Debating the Liberal Arts

The Future of Liberal Arts conference: The Liberal Arts and Schools

I was delighted to be asked to contribute to the panel on ‘The Liberal Arts and Schools’ at the ‘Future of Liberal Arts’ conference organised by Martin Robinson (author of Trivium 21c, reviewed here) at King’s College, London on 14th October.

A video of the whole day is available here with this particular discussion under ‘Liberal arts in schools’ http://www.newvic.ac.uk/futureliberalarts/

The panel was chaired by Claire Fox, who directs the Institute of Ideas and also included Stuart Lock who is Deputy Head of Rushcroft school in Waltham Forest, Hywel Jones, head of West London Free School and Martin Robinson himself. Tom Sherrington, head of Highbury Grove school was scheduled to contribute but was unable to attend.

My contribution can be found here so I won’t go over the same ground except to say that I started with a provocation; defending a utilitarian outlook albeit one based on a very broad notion of utility or usefulness. Like the Chartists, we should be searching for ‘really useful knowledge’ and I think this is totally compatible with a commitment to a broad liberal education for all. In this definition, usefulness should include ‘wanting to understand things better’.

While the panellists probably expected to disagree with each other, there was a degree of consensus about some of the things that matter most:

  • The need for a strong common knowledge-base to build learning on.
  • The right of all young people to a broad liberal arts education.

This was a good starting point and reminded me of some of the 11 potential points of agreement I proposed for progressives and traditionalists around educational aims, content and methods. See my post about this: ‘Progs and trads: is a synthesis possible?’

We might have disagreed about pedagogic methods had we got onto those more deeply. For example, Hywel was fairly critical of interdisciplinary project work whereas I would argue that this can be of great educational value if it has a coherent purpose and is based on sound knowledge. The suggestion that interdisciplinary work has to wait until full disciplinary mastery is a bit like saying we shouldn’t start learning to write until we are fully versed in the art of speaking with a total grasp of vocabulary and rhetoric. Clearly, there is a sequence, but the two processes also support each other.

Stuart emphasised that the aim of education was to make young people ‘smarter’. I couldn’t disagree, but this does beg the prior question: ‘smarter in what way and to what end?’

Where we seemed to disagree most was on the value of practical or vocational courses. While I am aware that their use by many schools to help accumulate point equivalences was often counter-educational this should not lead us to reject a practical curriculum outright. In my view, practical, skill-based and problem-solving elements should be a key part of a liberal education for all and, as many members of the audience pointed out, there is a long tradition of developing practical skills within a broad education.

Hywel’s main criticism of vocational qualifications seemed to be that the skills they develop are likely to go out of date rapidly compared to the study of the classical canon which raises fundamental and timeless questions about the human condition. While this is true, this is not an argument for not acquiring skills while they are still current. They will usually form a good basis for developing the new skills required by new techniques. Learning by doing and developing a high level of skill is a good way of developing as an effective learner of further skills and knowledge.

The expert and professional Advanced BTEC Media students from my college who spent the day recording this conference demonstrated a wide range of different technical, creative and social skills combined with a good knowledge of the equipment and requirements to do a good job within various constraints. The fact that by the time they graduate in 2018 they may be using very different equipment and new techniques at work does not invalidate the skills they have today.

So within the panel, Martin and I felt the need to champion the ‘learning by doing’ which seemed to have a limited place in the accounts of Hywel and Stuart. But I think the key is not to privilege either at any stage of education. I think the interplay between knowing, reflecting and acting is crucial if the knowledge you need to acquire is to join the knowledge you already have. A one-dimensional approach to acquiring knowledge (grammar) leaves out the two further dimensions of Martin’s Trivium, namely rhetoric and dialectic.

So finally, what of ‘learning for its own sake’? Claire rightly defended the educational value of reading poetry ‘off-syllabus’ or staring into space and explained that her view was partly a reaction to the strong cultural pressure she faced where she grew up to ‘get educated for a job’ and this is still pervasive today. My upbringing tended the other way, for which I am grateful, and this may have led me to come to this from the other side and look harder for links between learning and what use it might be in the world. Ultimately, I think we reached a very similar position about what one might call ‘the usefulness of the useless’.

I was recently discussing Walt Whitman’s poem When I heard the Learn’d Astronomer with some science students as part of an AS class on poetry and science. The poet tires of the dry proofs and the figures ranged before him by the scientist and wanders off into the night to look up at the stars. There can clearly be different readings of the poem and the students recognised the tension between the two ways of seeing the world but they also felt that both were important and that Whitman was not necessarily criticising science as boring or irrelevant but pointing out that it was missing something if it ignored the awesomeness of its subject. We need a constant, informed, dynamic dialogue between imagination and application, the canon and the contemporary, knowledge and skill.

As this enjoyable and stimulating panel session came to an end we seemed to be converging towards a shared view of the benefits of a broad and challenging liberal arts education for all. However, I think everyone there was also well aware of the challenge we face to make this a more mainstream view. Joining Martin Robinson’s network of Trivium schools can only help us in this important task.

About Eddie Playfair

Principal of Newham Sixth Form College (NewVIc) East London. Blogging about education, politics and culture in a personal capacity. I also tweet at @eddieplayfair
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