Dr. Lois Zamora*, PhD
Professor of English
Agnes Arnold Room 402
Department of English
University of Houston
Houston, TX 77204-3784
Telephone: (713) 743-2992
*Reprinted By Permission From Collegium online, 1997
The Fine Arts are flourishing at the University of Houston. Our new Moores School of Music building opened to accolades in late September. Our School of Theatre includes the most dazzling array of theatrical talents in the country. The Creative Writing Program, the Art Department, Blaffer Gallery, KUHF, and Arte Público Press are essential to the cultural life of the city, as well as to the lives of our students. I could go on, but the articles in this second issue of Collegium say it for me. We have reason to be proud. Why do we call them Fine Arts? In French and Spanish, they are Beautiful Arts-les Beaux Arts, las Bellas Artes. According to the New York Times, they are the "Living Arts." The "fine" in Fine Arts comes from the Latin finis, meaning the end, the utmost limit or highest point and, by metaphoric extension, consummate, accomplished, complete. Strictly speaking, the Fine Arts are visual arts-painting, sculpture, graphics-but at the University of Houston, we include the performing and literary arts as well.
These fine, beautiful, living arts are taught in the College of Humanities, Fine Arts, and Communication, which includes an array of degree programs: history, languages, literature, philosophy, journalism, speech, audiology and speech pathology, RTV, film, public relations, among others. As Dean of this far-flung domain, my urgent responsibility and that of my faculty is to question the relations among these disciplines, and to question how they serve the preparation of the whole human self.
Such daunting questions become more manageable if we recall the historical tradition of the liberal arts. The liberal arts curriculum was the university curriculum in Europe and the Americas until the turn of this century. It was conceived by the ancient Greeks to direct the growth of the human mind and soul. Dr. Kathleen Haney, Professor of Philosophy at UH Downtown, explains that in classical Greek culture: "Children began their education with stories and physical education. They advanced through the arts of what was called the 'trivium'-the study of grammar, logic, and rhetoric-and then to the 'quadrivium'-arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. These seven 'liberal arts' prepared the person for philosophy, the search for truth in dialogue with others."
The arts of the trivium prepared students to distinguish and communicate values; the arts of the quadrivium prepared them to measure and practice them. The tools for both qualitative and quantitative judgment were deemed necessary and inseparable. (Notice that music was placed among the quantitative arts of the quadrivium. The Greeks understood music to be the universal science of harmonics, and thus akin to astronomy and mathematics.) These liberal arts unified the university in its goal of preparing students to manipulate symbolic languages, whether music or math, grammar or geometry. The "hard" sciences were not yet separated from the humanities because their intent was identical: the education of the whole person.
You will have realized by now that the "liberal" in "liberal arts" has nothing to do with our modern use of the word. Rather, it refers to liberation, to the freeing of the person to read anything written, understand anything spoken, and express what he or she wishes to communicate. To possess the mental and expressive skills required for all intellectual accomplishment is to be freed from ignorance and prejudice, freed to be fully human.
The generalizing aim of the liberal arts curriculum is clear. A liberal education does not train students in specialized technical skills (though such skills may well be included in their education) but rather assists them to develop mental and moral capacities that can be turned to any and every intellectual endeavor.
Despite the obvious desirability of such an education, American universities are dominated by specialized courses of study. It is a measure of the rise of specialization-in the sciences, technology, the professions-that "trivium" is the etymological ancestor of our modern word "trivial." Far from trivial, the liberal arts must be maintained at the center of our undergraduate curriculum. UH's core curriculum does so. It preserves the spirit of the liberal arts, but it is under siege.
And no wonder. It is expensive to teach undergraduates to write, speak, and think critically. These skills can only be taught in small classes and with careful guidance and personal attention from faculty. Beyond the problem of resources required to teach the core curriculum is its universalizing intent, which goes against our modern habit of specialization. The core curriculum resists narrow specialization. UH's commitment to this broadly interdisciplinary core is based upon our recognition that in late 20th-century America, students are more likely to drown in a puddle than in the sea.
My point is this. We owe a liberal education to each of our students. We know that they will change careers an average of four times during their working lives. A liberal education-long considered impractical-has now become highly practical because it provides the basis for intellectual flexibility, critical thinking, and a lifetime of learning.
A review committee comprised of faculty from across the campus has recently been constituted to evaluate UH's core curriculum. This is as it should be. Just because our core requirements are part of a tradition that goes back two and a half millennia doesn't mean we can take them for granted. As an institution we must constantly question how we are extending that tradition, and whether we are accomplishing its high goals.
Of the 13 degree-granting colleges that make up the University of Houston, 10 offer degrees in professional disciplines, three in the liberal arts. These proportions suggest that the challenge for the university in the coming years will be to maintain our parallel commitment to specialized professional training and to the broadening of minds through the liberal arts.
The splendid health of the Fine Arts at the University of Houston is, then, cause for celebration, and it reflects the health of the liberal arts as well. Indeed, mastery of the liberal arts is what makes the Fine Arts possible. The symbolic languages of music, drama, poetry, painting are the fruits of the liberal tradition-its voice, eyes, ears, heart, and soul. The Fine Arts have the capacity to speak to us of the entire range of human values and experience. Whether we play the violin or simply love music, whether we experience Hamlet's tortured spirit as an actor or playgoer or reader, whether we create art or simply know how to appreciate it doesn't matter. The result is the same. The whole human person is engaged.
What better way to educate our students and ourselves?