Liberal arts or just artscience?

The term “the liberal arts” is an anachronism. It comes from the days before the full specialisation and professionalisation of knowledge, and the separation of the sciences into a fundamentally different space. That was a time when mathematics was as much one of the “arts” as music. “Arts” stood for the wide gamut of disciplines pretty much how “philosophy” does for all in the phrase “Doctor of Philosophy” (PhD) But while philosophy has gradually become fragmented into various natural and social disciplines, the liberal arts still continue to be the larger name for the arts and sciences that are not linked to training for specific professions. While the “arts” really mean nothing specific, “liberal” certainly does — the liberal is that which is not professional.

Higher and lower faculties

In today’s context, it is more appropriate to speak of a liberal arts education than a liberal arts subject. There is really nothing called a liberal arts subject; any subject can be taught as one.

A liberal arts education, on the other hand, is a very distinctive thing. It is defined by its difference from professional education, which prepares the student for a specific career — medicine, engineering, journalism, business administration, or any other particular profession. The difference between the two goes all the way back to the 18th century German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, who laid out the idea behind what would eventually become the modern Western university. In his treatise, The Conflict of the Faculties, Kant delegates theology, law and medicine (intended, respectively, to train clergymen, lawyers and physicians) to the higher faculty. The lower faculty was intended to include all the disciplines, which in the modern university fall under the arts and the sciences.

Kant called the members of the higher faculty ‘businessmen or technicians of learning’ — people who would shape public administrative policy, possessing what he described as ‘legal influence on the public’.

But it is intriguing that contrary to the implication of the terms ‘higher’ and ‘lower’, Kant clearly saw greater independence and autonomy in the lower faculty. The higher faculty trained students for the key institutions of public life, but accordingly, they were subject to state control and censorship. It was the lower faculty that was free to pursue knowledge for its own sake, and remained free of government interference and calculations made on the basis of vested interests from outside.

Scholar and educator Wilhelm von Humboldt, a close follower of Kant, implemented this principle at the University of Berlin, which was founded in 1810. Humboldt’s implementation of the Kantian model would become the basis of the modern university that would subsequently turn into a self-governing structure that seeks to combine research, training and professional training in a variety of ways.

Fluid boundaries

Within the modern system of post-secondary education, similar subjects can be a liberal or a professional subject, depending on how it is curricularised and/or taught: biology is a liberal art but medicine is not; political science is a liberal art but law is not; economics is a liberal art while accountancy is not. Nearly any disciplinary field, critic Louis Menand points out, can be turned into liberal or non-liberal depending on its association with adjacent practical skills. English departments can become writing or publishing programmes; pure or abstract mathematics can merge into applied mathematics or engineering; sociology holds the promise of social work just the way biology holds the roots of medicine; political science and social theory offers the foundations of law and public administration.

Today, we can happily continue to call this fundamental education by the name “artscience”. It traces its lineage from the Kantian ‘lower’ faculty that has in fact housed the division of arts and sciences at universities worldwide. It also pays tribute to the lost times when the sciences were arts and the arts sometimes dabbled with still undefined scientific terrains. At the same time, it looks forward to a global language of innovation and creativity that is, for instance, best articulated in the entrepreneurial culture of Silicon Valley where technology, design and social psychology come together to create mind-bending apps. Aptly, the term appears in David Edwards’ book on the impossible interdisciplinarity of human creativity as, for instance, evident in the work coming out of the MIT Media Lab – Artscience: Creativity in the Post-Google Generation. “Artscience” is at once antiquated and futuristic.

The author’s most recent book is College: Pathways of Possibility (Bloomsbury, 2018). Twitter: @saikatmajumdar

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Printable version | May 15, 2021 4:46:30 PM |

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