- [Liberal Arts 01] Liberal Arts Starting from a Pencil
- [Liberal Arts 02] Thinking Method to be Acquired by Liberal Arts
- [Liberal Arts 03] Changes after Graduating from Liberal Arts Education
- [Liberal Arts 04] Japanese High School Students and Liberal Arts
- [Liberal Arts 05] Learning after Finishing College
Author: Kotaro Aoki
Liberal Arts Education, Its Way of Thinking
Last time, I introduced the basic philosophy of liberal arts education. I wrote that liberal arts education enables us to discover the relationship between oneself and the world, and to realize their potentials. This time, I will introduce the way of thinking one learns in liberal arts education, what classes are like at liberal arts colleges.
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Liberal arts education is usually associated with the so called “Critical Thinking”. Being Critical is often defined as to doubt premises of things or to have a broad viewpoint. But I suppose these definitions are too ambiguous. Do you actually know what critical thinking is? Why is it needed? And, how does liberal arts education hone our critical thinking? To answer these questions, let me introduce one allegory about an island.
Invisible Threads and Tricking Island
There is a long and narrow island in the Pacific Ocean. In this island, buildings are located in rows, and there is no rubbish anywhere. Citizens are living peacefully and healthily by making the most of the limited land. The climate is mild and the food is great, so it seems like the island leaves nothing more to be desired.
One day, a castaway reached the island. He arrived there after drifting for a long time so he was relieved and got surprised at the perfection of the island. He was welcomed by local people and spent several days sleeping and eating. His hometown was at war and backward in terms of civilization, so he was all the more satisfied with the safe life at the place.
However, soon after he walked around the island, he found it odd. Despite the fact that the island seemed perfect, he felt strange. So the visitor continued observing things and people on the island carefully. Then he noticed that there was microscopic thread between the white building at the center of the island and everything else. The fact was that the white building controlled everything else on the island. That means, the island was so called tricking island. Local people, clean road and buildings were only operated dolls.
Know the Threads, Untangle Them
This allegory can be a good material to understand critical thinking. As I explained in the former article, the world is a place where things and humans are connected loosely. The tricking island is a kind of an extreme example, but wherever people gather a thread exists and the thread connects each part of the world. This thread means not only human relationship but also concepts and social customs such as creed, common sense, hierarchy.
To take an example, at a school, there are two roles: students and teachers, and we tacitly accept the rule that students should be always respectful to teachers. At any place on earth, schools are formed by such thread which connects students and teachers. As this example shows, all human activities including the capitalistic economic activities are connected by the thread to each other. However, in most cases, connections of the thread are very complicated and not visualized.
In our society, there are many thread, but the situation, except that we can’t see these threads, is similar to the tricking island. If you can’t find these threads in the society, you will be controlled by them unwittingly. The above example at school is easy to understand. But, for instance, what about capitalism which we experience daily? Are you aware of that thread?
We can’t live without any threads (because these threads form the world), therefore we need to know the existence and the function of our threads. The process to regard and untangle threads is critical thinking. At liberal arts colleges, students learn economics, psychology, physics, and so on, by which they untangle many threads which connect many fields.
By making use of generational, social and academic viewpoints, critical thinking allows us to understand that threads change depending on a period or a community. This comprehension encourages us to become free from the control of threads, and potentially use them for our advantage.
Critical Thinking through Liberal Arts
In liberal arts education, you gain critical thinking through discussions and writing theses.
Writing academic papers forces students to appreciate assignments. In this context, assignments are not those easy pocket editions such as “Shinsho” in Japanese but classics like “The Prince” by Machiavelli or “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions” by Thomas Kuhn.
Classics tells us keys to comprehend threads in society, hence it requires much time and work to understand that complex structure. The amount of homework is so much that students have to work from morning till night almost everyday.
Evaluation of your writing assignment rests on your comprehension and rhetorical logic. You should make appeal for your opinion and show premises of viewpoints and common sense, then claim your position with reasons and evidences. Logic can be a magic key, which makes it easy for you to untangle threads.
Even when you face a complicated occurrence or way of thinking, you need to convey the existence of threads to readers or listeners by making the best use of rhetorical logic, which strongly support critical thinking.
Be Diverse and Critical
In discussions, you need not only logical description but diverse ways to think. While logic can be a key, diversity can be a flashlight, which sheds lights on various values in the world.
Diversity means the differences in viewpoints that come from each study, race, economical background, religion, or gender. Diversity illuminates those threads you couldn’t see by yourself.
An individual viewpoint is formed largely by the surrounding environment, so we can’t avoid having blind spots. Therefore liberal arts college ensures the diversity of students and professors, and tries to compensate for the “blind spot.” Because people who are restricted by various threads gather at one place, you can be sensitive to yours and others’.
For example, when I was senior, I was majoring philosophy, and the other students at an advanced philosophy class were not only philosophy majors but also students majoring in politics or drama.
One class I joined was called “Mind, Body and World”. The class started from questions about the connection between human recognition and languages. We discussed how we can learn not only from philosophical viewpoints but also from unique viewpoints advocated by non-phiolosophy major students.
The class was composed of a professor and roughly ten students, so the distance between students and the professor was so close that I became the professor’s close friend. Small class is one of the features of liberal arts colleges. It ensures the quality of classes because professors check students’ assignments and papers carefully and thoroughly.
However, to make diversity work, good logic is definitely required. That is because logic is a tool available for everyone, regardless of people’s unique background. The rigorous writing of theses and discussions is what makes liberal arts education diverse.
A succeeding article (which will be released next week) is going to feature an interview of a Japanese who graduated from a liberal arts college and I am going to tell you how he’s benefited from his education after graduation.
Editorial supervision by Kotaro Aoki
Kotaro Aoki is a writer, translator and aspiring philosopher. Kotaro is enthusiastic about education, philosophy, literature, and global and local scale human affairs. He is born and raised in Japan, and spent 4 years at Wesleyan University (CT), USA, for his bachelor degree. Upon graduation from Wesleyan University, he joined BlackRock, an American financial institution. He was involved with the trading and liquidity function, and after 4 months he decided to quit the firm. Since then, he has experienced different jobs in diverse industries from publishing to bartending. He is currently learning programming and on his way to launch a web application that might benefit people and himself.