Is There Still Education?

Last week while I was off on what was supposed to be a gallop but turned into a Milton, I had time and occasion to think on many things. One of these was the nature of college and society. Since then I have been finding things that reinforce that consideration and so I am going to assay at least one, perhaps several blots, on that thought process.

For those who have a penchant for (or even an addiction to) this blog, you have observed that this is one of my interests and as with many of my interests I am not loathe to express my silly, stupid, even absurd opinions in blots. So bear with or vote by decamping.

As I was yesterday watching one of those horrible Illinois Institute of Technology commercials where a chain of supposed graduates lauds the shule for providing “their education”, I ceased to fixate on the misuse of the term “education” and shift over to thinking about the nature of what they were claiming. This was not unfruitful.

Traditionally, “education” as a flow or stream has been defined in Capellan [Link] terms as the so-called liberal arts

“Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic were the core liberal arts. In medieval times these subjects (called the Trivium) were extended to include mathematics, geometry, music and astronomy (which included the study of astrology).”[Link]

The immediate question arises of why is geometry listed separately from maths? That question may be key to a block of the concern. It seems in those days geometry was primary a visual rather than a symbolic discipline. Today, of course, we tend to lump geometry into maths as a whole, and this coagulation is key to part of our outlook.

Capella was proposing all of this back about the time Atilla the Hun was ravaging Italy and generally giving the bishop of Rome the opportunity (taken and run with) to greatness. The proposal did not flower until universities were invented by that same church of Rome as a means of disciplining doctrine. At that time, things were somewhat less structured than they are today – one of the primary reasons why start-ups tend to be so productive, or fail spectacularly – and one did not go off to college and be immediately asked what one was going to major in. There were no majors, there were not even truly departments and the seven liberal arts were as close as they came to disciplines, So one wandered about taking different professor’s ‘courses’ and after a while taking an examination that was supposed to determine if one had an adequate background in the seven arts as subjectively determined by the faculty and if so, received a diploma. Hence a college education ala degree ala piece of ‘paper’ was instantiated.

It need be noted that there were other subjects taught, notably religion, medicine, the law, and a sort of engineering. Learning these things might lead to a degree, a piece of ‘paper’, but they were not considered to be an education because the recipient lacked adequate knowledge (from studying them) of the seven liberal arts.

One of the points needed here is that people with college learning were rare. Illiteracy was the rule, whole villages might have one or two people who could read, one who could do arithmetic. In such an environment, effective use of ‘education’ meant that that education had to be broad since the individual would likely be just such – an individual among the illiterate who could not predict what he would be called upon to know and perform. Hence in those days the whole seven liberal arts as a whole, supplement by specialists in medicine, law, and making, was an economy of scale.

We tend to think of economy of scale today as bigness, as Mal Wart, but that is an artifact of when we live. Economy of scale may also militate the opposite, many small organizations. In those days, the college educated were rare and had to be JOATs – Jacks Of All Trades, except they were not necessarily tradespeople. And the specialized ‘arts’ were not as heavily expected of them. But it is still a matter of rarity.

Today the opposite applies. Since the renaissance, the fraction of population that has college learning, if not degrees, has steadily (with stochastic variation) increased. That rate increased with the Industrial Revolution, and since the end of the Great Patriotic War it has bloomed. Today, the industrialized and post-industrialized nations are approaching a point where they have more population with college learning than without. The economy of scale has had to shift, and that shift is toward specialization – greater depth, lesser broadness of knowledge.

What has not necessarily changed is how we see education. Simply put, do we consider any modern college graduates to be educated? In my experience the answer is a resounding NO! simply based on asking have they a balanced knowledge of the seven liberal arts? The only people I know who may be considered educated in this regard are such in spite of the collegiate organization rather than because of it. Simply put, the classically educated today either attend some antiquarian college and have no need of specialization in earning their living, are college bums who switch majors to (apparently) avoid graduation, or are fanatics of self-study.

So the question arises of whether we modify our meaning of ‘education’ to something else or adopt a new term. Consideration of that seems a goodly place to pause.