First, mould the mind

October 25, 2012

I am in broad agreement with Nigel Tubbs' argument that we need liberal arts programmes in the academy ("The importance of being useless", 11 October), but I wonder whether calling them "useless" is at best an unnecessary gambit, at worst a self-inflicted wound? There is a managerial constituency within the academy that will rest its case against Tubbs on the single word "useless".

That said, the real case against predominantly instrumental learning is that serious instrumental learning (training) should begin only when the effort to develop the general power of the student's mind (education) has run its course. The main purpose of higher education is, by definition, to educate, not to train: but, of course, training has always been part of what universities do. So the emphasis in many courses should be on using a training scenario as background for real thinking, real consideration of values, real engagement with controversy, real enlargement of perspectives and so on.

Liberal arts courses that simply luxuriate within the liberal arts may be compared to sitting on a sofa eating chocolates. Tubbs' interdisciplinary courses sound great but a training element in some relevant science and technology would surely not come amiss.

Chris Ormell, The PER Group

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