Liberal Arts

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An education conducted in a spirit of free inquiry undertaken without concern for topical relevance or vocational utility. This kind of learning is not only one of the enrichments of existence; it is one of the achievements of civilization. It heightens students' awareness of the human and natural worlds they inhabit. It makes them more reflective about their beliefs and choices, more self-conscious and criticising, speaking, critical and logical thinking. Law schools report that by the yardsticks of law review and grades, their top students come from math, classics, and literature, with political science, economics, "pre-law “and” legal studies" ranking lower. In today’s fast evolving world, leaders across the spectrum of vocations and professions need a broad imaginative and critical capacity, not a prematurely narrow point of view. In terms of the actual world, a solid liberal arts and sciences education will generally prove the most practical preparation for many demanding, high-level careers, or for the several careers that an increasing number of adults will eventually pursue. No particular concentration or area of study is inherently a better ticket to security, leadership, or personal satisfaction than another. Students should be encouraged to follow their passions and interests, not what they guess (or what others tell them) will lead to a supposedly more marketable set of skills. Of course, higher education has a utilitarian function. In that regard, as Robert Bellah states, it possesses "its own legitimacy." Yet, it is crucial to combine and integrate that function with other aims and ends, with what Bellah calls "education for the development of character, citizenship, and culture." A healthy system of higher education offers many rewards: scientific discoveries, eventual and even unforeseen applications, thoughtful political leadership, intelligent public discourse, cultural vitality, and an educated workforce. Higher learning serves several goals in coordination, goals that are mutually reinforcing. The aims are at once personal and social, private and public, economic, ethical, and intellectual. Harvard College exists to serve all these goals and offers a broad array of concentrations and courses for the purpose of educating the whole individual. Why? Because that kind of education, and not one aimed at certain occupational targets, is, in the long run, the best preparation for advanced achievement. The very broad, capacious form of education that we call the liberal arts is rooted in a specific curriculum in classical and medieval times. But it would be wrong to assume that because it has such ancient roots, this kind of education is outdated, stale, fusty, or irrelevant. In fact, quite the contrary. A liberal-arts education, which Louis Menand defined in The Marketplace of Ideas as "a background mentality, a way of thinking, a kind of intellectual DNA that informs work in every specialized area of inquiry," lends itself particularly well to contemporary high-tech methods of imparting knowledge. We all wrestle with the challenges of educating students who are used to multitasking, doing their homework while listening to music and texting on their iPhones. For such students, the Web-based facilities of exciting liberal-arts courses are particularly salient. What would Aristotle or Erasmus or Robert Maynard Hutchins not have given for a technique that allows one to tour the world's greatest museums, looking closely at the details of countless masterpieces; explore the ruins of ancient castles and pyramids and forums; join archaeological digs at your desk, turning objects around to see all sides of them; visualize problems in geometry or astronomy or mathematics in several dimensions and work out their solutions. An excellent example of the power of multimedia coupled with the liberal arts is "Imaginary Journeys," a general-education course sometimes taught at Harvard University by Stephen Greenblatt. The...
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