The Magazine

Guiding the Perplexed

What a liberal arts education ought to be.

Sep 17, 2001, Vol. 7, No. 01 • By DIANA SCHAUB
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Most intriguing to me were the guides on the discipline I know the most (Harvey Mansfield on political philosophy) and the discipline I know the least (the late Paul Heyne on economics). Regardless, I came away from each book chagrined at the gaps in my education. Perhaps these guides should be required reading for professors to rescue them from the narrowing clutches of research agendas, professional development, and what goes by the name scholarship.
Although billed as guides to the major disciplines, covering "the most important fields of knowledge in the liberal arts," the project might be faulted for having a rather blinkered vision of which studies count as liberal. There is barely a nod to the medieval quadrivium of arithmetic, music, geometry, and astronomy. None of the natural sciences is included, none of the fine arts, and aside from economics, none of the social sciences (political philosophy—an honorary member of the humanities—is included, but not political science or government).

What accounts for the neglect of mathematics and the natural sciences? Is the assumption that those parts of the university are in better order and, thus, students can do without supplemental guidance? Or is the assumption that the natural sciences can make no contribution to liberal learning, that they are not (although they may once have been) humane endeavors? I suspect it is the latter, in which case, this student self-reliance project strikes me as insufficiently radical. It accepts the ghetto of the humanities, when it ought at least to make the case for the unity of knowledge and the reintegration of the sciences into the liberal fold. In A Student’s Guide to Philosophy, Ralph McInerny does condemn the lamentable direption of philosophy and science. But the project as a whole doesn’t challenge those fortresses in the midst of the modern university: the departments of biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics.

As science has progressed in its technical mastery over man and the world, we see daily that science conceived simply as method cannot yield wisdom. What does the fracturing of the university mean for the universe? Perhaps additional guides could be commissioned opening up these fields to those who want to understand the fundamentals of the ancient and modern pursuits of scientific knowledge and what those fundamentals mean for human life—which is to say, my criticism amounts to a request for more guides.

Will the intended audience really read these guides? And, more important, will they be guided by the guides? It is undeniable that there are obstacles in the way of securing a wide and willing audience. Neither parents nor colleges seem likely to welcome the notion that such supplements are necessary. Why buy an item for $6.95 that seems to call into question the $100,000 just paid for a college education?

Moreover, I’m just not sure how reasonable it is to expect very many students to become "self-reliant." Students need teachers. These slim volumes, helpful though they are, are not teachers. It may be that the soul can be fully alive and present to another through the written word—and thus that great books are true teachers—but the vast majority of American college students aren’t readers yet. I fear that these pamphlets are a bit too much like those ambitious summer reading lists that high-school teachers prepare for the college-bound kids. It’s important to hand out such lists, but one can’t expect many takers, even among those who thrill to the aspiration the lists express.

Socrates famously described his teaching as midwifery. The students must undergo the difficult labors themselves, but they need someone else there to help them. While the aim of education is to make individuals who are capable of learning on their own, it’s pretty tough to tell the woefully miseducated that they must deliver their educations by themselves. We shouldn’t forget, however, that America is a nation of do-it-yourselfers. Who knows what’s possible with a good guidebook in hand?

Diana Schaub is chairman of the department of political science at Loyola College in Maryland.