How to Educate Yourself in Liberal Arts
Bring a sense of spirit to the Humanities.
An essay donated by Andrew Flaxman
Bring a sense of spirit to the Humanities:
For hundreds of years, from all over the ancient world, kings and commoners
traveled to Delphi to ask the Oracle of Apollo about the right course of action
– whether to make war or seek peace, whether to marry one person or another.
They brought rich offerings to the god and were sent on their way by the priests
with riddling answers.
And yet, over the entrance to the Sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi was the
admonition: "Know Thyself!" This ancient wisdom suggested that the true oracle
lies within. The answers to the great human questions, public and private, are
found not outside us but only through an inner journey of the seeking spirit.
The crucial importance of developing self-knowledge can best be understood in
the words of another ancient piece of wisdom: The Hebraic Talmud says, "We do
not see things the way they are, we see things the way we are." In other words,
we grind the lenses with which we see the world.
What exactly is the SELF? Civilized people today generally see themselves in a
physical and psychological- religious dimension but remain unconscious of any
further aspect of their being. The question is how we develop deeper insights
so that we can acknowledge and integrate intuition, imagination and inspiration
into our conscious everyday lives.
Development of such self-knowledge requires being able to learn to have an "open
eye". This is what liberal arts education should teach but most often does
not. The word "Liberal" has the same root as "Liberate." Liberal Arts should
be the study of what leads to freedom, as in "The truth shall set you free."
The purpose of the course is to help free one from traditional programming and
become more autonomous and creative.
The conventional approach to the Humanities too often has consisted in rote
teaching, memory training and problem solving. Opening the "inner eye" requires
experiencing the "I" as an integrated whole, an ego (Latin for "I") that
balances thinking, feeling, and willing. Increased mastery of this integrative
process leads to the ability to distinguish between true intuition and mere
whim; between inspiration and empty abstract thought; between creative
imagination and disconnected fantasy.
Such personal development goes against the present flow of conventional Western
thought. For 500 years Western civilization has developed itself through the
exploration and conquest of the "outer" world. This progress seems to have come
from a scientific materialistic philosophy. The world viewed with this attitude
appears separated from our inner being. And yet, if one looks more deeply –
imagination, inspiration, and intuition – all spiritual, integrative processes,
are at the core of our scientific and cultural discoveries. Einstein, to take
one example, has said that he valued his ability to speculate and fantasize
above his mathematical skill. The "new physics" is based on doing away with the
old attitude that "I am here and it’s out there." The observed, say the new
physicists studying sub-atomic phenomena, is always changed by the observer.
Yet so much of the way we think and live is structured in dualism, (binary
thinking) the commonplace way of thinking in terms of either/or, bad/good,
inner/outer. Whether our faith is in science, progress, God, human nature or
government, our outlook is often confined to dualities. Only enhanced
self-knowledge enables us to transcend the temporary illusion of duality and
one-sided materialism. An experience of opening the "I" breaks through to the
integration of head, heart and creativity that is the core of all reality – the
"patterns of organic energy" with which the Zen masters of ancient China were
To satisfy the universal need for inner direction many are turning toward gurus,
cult figures, drugs and pseudo-Christianity (close-mindedness, intolerance,
hatred and violence in the name of Christianity). People who choose to neglect
their own self-development through self-knowledge can become attracted to and
become locked into unhealthy, unfree solutions for their doubts, illnesses,
insecurities and dissatisfactions.
Where do we find constructive help in this difficult journey into ourselves? We
can turn to the great artists, writers, thinkers, statesmen and scientists
throughout history who have communicated their heightened sense of awareness
through their lives’ work. They have tried to awaken us to a higher view of
ourselves through artistic forms and significant deeds. Their examples can make
clear to us that we have more than just five senses. We can go beyond our
material senses to deeper levels of cognition. We all have dormant organs of
finer perception which have always been cultivated by leading Human Beings
throughout history. If we can understand and absorb their insights, we can
ourselves participate more completely in the great creative force that drives
humankind forward and upward.
So often what we search for is to be found right in front of our noses. It is
the same with life itself. It’s like a game of hide-and-seek that we play with
the self we know and the self we are trying to find. And the method that we can
use is also right before us in our own great culture and tradition. It is only
a matter of learning how to "see better" as the loyal Earl of Kent implores
Shakespeare’s King Lear.
The self-developmental thrust of this type of Liberal Arts education goes
beyond the conventional approach to the Humanities found in colleges and
universities today. For example, undergraduates study the doctrines and ideas
of Plato. In contrast, this approach redirects the focus of study to the
process of self-knowledge using Plato’s symposium as a catalyst.
Self-knowledge is the goal. Plato is the guide.
To those who do not understand the spiritual dimensions of "Know Thyself!"
self-knowledge appears to be narcissism. To those who have had this
inner-experience, it is a path to community service. It is the goal of true
education to cultivate that which is the best within each of us. This
creates the conditions for a superior understanding of perennial wisdom, so
called because it constantly blooms.
The new curriculum at many universities includes selections from non-Western,
female and minority sources. The changes reflect the recognition that the
traditional approach to the Humanities has great limitations. However, in spite
of good intentions, the quest for universal relevance in education will continue
to go astray so long as Humanities advocates do not realize that higher
education must be founded on the conscious development of these dormant
cognitive organs leading to a deeper understanding of the human condition. The
development of the whole Human Being – no matter what the sex, color or race –
must be fostered.
No unifying theme has been consciously applied to our secularized education, and
the Liberal Arts curriculum has become over-specialized and
over-intellectualized at the expense of an education of the heart and the will.
Of course, revision of the traditional core curriculum of the Humanities is not
a recent phenomenon. At the very onset of our modern curriculum development,
Amos Comenius (1592-1670), the great Moravian educator responsible for many
aspects of modern education, saw the potential pitfalls that have come to be.
For those who are unfamiliar with Comenius, his book, The Visible World,
was the first textbook in which pictures were as important as the text. He was
determined to translate into reason what previously had existed as tradition.
In The Temple of Pansophia, he wrote that he wished to construct a temple
of Wisdom that would serve as a sacred edifice for education similar to the
Temple of Solomon. His temple was to house a school of universal wisdom, a
workshop for attaining all of the skills necessary for life and the future.
Comenius advocated a comprehensive education taught in the vernacular. He
promoted the establishment of many more schools and universities. He was asked
to design the curriculum for the recently established Harvard College, but
instead chose to organize Sweden’s educational system. He pioneered the use of
academic specialization but warned that if the spiritual focus were not
emphasized, educational unity would be lost. We have arrived at that point
today. We know more and more about less and less. Without any unifying
principals with which to appreciate the value of Liberal Arts and to relate it
to our lives, education is bereft of wisdom.
At the heart of any education for tomorrow are these seven basic principles:
|An understanding of the importance of love in education, and the
development of human relationships based on such an attitude.|
|Recognition of the ever-changing ways we view ourselves and the world we
live in – the evolution of individual human consciousness.|
|An appreciation of the growth of personal freedom as it has evolved in
the Western Tradition.|
|An emphasis on the potential for self-development and
self-transformation inherent in each individual.|
|An awareness of how each subject relates to the experience of "I AM" as
the balanced center of thinking, feeling and willing.|
|A sense of integrating the whole as well as clearly distinguishing the
parts of each subject.|
|An exploration of the creative and artistic elements in our lives and in
civilization in addition to the factual and intellectual elements.|
Before you begin to study in this manner, it is important to mention that
certain positive mental and psychological attitudes are necessary. These are as
Moments of inner tranquility are required, that state of being where you
are at peace with yourself. A sincere student must learn to practice stepping
aside from the turmoil of daily life with its incessant distractions. These
moments of inner tranquility should be taken as a starting point for
self-education. To some extent thoughtful contemplation and objectivity are
possible only at these selected disciplined times.
It is essential that one learn to know one’s feeling and then be able to
become dispassionate. This putting aside of one’s likes and dislikes and
seeking to examine what is, not what gratifies, leads to a state of objective
awareness quite different from the familiar personal and subjective condition.
This conscious objectivity allows us to see things from different points
of view and enables us to see some truth, purpose and meaning even in attitudes
and behavior we otherwise might find totally abhorrent. This ability does not
make us lose our sense of judicious discrimination - on the contrary it enhances
this sense and our understanding of the world.
By withholding and suspending judgement we keep our mind open to new
discoveries. As soon as we judge, we limit our curiosity and thought.
We are thus able to understand how often we have "thrown out the baby
with the bathwater." Disagreements, prejudice and criticism often lead us to
miss crucial insights that can enrich our lives.
True open-mindedness and thoughtful objectivity leads to "learned
ignorance" which overcomes intellectual arrogance and false pride. The more
we learn, the more we understand how much we do not know. This inspirational
approach to Liberal Arts will lead to "the Truth that sets us free." This is
the wonderful goal of educating yourself for tomorrow.
Copyright©2005 by Andrew Flaxman
Available online at
Originally posted: 2005-DEC-23
Latest update: 2005-DEC-23