On a Liberal Arts Education

Featured Image: Athena by Bart Everson, Flickr Commons. Posted under license CC BY 2.0

by Greg Hansell

Omega Center, Villanova, PA

I was liberal arts educated and continue to believe very strongly that it is the best and most comprehensive form of higher education available to us. I also think learning “the classics” gives people conscious and felicitous access to a shared history they are inextricably formed within. And perhaps most importantly, like the liberal arts generally, the classics certainly represent a more holistic *style* of education we should be looking to restore in our utilitarian and instrumentalist age.

Engraved title page, Penn Libraries call number: GrC Ar466 T3 1641 Folio license CC 1.0 Universal

But I suppose it is for these same reasons that I believe the classics should constitute no more than half of a college education, and perhaps as little as 25%. We simply know a good deal more now about the world, across all scales, than is represented in those texts and traditions. They are full of valuable history, profound moral and rational argumentation, and frankly a superior holistic style of education, but the actual content of the classics is frankly out of date. This is across almost all scales and domains, from the errors of substance metaphysics out of Aristotle problematized by quantum mechanics and evolutionary theory, to the workings of power and capital that are unavoidably at issue in our post-colonializing age (I say that as a capitalist and “globalist”, btw), to notions of sex and gender that are exploded by new human biological and general evolutionary science, to the contributions of chaos theory and complexity science that require we rethink a good deal of our mistaken assumptions about harmony and equilibrium in nature and in human culture. And that is just for starters, with the general takeaway being that the real world is wilder, weirder, and funkier than we realized for most of human history. This place is off the chain, or perhaps I should say “out of the cage.”

I summon the spirit of Kurt Vonnegut – “Welcome to the Monkey House” – but across all these domains and disciplines.

Off the top of my head, I would advocate for St. John style education but with an updated “playlist.” We need immersive, holistic, transdisciplinary, and frankly spiritual and existential educational experiences to foster the kind of people our world desperately needs. As a Teilhardian and something of an open systems Hegelian, I believe they are already emerging on their own, but we could more purposefully inculcate the values and insights that are springing up more accidentally.

If you found this article interesting, check out Breakthrough to Dialogue: The Story of Temple University Department of Religion, Edited by Professor Leonard Swidler.