Spiritual Liberal Art Education
Spiritual Liberal Art Education
by Andrew Flaxman
For hundreds of years, from all over the ancient world, kings and commoners traveled to Delphi to ask the Oracle of Apollo about the right course of action – whether to make war or seek peace, whether to marry one person or another. They brought rich offerings to the god and were sent on their way by the priests with riddling answers.
And yet, over the entrance to the Sanctuary of Apollo at Delphi was the admonition: “Know Thyself!” This ancient wisdom suggested that the true oracle lies within. The answers to the great human questions, public and private, are found not outside us but only through an inner journey of the seeking spirit. The crucial importance of developing self-knowledge can best be understood in the words of another ancient piece of wisdom: The Hebraic Talmud says, “We do not see things the way they are, we see things the way we are.” In other words, we grind the lenses with which we see the world.
What exactly is the SELF? Civilized people today generally see themselves in a physical and psychological- religious dimension but remain unconscious of any further aspect of their being. The question is how we develop deeper insights so that we can acknowledge and integrate intuition, imagination and inspiration into our conscious everyday lives.
Development of such self-knowledge requires being able to learn to have an “open eye”. This is what liberal arts education should teach but most often does not. The word “Liberal” has the same root as “Liberate.” Liberal Arts should be the study of what leads to freedom, as in “The truth shall set you free.” The purpose of transformed liberal arts education is to help free one from traditional programming and become more autonomous and creative.
The conventional approach to the Humanities too often has consisted in rote teaching, memory training and problem solving. Opening the “inner eye” requires experiencing the “I” as an integrated whole, an ego (Latin for “I”) that balances thinking, feeling, and willing. Increased mastery of this integrative process leads to the ability to distinguish between true intuition and mere whim; between inspiration and empty abstract thought; between creative imagination and disconnected fantasy.
Such personal development goes against the present flow of conventional Western thought. For 500 years Western civilization has developed itself through the exploration and conquest of the “outer” world. This progress seems to have come from a scientific materialistic philosophy. The world viewed with this attitude appears separated from our inner being. And yet, if one looks more deeply – imagination, inspiration, and intuition – all spiritual, integrative processes, are at the core of our scientific and cultural discoveries. Einstein, to take one example, has said that he valued his ability to speculate and fantasize above his mathematical skill. The “new physics” is based on doing away with the old attitude that “I am here and it’s out there.” The observed, say the new physicists studying sub-atomic phenomena, is always changed by the observer.
Yet so much of the way we think and live is structured in dualism, (binary thinking) the commonplace way of thinking in terms of either/or, bad/good, inner/outer. Whether our faith is in science, progress, God, human nature or government, our outlook is often confined to dualities. Only enhanced self-knowledge enables us to transcend the temporary illusion of duality and one-sided materialism. An experience of opening the “I” breaks through to the integration of head, heart and creativity that is the core of all reality – the “patterns of organic energy” with which the Zen masters of ancient China were concerned.
To satisfy the universal need for inner direction many are turning toward gurus, cult figures, drugs and pseudo-Christianity (close-mindedness, intolerance, hatred and violence in the name of Christianity). People who choose to neglect their own self-development through self-knowledge can become attracted to and become locked into unhealthy, unfree solutions for their doubts, illnesses, insecurities and dissatisfactions.
Where do we find constructive help in this difficult journey into ourselves? We can turn to the great artists, writers, thinkers, statesmen and scientists throughout history who have communicated their heightened sense of awareness through their lives’ work. They have tried to awaken us to a higher view of ourselves through artistic forms and significant deeds. Their examples can make clear to us that we have more than just five senses. We can go beyond our material senses to deeper levels of cognition. We all have dormant organs of finer perception which have always been cultivated by leading Human Beings throughout history. If we can understand and absorb their insights, we can ourselves participate more completely in the great creative force that drives humankind forward and upward.
Real education in the Humanities centers on the hidden dimensions of the “I”, the SELF, that can be discovered through literature, art and music.
The self-developmental thrust this kind of education goes beyond the conventional approach to the Humanities found in colleges and universities today. For example, undergraduates study the doctrines and ideas of Plato. In contrast, this advanced curriculum redirects the focus of study to the process of self-knowledge using Plato’s symposium as a catalyst. Self-knowledge is the goal. Plato is the guide.
To those who do not understand the spiritual dimensions of “Know Thyself!” self-knowledge appears to be narcissism. To those who have had this inner-experience, it is a path to community service. It is the goal of true education to cultivate that which is the best within each of us. The approach of this new approach to education creates the conditions for a superior understanding of perennial wisdom, so called because it constantly blooms.
The new curriculum at many universities includes selections from non-Western, female and minority sources. The changes reflect the recognition that the traditional approach to the Humanities has great limitations. However, in spite of good intentions, the quest for universal relevance in education will continue to go astray so long as Humanities advocates do not realize that higher education must be founded on the conscious development of these dormant cognitive organs leading to a deeper understanding of the human condition. The development of the whole Human Being – no matter what the sex, color or race – must be fostered.
No unifying theme has been consciously applied to our secularized education, and the Liberal Arts curriculum has become over-specialized and over-intellectualized at the expense of an education of the heart and the will. Of course, revision of the traditional core curriculum of the Humanities is not a recent phenomenon. At the very onset of our modern curriculum development, Amos Comenius (1592-1670), the great Moravian educator responsible for many aspects of modern education, saw the potential pitfalls that have come to be. For those who are unfamiliar with Comenius, his book, The Visible World, was the first textbook in which pictures were as important as the text. He was determined to translate into reason what previously had existed as tradition. In The Temple of Pansophia, he wrote that he wished to construct a temple of Wisdom that would serve as a sacred edifice for education similar to the Temple of Solomon. His temple was to house a school of universal wisdom, a workshop for attaining all of the skills necessary for life and the future.
Comenius advocated a comprehensive education taught in the vernacular. He promoted the establishment of many more schools and universities. He was asked to design the curriculum for the recently established Harvard College, but instead chose to organize Sweden’s educational system. He pioneered the use of academic specialization but warned that if the spiritual focus were not emphasized, educational unity would be lost. We have arrived at that point today. We know more and more about less and less. Without any unifying principals with which to appreciate the value of Liberal Arts and to relate it to our lives, education is bereft of wisdom.
Here is a list of the essential ingredients of this “new” approach to education:
An understanding of the importance of love in education, and the development of human relationships based on such an attitude.
Recognition of the ever-changing ways we view ourselves and the world we live in – the evolution of individual human consciousness.
An appreciation of the growth of personal freedom as it has evolved in the Western Tradition.
An emphasis on the potential for self-development and self-transformation inherent in each individual.
An awareness of how each subject relates to the experience of “I AM” as the balanced center of thinking, feeling and willing.
A sense of integrating the whole as well as clearly distinguishing the parts of each subject.
An exploration of the creative and artistic elements in our lives and in civilization in addition to the factual and intellectual elements.
It is important to mention that certain positive mental and psychological attitudes are necessary for this type of self-education and training for heightened self-awareness. These are as follows:
Moments of inner tranquility are required, that state of being where you are at peace with yourself. A sincere student must learn to practice stepping aside from the turmoil of daily life with its incessant distractions. These moments of inner tranquility should be taken as a starting point for self-education. To some extent thoughtful contemplation and objectivity are possible only at these selected disciplined times.
It is essential that one learn to know one’s feeling and then be able to become dispassionate. This putting aside of one’s likes and dislikes and seeking to examine what is, not what gratifies, leads to a state of objective awareness quite different from the familiar personal and subjective condition.
This conscious objectivity allows us to see things from different points of view and enables us to see some truth, purpose and meaning even in attitudes and behavior we otherwise might find totally abhorrent. This ability does not make us lose our sense of judicious discrimination – on the contrary it enhances this sense and our understanding of the world.
By withholding and suspending judgement we keep our mind open to new discoveries. As soon as we judge, we limit our curiosity and thought.
We are thus able to understand how often we have “thrown out the baby with the bathwater.” Disagreements, prejudice and criticism often lead us to miss crucial insights that can enrich our lives.
True open-mindedness and thoughtful objectivity leads to “learned ignorance” which overcomes intellectual arrogance and false pride. The more we learn, the more we understand how much we do not know.