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Liberal arts education has been under attack – we need to rediscover its profound wisdom

30 January 2014

3:17 PM

30 January 2014

3:17 PM

England did so deplorably in the Ashes in part because of an obsession with data, including minutely detailed plans on diet and exercise. Excessive bureaucracy can squeeze the lifeblood out of sport, the arts, and indeed education. Bureaucracy gone mad.

Michael Gove, aided by Michael Wilshaw, has massively improved the standards of schooling in Britain. Their insistence on top quality teaching for all, and a will to smash the mediocre, lies at the heart of all they have achieved. They will go down in history as great education secretaries and chief inspectors respectively.

But for all that, they do not sit comfortably in the same railway carriage as the principle of a liberal education. They are on a crusade, relentlessly driving our schools forward. Perhaps it has been inevitable that the subtler manifestations of schooling have been subordinated under their watch. So too has any clear vision of what an educated young person is. In a recent speech on character to Birmingham University, I compared them to the great figures behind Italian unification. Michael G was Cavour, the supreme politician, while Michael W was Garibaldi, the forceful general. What they lack is a Mazzini, the philosopher. It was he who provided a vision of a modern Italy in a united Europe.

The concept of the liberal arts education emerged in the medieval era and was developed in the Enlightenment as a way of nurturing young minds to be educated across the fields of human knowledge, to realise their human potential, and to build societies based on liberty and respect. It embraces not just the humanities but science and technology, and deems it fundamental to nurture ethics, good character and civic engagement.

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Liberal arts education came under attack in Britain in the twentieth century. It came to be seen as, at worst the self-indulgent alternative to a deep grounding in mathematics, science and technology, and from the mid-century, a woolly substitute for the social sciences. The US managed to avoid this polarisation, and in its top schools such as Phillips Exeter and Phillips Andover, as well as at Harvard, Princeton and many other top universities, it rides high.

We need very badly in Britain to rediscover the profound wisdom and sense of the liberal arts education. As TS Eliot asked, ‘where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?’ In truth, as CP Snow said in his 1959 Rede Lecture, the breakdown between the ‘two cultures’ of the sciences and the humanities severely impedes a rounded education and an understanding of how to address the world’s problems.

All our young people need to be taught about the humanities and the sciences, about ethics and the development of their characters, as well as the passing of exams, about emotional, spiritual and moral intelligence as well as literacy and numeracy.

Michael Gove and Michael Wilshaw need to stop fighting, and more expressly the aides around the former need to grow up. Their revolution in schools has been deeply significant, but it is incomplete. If they could embrace and celebrate the liberal arts, in whose development this country has made such a distinguished contribution, their legacy would be so much more profound. Wisdom and knowledge are what our young people so badly need, and the metrics of inspections and GCSE alone will never call them into being. Mere information is not enough.

Anthony Seldon is the Master of Wellington College and the Executive Principal of Wellington Academy

The Spectator’s next debate is A liberal arts education is a waste of time and money with Harry Cole and Julia Hobsbawm vs Anthony Seldon and Doug Richard, to be held on 4th March. Book tickets for the debate here.

 


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    Humanities in the United States refers to the study of humanities disciplines, such as literature, history, language, performing and visual arts or philosophy, in the United States of America.Many American colleges and universities believe in the notion of a broad “liberal arts education”, which requires all college students to study the humanities in addition to their specific area of study. Such colleges as Saint Anselm College and Providence College have nationally recognized, required two-year programs for their students. Prominent proponents of liberal arts in the United States have included Mortimer J. Adler and E.D. Hirsch.for more:ثبت نام فراگیر پیام نور

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  • Helen Truder

    Michael Gove and Michael Wilshaw will go down in history as great education
    secretaries and chief inspectors respectively. Really? Michael Wilshaw maybe, Michael Gove will not. History will show him to be not of the 21st Century but of the 20th possibly even the 19th. Knowledge is no longer king, understanding, critical thinking and creativity is. These skills stem from the liberal arts – we ignore them at our peril.

    • Colonel Mustard

      Tripe. Knowledge is always king. ‘Creativity’ sustains the propaganda, lies, distortions and revisionism that the left deploy to indoctrinate the knowledge-bereft and therefore susceptible to it young.

      • Helen Truder

        Clearly I disagree.

        • Colonel Mustard

          And also go from being ‘Helen Struder’ to ‘Guest’ at the same time!

      • Makroon

        Ha-ha, you have to laugh “understanding, critical thinking and creativity …… stem from the liberal arts” – in which universe is that Ms Truder ? Self regarding garbage.
        As for Anthony Seldon, his recent suggestion that those earning over £80K should pay fees for their children to attend state schools, has so damaged his credibility, that a long period of silence is recommended.

        • Fergus Pickering

          What is wrong with his suggestion? Sounds OK to me. They wouldn’t go to State schools of course. Not worth the money. But then they don’t anyway..

      • Fergus Pickering

        Knowledge of what, Colonel?

        • Colonel Mustard

          Knowledge of anything – as opposed to ignorance.

    • grammarschoolman

      There’s no such thing as 21st century skills. Skills don’t change and neither does the need for knowledge to fuel them.

      Read and learn, ‘Guest’:

      http://thewingtoheaven.wordpress.com/2012/01/08/why-21st-century-skills-are-not-that-21st-century/

      http://michaelt1979.wordpress.com/2014/01/23/a-little-knowledge-is-no-bad-thing/

      • Colonel Mustard

        Good articles. The left, like the elitists of the middle ages, don’t want the hoi polloi properly educated so that they can think for themselves but dumb so that they swallow the tripe Labour ladle out and conform to the directives of those who think they know best.

        The real proponents of class barriers in Britain are Labour but they hide behind their ridiculously hollow equality and fairness tripe. Their education ‘policies’ are a supporting act to that masquerade.

    • Fergus Pickering

      Whever someone speaks of ‘at our peril’ I feel an overmastering urge to do a Boris. La-la-la-la.

  • James Strong

    The truth, as much of it as humans will be able to understand, is likely to come through Physics.
    Philosophy can be amusing, sometimes frustrating, but other than that is often a waste of time. There is usually an imprecise outcome.
    History can be both entertaining and illuminating, what happened and why.
    Langauges and Literature can also be divertissements, but compared to the hard sciences they’re trivial.
    And quoting Eliot reminds me of something an undergraduate friend of mine said:
    ‘Eliot is OK as a poet if you think poetry should be like crossword puzzles.’ Too clever, my dear Eliot. Far too many allusions.
    Physics, the other hard sciences, and Maths for knowledge.
    Music, painting and good stories for pleasure.

    • Golben Amduke

      Philosophy an “imprecise outcome” eh? OK, give me a precise and non self-referential definition of “a metre”. Or indeed “the truth”.

      • James Strong

        Fair point about the metre.
        Not dissimilar to the crocodile in Anthony and Cleopatra?
        The ‘truth’ – without going to my dictionaries I’d have to say ‘corresponding accurately to reality’ or something like that.

        • Fergus Pickering

          And what, dear sir, is reality? Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking-Glass should be your texts here. Works of fiction, my good sir.

    • Kennybhoy

      “The truth, as much of it as humans will be able to understand, is likely to come through Physics.”

      Theology first. Mathematics second. Physics third.

    • Fergus Pickering

      Dear me, what an ignorant post. Life is imprecise in case you hadn’t noticed. Tell me what you know of Heisenberg. The ‘hard’ sciences have been responsible over the years for more mumbo-jumbo and sheer silliness than philosophy. Hard scientists are the ones who preach man-made global warming and spread misery wherever they go.

      • James Strong

        Of course life is imprecise, but how can that imprecision be measured?
        As for Heisenberg, I’m uncertain on that one. Is the position you take in this discussion modified by the fact that it is moving and being observed?
        Whether or not hard scientists are preaching global warming you shouldn’t confuse science with political goals.
        If man-made global warming is disproved it won’t be philosophers who do it; it’ll be science.
        A lot of science has been wrong in the past; but the way that is known and might then be corrected is through science.
        As for mumbo-jumbo – plenty of that in philosophy, even if you never leave the writings of Derrida et son amis..

        • Fergus Pickering

          Derrida is not a philosopher. The French haven’t had a philosopher since Descartes.

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    • Meysam Panahi
  • Hello

    Yes, I think we can all agree that the unification of Italy was a tremendous success, laying the foundations for those most lauded attributes: a trusted legal system, sound government, a dynamic economy and a long history of democratic stability with some of the fiercest anti-corruption legislation anywhere in the world.

    If you are Mazzini then, please, get on a plane and take your reformist agenda to France. The nation will be grateful.

  • London Calling

    Hello Anthony…….:)
    I had a very poor education, any wisdom or knowledge I gained has been through experience and being self taught. I agree with you on teaching Liberal Arts in school it will make a good impression on young minds. I;m all for philosophy being taught also as it opens up the mind and crafts the pupils way of thinking…………

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