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.
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 — knowledge, ideals, institutions, inventions, all capitalized in more or less permanent forms — is at the disposal of any qualified user. In a world of specialized producers, each person sufficiently trained in utilization has for his enjoyment and service endless stores of science, of art, of religious ideals, of political capacity, and of economic resources.
The world needs able producers, and education to that end will never be amiss; but it also needs, as a condition of social well-being, consumers who can utilize material and spiritual products to their own advantage, and also to the advantage of those who are of high grade among producers. Do I buy inferior newspapers, when better are available? I not only injure myself, but I lend my influence to lowering the standards of newspaper production. Does one prefer cheap and ephemeral fiction to the standard writings of the great masters? Not only does he fail to realize his own best good, but he becomes measurably responsible for the failure of other potential great masters to reach the stage of high creative work. Do we, as a people, reward with our approval and patronage unscientific medical attendance, conscienceless political service, and life-impairing industrial activity? We pay, as a rule, our own penalty; but society is also permanently the loser in scientific medicine, in political honesty, and in genuinely efficient industry.
Is not the essence of liberal education to be found in the conception of man as a user? Is it possible to call a man liberally educated, who, as a user, habitually makes inferior choices from the fields of art, literature, religion, applied science, convivial association, political leadership, and travel? Fortunately, we no longer hold the older notion that culture is inseparable from certain specialized forms of appreciation, such as ability to read Greek, speak French, recite sonnets, or discuss the latest fiction; and we are slowly learning to conceive it as something deeper than the mere possession of etiquette and a set of conventions.
The liberally educated man of the twentieth century will not be the member of a narrow cult. From many quarters will it prove possible, as a famous university president has told us, to derive the training and experience which make for liberal education; and it is futile to expect that all liberally educated men shall exhibit powers of appreciation in the same fields. Life is short, and the world of ideals, knowledge, and specialized service grows constantly larger. If all men read, we are under obligation to seek to produce better standards of reading; but this does not mean that we shall bar from the ranks of the liberally educated, on this account alone, the man who has no Latin; nor he who, perchance, may not have read Browning; nor even one who frankly confesses a general distaste for classical literature.
Perhaps, in the more democratic society of the future, we shall find more satisfactory universal tests of liberal education in those regions of activity where large numbers have social contact. To-day we all buy and use pictures — in newspaper, magazine, moving-picture show, bill-board exhibition, and, less commonly, in art gallery and in the household; how much of liberal education for this purpose can a more purposive system of school training give us? We are all users of the output of the modern loom; according to the character of the demand, this output may be prevailingly flimsy, inartistic, unhygienic, and the product of shop conditions which promote poverty, ill health, and low morals. Will not right ideas of liberal education insist on elevating these conditions, and socializing this form of consumption? Again, that field of social activity which we term politics has evolved a form of specialized service for which compensation is given as in other fields. Voting means simply collective employment of this specialized service toward the performance of particular functions. In a democracy, it has seemed desirable to allow large numbers to share, directly or indirectly, in the employment of public servants. The essence of general civic education is to produce good employers of civic workers, that is, persons who will have a fairly clear conception of the task to be done, and who will know how to choose efficient and honest employees. From this standpoint, shall we continue to be able to call a man liberally educated for the conditions of modern life who manifests incapacity and professes indifference in exercising his social responsibility in the joint purchase of expert political service?
Now, if the conception of liberal education here put forth is valid, it is necessary that we realize how far the methods of modern academic training are alien to it. Not so much, perhaps, is this true in professed purpose as in methods and results. A careful examination of the pedagogic practice (largely traditional and customary, of course, rather than consciously purposive) of secondary school and college of liberal arts will show the persistence of methods derived rather from an ancient vocational education, and ill serving the purposes of liberal learning.