available to scholars.
In addition to the note cards on books from Melville's library, there are two other groups of cards at the University of Connecticut. On one group of cards Olson captured his notes of interviews and recorded his astonishingly thorough methods for tracking down relatives of those known or thought to have bought books from Melville’s library. Other note cards were used by Olson to record his reading and critical notes on Melville's published works. In all, nearly 1,100 note cards survive.
Unfortunately, when Olson moved away from Melville scholarship after the publication Call Me Ishmael (1947), he stored the results of his investigative work in a trunk in a friend's basement. Countless water leaks over the years damaged the note cards containing the transcriptions and research notes. Some cards were merely soiled; others were fused together in large blocks. After the University of Connecticut purchased the Olson papers in 1973, the note cards were stored separately while awaiting appropriate preservation measures.
That's right -- we can piece together Melville's library from soggy, seventy-five-year-old index cards.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Learnin', New Liberal Arts, Recommended, Science
February 20, 2009
Liberal Arts And Added Value
Here's something for Dan: the European College of Liberal Arts in Berlin is offering a new four-year degree in Value Studies:
This is the first degree programme to be structured around the concept of value. In current academia, the fundamental types of value, and the questions and concerns which attend them, are separated out into several departments. Too often, the result is that the most important questions we expect academia to address are lost in the pursuit of specialized training. ECLA, in contrast, is a college without departments, where the different norms, claims and ideals we live by, and the different forms of theoretical work they inspire, are brought together in a single programme of study. Throughout the four years, students work with academics from different backgrounds on moral, political, epistemic, religious, and aesthetic questions, with the understanding that such questions are naturally and deeply connected. The programme is designed for students who want to combine their pursuit of special interests with a demanding studium generale and serious reflection on the meaning of education.
There are three area components to the value studies major -- Art and Aesthetics, Ethics and Political Theory, Literature and Rhetoric -- and each student picks TWO of these as concentrations.
The faculty -- who all seem to be quite young -- is packed to the gills with Committee on Social Thought refugees from Chicago, so you know that everyone there spends their time pondering Big Ideas. (Disclosure: I spent a year in Chicago doing an MA loosely associated with the Social Thought gang, and while it ultimately wasn't for me, I am a sucker for this stuff. When someone starts talking about ideas of virtue in Rousseau, Nietzsche, and Weber, I pee my pants a little.)
I'm also fascinated by the idea of swapping "departments" for "norms, claims, and ideals." It's just enough of an isomorphism that you can still see it as a specification, but just differentiated enough that you can give it a completely different interpretation.
Liberal Arts In Translation
Colleges abroad are porting the American liberal arts college, but even the branches opened by American universities are a little bit different:
Arguably the most ambitious attempt at a branch campus yet is underway in the United Arab Emirates. While there are also plans for graduate programs, NYU Abu Dhabi is to be, over time, “a full-scale liberal arts college” of more than 2,000 students.
In developing the core curriculum – the college plans to accept its first class of students in 2010 – NYU has identified four broad content areas in which students will have to take two courses each: Pathways of World Literature, Structures of Thought and Society, Ideas and Methods of Science, and Art, Invention and Technology. “They’re not foundations for the major,” explained Mariët Westermann, vice chancellor for regional campus development at NYU. “They open up a whole field of thought and action, you could say, to students.”
Westermann also referenced another aspect of the American liberal arts model that NYU is adopting in Abu Dhabi – its residential component, and its emphases on peer-to-peer learning and community. Administrators plan to require that all students live in college housing, although Westermann said exceptions will be made as needed.
“In principle, we will require 100 percent on-campus residency the way the strongest liberal arts colleges in North America do,” she said. “We’re really making those values of being in the place very central to the educational experience and central to our campus planning.”
John Churchill of Phi Beta Kappa, who's worked on liberal arts education in China, notes how firmly the idea of the liberal arts is embedded in our culture:
"These are praiseworthy efforts. But the first thing that has to be said is that the liberal arts model as we understand it in this country is an American creation... It has roots in the Oxford tutorial system and yet it is so much a part of the cultural fabric of this country. There are all sorts of linguistic and conceptual hurdles that have to be crossed before you can even begin asking the right questions about whether it’s viable or feasible or appropriate in another cultural context.... So much of what we say about liberal education in the United States has to do with preparation for citizenship in a participatory democracy, with the readiness to apply critical thinking to all claims, and the emphasis on individual development... and so forth. A moment’s reflection will show the difficulty of translating those distinctively American values into a Chinese cultural context. That’s not to say it’s not valuable. It’s not to say it can’t be done. It’s just got to be very carefully thought through."
It's almost like, by translating the liberal arts into China, Ghana, Poland, or Kuwait, you identify the invariants in the system. This appears to be (in UA-Kuwait's formulation): "critical thinking, effective communication, innovative leadership, aesthetic appreciation, cultural awareness, ethical standards and technological literacy."
And, apparently, living in dorms together. Which is not at all to be discounted! I often say that I feel like ALL young people should get the chance to go live away from home with a bunch of other young adults... if you're an electrician, living with other electricians, farmers with other farmers, etc. There's something very powerful about that rite of separation and aggregation. It's like a multi-year Bar/Bat Mitzvah.
File under: Learnin', New Liberal Arts, Society/Culture
February 17, 2009
New Liberal Arts Book Project Update
On my Google Docs dashboard, I have a folder called NLA Book.
In that folder, I have 24 entries, from 21 different people, on subjects that include: home economics, micropolitics, journalism, reality engineering, coding and decoding, creativity, media literacy, negotiation, play, brevity, inaccuracy, mythology, mapping, attention economics, photography, translation, urbanism, futurism, and design.
If this sounds like a book sent back in time from some slightly-wacky future, I think that is exactly the point.
The entries are quite heterogeneous, with a wide variety of voices and approaches. I think you're going to enjoy reading them all together, and deciding which are your favorites.
We'll use the rest of this week to finish editing the entries and begin the design of the book. Next week we'll design in earnest, and find out about all the production details we can't anticipate ahead of time.
And then... we print! The book is going to be between 4"×8" and 6"×9", a slim paperback. We'll post the PDF, and give it a CC license so you can do interesting things with it, but there will be a couple of really good reasons to buy the book, even above and beyond the pleasant physicality of it.
I'll keep you posted as production gets closer so you can pre-order, and/or tell your nerdy friends about it.
It's been an exciting week as the entries have come rolling in. I wish you could see my Google Docs interface as I do right now: It's a long list of smart collaborators (all fellow Snarkmarket readers!) whose names keep blinking to life beside their entries as they dip in to make changes, leaving funny time-stamps because they're halfway across the world, or up all night.
February 11, 2009
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.... Read more ....
File under: Books, Writing & Such, New Liberal Arts
February 4, 2009
Book Update: First Deadlines, Production Brainstorm
Wow! We're off to a great start towards a book on the new liberal arts. How do I know? My scrollbar gets teeeeny-tiny when I click that link.
We're talking about potential NLAs like archiving, attention economics, branding, collaboration, home economics, mapping, micropolitics, photography, play, urbanism, writing for computers -- the list goes on and on. And I'm realizing that we're going to have to get good at a bunch of these new skills, fast, just to make this thing.
So what comes next? Starting this weekend, we'll reach out to some contributors from the comment thread on that original post; then, we'll all spend the next week writing and editing. The deadline for copy will be Monday, February 16.
After that... we design the book!
Then, of course, there's printing; we're thinking hard about that step. If you have any tips, insights, or leads related to that part of the process, we'd love to hear them. You can leave a comment on this post or send an email: Is there a printing company you love? Some new print-on-demand scheme that we should know about? Elephant poop paper? Etc.
Look for another book update early next week. And, if you haven't yet suggested a new liberal art of your own -- now is precisely the time! Jump in.
Seriously, look at that scrollbar. It's barely there.
File under: Books, Writing & Such, New Liberal Arts
February 2, 2009
A SNARKMARKET BOOK PROJECT: The New Liberal Arts
Paper is the new black, so we're making a book.
Actually, we're making it because the comments and conversation on Snarkmarket deserve this kind of durability. And because, hey, we're a book-ish crew: This will be fun.
So here's the frame:
It's 2009. A generation of digital natives is careening towards college. The economy is rebooting itself weekly. We have new responsibilities now -- as employees, citizens, and friends -- and we have new capabilities, too. The new liberal arts equip us for a world like this. But... what are they?
The time is ripe to expand and invigorate our notion of the liberal arts. Is design a liberal art now? How about photography? Food? Personal branding?
We don't want to generate a canonical list, but rather a laundry list. We want pitches for new liberal arts that are smart, provocative, insightful, surprising, and/or funny.
Together, they'll read a little like the course catalog for some amazing new school. (The College of Snarks and Letters? Our endowment is untouched by the financial crisis!)
So now we'd like to ask for your help.
There are two ways to be part of the book:
- Make a pitch for a new liberal art. It can be something you know lots about, or something you wish you knew lots about. It can be general or specific. It can be anything. Leave your first draft as a comment on this post, and don't worry about thinking it all the way through. Don't worry about length, either. If we decide to include your pitch in the book, we'll work all of that out.
- Help promote the project. Even if pitching a new liberal art isn't your speed, someone in your network might have a great idea. So blog this post; Twitter it; email it to your two nerdiest friends. Here's a shortened link, if it's helpful: http://is.gd/i4lG
Let's move fast on this. We'll collect pitches for new liberal arts over the course of the next week. Then we'll switch quickly to editing, design, and production.
The book will be slim, and the print run will be small. And I'll post details on price (cheap) and availability as soon as I have them.
This is a Snarkmarket/Revelator Press co-production. We've admired the spirit and design of the Revelator e-chapbooks for ages, so now we're going to team up to make something you can actually hold in your hands.
Welcome to the curriculum planning committee. What does the class of the 21st century need to know?
Update: Wow! There are now over 100 contributions and comments below -- but don't feel like you have to read them all to post one of your own. We're going for free-form idea generation here, so have at it!
File under: Books, Writing & Such, Learnin', New Liberal Arts
January 26, 2009
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:
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!