Reinventing the Liberal Arts at Trent University

by Stephen Regoczei

There is a need for rethinking liberal-arts education.

The older view emphasized history, philosophy, and literature. The newer version should include much more. There is a need for understanding technology, commerce, the professions, the performing arts, and the sciences--but all of this in a liberal-arts spirit.

What is the liberal-arts spirit? The "arts" in the phrase means skills, capabilities, know-how, or empowerment--to use a current label.

The term liberal refers to open-mindedness and freedom: freedom to think, to speak, to critique, and to act. Liberal education is liberating education--the kind of education that strengthens and enables the student. Liberal arts, in this sense, is "liberating know-how."

What kind of "liberating know-how" do we need today? Grammar, rhetoric, and the others of the seven traditional "arts" are not enough. This is clearly understood, as the liberal arts have been reinvented repeatedly over the centuries. There are good precedents for what we are trying to do. We want to respect the traditions, but keep an eye on the future.

Trent presents itself as a university of "liberal arts and sciences". What does this mean? Do we mean that there is such a thing as the "liberal sciences?" Or do we imply that the sciences should be excluded from liberal arts?

There is an opening here for a more radical proposal - to broaden our scope, but to do it in the liberal arts spirit.

In Computer Studies, for example, we take a seemingly technical subject and turn it into a platform for liberal education. Multimedia, cyberspace, community building, wholistic understanding of systems, new forms of organizations, and collaborative work command our attention, not boxes with cables running out of the back of computers.

Trent's Chancellor, Peter Gzowski, is hosting a series of "Dialogues". The last one was entitled: "Why Study the Liberal Arts?" I would liked to have called it (and my friends are glad that I could not) "Why Study, Practice, and Live Anything and Everything in a liberal arts spirit instead of adopting the restricted view of a narrowminded specialist (regardless of whether the specialist is in the humanities, the sciences, the professions, public life, or whatever)?" This is somewhat longer, but it identifies the issues.

The point is that our world-the world that we live in-is largely created by administrators and technologists. Laws, rules, regulations, accounts, budgets constitute administrators' sphere of power. Roads, cars, drinking water, computers, and airplanes are created and controlled by technologists -- frequently called "engineers." If anyone needs to be guided by the liberal-arts worldview, it's administrators and technologists.

What is suitable to include in a reinvented liberal-arts curriculum? Will including and English Literature help? Yes, but not if it is practiced as a trade. The Guild of Literature frowns upon Agatha Christie, Ayn Rand, W. J. Burley's "Wycliffe", George Lucas's "Star Wars", or the "Dilbert" cartoon strip. Fine. Let us leave the guilds behind. Trent established Cultural Studies and Canadian Studies to adopt a more generous, more comprehensive, wholistic approach.

My favourite choice for a typical liberal-arts course? Geography-- both human and physical. What is to be at the core of liberal-arts? Design and expressive arts.

Art is not merely there to hang upon a gallery wall. Art is for everyone "to participate in for personal growth and creativity. The kind of Expressive Arts courses that Brian Nichols offers at Sir Sanford Fleming College help people become more human. Such courses should be at the core of any liberal arts program. It's ironic, but Expressive Arts is not offered at Trent. It's at Fleming. Universities do not have an exclusive monopoly on liberal arts education.

Design, or more precisely the understanding of good design, is a core competency for a citizen. Why? Because we are constantly called upon to make design decisions. We design through purchasing. We can refuse to buy badly-designed, hard-to-use merchandize. Our act of purchasing is basically a design decision.

How to promote good design? Trent should do more towards this. We currently offer design in our multimedia courses -- but only a glimpse, and not a through grasp. It's not enough.

How do we distinguish a liberal-arts institution from a technological training institution? In technical school we say: "Here is the technology. We accept it. We learn how to use it." The liberal-arts attitude is more critical. We say: "Here is the technology. We do not accept it. We critique it.. We try to design something better."

Liberal-arts experiences are not restricted to universities. There are others. My favourites are Peter Gzowskiís "Morningside" and Stewart Brand's "Whole Earth Catalog."

"Morningside" was an education in how to think about Canada. All of Canada.

Stewart Brand, in 1968, recognized that the traditional institutions betrayed the young. There was a need for new ways to acquire "liberating know-how". The "Whole Earth Catalog" was an "access to tools"-- hardware, words, ideas, images, and community -- an intellectual feast.

Trent was founded at about the same time, and offered "liberating know-how" within a community experience. The idea was not to be "going back" to some earlier, and perhaps never really existing, ideal academic arrangement, but to move forward and reinvent the process while still respecting the tradition of the community of scholars.

What comes after liberal-arts education? Living in the liberal-arts spirit. Not to be a slave to money or fashion, not to be a prisoner of the job, not to feel compelled to work an 80 hour week, but to live like a free human being.

As for "liberal professions studies", I will use what many people have told me is an extreme example: liberal accounting. Yes. Accounting is filled with fascinating and difficult concepts. And it is one of the dominant mechanisms of social control today. If they don't like the way you do things, they will cut your budget. A liberal-arts grad must not miss learning about accounting.

Is a typical, average accountant able to explain accounting concepts in the liberal arts spirit? Of course not. Who amongst the accountants would be willing to talk about the balance of nature and the yin and yang of double-entry bookkeeping? There is a gap here. Extensive conceptual analysis and intellectual effort will be required to build up a ìliberal accounting-studies' body of knowledge. Such effort is what rethinking the liberal arts will require.

The point is that accounting is not something intrinsically sordid that will defile the purity of liberal arts. Liberal arts students will benefit from understanding accounting concepts at a deeper level then accountants do. Such added knowledge provides the liberal arts graduate with a competitive advantage. It betters the odds in the struggle for a livelihood.

Let's look at a humanities example. In "Dead Poets Society" Robin Williams teaches poetry in the liberal-arts-spirit, but the headmaster does not. The subject matter is poetry, but it is the spirit that makes the difference.

The "Great Books" movement was one of the most high-minded, older efforts to disseminate the liberal-arts worldview. It emphasised the reading and discussion of great literature. Fine. But there is a danger. If a student acquires an exaggerated esteem for the classics, and learns to despise the everyday world around us, then a disservice had been done. It's shocking to think that an older-style liberal-arts education may actually debilitate a student.

Stephen B. Regoczei is a Professor in Computer Studies at Trent University. He can be reached at

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Last updated May 4, 2001