160. Liberal Arts

This country is full of liberal arts colleges, and elementary and secondary school teachers work hard to prepare students for these colleges. They try to encourage and enhance children’s natural curiosity and enthusiasm about science, mathematics, literature, geography, history, language, etc. If teachers succeeded at all they tried to do, we’d all be Renaissance people, spending our days writing literary masterpieces, designing better buildings, composing symphonies, and negotiating peace treaties. Maybe during our lunch breaks, we’d find cures for diseases.
As a veteran student and teacher, I have mixed feelings about the liberal arts approach, or at least about the way it’s sometimes applied. On the one hand, I sometimes think we’re too quick to direct students to specialize – to make decisions about which of their many skills they want
to develop and turn into careers. Children really have lots of natural curiosity, and potential expertise may be hiding in places where we tend not to look. Beethoven might have made a great sculptor. We’ll never know. So maybe we should work harder to keep options open. On the other hand, I’m kind of glad Beethoven didn’t have to spend a lot of time learning how to see the statue in a lump of clay, and how to get it to take shape. It would have meant less time devoted to the beautiful music he did create. I’m so glad Ludwig’s parents and teachers didn’t work to make sure the boy was well-rounded, or if they did (was he one of the composers who was supposed to be a lawyer?), I’m glad they didn’t succeed.
I remember how the liberal arts approach was applied to my own education. I had to take courses dealing with subjects I really couldn’t have cared less about, taught by teachers who often fervently believed that everyone should know as much as possible about these subjects. Of course, these teachers didn’t have to know much about each others’ specialties. It just didn’t seem fair. I wanted to have the freedom they had to follow my own interests.
Once in a while, now, some of what I was required to learn comes in handy. But were all those hours spent trying to stay interested in and learn about Milik Capek’s philosophy of physics really time well spent? Or would it have been better to wait until I came to a point in my life when I thought to myself, “I wonder what Milic Capek’s philosophy of physics was all about…”? I don’t know.

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