Marvin and Mary and Doug and Doris. We settled into the rhythm of the game, quickly consumed by primary colors and single-digit numbers. Time for some background: this was supposed to be community service. The first class I ever took in college required students to volunteer at a local charity or nonprofit organization. At Butler University, a class of this nature, one that satisfies the Indianapolis Community Requirement, is mandatory for all students.
The hours I spent at this adult care center, coupled with in-class discussions of empathy, philosophy, and human nature, shaped my understanding of what higher education was meant to be.
Where was the service in that? Time for an unexpected yet relevant digression: around this time in my life, I discovered my soulmate, Kurt Vonnegut.
He was born about two minutes away from the dorm where I lived; he even attended Butler University for a brief time. He said a lot of things. Our kindness is our saving grace. Why does this matter?
Firstly, Vonnegut always matters. Secondly, it gives my experience meaning. Most of the elderly patients at the care center were African American. They were two or three generations removed from me. They had lived the majority of their lives in a city I barely knew. They were as distant from me as any human could be.
Yet, we were not so different that we could not find something to talk about.
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Before I knew it, I had formed deep, personal connections with the patients. I grew to admire their wisdom, their resilience, and their unfailing good humor. I learned more from them than I ever could have learned in a classroom. In this age of political polarization, with so many voices clamoring to be heard, it can be hard to remain unbiased and critical without also becoming cold and unfeeling. It is only necessary to listen and to be compassionate; to sit at their table, play a game of Uno, and share a laugh or two.
This is exactly what I did when I came to the adult care center once a week. This is the experience Liberal Arts at Butler gave me. Higher education is not only about gaining factual knowledge or preparing for a career. It is about learning how to become a responsible citizen and a more complete, well-rounded human being.
The Benefits of a Liberal Arts Education
Diversity and inclusion are absolutely necessary for this growth. But it seems that nobody can agree on what liberal education is. For some, liberal education means a general education, as opposed to specialized training for a particular career. The tradition of liberal education in Europe and the Americas is a synthesis of several elements.
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Three of these have already been mentioned: nonspecialized general education; an emphasis on a particular set of scholarly disciplines, the humanities; and acquaintance with a canon of classics. What brought all of these different elements together in the liberal education model was their purpose: training citizens for public life, whether as rulers or voters. Liberal education is, first and foremost, training for citizenship. In the last century, however, liberal education as the basis for higher education in the United States and other nations has been almost completely demolished by opposing forces, the most important of which is utilitarianism, with its demand that universities be centers of practical professional training.
Artes means crafts or skills, and liberales comes from liber, or free man, an individual who is both politically free, as a citizen with rights, and economically independent, as a member of a wealthy leisure class. Classical languages. In their day, the relatively unsophisticated Romans needed to read and understand Greek in order to read most of what was worth reading on subjects from philosophy, medicine, and military tactics to astronomy and agriculture. Greek was also the lingua franca of the eastern Mediterranean, shared by the Romans with their subjects.
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Rhetoric and logic. The Greeks and Romans naturally emphasized rhetoric and logic. Beginning with Plato, philosophers and theologians often railed against rhetoric as the seductive art of prettifying falsehood. General education. An aristocrat or general should show some accomplishment in arts such as poetry, scholarship, music, and sports, but only as an amateur, not a professional.
Even in modern democracies, the same logic applies. A focus on the humanities. The classics. Whatever their other studies, elite Greeks were expected to be familiar with Homer and other ancient poets, who were viewed as sources of knowledge, not just aesthetic pleasure. The founding fathers of liberal education are the Roman statesman and thinker Cicero and the unjustly neglected Athenian orator Isocrates, a contemporary of Plato and Aristotle. Isocrates ridiculed the Socratic philosophers for wasting their time on metaphysical puzzles instead of educating virtuous statesmen and citizens.
This skepticism toward metaphysical philosophy and theology was shared by the great figures of the Western humanist tradition, from Cicero and Seneca to Petrarch, Erasmus, Montaigne, and Hume. The premodern Western liberal arts curriculum served a variety of governing classes quite well for two millennia.
In colonial America and the early United States, most colleges were Protestant denominational institutions whose curricula would have been familiar to Romans and Renaissance Italians alike. The crisis of liberal education began in the late 19th century and continued until the middle of the 20th.
One by one, the traditional elements of a liberal arts education came under assault from reformers. Utilitarians argued for replacing the study of Greek and Latin with the study of modern languages. Rhetoric was disparaged, on the grounds that it was unscientific or undemocratic. General education was challenged by vocational training for jobs in the new industrial economy. Increasingly, that Germanic degree, the Ph. In German fashion, professors concentrated on research and writing for their specialist colleagues, rather than on undergraduate teaching.
T he amazing thing is that liberal education survived at all.
It was rescued thanks only to two measures initiated between the late 19th century and World War II. First, a number of universities made an undergraduate liberal arts education a prerequisite for specialized professional training in law, medicine, and other fields. The other reform that arguably rescued the liberal arts from extinction was the replacement of study of the classical languages with study of the classics in translation.
Columbia University adopted a similar approach at the same time. As a result of these reforms, by the midth century a new kind of undergraduate liberal arts education had taken shape in the United States, one that would have puzzled Thomas Jefferson and Cicero. The chief emphasis was no longer on rhetoric and logic, but on the study of classic and contemporary literature, in English translation rather than in the original languages.
The humanities still included history and philosophy.