Excerpt from:  “Writing, Literacy, and Liberal Arts,” ADE Bulletin No. 82 (Winter, 1985):  27-32.

What is our distinctive contribution? How does the tradition of teaching, a long and honorable one, describe the gifts it offers to society? My view is that right from the beginning of education in the West, right from the time of Socrates’ pestering of his fellow Athenians and Plato’s forming the first Academy, and ever since, most teachers have wanted to contribute to their students’ abilities to be better thinkers and better doers, to help them think more clearly and behave more responsibly both as private individuals and public citizens.

The teaching of skills and process is not necessarily incompatible with our intellectual and ethical ambitions, but technique without intellectual content is blind: it does not lead our students into thinking substantively about the world around them, or inspire them to look for solutions to its problems, or help them evaluate its workings—and I think that such goals should be the ultimate goals of all courses in the humanities, including writing courses. Teaching technical skills alone is like teaching cooking students to read a recipe but not giving them any ingredients. Teaching a process without the kind of intellectual content that pulls students into confrontation with the world will spur neither us nor them to criticize things as they are or to dream new versions of how things might be.

The question, then, is how to capitalize on all the valuable research that has been done on the teaching of writing without, first, limiting our importance to trivial claims about practicality and, second, without divorcing our research from humanist aims. If we teach writing so that it offers no help to students in their likely roles as mates and parents and in their certain role as citizens, then we probably cannot justify taking up as much space in the curriculum as we claim to need. Surely one way to achieve complementarity between our roles as researchers and teachers is to remind ourselves of what is distinctive about the humanities. Simply put, scholar-teachers in the humanities devote themselves to cultivating their own and their students’ humanity—those powers of imagination, rationality, criticism, and expression that are unique to human beings. Teaching writing from this point of view lifts it above mere skills and process and makes of it a liberal art. It is worth recalling that medieval and Renaissance educators placed the “liberal arts” in opposition to what they sometimes called the  “service sciences.” The liberal arts were those arts befitting freemen who not only lived on their own resources but who had civic and political responsibilities, while the servile sciences were those serving skills, or technical practices, that serfs, artisans, or laborers performed at someone else’s direction. To teach writing as a liberal art is to teach it as an activity befitting men and women who not only think their own thoughts and direct their own behavior but who also help conduct the business of public and civic life. As a liberal art, then, writing has both intrinsic and social values, values that are hidden when it is approached in narrowly practical terms. Writing has intrinsic value because it teaches the mind of the writer to know itself, because it makes the mind more alert, clear, vigorous, and alive than almost any other activity. It has social value because a democracy cannot function and justice cannot be pursued if the citizenry are illiterate.

As we all know, however, the distinction between intrinsic and practical value is not absolute. The mind that learns to know itself better by writing is clearly a mind conditioned to engage effectively in practical affairs. We have to try to make our students see that the intrinsic and practical value of writing blend into each other. We have to keep reminding them and ourselves that working at writing teaches one how to think better. And it pays marvelous dividends, because working at writing doesn’t develop just one kind of thinking, as other kinds of learning may, but trains the whole range of intellectual powers generally. The mind that works at learning how to write also learns, by necessity, how to perform a great many sophisticated intellectual operations: how to synthesize and analyze, how to make assertions that follow each other logically, how to account for or accommodate exceptions, how to organize the structure of ideas and arguments, and, most important, how to criticize—activities on which systematic progress in all areas of human endeavor depends. The mind that works at writing, then, learns how to be more penetrating, sensitive, controlled, and self-conscious. In writing, as opposed to spontaneous speech, we have time to reflect on what we have said, take it back if it doesn’t sound right, knead our ideas and words into an inseparable whole, check our logic, listen critically to our tone of voice, and evaluate whether our message is really good for our audience. Writing, in short, teaches us to think in more developed, precise, and responsible ways.

This is no trivial achievement. It is the goal at the heart of all liberal education. To pursue it we must not allow our teaching to be held hostage by dogmatically narrow notions. What our culture needs, of course, is an enlarged and liberalized notion of practicality, but until that notion develops we teachers in the humanities must decide whether we will allow ourselves to be captivated by the narrow ideology of practicality that tries to make the humanities over into its own image or whether we will vigorously challenge it. As challengers we are not without resources. We can offer a humane alternative to narrow practicality: we can offer the ancient tradition of the liberal arts, with all its emphasis on liberating the educated person’s mind from provinciality, prejudice, and egoism, or, as Sidney says, “by knowledge to lift up the mind from the dungeon of the body to enjoying his own divine essence” (The Defence of Poesy, 1595). Further, the tradition of the liberal arts aids social as well as personal regeneration, for it teaches us that we should not merely live off the world parasitically but should try to understand its workings, understand our place in it, and pass on to future generations a legacy of caring for it. 

Back to Top

©2009 Copyright Marshall Gregory. All rights reserved. Please ask permission before using material on this site.