November 26, 2021
Thanks to Joseph Coulson, President of Harrison Middleton University, for today’s post.
J. Scott Lee’s Invention, The Art of Liberal Arts offers a wide-ranging discussion of liberal education past and present, along with well-reasoned conjectures about the future of liberal arts learning. The depth and breadth of the essays come as no surprise, given that Professor Lee holds a Ph.D. in the History of Culture from the University of Chicago, where he felt the influence of Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler, not to mention Richard Mckeon, Stringfellow Barr, Scott Buchanan, and Clifton Fadiman. Late in the book, in “The Concept of Core Texts,” Lee recounts the heady days when Great Books programs began to emerge in colleges across the country, and the Great Books Foundation, under the leadership of Robert Hutchins and Mortimer Adler, began publishing core texts—the Great Books of the Western World—as a uniform set.
As a keen observer of the culture wars, Lee provides a corrective for those who believe that programs based on core texts are rigidly canonical or, in current practice, focused only on the contributions of white men from the West. Indeed, Lee argues for an interdisciplinary approach; specifically, core courses that give, for example, equal measure to The Bible, Plato, Confucius, and Cervantes, providing a model for the synthesis of world classics, including modern and contemporary works. In support of this approach, the Association for Core Texts and Courses (ACTC), co-founded by Lee and where he served for many years as Executive Director, offered a series of summer seminars where teams of faculty worked to “reinvigorate the use of liberal arts, ancient and modern” (123). As a result of these seminars, ACTC members, working to advance the idea of globalization in core text courses, travelled by invitation to the Caribbean Basin, Europe, Central Asia, and China to “honor an institution’s specific cultural tradition, to relate the core texts of arts and sciences to liberal arts education, and most importantly to work reflexively and inductively from possible core texts to a position of how to read with students given texts from one’s own or another tradition” (124). Clearly, ACTC’s summer seminars and the visitations that followed, elaborated in papers Lee delivered in Colombia and China, exemplify a commitment to diversity and inclusion in classical studies and core text curricula, an effort not only consistent with liberal arts values but essential to the survival of liberal arts education.
Lee offers his readers, especially practitioners of the liberal arts, a wealth of useful information for addressing challenges, questions of efficacy, and curriculum development in liberal education, but at the heart of his book is a close examination of Aristotle’s Poetics which, according to Lee, is the “The Ultimate Argument for the Liberal Arts” (227). Lee takes up differentiation in Aristotle, the practice of making careful and nuanced distinctions, particularly between Nature and Art. In his Poetics, Aristotle observes the intersection of human imagination and Nature, the moment of invention that creates something new, a creative act dependent on the unconstrained ability to imagine, which also stands as a powerful exercise of freedom. Aristotle’s observations serve as Lee’s starting point: “Real freedom is not obtained simply by studying invention; it has to be directed toward making it. Liberal arts education is, ultimately, concerned with the connection between “techne” and “poesis”—between artistry in its fullest sense and with production” (227). It follows, then, that the study of foundational works in the arts and sciences provides students with an opportunity to discover, through dialectic and application, the means for invention, for making something new. “This,” according to Lee, “is the ultimate argument for the liberal arts. Invention in art, including the liberal arts, is not only an inevitable expression of our humanity; it is a maker of our freedom” (228).
Lee also considers some of the current defenses and appeals for liberal education and explains why most are ineffective, particularly those justifications that focus on moral purpose, political solutions, or the promotion of democracy. In Lee’s view, arguments such as these, despite having degrees of merit, do not persuade those skeptical of the enterprise because the power of the liberal arts is found first in its process, in the means, not the intention of an end. It is the exercise of the liberal arts that creates the potential for invention and freedom, and the successful expressions of this exercise and potential deliver products of enduring value. In this way, the starting point is not the product; the starting point is, rather, the cultivation of the liberated mind and unfettered imagination.
J. Scott Lee’s Invention, The Art of Liberal Arts provides an interesting framework for developing liberal arts curricula and for demonstrating to students and critics the power of liberal education. If you’re a practitioner—or, perhaps, a reader interested in the possible expressions of our humanity—then this book will be well worth your time and attention.
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