Knowledge in All Its Forms

The challenge of the liberal arts and the changing face of the ILA

Kevin Corrigan

A proliferation of articles and books that speak to a crisis in higher education in the past decade has brought increasing focus upon the financial bottom line of what is sometimes taken to be an almost exclusively corporate enterprise. This reflects, in part, the perhaps quite natural tendency of the modern research university to support specialization and give priority to functions that can command significant external funding. 

One unfortunate consequence, however, is that the inevitable fragmentation of knowledge, departments, and colleges jeopardizes the possibility of forming any coherent vision of what the university is, or should be, and casts a strong shadow over the liberal arts, which are thought to lie, as at Emory, somewhere at the center of the university. Can we no longer afford—in a vastly expanding technical universe—to educate our children in the shadowy liberal arts that have traditionally formed the basis of higher education? It is a timely question, and it makes sense for us to rethink the liberal arts and to ask how our Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts might respond to the challenges of our times.

To get a deeper sense of this question, however, and to see why Emory’s ILA is in a special position to respond, we need first to get a rudimentary outline of what the liberal arts are and where they have come from.

Contrary to the common view, the history of the liberal arts (or the arts that can make one “free”—liberalis) is not a relatively seamless account of the emergence of seven liberal arts (the trivium: grammar, rhetoric, logic; and the quadrivium: arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy), presided over by the meta-perspective of philosophy or “love of wisdom.” This account overlooks the importance of professional or vocational activities. It is also exclusively Western. In fact, this educational ideal emerged from a richer tapestry of learned traditions, of which I shall give here only two major examples.

From one perspective, the liberal arts might be said to have emerged from the dance of the nine muses (Daughters of Mnemosyne and Zeus), whose circular movement will much later give rise to the “curriculum,” “enkyklopedia,” and “museum”—that is, a circling dance that brings to mind the rhythms of life in history and all the forms of knowing, from poetry through music to the stars. The much later trivium and quadrivium only emerge in late antiquity and the Medieval period. And if one looks at the range of education in antiquity from Cicero and Quintilian to the famous doctors Soranus and Galen, one can see that the so-called professional arts/sciences such as law and medicine were, in fact, an integral part of “liberal” training. Galen, for instance, learned his profession partly as physician to a school of gladiators and rose to become personal physician to the emperor Marcus Aurelius. His works in Greek reveal a thoroughly liberal education that provided a new and definitive medical-philosophical model of what it meant to be a human being.

From another perspective, from Pythagoras to Plato, Aristotle, and beyond, education was “a beautiful/noble risky enterprise” to link elementary instruction and civic responsibility, through mathematics and geometry, to genuinely scientific education—that is, transformative insight into, and living conversation with, the whole of reality and especially “divine things.” According to Aristotle, there are three forms of knowing: the productive sciences, the practical sciences, and the theoretical sciences—or, put more succinctly, the sciences include both insight (contemplation) and action (doing and making). There are two principles that I take to have been important to Aristotle: first, that understanding and self-understanding are, or should be, inseparable; and second, that there is nothing unworthy of consideration or too lowly for insight. For, in the words of Heraclitus apparently discovered on the “potty” by three eager students, “there are gods even here.” This synthesis of disciplines also bears some resemblance to an ancient Hindu system in which the highest object is the study of the Veda, the science of “divine things,” through ten auxiliary sciences, ranging from language and logic (and thus roughly equivalent to the Western trivium), through mathematics and astronomy (equivalent to the quadrivium) to theology. 

In other words, the liberal arts were based upon the desire for knowledge in all its different forms. They included practical and professional activities. They represented the crossing of different mnemonic paths between what would later become fine arts, humanities, social and natural sciences. They emerged from dance and aspired to music, especially the music of the heavenly spheres (astronomy); they intersected with medicine, architecture, and law; and they were concerned not only with “divine things,” but also with very ordinary things. The hierarchical aspect of learning in both West and East might have, to some degree, disappeared, but not the need to be truly “musical,” that is, a need to be “attuned.” We have not lost the need for critical collaborative insight, innovative vision, and civic responsibility. In music, one might say we are faced at first with a single melody that moves horizontally—in a line—to its destination, its resolution; but the horizontal dimension, we discover, does not stand alone, for around, beneath, and above it are other notes that form chords so that what appears to stand alone is really always in dialogue with a much larger generative, intersecting series of harmonies. Surely something of this fruitful intersection between the individual lived experience and a conversation among fields, peoples, and other organisms lies at the heart of any liberal education in both West and East.

The ILA seems to me a partial mirror of Emory as a university but also a specific reflection of this deep and broad history. In fact, the ILA was instituted as a graduate doctoral program 60 years ago, when not many doctoral programs existed at Emory. It was founded primarily on the basis of a felt need for living conversation among literature, philosophy, religion, theology, and history. A little later this conversation expanded to include public scholarship and the social sciences, especially in response to the movement for civil rights in higher education, linking Emory with historically black institutions in Atlanta and beyond. It later added an undergraduate program. Gradually, the ILA became the unique interdisciplinary institute it is today: a hybrid departmental home for many interrelated programs, faculty, and students. It now comprises a graduate interdisciplinary program with a broad range of focused interests, including American studies, science and society, history of medicine/science, race and difference, visual studies, interdisciplinary humanities and critical studies, and some outstanding certificates and other programmatic concentrations. Above all, the ILA is an institute—rather than a department—that fosters existing and new initiatives that cross traditional disciplinary or divisional lines, a “green space” for new possibilities in the college and university, a laboratory for a deeper sense of intellectual community.

And here lies the challenge. Yes, the ILA has served as an innovative space for new programs, departments, and experimental possibilities, including comparative literature, African American studies, and women’s and gender studies. Yes, the ILA attracts traditional and non-traditional students, and we place them eventually in both academic and non-academic positions. But the larger questions remain: how does the ILA become a more effective green space and remain an intellectual commons for the twenty-first century university? How can it serve as an effective bridging force, perhaps bringing in new members for two- to three-year research and teaching collaborations? How can we together find a way to build upon departmental strengths and yet break down university divisions in order to create living conversation and collaborative thinking that are surely characteristic of the best of any liberal arts tradition? 

If education is really an intrinsically risky enterprise, because it is about the need for transformation, then we need to be open to the discourses of constantly changing times and the unexpected conversations that threaten to turn everything we thought upside down. We should not give up music, insight, conversation, or public scholarship. We should leave the free state of education, the liberal arts, better for our having been here.