Liberal arts foster a lifelong quest

With regard to Dipak Basu’s Oct. 13 letter, “Limited time to learn essentials,” and to the recent debate on the letters page concerning the liberal arts and their link, if any, to “innovation”: There is confusion as to what constitutes the liberal arts, as established at the universities of Cambridge, Oxford, Paris and Bologna in the 13th century.

The liberal arts comprised three steps. The first, the trivium, an introductory course, consisted of grammar, logic and rhetoric. Next came the quadrivium — arithmetic, geometry, astronomy and music theory. Finally there were the higher disciplines — law, medicine and theology.

As so constituted, this was the liberal arts for more than 700 years.

The purpose of the liberal arts was not utilitarian; the curricula had nothing to do with jobs. Instead, the purpose was to educate a person that could be found worthy of a place in society, worthy of freedom.

This is one of the foundation pillars of democracy. In this way, all members of society should have the opportunity of a liberal arts education.

The finest example of a liberal arts master would be the life of Dr. Albert Schweitzer (1875-1965), the 1952 Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

As regards to innovation, it is the liberal arts that foster a questioning/questing mindset, and it is this mindset that leads to insights and discoveries. Discoveries then beget innovation.

It is this questioning/questing mindset that found expression in the likes of Bill Gates, Steve Jobs and so on.

geoffry hinton

The opinions expressed in this letter to the editor are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of The Japan Times.

  • zer0_0zor0

    Thanks for posting a thoughtful and informative response.

    You’ve shed some light on important aspects of education and society in the West that were not only interesting to me, but should also be of interest to the Japanese and other English speaking Asians in the readership. Globalization is sweeping away the tradition and interelatedness of education, the individual and society for a utilitarian mindset that subordinates society itself to the interest of those at the apex of the economic pyramid whose interests the utilitarian knowledge is ultimately designed to serve–over and against those of society at large.