What Is the Knowledge Most Worth Knowing?

This is a great post on Gideon’s Blog about what should comprise a broad liberal arts education. Every pundit has their list of "essential knowledge". I found this list thoughtful, as I’m someone who believes in the liberal arts as the underpinning to an active engagement with the world. Excerpts:

I. Origins of the Western Tradition.

An integrated humanities course with a Great Books focus. Students read Homer, Hesiod, the dramatists, Aristophanes, Thucydides and Herodotus, the pre-Socratic philosophers, Plato and Aristotle, the Hebrew Bible and some ancient Near-Eastern contextual material, Plutarch, Virgil, Horace, Ovid, Lucretius, Greek and Latin lyric poetry, secondary material on Greek, Hellenistic and Roman History, the Christian Scriptures, Augustine and other early Church material. I am very sorely tempted simply to stop there. That is easily enough material for two years; it is certainly enough material for two terms, and this is only part of the curriculum. I think it’s important, moreover, to give a sense of this classical material as living, as still being accessible, and if we race on from here through Dante, Chaucer and Aquinas; Locke, Hobbes and Shakespeare; Goethe, Cervantes and Milton; and on and on through Nietzsche and Joyce and whatever else, then Plato and Euripides will only be cultural signposts, matter to be learned for tests, rather than living presences in students’ lives…

II. English Poetry.

A very traditional course. Beowulf, Chaucer, the Pearl Poet, Spenser, Shakespeare, Jonson, Donne, Marvell, Milton, Pope, Blake, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Shelley, Keats, Browning, Whitman, Tennyson, Poe, Longfellow, Hopkins, Yeats, Kipling, Eliot, Frost, Stevens, Larkin, Bishop. I’ve probably put in poets that some would consider dispensible and left out others that some would consider indispensible; forgive me, and consider this a sketch rather than a definitive list. This is covering a lot of ground, and so necessarily the epic poets are not going to get treated fairly. I’m not too upset about that, because if students learn how to read well, they can return to Spenser either in another course or even later in life; if they don’t learn to read well, then they will not be able to….

III. Aspects of American Civilization.

Not a history course. It presumes a decent familiarity with American history; I imagine a strong basic American history text assigned as a reference and to help students who weren’t paying attention in high school to keep up. This is, rather, an open-ended exploration of the nature of American Civilization with both a historical and a comparative method. So, for example, one key "aspect" of American Civilization that would be explored is the nature of American Constitutionalism. To that end, students would familiarize themselves with the British antecedents to the American system, read the Federalist Papers and some of the anti-Federalist arguments, read some key Supreme Court decisions, the Lincoln-Douglas Debates, and finally some of the best contemporary analyses of the American Constitutional tradition (examples: Democracy and Distrust, The People Themselves, The Bill of Rights: Creation and Reconstruction; pick your favorites). Other topics would include immigration and the origins of the American people (start with Albion’s Seed and move on from there); the American foreign-policy tradition (I’m imagining working within Walter Russell Mead’s framework); slavery, anti-slavery and the problem of race (David Brion Davis, Eugene Genovese, etc.); the American experience of religion; one can go on and on…

IV. Principles of Aesthetics.

Secondary schools around the country have been cutting back on art and music; meanwhile, the tribunes of high culture from the major art museums to schools of architecture are failing utterly to teach humanistic aesthetic principles; and popular culture is almost comically debased. We are surrounded by ugliness, to the point where most people do not even know how to think about the aesthetic. The course will spend a little time reading about theories of the aesthetic (Aristotle, Ruskin, Pater, Nietzsche) but will mostly approach the topic directly, by interacting with works of painting, sculpture, architecture, photography and music. A strong emphasis will be placed on solving aesthetic problems: how to achieve such and such effect in a way that works….

V. Probability and Statistics.

No branch of mathematics is more important to thinking intelligently about the world than statistics…

VI. Concepts in Economics.

Ignorance of economics is nearly comparable to ignorance of statistics. But people need to understand some economics for reasons ranging from their own personal prosperity (understanding the importance of savings and investment, and the function of different forms of debt like mortgages and credit cards, as well as intelligently capitalizing on one’s own skills and talents) to participating intelligently in political life….

VII. Logic and Rhetoric.

…Formal logic as such is an esoteric discipline, but basic logical principles need to be drilled into students, as do different rhetorical strategies, and then they need to use these principles and strategies in real situations….

VIII. Problems in Philosophy.

…I titled the course, "Problems in Philosophy" because I think that’s the best way to approach philosophy for true novices: present problems that philosophers have wrestled with. The emphasis is intended to be on "purer" areas of philosophy: how we can know something, how we can communicate meaningfully, etc., and to avoid aesthetic, moral and political questions that might be dealt with adequately in other classes in the core.

IX. Introduction to Human Biology.

A course in human biology would be valuable for many reasons. First, for reasons of health; people really should know about how their bodies work and how to keep them working. They should also understand their own development; both men and women should have a realistic understanding of fertility, of child development, and of aging, because they will be planning to start or delay starting families, raising children, and taking care of aging parents. Our increasing understanding of human biology also informs all kinds of moral and policy questions that students are engaged with….

X. Colloquium on Ethics, Morals and Values.

Unfortunately, this course will inevitably be a gut course, one you almost can’t possibly fail. But I think it’s appropriate for there to be a course in the core explicitly devoted to exploring questions of ethics, morals and values; questions of how one should live one’s life and what is the good. Students will have learned a great deal about the Western Tradition’s classical approaches to these problems in t he Origins course; they will have learned something about what modern knowledge brings to bear on these questions from the Economics and Human Biology courses; they will have learned something about how to intelligently phrase and answer questions from Logic and Rhetoric. They should have the tools, in other words, to ask and try to answer what are, ultimately, the most important questions….

7 comments on “What Is the Knowledge Most Worth Knowing?
  • Liberal arts is nice in small doses, though after dealing with it firsthand over the course of a college career…


    Perhaps it’s because I am a ‘self-motivated learner’ (meaning I actively seek out new things on my own time) that the whole notion of liberal arts is lost on me, but sometimes I feel like throwing up my hands and saying,

    “Why can’t I just take all PR courses, get my degree and leave?!”

    I tolerate the other requirements, and excel to the best of my ability so that my GPA minded paretns don’t bitch, but such activities have fostered a situation that is rather bizarre in certain repsects, though it certainly would explain a whole lot in regards to academic dishonesty.

    Essentially, to please professors and earn good grades, I feign interest in subjects regularly. Most of the enthusiasm, active engagement and meaningful thought I express is 100% FAKE. I do it to make the professor happy, get my grade and move on.

    I’m not surprised kids feel no harm in cheating so often, seeing how it means nothing to them in the first place.

    It is quite rare that I take something I learn from a course and actively use it outside the classroom, save for the business classes or hands-on work correlated to my major.

    All I know about religion, arts, sociolpolitical debate, and spirituality has been self taught since I was twelve.

    As an entrepreneur, I’m sure you understand this individualistic approach, right?

    Either that, or I am really missing the point of higher education…

  • I attended a Liberal Arts university (to get an Engineering degree, of all things), and I firmly believe in the theory that a broad education is very important. When I was studying this program, I’d fully agree with the list you presented.

    However, I have lived in Asia for the last four years and now I realize that the list above, as good as it is, is woefully incomplete. Most of the world is not built on a foundation of Homer and Shakespeare. And even words like aesthetics, logic, ethics, morals and values have different meanings outside of the US and Europe.

    Therefore, in order to have an “underpinning to an active engagement with the [entire] world,” you actually have to learn how the majority of the world really thinks. And I don’t see that being taught in your list above.

    What do you think? 🙂

  • Ben,

    If you are interested in Great Books schools, you should check out Gutenberg College, the school which I am attending this fall here in Eugene. I don’t know exactly why I’m pointing it out to you, but I think it seems like the kind of unique institution that you might like to know about. 🙂

    (P.S. I am a fellow member of Random Shapes. I have been reading your blog off and on for a while now, but I don’t believe I’ve ever commented. So hello!)

  • Business school teaches you the how.

    Liberal arts gives you the why.

    Ben, why focus just on western tradition? There is so much wealth in Eastern thought among others.

    I would argue a comparative approach could be more beneficial. Mix and match to find your own truth.

    Your blog postings are one of the highlights of my day. Shoot me a line next time you are in NYC.

  • Dan – I agree Eastern thought has much to offer. This proposal was by someone else, not me, but I largely agree with it. I don’t know if I would do a strict 50/50 comparison — after all, we live in a western society, and just like we all have to study U.S. history we should all be familiar to western thinkers — but definitely other traditions should be introduced too.

    Jason – You can self-teach some things. For other things, such as philosophy, you really need a master. I don’t see how academic dishonesty has anything to do with this.

    Erin — I’m a fan of great books programs. Congrats on starting at Gutenberg.

  • Hey Ben! I finally got a chance to read this on my PPC on the way to class. Isn’t technology amazing? Only if one uses it to meet one’s goal, after all, technology is just a tool….

    Anyway, Impressive description of your view on a liberal arts education. Since my degree is in English Education (Praise be to God, I finally finished!) I found your thoughts particularly interesting. I don’t let institutions handle what they believe we should learn, but a liberal arts education may very well provide us with the framework for higher thinking – which is what I always thought college was about – but a practical/ceritifcation education such as the one I’m in now: Accounting (CPA) is extremely systems oriented. I believe a liberal arts education should be completed by the end of high school or mid college, to allow the individual to then ease into a practical path. OR, do what Britian does – allow citizens to gain an education in any area, and train on the job. My English cousin says I could get an Accounting job with my degree in English Education – all employers there want to know is that you can get a degree. Intereting…but America values specialists and wishes to train higher level thinking accountants, engineers, etc. I say, great! Who’s to say what system works best? We’re all individuals, therefore a system is only as good as its user.

Leave A Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *