August 20, 2015
By Jane Fried
1. A violent order is disorder;
2. A great disorder is an order;
These two things are one.
At least that was the theory when bishop’s books resolved the world.
Wallace Stevens, The Collected Works of Wallace Stevens (1945), “Connoisseur of Chaos”, p. 215
A debate about the purpose and content of liberal education is under way throughout higher education. What is liberal education, and why is this subject so important? The Association of American Colleges & Universities (AAC&U) defines the term liberal education as an “approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity and change. It provides students with broad knowledge of the wider world (e.g. science, culture and society) as well as in-depth study in a specific area of interest” (www.aacu.org/leap/what-is-a-liberal-education). Liberal education has always been a way to organize knowledge to understand how the world works and transmit this knowledge to students. Initially the concept included seven subjects that were divided into two categories—the trivium and the quadrivium. The trivium consisted of grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Its purpose was to help students learn systematic thinking through the study of these subjects. The quadrivium consisted of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. Its purpose was to help students connect knowledge, understanding, and wisdom. The trivium and the quadrivium constituted the entire body of theoretical knowledge known to the ancient Greeks.
Our scope of knowledge has certainly expanded since Socrates, Plato and Aristotle articulated this method of organizing knowledge. However, the problem of helping students understand their world remains. The questions we always face are: What do our students need to know? Why do they need to know it? How are we going to help them learn it? How do we organize knowledge to help students make sense of their world? The world in which today’s students live is infinitely more complex than the Greek world. What can liberal education contribute to their abilities to comprehend and cope with today’s complex events? Ultimately, students still need methods for analyzing phenomena and some in-depth grasp of at least one area of study to use as a starting point for their analyses. From this perspective, we continue to do what the Greeks were doing, but our task is just a bit more complicated. We don’t want to impose a violent or rigid order on events. Rather, we want to help students perceive order in chaotic situations so that they can develop an organizing schema that will help them function. An economist will do this differently than an anthropologist, but each person will find some way to make sense of global and personal events in order to function in his or her individual world.
It seems that liberal education has changed dramatically in the quadrivium. There is infinitely more information to study. However, the basic purpose of the trivium remains. Effective thinking about our empirical world is best when it is systematic. This perspective can be very helpful to anyone who is involved in revision of liberal education requirements. We need to continue to ask what students need to know, why they need to know it, and how we will help them learn so that they can carry on effectively in this very confusing world. Jane Fried has written about this subject in much greater depth in her forthcoming book, Of Education, Fishbowls, and Rabbit Holes: Rethinking Teaching and Liberal Education for an Interconnected World.
Jane Fried Ph.D. is a professor in the Department of Counselor Education and Family Therapy at Central Connecticut State University. She is the former coordinator of the Student Development in Higher Education master’s degree program. Dr. Fried is the author of Transformative Learning through Engagement, as well as the co-author of Understanding Diversity. She currently writes a blog where her primary topics of concern are racism and transfomative learning, and hosts diversity dialogues to support leaders in higher education who want to develop a deeper understanding of the ways that racism affects our society.