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The essence of the liberal arts

<me of my discussions around incorporating game design into a liberal arts curriculum the fear of becoming a technical school begins to creep in.  This fear is that having students produce video games will only prepare them for a life in the video game industry.  I truly understand the concern.  There’s significant importance to the idea that Liberal Arts training is not about applicable training but about developing analytical skills that produce thoughtful, involved citizens instead of workers.  I’m all for this, I’m just not sure that one specific curriculum is the only way to achieve this.

It reminds me of something that the world of game design is currently struggling with.  Oftentimes game designers believe that somehow our medium is the one that will actually change the world, unlike all those other ones.  But, the reality is, like any medium, game design has its pros and cons, positives and negatives.  Its strengths and weaknesses are different, but overall it accomplishes just about the same goals.

What I’m trying to get at is this idea that somehow the essence of the liberal arts is contained in the type of subjects that it teaches.  That somehow liberal arts is different because it doesn’t teach things that are directly practical.  I think this is a false dichotomy that obscures the real difference between the two. 

I think there is a significant difference between liberal arts and technical schools. But, I don’t think the difference is in the subject matter.  If Bryan Garsten (2nd week convocation speaker from Yale) is to be believed that the beauty of the liberal arts is “that wooshing feeling” when you are in the flow of learning, then the beauty of the liberal arts is not in the subjects that are taught but in the method that those subjects are taught.  I just don’t think it’s fair to imply that the best way to become a citizen of the world is to study specific subjects.

If subject matters in terms of liberal arts-ness, then it implies that some subjects have the spirit of the liberal arts more than others. Division hurts any institution, much less one that’s try to cooperatively raise well-rounded students. 
I also don’t think that our “lack of direct practicality” means we appreciate learning more.  The beauty of the liberal arts (especially at Carleton) is the attitude we take to do the things we do.  I think it would be easily possible to apply a liberal arts spirit to more technical things like design, business, and technology. 

Teaching process oriented classes does not make something less liberal artsy (we have computer science, studio arts, CAMS, English, etc.).  What makes something less liberal artsy is the attitude with which it is done.  There are plenty examples of scientists, historians, writers, film makers, and artists who are so focused on production they lose site of how the changes they make affect the world.  And these are people who studied “liberal arts” subjects.  Why can’t the converse be true? 

I’m not trying to say that Carleton should start teaching technology, game design, or business.  There simply aren’t the resources or the motive.  What I am trying to say is that we stop pretending that our creativity comes from the subjects we study.  The creativity comes from the atmosphere, the people, and the reasons we go about studying the material we do, not from the specific subjects we study. 

I’m also not trying to say that subjects are unimportant.  They are, but they are not what differentiates us.  Each subject has its own unique positives and negatives to add to the conversation, and none should be valued higher or lower than the others.
Here’s my plea: that we stop drawing distinctions between subjects (inside and outside of an institution) in their claim to being worthy of the liberal arts.  Instead, I think we should judge the quality of the actions involved in learning the subject and the reasons we learn.  Liberal arts is about learning for learning’s sake, technical schools teach skills that will be more directly applied to getting a job.  Both are important in their own spheres, and both are different because of their intent, not because of the subject matter.

It isn’t difficult to get into deep discussions about the nature of free will when talking about game design, but it also isn’t difficult to become so focused on our research that we lose the sense of creativity and enjoyment our work.  It’s the wooshing that counts.

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