my liberal-education report card

In my last post I reviewed the reasons that I think liberal education is so important. Since I’m trying to acquire a liberal education through my own self-study program, a natural question is, what is my own progress?

Without a system of exams, it’s not easy to measure. One thing I can do is to summarize my current activities as they relate to liberal education. I start each day by typing highlights from my reading into Word documents. The typing mainly falls into two categories: liberal education and research for my own writing. This morning the liberal-education component was highlighted text from Book 3 of Aristotle’s Physics, from volume 8 of the Britannica Great Books series. The specific discussion was on the definition and existence of infinity, which Aristotle hesitates to affirm as either existing or not existing, finding that both assertions lead to contradictions. He therefore finds that infinity does indeed have a real existence, but that this existence is potential rather than actual, in that there is no theoretical limit to the number of times that we can, say, divide a line, while in practice, there is such a limit.

After typing a stretch of highlighted material, I then copy the typed text into further “idea” documents which I’ve set up. Today was unusually simple, because I found that all of the material I’d typed I could simply transfer into the document labeled “Infinity”. The intention is that as I come across different topics in my reading, I can copy the contents of my highlights into the various idea documents, creating a kind of briefing document on each idea. It so happens that Infinity is one of the 102 Great Ideas identified by the editors of the Great Books series, and so this document of mine contains a compressed version of the relevant essay in the so-called Syntopicon, the 2 volumes of the set devoted to describing the Great Ideas. (These 102 essays, each about 4,000 words long, were all written by Mortimer J. Adler in a single intensive 2-year push.) So far, that introductory essay is the only other material I have in that particular document, but other documents contain extracts from multiple works, both in the Great Books set and others.

So much for my morning typing. The next liberal-education moment of my day is when I pick up the guitar, which I do most days for an hour or so. Not only was music one of the 7 classical liberal arts, it was also one of the 7 classical fine arts (along with painting, sculpture, literature, drama, architecture, and dance). I still play the same Japanese-made Sigma acoustic guitar I got as a graduation present from high school in 1977. I’ve played it only intermittently since then, but since 2008 I have made a determined effort to improve my playing. Right now I’m working on learning scales and arpeggios, along with a couple of other things. My approach is studious. I love playing, and as a bonus I understand that playing music is one of the best exercises for the brain, making it much less likely that one will suffer from dementia in old age.

Next on the liberal-education curriculum is my reading block starting at teatime. I always start off with fiction or other imaginative writing, and my priority is to read all the imaginative literature in the Great Books. Right now I’m reading Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor from volume 27. Then it’s on to nonfiction: right now, the aforementioned Physics of Aristotle. I find I can’t read any one book for longer than 40 or 45 minutes, so I keep moving on. Next: I pull out my powder-blue 3-ring binder and push ahead with handwritten notes of The Trivium by Sister Miriam Joseph. I’ve already read and highlighted the book, but it’s so dense, and the material is so central to my liberal-education project, that I’ll keep going through it in different ways until I absorb the content. For the past few days I’ve been going through the chapter on induction, or how we intuit knowledge based on our experience.

I find I can spend about 20 minutes on The Trivium before I have to put it away. By then I’ve moved from tea to red wine. But I’m still not quite done. I count one more book in my current reading stack as part of my liberal education: The Idea of Happiness by V. J. McGill, a volume published as part of a project by Adler’s Institute for Philosophical Research. The project was to elucidate each of the Great Ideas in its own volume. In the event, they only got 6 of them done before the Institute itself apparently dissolved in 1967 or soon after. I’ve acquired all the volumes myself online. It was a wonderful project and it deserves to be finished.

With that my day of liberal education ends, ready to start again the next morning. Around it I work in my other activities, including my fiction writing and this blog.

But what about my actual progress? How liberally “educated” am I? As a self-directed student I have the luxury of being able to write my own report cards—that is if I feel like it—but I’d like to have an honest and objective measure of my progress.

I’ve decided that there’s probably no better one than a measure suggested by the Robert Frost quote I placed in my last post: “Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.” My liberal-education dashboard consists simply in noticing my emotional response to what I hear, see, and read. Many news stories I read, especially about politics and the economy, trigger feelings of anger and fear in me. I might not actually lose my temper—but I could. As I now see it, those responses are the measure of how far I have yet to go on the path of liberal education. It is a path, solitary though it may be, that I tread with great joy.

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