Liberal Education and the Art of “Seeing”

Jon Fennell describes how a liberal arts education helps us make sense of the world.

For more than forty years, except for an occasional recess, I have played pool frequently and with serious intent. In early 2003, I found myself in a game of “straight pool” – the game Jackie Gleason and Paul Newman (“Minnesota Fats” and “Fast Eddie” Felson) were playing in the classic movie, “The Hustler”—with a very good player indeed. My opponent was formerly the billiards champion for all U.S. military forces in
Europe. And he played like it!

In this particular game, my opponent had left me “safe,” which is to say that since he had no feasible opportunity to pocket a ball, he used his formidable skills to leave me without anything to shoot at when it was my turn to play. I was about to play “safe” in return when all of
a sudden I saw something. Incredibly, within the unpromising cluster of balls in front of me I clearly perceived a makeable shot. Then, as did Minnesota Fats and Fast Eddie in similar situations in the film, I approached the table with confidence and struck the cue ball. It worked. My opponent simply sighed, said not a word, and sat down. Such “seeing” is common among competent pool players. Perhaps my opponent had seen the shot as well and was hoping that I had not.

Imagine what Jack Nicklaus and Phil Mickelson must see when they prepare for their next shot on the golf course. Jack, Phil, and I have something in common: In our play we manifest the very thing that constitutes the central consequence of a liberal arts education. In this article I would like to say a few words about that consequence— “seeing”—and how a liberal arts education makes it possible.

The “seeing” that I am referring to is the capacity to identify something as an instance of what one already knows. This happens to us all of the time, and is done more or less well. Perhaps we encounter a natural phenomenon, or witness a human behavior, or just emerge from a daze. We have an urge to make sense of what lies before us. And, with very rare exception, we do make sense of it (or, at least, think we do). How is this possible?

The answer to this question becomes clearer when I remind you that when we “see” we typically are “seeing as.” The sense that we achieve in the face of novelty is a function of the operation of concepts and categories that we already possess. These concepts and categories serve as tacit and largely inarticulate clues to an understanding
that we confidently anticipate we will achieve. The ever-changing future that unfolds in every moment is understandable because we can, and do, apply to it that which we have learned in the past. The educated mind is rich in such concepts and categories. The world, as a result, is accessible and can be turned to our purposes. It is the nature of liberal arts education to make this possible. Such an education is a systematic effort to provide students with the understanding that makes possible a rich and effective life.

And so, in a liberal arts curriculum we teach subjects such as history, mathematics, and literature. Each of the disciplines contributes
to a student’s capacity to make sense of what he encounters in the world. Those who have studied fascism or the disappearance of Christian civilization in North Africa will have little difficulty developing at least a preliminary understanding of what is taking place in Western Europe today. Persons equipped with the concepts and categories of psychological inquiry (the in uence of groups, for example, or the impact of early childhood experience, or of our emotions) will better understand not only the behavior and thoughts of others, but also those of oneself. One hopes that those who study economics will find the management of our national economy (as well as their personal or corporate nances) more understandable, and, therefore, more subject to moral and intellectual control, than have many others in recent times. And, touching on a subject of particular importance to readers of this journal, one hopes that the study of Education introduces prospective teachers to the treasures not only of systematic thinking in psychology and other disciplines in the social sciences, but also to the important contributions available to intelligent teaching from literature and other humane studies, especially philosophy. We do these things so that our students can better appreciate the world in which they find themselves. We also do them so that our students can, where it is appropriate and needed, take charge of their circumstances and thereby exercise due in uence over their future. As stated by the Dean of Faculty at Hillsdale College, “We offer a liberal education not because it is useful, but it is useful nevertheless.”

But I would be remiss should I fail to mention that “seeing,” while vital, is not the only thing that the liberal arts aim to cultivate and produce. In addition to “seeing,” the educated mind possesses the capacity to modify or adapt what it knows in light of that which it encounters. It can, in other words, learn something new, and it wishes to learn anew on a regular basis. This power to learn is an indispensable component of the comfort in, and connection to, the world that liberal arts education offers to those who imbibe it. Because we have understood in the past, we possess a growing confidence that we will do so in the future. Or, to put the matter in slightly different terms, the liberal arts nurture our faith in the accessibility of the world. They teach us that the world is rational—that it embodies and reflects an order that can be understood by the mind. We are open to the world because we expect what we encounter to make sense and thereby make us be er for coming to know more about it. In our teaching, then, whether the subject is “Abnormal Psychology” or “The Principles of Science,” or whether it is “The Early Middle Ages” or “Austrian Economics,” we express our commitment to the liberal arts by conveying to students the concepts and categories required to understand the world they inhabit as well as, through this very process, by promoting the confidence and faith that are so important to a fulfilling and effective life.

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