Throughout the ages, the humanities have always played a role in the education of pupils. From ancient Greece to the modern world, countless scholars have chosen to focus on the liberal arts and humanistic studies. Why then, in the last few decades, have these subjects fallen from academic favour and been considered of secondary importance? In the last few years, this downward trend has luckily begun to reverse and the Humanities have started to regain some of their original reputation; but how is it possible that the same subjects that Plato and Socrates focused on so much have had to undergo such a drastic revamping in order to function in modern society? Students in high school nowadays are still being pushed towards scientific or managerial areas for higher education, told to consider securing a remunerative job rather than engaging with liberal arts. Yet, the scientific method of which non-humanistic faculties are so proud – one concerned with scientific research and factual interpretations – has its roots in the very liberal arts which they seem to so easily disregard. 

From ancient Greece to the Middle Ages

Historically, in the absence of modern research tools, scholars and philosophers had to rely on analysis, reason and rhetoric to impart pupils with the knowledge they required to function in adult society. As a result, for centuries, languages, ethics and philosophy reigned undisturbed as the quintessential topics of education. Ancient Greek Sophists taught the art of rhetoric to provide people with the skills of public discourse and debate. Philosophers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle wrote about language, ethics and theology and used these concepts as a way to interpret a world that was absent of any other means for research. Similarly, ancient Roman pupils would be instructed in the analysis of poetry, grammar and rhetoric, in the hope that, through them, they would be able to make sense of their environment and history. For both societies – as well as for many others – the basis of education was the critical analysis and the understanding of the observable world and human nature. They had what I will henceforth call a “bottom-up” approach to learning that required a dedicated examination of sources and differing opinions to arrive at a plausible and rational evaluation of reality.

In the last decades, although not entirely lost to the educational system, this process has been almost completely disregarded by all but the scientific subjects in favour of the implementation of its opposite: the “top-down” approach. In stark contraposition to the “bottom-up” style, the “top-down” method of teaching – and learning – relies on the acceptance of a general standard of knowledge that should be applied to any new information. In this way, rules are used as equations in mathematics: often learned by heart and seldom questioned. Fortunately, many institutions of higher learning are circling back to a bottom-up system, but why was it abandoned in the first place? 

Why – and when – were the logical analysis and objectivity of the humanities rejected in favour of standardisation and acceptance? Although scientific developments may have indeed played a part in this change, I believe the true cause for this shift should be found in historical events. The “bottom-up” approach, despite being the leading system for education in ancient Greece and the Roman Empire, started to deteriorate in the second and third centuries when the establishment of a dominant religion and its canon brought about the need to standardise the information provided by institutions of learning. In the next few centuries, with the advent of the Middle Ages this process continued with one additional development: whereas in the ancient world all subjects were treated as equally important and necessary for the advancement of a person, the Middle Ages saw the development of a hierarchical structure. Partially relying on Plato’s curriculum, fifth and sixth centuries scholars established the trivium (concerned with the study of grammar, logic and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (focused on arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy) which delineated a set standard of practice for an educational system that would prioritise certain subjects above others. This establishment of an educational hierarchy was later reverted during the Industrial and Scientific Revolutions, as we will see further on.

From the Renaissance to the 21st century

The “bottom-up” approach was later reprised during the Renaissance when the additional focus on the classical texts partially renewed the humanities initial purpose and a tradition of analytical thinking. However, there were two unfortunate caveats to this improvement. Firstly, even though critical thought regained some of its original lustre, educational institutions like grammar schools still focused on rules of language and linguistic conventions, with the addition of lessons which aimed to provide pupils with a classically trained background by teaching them to imitate and recreate the philosopher’s writing style and techniques. Secondly, despite the Renaissance having begun in Italy, some critics have suggested that some Italian scholars seemed to have used the texts of classical philosophers and writers in a very different way than English scholars did. Whereas in Britain the resurfacing of these sources caused an increase in the production of new criticisms and theories, in Italy these texts became the new unquestionable authorities, even though they presented multiple contradictory views. Additionally, the English culture was somewhat blessed by the political changes that took place during the Renaissance. The conversion to Protestantism and the following clashes between the different religious groups led people to balance and judge clashing views and agendas. This process, which continued throughout the 16th and 17th centuries, was later taken further with the Enlightenment era, during which the importance of accurate research as a way to determine the truth became the standard. Later, the Industrial and Scientific Revolution would cause another shift by reestablishing a hierarchical system where the Humanities were ranked last. Priority wasn’t given to grammar, logic and rhetoric as it had been before, but to the newly developed scientific fields. As a result, the importance of researching humanistic subject decreased and the need to maintain the “bottom-up” system wavered. 

This seems to have persisted in modern society, with liberal arts degrees suffering from a negative position in the higher-learning hierarchy and a mostly “top-down” approach focused on providing students with authoritative views to be accepted and not questioned. On the other side of the spectrum, and at the top of the metaphorical educational food chain, are the scientific degrees that, although maintaining part of the “bottom-up” system with the research methods used, have now started to somewhat lack the critical aspect that the Humanities had in ancient Greece. Fortunately, in recent years, institutions of higher learning have begun to reintegrate the “bottom-up” approaches to the Humanities, driving students to engage with their sources logically and analytically to come to a rational – and oftentimes personal – conclusion. 

Leave a Reply