Notes for Fifth IDS 6937 Class, June 10, 2004

O.K., how many of you have studied Latin and Greek?  How many have read Cicero, Horace, etc.?

Ancient Athens and its educational model.  Here we can take a clue from Martha Nussbaum.  In her Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform In Liberal Education, she argues “…for a particular norm of citizenship and to make educational proposals in light of that ideal.”1   She begins her book as follows:

in Aristophanes’ great comedy The Clouds, a young man, eager for the new learning, goes to a “Think-Academy” run by that strange, notorious figure, Socrates.  A debate is staged for him, contrasting the merits of traditional education with those of the new discipline of Socratic argument.  The spokesperson for the Old Education is a tough old soldier.  He favors a highly disciplined patriotic regimen, with lots of memorization and not much room for questioning.  He loves to recall a time that may never have existed—a time when young people obeyed their parents and wanted nothing more than to die for their country, a time when teachers would teach that grand old song “Athenia, glorious sacker of cities”—not the strange new songs of the present day.  Study with me, he booms, and you will look like a real man—broad chest, small tongue, firm buttocks, small; genitals (a plus in those days, symbolic of manly self-control).2 

In contemporary America as in ancient Athens, liberal education is changing.  New topics have entered the liberal arts curricula of colleges and universities: the history and culture of non-Western peoples and of ethnic and racial minorities within the United States, the experiences and achievements of women, the history and concerns of lesbians and gay men.  These changes have frequently been presented in popular journalism as highly threatening, both to tradition standards of academic excellence and to traditional norms of citizenship.  Readers are given a picture of a monolithic, highly politicized elite who are attempting to enforce a “politically correct” view of human life, subverting traditional values and teaching students, in effect, to argue in favor of father-beating.  Socratic questioning is still on trial.  Our debates over the curriculum reveal the same nostalgia for a more obedient, more regimented time, the same suspiciousness of new and independent thinking, that find expression in Aristophanes’ brilliant portrait.3

Like Sagan, then, Nussbaum will lead us to a critical contrast and comparison of the Athenian and contemporary educational climates and their connections to views of democracy and citizenship.  Before we examine her view, we must build on Sagan’s history, by looking at Kimball’s historical study of the very notion of a “liberal education.”

Going through Kimball:

viii [his] Pragmatic method proposes that there is no necessary, universal, or essential meaning of liberal education or liberal arts, “not a sort of Hegelian cloud, building over the scholae.”  [refer to Goodman!  ]

xi …if one is looking to make some general sense out of the long and confusing discussion about “liberal education,” it is helpful to think in terms of a tradition that has privileged “reason” (ratio)…and a tradition that has privileged “speech” (oratio)….These are the two semantic branches of the Greek term logos, which had been thought to define the nature of civilization and of a civilized human being….the oratorical vision of liberal education, emphasizing the liberal arts of grammar and rhetoric and the skills of composing, making, and analyzing speeches and texts….“philosophers” search for a precise, rational method of pursuing knowledge, and tend to regard mathematics, logic, and natural science as conveying the heart of logos and the liberal arts.

14 Kimball lists the seven liberal arts:

concerning “language:” grammar, rhetoric, logic/dialectic,
concerning “mathematics/science:” arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy[/astrology].

pp. 37-39 the seven characteristics of a liberal education in the Roman ideal.

     What is Kimball’s “resolution?


1   Martha Nussbaum, Cultivating Humanity: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education, (Cambridge: Harvard U.P., 1997), p. ix.

2 Ibid., p. 1.

3 Ibid., p. 2.

 Return to IDS 6937 Home-page