The Liberal Arts as Guideposts in the 21st Century
The very broad, capacious form of education that we call the liberal arts is rooted in a specific curriculum in classical and medieval times. But it would be wrong to assume that because it has such ancient roots, this kind of education is outdated, stale, fusty, or irrelevant. In fact, quite the contrary. A liberal-arts education, which Louis Menand defined in The Marketplace of Ideas as “a background mentality, a way of thinking, a kind of intellectual DNA that informs work in every specialized area of inquiry,” lends itself particularly well to contemporary high-tech methods of imparting knowledge.
We all wrestle with the challenges of educating students who are used to multitasking, doing their homework while listening to music and texting on their iPhones. For such students, the Web-based facilities of exciting liberal-arts courses are particularly salient. What would Aristotle or Erasmus or Robert Maynard Hutchins not have given for a technique that allows one to tour the world’s greatest museums, looking closely at the details of countless masterpieces; explore the ruins of ancient castles and pyramids and forums; join archaeological digs at your desk, turning objects around to see all sides of them; visualize problems in geometry or astronomy or mathematics in several dimensions and work out their solutions.
An excellent example of the power of multimedia coupled with the liberal arts is “Imaginary Journeys,” a general-education course sometimes taught at Harvard University by Stephen Greenblatt. The course is described as being “about global mobility, encounter, and exchange at the time that Harvard College was founded in 1636. Using the interactive resources of computer technology, we follow imaginary voyages of three ships that leave England in 1633. Sites include London’s Globe Theatre, Benin, Barbados, Brazil, Mexico.” With this kind of course in mind, it seems that the liberal arts could almost have been designed for sophisticated online learning, so far from being stale or fusty are these ways of knowing.