Phronēsis and the End of the Liberal Arts

Albion College
Albion College

By John W. Woell

After more than a decade as faculty and a few years now as associate provost at the category of institution perhaps most under attack in conversations about higher education in America—small, private, selective, liberal arts—my thinking tends to be focused on defending a model of higher education derided in the popular press as “elite,” “impractical,” “ineffective,” or worse.  The most prominent such argument of late, of course, was Newsweek’s mid-September 2012 series on “The College Bubble,” headlined by Megan McArdle’s “Is College a Lousy Investment?” (hint: yes . . . for some).

The cycles of criticism of higher education have led to counterarguments—from those aggregated at Inside Higher Ed and The Chronicle to Jordan Weissman’s more direct
response on The Atlantic—the consensus seems to be that there are two lines of defense. One focuses on the practical (read: economic) value of higher education; the other focuses on the less tangible (read: cultural) values of higher education.

Along the first line, those engaged in thinking about selective liberal arts colleges tend to highlight the transferable skills that such educations engender in participants.  Foremost among these would be “critical thinking,” by which we tend to mean the ability to read, analyze, and criticize a broad variety of thinkers and issues from the past and present. Liberal Arts colleges help students hone this skill by providing them with a broad context, usually through general education programs, and a personal touch, usually through small class sizes and close faculty attention, which are intended to inculcate a mental dexterity and depth not as easily or thoroughly provided elsewhere.  In this, Liberal Arts colleges meet market demands by providing productive members to the workforce, those who can think, read, and—one hopes—write.

Along the second line, those of us in selective Liberal Arts colleges tend to take Anthony Kronman’s direction in Education’s End and argue quite simply that despite their lack of directly economic benefits, Liberal Arts colleges provide all sorts of benefits not as well provided elsewhere.  The liberal arts are ennobling, civilizing, and inspiring, inculcating virtues necessary to an informed and engaged citizenry. Again, the broad context of the general education program serves as the means through which students become exposed to the great thinkers and issues of our culture, and an engaged faculty in the arts and sciences serve as both exemplars and guides for becoming engaged citizens.

The utopianism of these two lines of argument is lost on very few.  In our ideal worlds, the values of the liberal arts and the values of society align in both economic and cultural terms.  Rebecca Chopp, President of Swarthmore College, cites both the development of critical thinking and the cultivation of the values of citizenship as vital functions of selective Liberal Arts colleges.  “Utopian-realist” environs, such as selective Liberal Arts colleges, are intentionally diverse and inclusive communities that foster and intertwine these values.

I am deeply sympathetic to these lines of argument.  What I want to offer here, though, is simply a way of thinking about these arguments reflecting my more general background in philosophy and experience in both the classroom and administrative building at a Liberal Arts college.

The Greeks distinguished between different forms of knowledge, and in the Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle offers a helpful typology, dividing knowledge among technê, epistêmê, and phronēsis.  The lines of argument posed above can be considered as defenses of the liberal arts based upon the value of the first two types, technê and epistêmê, in what might be considered their Platonic (as opposed to Aristotelean) senses.

Technê, usually translated as “skill” or “craft,” is the kind of knowledge required to make or do.  When we defend the liberal arts as teaching critical thinking, we are most often concerned with critical thinking as a skill, one that we teach in the context of, e.g., literature, but can apply much more broadly.  That is, the teaching of literature is not necessary but can—perhaps, jointly with the teaching of other liberal arts disciplines—be sufficient for teaching critical thinking.  Literature is simply one effective means through which the skill of critical thinking can be taught, and this critical thinking has economic or practical value.

Epistêmê, usually translated as “wisdom” or “theoretical knowledge,” is the knowledge of principles.  When we defend the liberal arts as inculcating civilizing values, we usually have in mind the general kind of enculturation that acquaints people with the principles and practices of, in the United States, democracy.  Epistêmê is pure, divorced from the practices themselves but no less necessary for them.  The teaching of literature is again not necessary but can—perhaps, jointly with the teaching of other liberal arts disciplines—be sufficient for teaching such principles.  Insofar as we think of the acquisition of epistêmê as enculturating, literature is one effective means through which the knowledge of principles can be taught, and its content provides the cultural context for more fully understanding the principles or values themselves.

Thinking about technê and epistêmê in this way implies that the means and the ends of the two forms of knowledge are separable.  Technê is learned skill, and the skilled technician is one who can apply the techniques appropriately and—if a true craftsman—apply them to create new forms.  The means and the materials are externally related.  Epistêmê is pure contemplation of principles, and the wise epistemologist or philosopher is one who can understand most fully the universal principles in and for themselves.  Ends or materials are of no concern.

Switching back to Aristotle, phronēsis, usually translated as “prudence” or “practical wisdom,” is both the knowledge of how to achieve an end and the consideration of ends themselves.  It is practical in that it has aims and ends (unlike epistêmê) but it is reflective in that it considers the value of those ends as well (unlike technê). Phronêsis, then, is both the determination of means and the determination of ends; the means and the ends are internally related.

This internal relationship between means and ends requires attention to both particulars and principles, and the two cannot be divorced in phronēsis in the way they often are in morally neutral matters (as in technê) or morally unambiguous matters (as in epistêmê). Phronēsis requires both experience and knowledge and recognizes the importance of each for the other.  The act of the agent would not be the action that it is, were it performed in some other way.  Insofar as these acts are good, they show appropriate attention to the particulars of the situation and the means to bring about an appropriate or prudent end.

It strikes me that phronēsis offers both an excellent analogy for thinking about the liberal arts in general and an argument for their unique educational value.  Those of us who work in these contexts know that the means we use to achieve our ends are internally related to those ends.  In this sense, I would argue that viewing critical thinking as a transferable skill does a disservice to our actual practices.  What counts as critical thinking in religious studies would not count as critical thinking in biology.  In fact, we see all too frequently that this is so.

A liberal arts education considered along these lines is different from, e.g., a large university education, and this is not a value judgment on the latter.  Both means and ends differ because of their internal relationship.  We often speak of our faculty’s commitment, the close student-faculty relationship, the tightly knit community, and general education program as being hallmarks of the selective liberal arts college.  All this remains true. But I believe that what distinguishes our faculty and our community is an intentional commitment to addressing the needs of the present by drawing on the experiences of the past and to giving our students the kinds of experiences we hope will produce phronēsis.

Nonetheless, we recognize that the internal relationship between means and ends is an imperfect one.  With proper guidance and investment on our part, we hope that our students will identify with Socrates and not Thrasymachus in Plato’s Republic.  We hope that our students will come to develop appropriate means for creating the good and come to understand the difficulties in doing so.  Most importantly, we will view our investment in education as a constant cycle of application, evaluation, and reformulation of conventions and values, of means and ends.

One great difficulty with thinking about the liberal arts in this way is that it requires of faculty an investment in the very kind of education we are hoping to give our students.  It is not enough to have—at some points in the distant past—engaged in some thinking outside and beyond the disciplines of our specializations.  We often bemoan the generalization required of us when we ought embrace and relish it.  We need to become examples of the very intellectual dexterity we would inculcate. To invest in a Liberal Arts college in this sense is to invest in what we might call “phronetic” education, an education that consistently and explicitly calls both means and ends into critical examination.

John W. Woell is Professor of Philosophy and Religious Studies and Associate Provost at Albion College in Albion, Michigan, and the author of Peirce, James, and a Pragmatic Philosophy of Religion. His academic wanderlust was instilled in him through interdisciplinary education in the humanities and has most recently carried him to exploring applications of Design Thinking to higher education.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.