Engaging Minds, Transforming Lives


Classics and the Liberal Arts

Mirrored Questions or Reflections on the Liberal Arts from an Ancient Perspective

Homer tells us that Penelope wove a fantastic cloth. This weaving was made in precious dyes from the Levant and had pictures of griffins from Mesopotamia and palmettes from north Africa. While considering this section of the Odyssey, an analogy with Southwestern becomes clear. We all comprise a tapestry woven together for the purpose of teaching and learning together. Each one of us is a thread in a differing hue, either a culture, set of ideas, background, or thought process. Together we make a whole cloth, a tapestry bright with many colors and patterned with different figures.

A few cultural threads are repeated in this weaving. One cultural theme woven again and again in the tapestry comes from ancient Greece. Some of us study the ancients and some rail against them, but none has escaped their influence entirely.

Let us define the ancient view of the liberal arts. Many years ago, the Greeks debated the concept of what we call the liberal arts. To them, learning was philo-sophia, love of wisdom. Facts were considered as part of a whole and were not separated as is our custom. Biology (the knowledge of life) was part of natural philosophy. Euclidian geometry was studied as another part of philosophy. The ancients had what is now called a multi-disciplinary educational approach.

Some of our most beautiful art, most thoughtful poetry, and valuable societal ideals come to us from ancient Greece. On the other hand, there is a dichotomy that some practices of the ancient Greeks were abhorrent, such as slavery, elitism, and marginalization of women; this dichotomy is worth studying for its valuable lessons. The achievements of this complex society are extraordinary, including the areas of medicine, biology, physics, geography, history, theater, warfare-so much so that their short span on the human stage can be described honestly as a watershed period in history. Because of Greece’s place between east and west, much of the Greek experience is syncretistic. The art of the Parthenon comes ultimately from Africa, Socrates’ philosophy finds its roots in Asia, and nearly all Greek ritual/religious practices come from the eastern Mediterranean and what we call the “fertile crescent.”

Today we continue the connection with ancient Greece. Arab scholars kept alive the philosophy, science, plays, and mathematics of the ancients. Renaissance thinkers discovered the ancient world, eighteenth century American constitutional delegates were inspired by it, and twentieth century artists reinterpreted it. It can be said-in no sense prejudicially-that the ancient Greeks have affected our thinking.

So what can these people tell us about the liberal arts that is at all useful and relevant? First is that knowledge is a whole and that the holistic or multi-disciplinary approach is extremely valuable. Secondly, that any knowledge base must incorporate all disciplines. Finally, that knowledge is syncretistic and that its base must come from many cultures and areas of the world.

The ideal, then, is to have a knowledge base that is a useful blend of learning from many different areas.

P. Haskell, 1998