The Question of a Liberal Arts Education: (19th C. Trends - Utilitarianism: Web-based Presentation)

Autobiography by John Stuart Mill

Chapter I: Childhood and Early Education

Philosopher John Stuart Mill lived during the 19th century, when Romanticism, with its emphasis on the liberal arts and the human experience, was reaching its peak in Europe. Writing in chapter 1 of his autobiography, Mill’s presents a detailed account of his early childhood education overseen by his studious father and driven by the classical liberal arts, beginning with Greek at the age of 3, followed by Latin, arithmetic, history, literature, logic, science and political economy, and a smattering of poetry and prose until the age of 14. Such an upbringing resulted in Mill seeing the mind as active and human nature as malleable, and holds that we come to possess a deeper state of knowledge by engaging with knowledge actively. In doing so, he is elevating the human experience to one that should seek out diverse knowledge because there is utility in doing so for one’s self, but also for serving the world in which you are a part of, which is kinda romantic, is it not?

With years being consumed with study, Mill shows a deep respect towards his father, who went from a poor upbringing to a self-made intellect, and still found the time to pass on all that he had learned. Throughout the text there is an aire of both reverence and obedience shown by the young Mill. Looking back at his childhood, he continually reiterates being deeply engrossed in his studies, only rarely expressing displeasure. However as an adult, he may be looking at the past through rose-coloured glasses and not remember his desire for more leisurely activities. Despite the cultural motif of Romanticism’s left-brain themes of emotion, the visual arts and music, Mill’s father, seeking to craft a whiz kid, instilled a right-brain mindset into his child that was grounded in utilitarianism. As such, Mill has little ‘childhood’ to speak of, which is not that dissimilar in relation to today’s disappearing childhoods, so it is perhaps best to pick and choose elements from Mill’s upbringing rather than seek to mimic it.  

Mills also shares similar views about early education with Rousseau and Locke, mainly that parental involvement and beginning early is paramount. However, I found that Mill takes a much more critical stance of the way his peers were undergoing their education by labeling it, “little better than wasted” (para. 1). In contrasting his own education, Mill’s main contention is that, “they are crammed with mere facts, and with the opinions or phrases of other people, and these are accepted as a substitute for the power to form opinions of their own” (para. 23). Mill’s criticism can be placed within two categories, how we learn and what we learn; the latter will be explored later. Regarding how Mill learned, we see the presence of deep learning, where he was tasked with a subject to learn on his own, which is then followed by exploratory conversations with his father and then further solidified through teaching his younger sister. The issue of homeschooling is also raised and whether governments should restrict children’s education or allow parents sovereignty over their child. As well, the notion of movement and environment is evidenced through Mill’s cognitively beneficial nature walks with his father. The concept of standardized testing is also largely absent in Mill’s education, but instead marked by more realistic low-stakes, low-reward tests. Finally, there is little mention of any long drawn out summer vacation in Mill’s childhood, leading one to assume that his education continued year-round, calling into question the current ‘dumber over the summer’ model. Taking a step back and looking at Mill’s education, despite his father’s heavy presence, there is something much more humane, sensible and suitable about it, especially when comparing it to the depersonalized method of gathering two dozen kids in a classroom setting for 40 hours a week over 12 of their formative years.

Regarding what should be learned in our childhood and the focus of my argument is that the liberal arts education of Mill is ever more necessary for children today. In implementing a liberal arts education in elementary school, it first helps to circumvent the crisis facing many liberal arts colleges facing decreasing admissions amid what one professor labels ‘social justice wafare’ as well as crushing indebtedness and the coming STEM-heavy 4th Industrial Revolution. Although the benefits are many, the liberal arts are often neglected in grade school, especially at the elementary level, where the curriculum has been criticized as “narrow”. This has created a situation where information and skills, for instance reading comprehension skills, are taught heavily through instruction and often abstractedness, rather than by the student fully integrating “a broad background in social studies, science and the arts [that] brings meaning to passages and helps make sense of the world.”  This creates a malaise in students where many do not feel their education is connecting them to the real world. A curriculum heavily influenced by the liberal arts would seek to resolve such an issue and return the deep philosophic origins of science and math, which are largely ignored in elementary school. This reintegration of logic and reason, rooted in a pedagogical framework crafted for children would go a long way to creating the foundations for children to understand the world they live in. To reimage schooling also involves being able to demand that the instructors in place be capable of integrating complex subject matter, like Mill’s father, who was very knowledgeable himself and saw real value in what he was teaching, but more importantly was able to get his son to see the value in learning for learning’s sake. Sadly, today’s education majors may not be our best and brightest. However, if schools can get capable teachers that are not only passionate about teaching students, but also passionate about the subject matter, perhaps Oxford’s tutorial system, which closely resembles Mill’s childhood education of intimate conversations, could be effectively implemented in schools. However, in order to demand more of children at such a young age, I think we as a society first need to get over our collective ageism that hinders what we expect of them. There is a common behavior issue regarding children who don’t listen, but maybe it goes the other way as well. A liberal arts education focuses on the individual and communication, so children will not only develop the ability to articulate meaningful ideas, but be able to effectively listen and respond critically to the opinions and ideas of others. However, I do wonder if schools were to begin to teach philosophical principles, might they be opening themselves up to student criticism which cannot be addressed effectively about the structural absurdity of modern schooling? This raises a critical question that with the current structural hierarchies in place, whether they be within governments, schools or businesses, a liberal arts education would pose a threat to established power structures by virtue of its quest for truth and the necessary use of criticism in order to do so. Although there is much homage paid towards the idea of self-thinking individuals, in reality our institutions would crumble if made a reality. And yet status quo be damned, by implementing a liberal arts curriculum in childhood it will provide the child’s sponge-like mind with the tools necessary to challenge their own understanding of the world, as well as society’s supposed truism, and forever help them to integrate themselves into ever-changing world.


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Omer Azeez Jamshaid juin 16, 2019, 03:18

I also noticed that Mill rarely expressed displeasure in being occupied in his studies as a child. Even though he could be labelled as a romantic who is trying to paint a pretty picture without stating the reality of the situation, what if he truly had no regrets for not having a normal childhood filled with play? Mill’s goal in life was to actively apply knowledge to have new human experiences and be useful to the world. Even though the structure of his childhood was dictated by his father, he felt that he was still working towards his goal when he was a child. Since he achieved his goal, he had no regrets for sacrificing play in his childhood. He ended up agreeing with his father’s educational philosophy; if he did not, then he would have had regrets about his childhood. Let’s take a step back and think about why people have regrets about their childhood. Usually they have regrets about their childhood when they solidify their beliefs and realize their childhood was not productive in applying those beliefs. In the case of Mill, after solidifying his beliefs as an adult, he looked back at his childhood seeing the application and development of his beliefs, which left him pleased overall. Others have differing views of what childhood is meant for. Some, like the author of the article Childhood play and independence are disappearing posted in the presentation, view childhood as a time of discovering life through play. This does not mean that no learning takes place through playing in a playground. I see playing as a physical means to learn how to adjust to new environments, be open minded to different ways to reach a goal and socialize with others to achieve a goal. These are skills that those involved with pure theory might neglect. From this point of view, play is benefiting the development of the mind of the child instead of it being just a leisure activity. Regrets of childhood can be mitigated if there is a defined and consistent purpose in one’s life. Mill having a consistent purpose in his life led to him have few regrets when looking back at his childhood. This purpose can be solidified well if one has an excellent mentor. While I agree with your point that there are lower standards for educators in our modern age and that educators should be capable of integrating complex subject matter, I would extend this notion by saying that parents need to take more responsibility of the education and self-discovery of their child, just like Mill’s father. Parents have a huge advantage over educators by knowing the specific background of their child. They clearly know their strengths, weaknesses, tendencies, and passions. These details will be difficult for an educator to obtain as they have other students to worry about. Parents need to take part in clarifying the purpose of education in a child’s life, instilling the importance of self-discovery, and making sure they are learning about subjects that will fulfill their purpose. The purpose will vary from child to child and can be best outlined by parents more so than a school-teacher. This means that parents must be well versed in the philosophy of education, even if they are not home-schooling their child.

Jeff Dowling juin 17, 2019, 03:18
Replying to Omer Azeez Jamshaid

Thanks for your replay Omar. I completely agree that play is an integral part of child’s life because of all the intangible benefits stemming for it, but oftentimes parents and teacher may not ascribe such importance to it. However, in the absence of play, the child needs some other kind of stimulation and luckily for Mill, his father was able to teach his son to see the utility in what he was learning at such a young age, which may have acted as a kind of buffer between him and his desire to ‘play’. Unfortunately, I think there are many more people these days living out a life of regret, largely stemming from childhoods that lacked ‘a defined and consistent purpose’. This falls at the feet of both teachers and parents, partly out of convenience but also because they themselves were taught in such a way. As such, I’d really like to see more of an effort for parents and schools to challenge children with denser topics instead of just calling for more testing, more homework and longer schooling hours. For Mill, it was clear to me that a lot of his learning was done through his rich conversations with his father.

Danielle Gibbons juin 16, 2019, 17:36

I'm inclined to agree with Omer in saying that parents need to fill in the gaps, or "take more responsibility" for their child's education, although I wish this wasn't necessarily the case. Jeff, you comment on the structural absurdity of modern schooling, as well as the need for a liberal arts education to help shape the minds of children - both truths. Unfortunately, depending on the government in power, emphasis may be placed on a well-rounded education, or on a more vocational view of education. I believe our current system is much more heavily in line with the vocational view of education - train and create workers that will benefit the state, rather than making well-rounded citizens capable of critical thought (because, as you say, if they're capable of critical thought, then they're capable of criticizing the system). This is where parents come in. If it's important to the parent that their child experience a liberal arts education, or more simply, a well-rounded education, we must fill in the gaps. In some ways this is unfortunate, since so much money and infrastructure is already dedicated to government-run education. Wouldn't it be nice if the education system already in place actually represented the wants of parents and the needs of students?

Jeff Dowling juin 17, 2019, 17:36
Replying to Danielle Gibbons

Thanks for your reply Danielle, School does present a strange situation for the child to find themselves in these days. I do see the reason why the school-as-factory model was originally set up, as the middle class has swelled as more and more people have been able to capitalize on their vocational training and risen out of the working class. However, a consequence of this has been that families are not as dependent on working for their own survival, and thus this leisure time has created a space for other pursuits, one being a liberal arts education. Previously, only the upper class were privy to such an education because of their economic situation, but now no longer the class, we can make the argument that public schools should be taking steps to introduce this kind of education to all children. While researching, I did notice that many businesses not only value vocational training, but also want those candidates who have had some kind of liberal arts education. By introducing the liberal arts early, university-aged students do not need to spend four years trying to obtain a thorough liberal arts education, but instead are free to pursue the vocational training of their choice in order to obtain a career thereafter. Oftentimes what I have found is that many students with liberal arts degrees are virtually unemployable since there are just so many with the degrees, as well as the fact they lack the vocational skills a prospective employer is looking for. There has to be a way to get the best of both worlds.

Yardena Shainbach juin 18, 2019, 17:36
Replying to Danielle Gibbons

This is so true and it starts from a very young age. Parents need to be a key player in a child's education if they have any expectations of their child getting to higher levels of education and succeeding. Often times, parents place responsibility of educating their child and don't want to be a part of it. As a tecaher, this s very frustating because home and school need to work together to support the child in their learning together. The differences between students who receive that support versus those who don't is quite evident to a teacher. To touch on the thought on play, it is very important for a child to play! Children need this type of stimulation to enagge in imaginative play and to llearn how t play with others so they can get by in society. There is a known saying that "Everything I need to know, I learned in Kindergarten". Essential skills are learned in Kindergarten, most of them being learned during playtime, such as No hitting, sharing is caring, play fair etc... This is a necessity in childhood and expands and broadens into adulthood to become a functional human being living in society.

Steve Hawkins teacher juin 20, 2019, 20:39

Hi Jeff, I'll pick up on some of your themes in my audio presentation on 19th Century trends in a day or so, but I'll start with a point or two here. You say that James Mill was able to get his son to see the value of "learning for learning's sake," and certainly if we look at sorts of things John Stuart was reading (poetry, ancient history, etc.), I can see what you have in mind, but James Mill (like his mentor Jeremy Bentham) thought of learning as having instrumental rather than intrinsic value. The value of learning was its contribution to the general happiness of humanity (or what they called 'utility' - and understood hedonistically as pleasure). What is fascinating about James Mill's program for his son is not so much its content (which is indeed familiar enough as a program in liberal arts) but his confidence that the way to maximise his son's contribution to the general good was to make sure he knew Greek, read poetry, etc. He would have had no objection to the demand that curriculum serve mundane social aims, but he held that the way to improve the condition of humankind was not by means of a narrowly technical education. One of the charges against utilitarianism as a moral theory has always been that it does not treat people as 'ends in themselves' but regards them as instruments for increasing social good. If we look at John Stuart's career, it is tempting to say that the proof is in the pudding on the value of the education he received (and the effects of Mill's early education on later liberal political theory are still felt in our time). But some critics are still uneasy with the whole thing, since it looks like James Mill viewed his son as a tool through which utilitarian aims could be achieved. I wonder if this aspect of James Mill's experiment in education is troubling to you. (It is maybe worth remembering that John Stuart did have a psychological breakdown in his early twenties, spurred by the thought that his life might be meaningless even if all his altruistic social aims were realised....)

Jeff Dowling juin 24, 2019, 20:39
Replying to Steve Hawkins

Yes, I’m glad you pointed that out to help me clear up what I meant by "learning for learning's sake". Although his father’s educational program was grounded in its utility, it appeared to me as a reader that John Mill thoroughly enjoyed his educational upbringing. Perhaps he was too young to see the utility and path towards the greater good in it, but nonetheless the content provided enough stimulation for him that there was little resistance from him, but you obviously can’t ignore his father’s strong presence. I do share his conviction that a narrow technical education, especially at a younger age, is problematic in the long run. For one, by prizing a technical education, although extremely important for the advancement of technology and science, it can also remove a society from the more humane aspects of life (and religion/spirituality). James Mill may have been on to something then, as the Industrial Revolution, coupled with the Enlightenment, produced a scientifically-minded culture that in my opinion set the stage for WWI and all the carnage that followed. As for James Mill’s experiment with his son, it does trouble me somewhat, but less so because of the subject matter being taught. Today we have many star athletes whose parents are looked at positively for pushing them into sport. However, all the other failed attempts by parents to see their kids rise in sport is largely ignored, or when it is seen first-hand is looked at critically for being too demanding and strict. The same could be said for parents who want their child to be a doctor or lawyer. However, from the reading, James Mill doesn’t seem to have a definite job in mind for his son, but had enough trust in the process that a liberal arts education will be of benefit to John and society in the future. I also wonder if John’s breakdown could be attributed to the realization that despite being thoroughly educated and willing to work towards a better society, that once he attained more freedom from his father, he realized that the real world is full of humans who were not educated in such a way and were more base, pleasure-seeking and instinctual than himself, creating an existential panic, akin to something out of the movie Idiocracy.

Steve Hawkins teacher juin 25, 2019, 20:39
Replying to Jeff Dowling

Hi Jeff, The point about John Stuart Mill finding enjoyment in the experience of learning is significant. He tried to adapt utilitarianism to take into account these higher intellectual pleasures, although it's doubtful that the resulting theory is fully utilitarian. A philosopher who tries to retain the utilitarian emphasis on social effects while offering a more plausible account of the nature of enjoyment, stimulation, or absorption in learning experience is Dewey. (I know you have expressed concerns about Dewey' in another context, but I wonder what you made of this aspect of his view.) As a child, John Stuart Mill assumed that other kids were getting a similar education, so it must have been an extraordinary shock for him to discover how unique his experience was. If I remember, he had this realisation at about 14 years, whereas his breakdown came in his early twenties. His own account of his breakdown suggests that it was something of a spiritual crisis - doubts about his deepest (utilitarian) commitments, but surely the alienation he must have felt from others in his social world could not have helped matters. The points you raise about scientific (or technical/instrumental) rationality and specialised versus general education are interesting. There are various critiques of modernity and proposed solutions, and some of the leading figures in these critiques were deeply hostile to each other (e.g. Adorno and Heidegger). (I can't let your comment about sports pass without mentioning the documentary 'Hoop Dreams.' Check it out, if you haven't already.)

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