In defense of liberal education
A small child, quite untidy, extends her arm to beg from passing strangers under the searing midday sun. It is a familiar sight but it does not get everyone into thinking. Almost everyone is preoccupied with their own lives, unmindful of the world at large. They are busy building their own ivory towers in order to please the gods, but they are indifferent to the mortal life that is not their own. It is this very truth that makes philosophical thinking matter above all else.
Philosophical questions are not only meant to produce the epistemic foundations on the nature of truth. Rather, philosophy looks into the implications of human action in order to realize the moral, social or political ends of society. As the novelist JM Coetzee says, “We need institutions where teachers and students can pursue unconstrained the life of the mind because such institutions are, in ways that are difficult to pin down, good for all of us: Good for the individual and good for society.”
But thinking is dead. The government’s overemphasis on calibrating Philippine schools so that it may respond to the demands of the global economy is an assault not only on the spirit of free inquiry but also on freedom itself. This unwritten policy reduces everything that a young person does in his/her college life to a matter of practicality. Coetzee argues in an article that a certain phase in the life of the university “has come to an end not just because the neoliberal enemies of the university have succeeded in their aims, but because there are too few people left who really believe in the humanities.”
While we cannot take away the immense contribution of the sciences, specifically engineering and information technology, in allowing us to adopt globally and benefit from the explosion of human knowledge, the problem really is that the moral purpose of learning has been left behind. While technocracy is important in understanding how the bureaucracy and the basic structure can be improved, the values necessary in order to realize the meaning of justice and the common good are not there.
For instance, philosophy matters to college students because it introduces them to first principles. There is no prescription with respect to success or to the solutions to our problems. Policymakers look into the sciences and innovation. But something is more basic. People make choices. And philosophy is important because it allows one to be critical about those choices. Philosophy enables the person to ask the right questions and to question decisions when he/she feels that these are not right. While technology can propel any country to greater economic development, the very spirit of that development can only be found in the foundations of the liberal arts. A robot cannot make a choice for the person with regard to how one must live. And this is because if something takes over from the person the basic capacity for making a choice, that person surrenders what it means to live.
Coetzee points to a counterargument posed by critics: “If critical literacy is just a skill or set of skills, why not just teach the skill itself?” One can respond by saying that there are certain things that cannot be simply handed down as a matter of skill. One can point, for instance, to the meaning of values. When teachers are serious about what they do, they are not just relaying some information. Their commitment becomes the model of what it means to be good.
Science is very important. Science has changed the world. But innovation requires a basic element: It must have a purpose. Development should not only mean the accumulation of more wealth. A dictionary is useful not because it has 250,000 definitions. It is most useful because a young man or woman is reading Shakespeare or Hemingway and he/she discovers a new term. Knowing, in this regard, brings us further. It tells us why life matters above all else. In Rudyard Kipling’s immortal words: “If you can dream—and not make dreams your master; if you can think—and not make thoughts your aim.”
The liberal arts thrive in criticism. But students need to know why—and how. While a lot is objectionable in the thoughts of Jean-Paul Sartre, one would not really be able to question his points unless one understands what he meant when he said that “existence precedes essence,” which can be translated into the idea that man has no history. This point is difficult for an uninitiated mind, and yet the mind of young people should be exposed to such a manner of questioning. Our assumptions need to be questioned critically because believing in something without discernment means that one is simply being dominated by pretentious authority.
Indeed, what our government lacks with respect to many of our problems today is not only resources or the scientific analysis of experts. What it does not have is the basic capacity for good decision-making.
Christopher Ryan Maboloc teaches philosophy at Ateneo de Davao University. He has a master’s degree in applied ethics from Linkoping University in Sweden.