Collegium Artes Liberales Resumes Its Activities
On April 19, the first meeting of the re-opened academic club Collegium Artes Liberales took place at the Faculty of Humanities – a table-talk titled Liberal Arts in the Face of Global Crisis. Participants included the discussion’s moderator, the director of the Lithuanian Emigration Institute Prof. Egidijus Aleksandravičius, professor at the Dept. of German and French Philology Viktorija Skrupskelytė, the first Rector of the re-established VMU Prof. Algirdas Avižienis and Thomas Aquinas College Alumnus Vytautas Adomaitis. These speakers together with the rich crowd of academic community’s members who took part in the dialogue – lecturers, students, workers of offices and centres – discussed the ideas of liberal arts studies, their place at VMU and the significance of wide-spanning university education in the modern world.
The title Collegium Artes Liberales reminds us of the classic educational system, encompassing 7 subjects: grammar, logic, rhetoric, music, arithmetic, geometry and astronomy – the basis of higher education during the Classical Antiquity and the Middle Ages. Thanks mostly to the efforts of the VMU Honorary Doctor Prof. Algirdas Avižienis, the university was re-established according to the study system of Harvard University, in keeping with the modern liberal arts studies’ principles.
Prof. Dr. Irena Buckley from the VMU Dept. of Lithuanian Literature spoke during the introductory part of the event, explaining that this club was established in 2003 chiefly by the initiative of Prof. Egidijus Aleksandravičius and Prof. Leonidas Donskis, striving to spread VMU’s culture of humanities, look for interdisciplinary relations, build an academic space for exchanging ideas and opinions with the help of public discussions that cannot be equated with lectures. After discontinuing its activities for three years, the collegium was re-established seeing the necessity to reconsider the tradition of liberal arts, its challenges and possibilities in the world increasingly affected by globalisation. According to Prof. Aleksandravičius, even in the cradle of liberal arts studies – the United States of America – the number of liberal arts colleges has shrunk from the 20 % of all higher education institutions it once amounted to, their geography pulled back to the East coast, while the demand for narrow specialization grew with the development of economics. Generally, the boom of liberal arts studies, which trace back their roots to the Old Continent, is related to the schools’ education system – it was expected in modern Europe that gymnasiums’ graduates will already have a wide enough education, therefore they will be able to seek a specialization at a university. Meanwhile, in the USA this was only possible at elite private schools.
In the opinion of the academic, situation developed similarly in the occupied Lithuania. Soviet higher education schools prepared engineers, specialists of exact sciences (there even was a university programme titled Meat Industry!), general education was almost ignored, while the courses of Marxism-Leninism and others, offered alongside the specialized subjects, were clearly ideologised. Thus, the Harvard University’s study system, brought to Lithuania from the USA by Prof. Avižienis, was connected with the core ideas of liberal arts and became an unprecendented phenomenon in Lithuanian history. As the Honorary Professor himself recounted, in the book Course Studies, published in Harvard in 1988, he found something he became set about implementing in Lithuania, which was then trying to recover after the Soviet oppression. According to the American system, one year of the Bachelor’s degree studies is intended for liberal arts studies, another one for freely selected subjects and two more years for a more narrow field, which the student intends to continue pursuing in his studies. Six fields (e.g., literature and arts, natural and exact science, ethical thinking, etc.) into which the disciplines are divided are not much different from the classical liberal arts – this grouping is more of a reflection of the scientific developments in the last few centuries. The essential elements of this system were preserved by VMU to this day. And it is gradually becoming a very relevant issue as production is getting cheaper and ideas themselves get more expensive. This thought by Prof. Aleksandravičius received agreement from Prof. Avižienis, who one taught students of informatics to write programs without numbers: "In all fields, imagination is the most necessary, since it gives birth to ideas. Therefore even for someone from the exact sciences reading science fiction could be more helpful than learning algebra".
The professor claims that liberal arts remain relevant today, more than 20 years after the re-establishment of VMU. But, in 2008, Harvard University reacted to global changes and challenges by rewriting study programmes which attract students’ attention to society’s problems and encourage them to get involved in the search for solutions. Professor Viktorija Skrupskelytė, who has found liberal arts at the College of the University of Chicago, joined the discussion and agreed that there is such a trend of changes in higher education. She called it a "cradle of great people". The two-year integrated study programme consisted of reading and analysis of fundamental texts. Currently the college, reacting to external factors, withdrew it. But, in the words of the professor, "the people themselves (above all – the lecturers) create liberal arts, at the core of which is critical thinking". She remembered her work at Oberlin College in the USA, after the hippie movement had reached its peak. "Everyone was learning to teach then. Feminism course student approached me after lecture and said that the tone of my voice contradicts the expressed ideas, because it sounds like an authority", the professor remembered. Absence of hierarchy among lecturers and students is one of the necessary conditions of liberal arts.
After other participants joined the discussion, Prof. Aleksandravičius added that one of the most prominent members of the Lithuanian Diaspora, Prof. Vytautas Kavolis, called a preconceived specialization "the greatest tragedy in higher education of the 20th century". Defending this position, the moderator noted that employers themselves often do not know what kind of people they need or will need. Professions emerge and disappear, while wide-spanning university education is always in demand. Thus a university must educate the public. All speakers agreed with this position, naming examples from their past – Prof. Skrupskelytė’s former student once came and said his profession had simply disappeared. "Many of us probably notice that Lithuanian (and other) doctors often do not know how to talk with the patient – this prevents effective diagnosis and treatment of the disease", the professor continued. Competence requirements keep increasing and, without a firm foundation, it is difficult to acquire knew abilities or improve the ones one has. Another problem was pointed out as well – the fact that in the USA liberal arts have a good reputation, contrary to Eastern Europe. This could be one of the reasons why a VMU diploma is not rightly evaluated by employers, who simply do not take into consideration what the potential worker studied and has learned. Popularity of liberal arts studies is also hindered by unduly strong pursuit of a unified system of higer education.
Prof. Kavolis said that at Dickinson College where he taught, two applicants competed for one place. The lucky one used to be selected judging by not just his studying results, but also by an interview, which helps to find out the student’s hopes and aspirations. A radical but completely realistic example was provided by Prof. Avižienis: "If you want to study informatics, you might be accepted, but if you want to study both informatics and ancient Chinese poetry, you will most likely be accepted". The greatest miracle of liberal arts is that it is no miracle. It is enough for the people who are ready and hungry for knowledge to learn from one another.
Finally, Vytautas Adomaitis, the Alumnus of, as the discussion’s moderator jokingly put it, artes liberales liberales studies at the Thomas Aquinas College and currently a successful business consultant, shared his own experience. "You will not find any lectures or hierarchic lecturer-student relationships in this college. The entire Bachelor’s degree course consisted of the most significant texts of Western civilization, beginning with Homer and the Pre-Socratics and ending with Einstein’s theory of relativity and analysis, trying to not just interpret but look for the truth, not denying the possibility that it exists", the alumnus shared his thoughts.
Later, as the discussion went on and a lively polylogue of all attending public began, the talk shifted to the attempts to name the wider problems of education system in Lithuania and the suggestions to solve them. Time ran out unnoticeably, but there was no end in sight for the discussions, thus, it was decided not to wait for long and hold another meeting in May, get together again and continue examining questions relevant to the academic community openly, freely and without spite, as equals.
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