St. John's College Santa Fe The Arts The Program

The Dean’s Lecture: What are the Liberal Arts for and How Should we Use Them?

The Dean’s Lecture is a bridge of sorts between the program and the extracurricular activities. In person, if you were tired but needed more mental stimulation, or a tutor you hadn’t seen a while was up, or it was on a topic dear to you, you could go upstairs in Peterson on a Friday evening. You’d have to make sure you planned dinner, found a place to sit and so on, but all you needed to was go, and you would have access to ideas and people you might not have otherwise.

Luckily, we still have this gift at our disposal. It may not involve trying to find a place to put your bag, thinking you’ve silenced the phone but still triple checking, or snacking in the coffee shop afterwards, but it is still there, with possibly more to offer. In person, I usually didn’t end up staying for the whole thing, skipping the Q&A. As the lecture and the world in general shows, it is a very bad idea to skip an opportunity to ask questions.

The lecture, by J. Scott Lee, a long time friend of the college, was on a subject dear to the heart of any Johnnie, the Art of the Liberal Arts. Mr. Lee was joined by panelists Walter Sterling, Dean of the Santa Fe campus, Martha Franks, one of my all-time favorite tutors, and Phil LeCuyer. 

After a warm welcome, Mr. Lee began. His opening was that the liberal arts are in trouble; there are fewer liberal arts majors than ever. Hardly a controversial statement, but his reasoning greatly diverged from the usual. Most people would claim that the weaknesses lie in the impracticality of the liberal arts, or the lack of support, or dropping incomes. While Mr. Lee granted all of these, he said that the root of all the issues was the inattention to the art of the Liberal Arts. That is, what are these arts and what are they for? That is, there are arts, a set of skills you cannot acquire any other way.

I was a bit skeptical at first. From my education here and general ideas about the world as it is currently, phrasing it this way seemed to be missing the point. It’s about a certain way of thinking, and education is not supposed to be about making money, but that leads into what society’s priorities should be, which is beyond the scope of this article. I was more surprised when he criticized the two most common ways to justify getting a liberal arts degree, which are that humanities make you a better person, and that they make you a better citizen, which at least to me seemed true. However, the case that followed would be well worth the curiosity I now felt.  

The first concept that was presented was the trinity of technique, thought, and product. That is, there are skills that with a certain way of thinking, produce something only humans can make. Secondly, the gap between speculative thought and practical action is the weakest point in higher education and from art, what the liberal arts offer us, we get invention and freedom. With our to prove out of the way, the case was demonstrated. It felt like a particularly tense proposition, where you know the supposed end but can’t imagine the endpoint In my experience, this tension is often felt at the best lectures; the uncertainty and new presentation makes you more alert and breaks the rhythm set by classes, which, however wonderful it may be, needs to be broken occasionally to work its best.

Mr. Lee then made an example of St. John’s, saying even here that there is a neglect of art. Except in an extracurricular way, we don’t really engage with the visual arts, theater, debate, which means a weakness in terms of learning how to create from our ideas, and combining disciplines. He then moved to the proof of concept: painting.

In the renaissance, a technique called perspective was discovered. Because of the use and ideas about art, there was little focus on making painting look realistic. Once there was, a method had to be created into order to convey realism in an inherently two dimensional medium. This was an example certainly of invention and freedom of thought, since order to create an illusion of the three dimensional, one has to combine artistry with geometry, and understand how things exist in space. The technique, painting, through a thought to make it convey a certain idea, led to both a painting itself and the very concept of perspective, a technique that can be used again. This painting can also convey things that might not be possible without it.

His main example was Botticelli’s Adoration of the Magi, a painting of that era which used perspective in excepted and surprising way. The focal point goes to Mary and the Christ child, of course, and the arrangement of the throngs of people arranged so to draw your eye in. That and the care for physical movement and light certainly makes it look more lifelike, but Botticelli does more. It is not just that the clothes would be contemporary to his time as opposed to the time of the event, or that the ruins are of buildings more contemporary to the time, but that it is not the traditional kings and shepherds at the foot of the Christ child but rather the Medici Family. Moreover, Botticelli himself is there, looking out of the painting to us. Because of this anachronistic approach, the painting serves not only as a mirror of real life in the sense that it looks like there’s real depth, but it uses perspective more generally to tell a story. This family is wealthy and powerful. That would have been simply known in contemporary times, but it is conveyed as well by where they are and how they are dressed. You can also see the family structure. Cosimo de Medici, the then deceased head of the family, is kneeling before Mary, while his two older sons are behind him, looking at each other as if to decide who goes next. All together, the realism, visual information, tying the historical to the period, lead to another reading that a typical painting on the subject might not have, and can convey ideas that real life may not make obvious. It creates in the viewer the ability to imagine earthly power kneeling to something else, in this case faith. 

This is the core way that art brings freedom, the bounding of different ideas to create new perspectives and show what could be, and should be, according to Lee, the case for the liberal arts. The combination of the many disciplines contained within the liberal arts and the ability to change one’s thoughts. The other cases are limiting or can be reduced to this idea. Focusing too much on job hunting will simply not work, and the ideas of the practice making one a better human or a better citizen is simply referring to the changes in perspective we can attain and create. 

He concluded in a dramatically tidy way, much as one would a mathematical proposition. The first part of his conclusion was that that schools should be as expansive as possible about the number of mediums and techniques, as well as drawing out the proper way of thinking. The liberal arts should impart the character of an artist, which he defined as one who was masterful with technique, thinking, and creation, who can thus invent and create freedoms in all areas. This should be the thing to advertise to the world.

It is difficult to not applaud something so thought provoking, but one benefit of the virtual space is you feel less shy about asking questions. In the physical space, and I am not a shy person, it feels very uncomfortable to have everyone’s eyes on you. Thus, I rarely ask questions and I tend to not stay for the question and answer section. This time, I did. While it was definitely good to listen to the panelists (including one of my favorite tutors), it was the general questions in chat that caught my attention the most. Mr. Lee dressed questions about potential dangers about these ideas, what should be applied to St. John’s, how time reveals connections that can help lead to new ideas, easily and thoughtfully. 

I was thinking of many current difficulties and my own uncertainty about what to do in the world. I almost didn’t ask the question, but eventually I gave in (despite this now running into dinner time). 

In a world that is in desperate need of freedom and invention, how should we best direct our own capacities for art?

Mr. Lee took a moment to ponder this, saying that he admired my genuineness in asking the question. His advice was simple: hone one’s abilities and use the desire for the worthwhile. 

Soon after that, the lecture ended, and while I missed the shuffle of getting up to leave, I carried the ideas back to the dining room, talking with my mom for quite some time. 

It’s a rare privilege to able to develop a new perspective, because we are not often taught to do so, or given the space to discover for ourselves. While it’s different, the bridge is there, and if we can attain mastery of this so crucial skill and want to see a better world, perhaps we can make it a little better – and show others how to do it too.

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