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February 11, 2009

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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 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.

Posted February 11, 2009 at 7:35 | Comments (12) | Permasnark
File under: Books, Writing & Such, New Liberal Arts


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.

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.

Posted by: Betty Ann on February 11, 2009 at 10:51 AM

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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