Theses on the Liberal Arts

1.1  The liberal arts are complexes of knowledge and practice, traditionally known as disciplines, that are approached in a non-instrumental way:  as ends in themselves.  They are bodies of knowledge held to be worth acquiring (and advancing) and practices or activities worth doing (for the most part) in and of themselves, rather than as the means to some other end.  The liberal arts include the disciplines of the natural and social sciences as well as the humanities.

1.2  The vocational sciences, as they might be called in contrast, are conceptually distinct from the liberal arts.  They are also complexes of knowledge and practice, traditionally known as professions, but they are approached in a different, essentially instrumental way:  as the means to other ends.  They are bodies of knowledge and practices of action that are worthwhile (primarily) as preparations for service to some kind of social ideal:  health and well being; justice and social equity; the growth of economies and the accumulation of wealth.

1.2.1  Outmoded theories and practices in the professions become subject matter for historical study in the disciplines (e.g. the history of medicine).  Innovative theories and practices in the disciplines may inform new types of profession (e.g. computer science informing business).

1.5  In higher education, the liberal arts and the vocational sciences are not separate spheres but overlapping arenas.  (Think of a Venn diagram.)  It is not just that the liberal arts overlap with and influence the vocational sciences—for example, in training more sensitive and humane physicians, more socially conscious attorneys, more creative leaders in business.  It is also the case that the disciplines of the liberal arts train graduate students (sometimes even undergraduates) in the vocational science of professing literature, history, philosophy, sociology, psychology, biology, physics, etc.  The disciplines try to train their most promising liberal arts students to become academic professionals, even as they educate the majority of students in the manner of the liberal arts, without ulterior motives.  The traffic on this highway moves in both directions.

1.5.2  Not all institutions of higher education have such opportunities for commuting back and forth.  Not all institutions of higher education have all disciplines and all professions represented within their walls.  But no academic or professional—not even any student–is intellectually constrained by a single institution of higher education.

2.1  Knowledge is a cognitive activity that moves between information (a.k.a data) on the one hand and wisdom on the other.  It has been said that the function of intelligence is to destroy information. It might also be said that the function of wisdom is to see through knowledge, to glimpse values that are shared—are capable of being shared–by the educated and the uneducated, the learned and the unlearned, alike.  The unexamined life may not be worth living, as Socrates claimed, but the life that consists only of cognitive examination may not be fully alive, either.

2.1.3  The walls around institutions of higher learning were originally constructed to protect the students from the townspeople, the ordinary folk who were unsympathetic to the students’ privileged enterprise and were liable to inflict injury on them. (Such was the case, it is reported, in the founding of University College, the first college in what became Oxford University.)  In this day and age, it may be that the extra-mural citizenry needs protection from institutions of higher learning.  (Hence, perhaps, the creation of Institutional Review Boards.)

3.1  Teaching is the transmission of information, knowledge and (ideally) wisdom, either as ends in themselves or as the means to other ends.  The traffic moves in both directions on this highway as well—from the masters to the disciples and from the certified professionals to those in training for certification, but also from the disciples back to the masters, from those in training back to the professionals.  The balance between teaching and learning is dynamic and inherently unstable.  Thus students end up instructing their teachers over the course of their careers, but students also, not infrequently, come up with observations in class discussion that strike their teachers as truly original.  (“You are absolutely right; I never thought of that.  Say more.”)

3.1.3  This dynamism and instability carry over to the relationship between emerging disciplinary specializations (new sub-fields within a discipline) and the disciplines as already established.  New specializations both instruct and depend on older ones, though a balanced appreciation of the new and the old is difficult to maintain for those most closely involved.  A similar dynamic instability informs interdisciplinary initiatives setting up shop between established disciplines. (Interdisciplinary inquiry is not the same as undisciplined study.)

3.1.4  Interdisciplinary initiatives may take place within departments as well as between departments.  In discussions of the phenomenon, interdisciplinary ventures should be distinguished from interdepartmental ones.

4.1  Intellectual community and academic bureaucracy are inherently different forms of organization and communication.  They inevitably conflict with one another, in spite of ongoing efforts at cooperation.

5.1  Research is fundamental to higher education.  It expresses itself both in publication and in teaching.  The common bureaucratic distinction between a scholar’s “research” and the same scholar’s “teaching” is therefore misguided and misleading.  Over-emphasis on one or the other leads to a diminishment of higher education in both the disciplines of the liberal arts and the professions of the vocational sciences.

5.2  A scholar’s publication follows his or her teaching just as much as their teaching follows their published research.  This is a chicken-and-egg conundrum or better, a synergy not easily broken down into separate stages or spheres of intellectual endeavor.

Walter Reed

English, Comparative Literature,

and The Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts

Emory University