“Invention: The Art of the Liberal Arts”

“Invention: The Art of the Liberal Arts”

A few weeks ago, my colleague and friend, J. Scott Lee sent to me a copy of his newly released Invention: The Art of the Liberal Arts (2020). Scott has just retired after 25 years as co-founder and Executive Director of the Association for Core Texts and Courses (ACTC). ACTC is one of just a few organizations that works on understanding, teaching, and promoting the Liberal Arts in colleges and universities. 

In the fall of 2001 Scott came to FPU to present his finding on our core GE program which he had analyzed along with a few dozen other schools. We have had our current program since the early 90s and it is still one of the most unique and thoughtful programs that you find in independent universities, and specialized core programs in public universities. Of course, I may be biased since I have been teaching in it for the entire time of its existence. But Scott affirmed that judgment so I cannot be too far off.

What makes Scott’s book unique is that he has not only taught, and thought about what the liberal arts are about, but also he has thought through the results of studies on student learning in colleges, what students achieve or do not achieve, and why. And he has a thesis to remedy the problem.  

You will find in his book chapters that discuss some of the usual “core texts” read and studied in GE and core programs (the Bible, St. Augustine’s Confessions, Plato’s Republic, Virgil’s Aeneid) as well as some unique and global pieces (George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion and Confucius’s Analects). One great strength of the annual ACTC conferences is the requirement for presentations that they address the interpretation of a classic or core text (that they be a scholarly contribution to understanding the work) and that they address teaching. ACTC was an early promoter of the “scholarship of teaching” among academic conferences. 

Most important in this work, however, is the thesis that Scott develops. I cannot give in a short post a fully nuanced summary, but here it is in a nutshell. The studies of student learning in college years does not present a picture of great gains in understanding and skills. In fact, they show little formal gains. However the liberal arts tradition has within it some resources and in particular the creation of art or “invention” that when practiced consistently does promote learning in depth and with sophistication, the deepening of understanding of the human condition, and skills in communication, production, application, and persuasion. Let me quote from a chapter the title of which is the same as the volume, “Invention: the Art of the Liberal Arts:”

“If our students do well, artfully, what then would persons who hold a bachelor-of-arts look like—independently from a major? First, they would have the character of an artist, a free, liberal one at that. They would think about art and be able to manifest such thought by exercising a capacity for generating works of the mind and imagination which captured their own and other’s souls. They would know how to listen, look and read with an attention and respect for the work and voices of others. They would properly believe, because the belief belonged to their experience, that contributing to and making artistic productions would involve cooperation, planning, foresight, reasoned choice, and their own plain disciplined hard work with others. They would have at their command a ready technology of production, appeals, reasoning and expression which could be put at the service of themselves, their families, corporations, non-profits and associations, governments, and international organizations. They would also possess a technology of the mind which they could summon to think about ideas and ideals, now and in the future. They would be immune to disenabling criticism, while not losing a thoughtful skepticism. They would have the experience of their own immediate culture and the reasoned possession of traditions of the West and other major cultures over a range of disciplines and formed works, and their experience and possession of tradition would be a resource for them to draw upon in almost any contingency. They would have ways to analyze, translate, communicate, analogize, question, and invent experience for themselves and others. They would be able to examine science, art, politics, business and economic affairs, religion, culture, communities, neighborhoods, families and friends with an eye to human passions and the confidence, charity, faith and hope that belongs to those who hold the future.” (37)

The practice of art, of invention that is a central part of the liberal arts opens up the mind and heart to deep learning about ourselves and others, and gives us the tools to understand, communicate, teach, and serve in our many overlapping communities. Read the last sentence of that quote again. Isn’t this what we hope to see in our students?

Writing and thinking about the liberal arts and teaching is a well-worn field. It is not easy to produce something new and insightful. I have to confess that after almost 40 years of working in the field, my attention sometimes wanders when I listen to yet another address on it. But not here. Scott has offered us something that has promise for all of us teaching, and for thinking about future academic directions.  And there is more in Invention. Scott has thought deeply about the design of academic programs, teaching in international arenas, and what may be the needs of the future. Invention rewards careful, thoughtful reading.

I remember distinctly the day I received in the mail (before the widespread use of email) a little flier for one of the early ACTC conferences—it was 1996, I believe. I read through it, thought about it, and walked immediately two doors down to Dalton Reimer’s office—he was my dean, and I was the chair of our GE program at the time—to see if there were any funds available for travel. There were funds, and off I went to Philadelphia several months later with a paper in hand on FPU’s GE program.

A number of us have participated in ACTC over the years (Greg Camp, Richard and Janita Rawls, Pam and Marshall Johnston, Nathan Carson, Ron Pratt, Norm Rempel, and there must be others too whom I have forgotten—my apologies to them), and FPU has participated in ACTC projects. We owe Scott a debt of gratitude for his long and inventive leadership of ACTC, and his contribution to liberal arts education.

Thank you, Scott, for the book, for your encouragement over the years, and your inventive thoughtfulness about our common work.

Educated State
Steve Varvis

Steve Varvis

Tagged: Liberal Arts Liberal Education