What’s the use of Liberal Studies?
The momentous events of the past week have seen people searching for an explanation why there has been such an outpouring of pent up anger and frustration. One former Chief Executive, Tung Chee-wah, has speculated that one reason might be the inclusion of a Liberal Studies course in the secondary school curriculum. Some legislators have previously suggested that Liberal Studies, or perhaps more accurately, the way in which the subject is taught, might have a lot to do recent disturbances.
I do not profess to have the necessary educational qualifications to make any useful observations on the content of the Liberal Studies course as it is taught in schools today. I simply note that a Government official working in the Education Bureau recently rebutted in strong terms the suggestion that recent events occurred because impressionable young people were being brainwashed by manipulative teachers who had a political agenda.
Instead I want to concentrate on the value of Liberal Studies. I hope to demonstrate that the subject of Liberal Studies was at the basis of the original university degree in all major European universities five hundred years ago. It is only with the development of more economically and politically complex societies from about the beginning of the seventeenth century that academic specializations began to affect the teaching and learning structure of universities.
The medieval mind in the three hundred years between 13th and 15th centuries was concerned with working out how a Christian God’s universe worked in order to praise the Creator.
The tools for making sense of the world and to communicate the discovery to others had been crafted by the Greeks and Romans over a fifteen hundred years before. Degree courses in the most ancient European universities-Bologna, Paris, Padua, Oxford-were for seven years and were devoted to studying the best that the ancient world offered.
The first three years at university were devoted to mastering the basic skill-set for exploring the world of learning: Grammar, Logic, Rhetoric which were collectively called the ‘trivium’. Grammar-always Latin grammar- taught the student the structure of language; Logic taught him (nearly always a ‘him’ until the late nineteenth century) how identify sound arguments and reject fallacious ones; Rhetoric taught him to persuade and instruct a reader or listener. If the student passed examinations at the end of three years, he could call himself “baccalaureus atrium” which is Latin for “bachelor of arts’’ or “B.A.”.
With the trivium out of the way, the student could get down to the serious business of learning how the world really worked. He spent four years studying the just four subjects: arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. This was the ‘quadrivium’, based on the Christian belief that numbers and harmony were foundations of order in the universe. Satisfying the university that you had competed the quadrivium meant that you had achieved another degree in learning and were entitled to be called ‘magister atrium’ or ‘master of arts’ or ‘M.A.’.
Having obtained these two degrees a scholar could then move onto the highest degrees which were philosophy or theology and were at the apex of all learning, surpassing even medical or legal studies which some M.A.’s turned to after the quadrivium.
The philosophical basis of trivium and the quadrivium may seem foreign to us and misguided even, for all astrological studies were premised on the fact that the sun moved round the earth, an error not discovered until Copernicus showed that the contrary was the case in 1543 and even then his discovery was not accepted by the Catholic Church for another two centuries.
However, the trivium and the quadrivium were the means by which medieval man understood and questioned his world before settling on even higher learning, even though that world was a Christian world and the tenets of all knowledge that was fit to be explored were set by the Catholic Church. It was a perfectly valid world view at the time. (If you were a medieval scholar who was tempted to stray from the Christian tenets underpinning all conventional learning you would come to a sticky end. Like Doctor Faustus, made famous by the German author, Goethe, who, wishing no limits to be placed on his capacity to learn, sold his soul to the Devil with the inevitable consequences when the Devil came to collect his prize many years later.)
By the middle of the 19th century, the world of learning had been transformed by the scientific revolutions of the preceding two centuries and the development of a capitalist society which put a premium on ‘useful’ learning, such as civil and mechanical engineering, applied sciences and technology. The utilitarian approach to education was best exemplified in Europe by the development of first-rate technical education outside the universities in Germany combined with increased specialization in the sciences in the universities.
The value of studying university courses with no obvious practical application was a burning question in England at this time (but not Scotland however, which had, and still has, an arguably superior university and college system). There was pressure to modernise along the German lines so as to make sure that English education did not lose ground to its great rival in Europe.
A utilitarian educational model with an emphasis on science was proposed to replace the liberal studies model that had underpinned Oxford and Cambridge for centuries that produced men (still no women) who could readily translate a piece of ancient Greek poetry but who would not have a clue how to interpret a dossier of economic data or a page of statistics.
The utilitarian argument won out and ‘modern’ universities such as the Universities of Manchester, London, Liverpool and Birmingham opened to offer more ‘useful’ courses that were more obviously relevant to the needs of the nation. However, an eloquent plea for non-utilitarian study was made by a highly respected figure who combined literary and social criticism and writing poetry with a day job as an inspector of schools. He was called Matthew Arnold.
He wrote a series of essays between 1867-1869 called Culture and Anarchy. Their purpose was to make a case for serious study across a range of subjects as an antidote to the narrowing of intellectual horizons that went with utilitarian study or doctrinaire teaching. You could call the essays a plea for the usefulness of apparently useless study-the study of ‘culture’ which, in modern terms is about the equivalent to modern Liberal Studies.
In the Preface to Culture and Anarchy Arnold makes the case for wide and informed reading. In just one famous sentence he sets his case for studying ‘culture’:
“The whole scope of the essay is to recommend culture as the great help out of our present difficulties; culture being a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world, and, through this knowledge, turning a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits,…”
Who would disagree with the aim of study being to refresh and reinvigorate our perception of the world through seeking out “the best which has been thought and said in the world”?
Bringing the words of Matthew Arnold up to date and trying to apply the sentiment behind them to a course of Liberal Studies I venture to suggest that an ideal Liberal Studies course will include the following elements: teaching students how to think critically and with broad analytic skills; encouraging independent thought; being able seeing a problem from multiple perspectives; possession of sound social and political judgment; having egalitarian values and beliefs and rejecting authoritarian values; being able to solve problems
As I said in opening, I am not an educationalist but if the Liberal Studies course taught in our schools teaches these values then it is a valuable subject and should be preserved because our society needs young people capable of independent and critical thought more than ever before.
About the author
Philip Dykes is a Senior Counsel. He has lived in Hong Kong for over thirty years. His interests are in literature, language, history, fine art and photography. He worked as government lawyer until 1992 and he is now in private practice.
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