Information Overload and the Liberal Arts

Information Overload and the Liberal Arts

by Michelle Ferguson, Boethius Fellow

In A History of Education in Antiquity, H.I. Marrou outlines educational goals and methods from early Greece, through the Hellenistic era, and up to Roman and early Church times. In his discussion of Hellenistic schools, he makes an observation that applies not only to the ancient world but to schools in general throughout history:

There is also a general law to be kept in mind: educational syllabuses tend to become increasingly top-heavy as the years go by, with the result that subjects gradually sink – they begin by being ‘advanced’ and end by being ‘ordinary’ or even elementary. When a civilization enjoys a long uninterrupted development, each generation adds something new to its culture, and as this becomes more and more difficult to assimilate, parallel changes become necessary in teaching syllabuses.

This new subject matter forces teachers to “shove down” to younger students material that was previously considered advanced. Eventually the teachers of the youngest students are being asked to teach so many concepts and so much material once reserved for the upper grades that the task begins to look impossible. Marrou points out that even grammar, which today we consider foundational and teach to our youngest students, was originally considered an “advanced science,”, akin to modern linguistics, and was “purely speculative and theoretical.”

Marrou also describes the importance in Greek education of physical training and sport. Originally, physical training was for everyone; the tremendous importance attached to it, however, may have led to its decline. As athletes increasingly wanted to stand out among their competitors, they developed specialized training techniques that led to the rise of a sort of “professional athlete” class, with which those without access to the same training were unable to compete. The specialists took over the field.

Modern education deals with the same two issues: overcrowded curriculum and specialization. As each field of study expands and makes progress, there is more and more to learn, and we increasingly turn to specialists as those who know. However, new discoveries and concepts in various fields spill over into popular culture, with an accompanying demand that children in schools at least be exposed to some of them. But what is a teacher to do? How can one accommodate the explosion of new material to teach?

A return to and focus on the liberal arts would allow for concentration of effort and attention within specific areas of learning. Giving priority to the liberal arts helps to solve the problem of the over-crowded curriculum; all knowledge need not be taught (and this is impossible, in any case), so devoting precious time in schools to what is most worth pursuing, those arts that prepare us for pursuing the highest knowledge, seems a much better use of the few years we have with our students. And while some may pursue one or more of the liberal arts in order to “specialize” in it, these arts are available to all willing to work and learn; they call out to amateurs in the original sense – those who learn because they love.

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