Teaching, Learning and Studying in Liberal Arts
‘The word “book” (liber) comes from the word “free” (liber)…
“Art” is so-called because it limits (artet) and binds us with its rules’ (Cassiodorus, Secular Letters, c. 551AD)
‘First figure out why you want the students to learn the subject and what you want them to know, and the method will result more or less by common sense’ (Richard Feynman).
Teachers, like artists, find new ways to stretch our minds. They challenge us, ask us difficult questions, often take us out of our comfort zones. But teachers must be more than artists. Not only must they inspire us to travel new roads, or to seek and risk experiencing the difficult and the unknown. The wise teacher must also know the way back. It may not be by the same path that we took, and it is unlikely that we will return exactly the same person or to exactly the same place that we left. The point is, that the good teacher understands the difference that taking the path and having the experience has made. This difference is precisely the difference made by education. The good teacher must respect this difference, and will show compassion while at the same time making life more difficult for the students.
The approach to learning in (Modern) Liberal Arts holds that all students can succeed beyond their own expectations. In our integrated curriculum no text is off-limits as being too difficult. If it has been written, then with the help of good teaching students can read it and understand it. The motivation to read such texts comes from the questions that students bring to them. Students ask their questions about the world, and then ask a multitude of writers and thinkers to reveal their answers. Students should not learn passively. Rather, they actively challenge the writers to answer their questions. In return, students think about those answers, discuss them with others and new questions arise which are then taken back to the writers. Learning is just this; a conversation between what one understands, what one does not understand, and the people who might be able to help. And if there are always more questions… this is to lead a life committed to learning.
No one really prepares new students for the experience of studying at University. Studying is not just reading. Rather, studying is work. The often heard lament ‘I wish the author could have said it more simply or more clearly, or not used such unfamiliar language’ is often a refuge for those who wish to avoid studying what is difficult. The author meant something; studying is precisely the work involved in finding out what that something is. The result of studying is to be able to include the book and those ideas as the tools now at the students’ disposal in their own thinking and writing. The reward of studying – not just the excitement that comes from finally understanding something that at first sight looked too difficult – is that your work with the text is now part of who you are. Studying, in essence, is the development of oneself; the exercise of the mind from which it grows and flourishes. This is the core of a profound intellectual university education.
Giambattista Vico (1704)
‘It is true that the liberal arts and the sciences are mastered only with effort. Those who aspire to them will find that they are not easily achieved, not even so readily at hand that one may acquire them while engaging in other activities, nor are they located in such a downward-sloping place that, once enjoyed, their continuing pursuit becomes effortless. On the contrary, so much effort is needed in their attainment that it often seems beyond the limits of human nature. In fact, he who embraces a life of letters must abandon all of his senses completely and totally, which before had been thought to be the most trustworthy guides for living, to see the true nature of things. It is necessary to blind the force that fashions physical images, which is called phantasy, so that he may comprehend the First Truth. It is necessary to expand the narrow limits of the mind and broaden it in order to encompass the boundless realm of nature. Finally, it is necessary to cloud the mind’s eye, which is reason, so that the wonders of God, which the apostle has said to be “beyond demonstration,” can be known.’ (Vico, Oration IV, 1704, in Vico, G. (1993) On Humanistic Education, trans. Pinton and Shippee, Cornell UP, pp. 92-3).
(Modern) Liberal Arts Education
If we now put teaching, learning and studying together, we have the ingredients for a Liberal Arts education. By asking difficult questions teachers will help students in their struggles to find their own questions; students take these questions to the books; and studying sees those questions become the growth of the learning individual.