On a recent panel discussion at conference for the Media Ecology Association, I was challenged to answer a question concerning the role of traditional, liberal arts in an increasingly untraditional and scientific world. Where the liberal arts once sought to provide an education that creates freethinking, rational citizens, who use their vote to improve society, now the liberal arts have been relegated to an auxiliary role within the humanities themselves and as electives for science majors, necessary only to check the boxes for graduation. I argued, however, that the original Liberal Arts were founded on the idea that both art and science are necessary for students. Holistic education is a much better and more wholesome approach because life itself is not arbitrarily bisected into scientific and artistic worlds. A good student studies both.
Each week you can find a report of the termination of another liberal arts program or college, its students baffled and its tenured professors laid off. Usually, programs are rolled into other, neophyte disciplines with imprecise titles like “Global Humanities,” and students are encouraged to study something more tangible and easily commodified. The cause of these terminations is often attributed to pure economic sense, to the fact that students want to study what interests them, and to the appearance of something called ‘general education’ over the last several decades. The result is a loss of shared inquiry where students learn and study together.
This idea is not new. In a recent interview, Toomas Ilves, the former President of Estonia, cited C.P. Snow, a midcentury scientist and novelist, who was one of the first to call for integration and dialogue in academia rather than specialized monologues (or majors) that had developed over the previous decades as a product of vocational learning, electives, and specialization. Speaking of this, President Ilves said:
Lawmakers and policy makers rarely understand technology and often treat it as some kind of magic: either all-powerful or darkly evil. Those in technology, in my experience, rarely have a firm grasp of the underpinnings of ethics or democratic principles deriving from the same Enlightenment that spurred science in the subsequent centuries to develop with such leaps and bounds.
This lack of communication between academic departments does nothing to mitigate the lack of understanding between people, which is something education can and should alleviate. Current educational paradigms create citizens who do not share ideas or truth, and each major has its own vocabulary, canon, and understanding. Regardless of cause, this mirrors the current state of political discourse where each side participates in a cacophony of ever-louder voices calling one another false, fake, or fraudulent.
President Ilves is uniquely qualified to criticize the lack of communication between academic departments because he is the former leader of Estonia, one of the most technologically advanced nations in the world, and has seen firsthand the difficulties of integrating technology and humanity. Estonia is a nation that, although small, sought to position itself as a strong and independent state in the wake of the collapse of the Soviet Union. In order to do this, Estonia embraced new innovations like electronic citizenship, electronic voting, and other applications that helped to form Estonia as the proverbial “E-stonia.” These innovations were designed to integrate technology into society or, put another way, science into humanity. As such, President Ilves understands the importance of promoting dialogue between technologists and humanists.
What we need, more than new technologies in education (like laptops for students) or hyper-specialized learning, is the reintegration of holistic, complete education in all disciplines for all students. This is the only way to improve the quality of our conversation and promote coherent social discourse, both of which are necessary if we are to fix the problems we face as a democracy. A complete education would create the circumstances for citizens to acquire the necessary, shared vocabulary that enables them to participate fully in their democracy. The Liberal Arts, in their original sense, are this complete educational package.
Moving towards a complete educational package does not mean moving backwards or away from technology. The question, rather, is how to integrate technology into something like the Liberal Arts rather than mutual exclusion. Like embracing the printing press in the 15th century, the solution is dependent on recognizing that content is related to, but distinct from, medium. We must understand the ideas we espouse, not merely communicate them. This means it is necessary to recognize that technology is a means through which you can study ideas, but that a good education will also provide an understanding of those ideas, technology and its effect on them. Or, put another way, we must understand how our computers work, not just to use them. We must understand the ideas that our society is built upon, not merely transmit them.
Like President Ilves suggests, holistic education would further foster mutual understanding and promote coherent discourse between disciplines, peoples, and communities. This is because our capacity to use and abuse technology, our potential and actuality, is formed through education. The weight of this, of our education, on how we view the world is demonstrated in the following quote from Plato’s Republic:
“Next,” said I, “compare our nature in respect of education and its lack to such an experience as this. Picture men dwelling in a sort of subterranean cavern1 with a long entrance open2 to the light on its entire width. Conceive them as having their legs and necks fettered3 from childhood, so that they remain in the same spot, able to look forward only, and prevented by the fetters from turning their heads.
This begins the section known as the ‘Allegory of the Cave’, a famous passage that compares the uneducated to people living in a cave, convinced that the shadow puppets they see is reality. It demonstrates that the education an individual receives determines how that person lives.
If our educational system prepares students to live and think, and we live in a democracy and democracy is founded on dialogue and compromise, then our education must prepare students to converse and understand. An educational system based upon mutual understanding is tantamount to a healthy democracy. Therefore, when we deprive students of holistic knowledge and teach them to doubt the conclusions of other disciplines, then we leave them in the proverbial dark.