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Nathaniel Whittemore

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The Decline and Rebirth of the Liberal Arts

Posted: 03/ 2/2012 3:01 pm

Every day, five or six cities host a TEDx conference. TEDx's are community-organized events modeled after the core TED ideas festival that happens each year in Long Beach, Calif. The events sometimes have specific themes, but more often feature speakers across disciplines, discussing everything from advances in medical technology innovation to memorization and nudist colonies. Since the first TEDx three years ago, more than 3,500 have happened.

Together, they constitute one of the leading edges of an entirely new, self-organized version of the liberal arts curriculum that has anchored Western learning for the past 2,000 years.

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The notion of liberal arts began in ancient Greek and Roman societies, and referred to the idea that there were certain fields of knowledge that every free person should have a command of. The importance was not simply in knowing things, but about cultivating certain attributes of the mind necessary for engaging with the world.

While the particular subjects of the liberal arts changed over time and based on particular cultural mores, they were enshrined as the core curriculum for Western societies in the universities of the Middle Ages, and then in the first generation of universities in the fledgling United States.

Today, the liberal arts are a part of most major college and university programs, embedded as "core requirements." To read the pedagogical philosophies of most universities, these requirements are anchored in a desire to inculcate in their students not just a basket of practical skills, but a set of sentiments and views of the world.

Unfortunately, the idea of higher education as a place to inculcate broad sentiments and capacity for thought is falling on hard times.

Last year, the amount of student debt held by Americans surpassed regular consumer debt for the first time in history. Meanwhile, the chorus of people questioning the actual value of higher education has grown louder and louder -- from billionaire Peter Thiel's grant for exceptional under-20's to drop out or forgo college to work on important projects, to Michael Ellsberg's new book The Education of Millionaires which shows how little traditional academics impacted some of the world's most successful people.

And as people, even with degrees, have a harder and harder time finding jobs, the question becomes: is higher ed worth it? A whole new world of startups have launched to create learning alternatives to formal higher ed. Online and offline platforms from Udemy to Skillshare to General Assembly to Creative Live are opening up a world of learning content -- particularly around technical disciplines.

Whether these companies will be the catalyst that undoes the massive higher education industry or not, what is sure is that the college of the future will look different than the college today. It is not hard to imagine that between economic pressure and increasing effort to get students interested in fields of science, engineering, and math -- the liberal arts will become a lower and lower priority.

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Yet if the university system may become structurally and economically less able to provide broad liberal arts training, people are self-organizing entirely new systems that provide many of the functions formerly associated with liberal arts education.

TEDx's are just one example of the radical increase in multi-industry conferences. From Summit Series to Poptech to PechaKucha and beyond, people are not just hosting more events; they're hosting events that mash up artists, entrepreneurs, nonprofit leaders, corporates, media and more.

The most salient detail is that these are not industry gatherings. People have been able to meet other people in their industry forever. For most people however, their undergraduate years are the last time that they are structurally near smart people who care about things entirely different than them. The new generation of popular events tend to be multidisciplinary and recreate the experience of being around creative, smart people who are good at different things and working on different problems.

These experiences are so valuable to people that they're willing to pay thousands of dollars to attend. Perhaps even more telling, the most successful of these events tend to inspire community propagation. TEDx is an example of the formalization of this extension activity. Summit Series has dozens of alumni communities that use Facebook to self-organize everything from dance parties to massive collaborative spaces at South By Southwest.

Ultimately, the gratifying experience of the liberal arts is the feeling of being exposed to brilliance and creativity outside the domains of your own passion, and the inspiration that that can create in ones own life and career. The exciting opportunity of the new architecture of the liberal arts is that it no longer requires the formality of an institution like a university to persist.