I am a Conservative. Being conservative has very little to do with the political left or the political right.
So let’s extricate conservatism from the left/right polarity and see it for what it really is: an attitude of mind that respects humanity but recognizes its limitations; that cautiously believes in progress but not just in change for change’s sake; and, most controversially, that regards truth as absolute and values it above myth.
Conservatives believe that education should be for life. To teach trades and skills and arts alone is not good enough, important as they are. Morality, clarity of thought, analytical skills, efficient communication is, or should be, the basis of any professional training.
The so-called liberal arts are the arts appropriate to a free man or woman. The idea is older than that pagan Roman Cicero, though he was among the first to speak of them systematically.
After Cicero’s time, as the world morphed into the Christian Middle Ages, the so-called liberal arts were classified into two groups, the trivium and the quadrivium; the first comprising grammar, logic, and rhetoric, the latter arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy. These subjects look odd to our modern eyes, but look again: they focus on the arts of thinking, writing and persuading, in close association with calculating, measuring—and of course music.
They encompass all of those skills that separate us from the rest of creation. As humans, we have complex natures that can only achieve their potential by exercising our whole range of talents. “Man,” says William Hazlitt, “is the only animal that laughs and weeps, for he is the only animal that is struck by the difference between what things are and what they ought to be.”
These “liberal” arts are not the preserve of a rich elite, but have traditionally been taught in all our schools so that those who go on to learn a trade or a profession should have a solid basis in the life of the mind, could enjoy poetry and music, could think rationally and logically, could communicate with power and conviction.
It has never been enough to educate boys and girls for a job alone; they must be educated for life so that they have if you like, nuts for winter: a store of good things to enrich and excite their minds.
But the days of cultivated doctors, lawyers, engineers, and what have you may be numbered.
Post-modernism, an essentially cynical doctrine, and identity politics, with its tendency to widen the fractures in society, both powerfully influence school curricula. And at great cost: if you spend too much time studying grievances, you may never learn to read, write, and think straight.
How did we get to this point?
Until perhaps the 14th century, it was still possible to read in libraries just about everything that had ever been written. Since then, available knowledge has expanded exponentially, and with it, the tendency to specialization has grown apace.
The ancient scholarship was knowledge-based, with a huge emphasis on memory. Modern scholarship, by contrast, is forced to be increasingly selective as the mountain of material expands. The emphasis has shifted from knowledge to theory, from facts to techniques for extracting facts.
The unforeseen outcome of all this has been extraordinary ignorance.
Some teachers and educators admit, if only grudgingly, that increasing specialization is tending to produce high achievers in specific areas who are less than competent outside their fields, sometimes almost illiterate or profoundly ignorant of whole areas of human knowledge which have been traditionally considered essential to human civility.
How can a young man or woman reasonably be expected to choose a life-long commitment to a career at the age of 18 (or a lot earlier), whose mind has never been properly exposed to the richness of human thought, and in a world in which the average person will need to re-train several times in the course of his life? Surely we are asking too much (or too little) of the young people who are both the inheritors and shapers of the future?
The American response, long ago, was to insist that adequate preparation must come first and that people should learn to communicate and think, at a very high level, before specializing. The tradition of sending young people to liberal arts colleges before “graduate school” is well established. IBM used to look for graduates in English or Philosophy who were good at playing chess. If young people are taught well to communicate and to think, so they thought, they can be trained and re-trained to learn computer languages—and anything else.
Two men in the 70s, James Power, a businessman, and Karl Schmude, librarian of the University of New England, began to think about establishing a new kind of institution in Australia, a tertiary college in the American liberal arts tradition that would blaze the trail towards a new view of education in Australia—the revival of an old view of education. The view that literacy, eloquence, clear thinking, historical awareness, and well-founded moral certainty ought to be laid firmly in place as a foundation for professional studies. So Campion College was born.
Critics sometimes take a look at the Campion syllabus and declare it narrow. Campion offers four subjects for the Bachelor of Arts, while a conventional university may offer 80 or 90.
On the face of it does indeed look narrow. But a student in an ordinary university can actually take only four of those on offer, that number usually diminishing over the three years.
Moreover, the core subjects in Campion are exactly that—subjects fundamental to humane studies.
History, because we need to understand where we are in time and space; where we’ve come from as a guide, at least, to where we’re heading.
Philosophy, to teach us clear thinking, and how to avoid simplistic and shallow platitudes; Is Truth relative, just your version of what you’d like to believe, or are there absolutes?
Literature teaches us about good communication and the human spirit. Why get the cart before the horse? How extraordinary to study psychology or sociology or criminology without ever having read some great poems and novels!
Somebody at an English university more than 30 years ago applied the phrase “Mickey Mouse subjects” to certain arts courses, which had apparently been designed either to add appeal to their institution’s status in the marketplace or even (dare I say it?) to present some easy options for less able students in a world that increasingly insists on the “right” of the people to a degree of some kind.
Far too many people are studying rock music studies, tourism, or surfing! Even in the “old” subjects like English, you can get away without reading much Shakespeare, and you can study history in segments (often politically linked) without ever getting a feel for the whole picture.
Some undoubtedly think me arrogant in speaking thus of the honest aspirations of so many students and their teachers. But I do believe we are all in danger of selling ourselves short and wasting our most precious resources: talented young people should not be fobbed off with second-rate studies but given better opportunities to stretch their own skills in new directions.
What is the point of teaching isolated and disconnected arts courses to people who have not properly learned to read, write, think, and communicate? Let’s have less Mickey Mouse and more apprenticeships.
There is a strong pull in the other direction in the form of political correctness, the imposing of strictures on what we may and may not think and say. From a position of no censorship in the late 60s, when absolutely everything was allowed, we have reached a point at which censorship has been applied in almost every department of life—except sex.
There is no quick fix. If you have children in your care, teach them to think straight. Question their easy suppositions. Guide them to enrol in courses that broaden their understanding of the whole wide world, not just part of it. Try not to let them specialize too soon or too narrowly (of course, we need specialists, but let them be humane ones). Teach them history. Tell them how unique and how powerful ideas are, both for good and ill: sport is just play, but ideas have saved nations and destroyed them, too.
Above all, don’t despair, but keep a merry heart: remember Julian of Norwich—“all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.