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Rethinking liberal arts in the digital age

Liberal Arts is due for an update
By MIKE MILIARD  |  July 23, 2009

They didn't teach genderfuck, iteration, or micropolitics when I was in college. But times have changed. And nowadays, they maybe should consider it. At least so says Tim Carmody, who, along with his co-proprietors of the blog Snarkmarket and a coterie of other Web-based deep thinkers, has put together a book called The New Liberal Arts (Revelator).

The definition of "liberal arts" has evolved over time, after all. In the fifth century, it included dialectic, astronomy, geometry, and music. In medieval universities, students studied grammar, logic, and rhetoric. Today, most of those leafy colleges tucked away in quiet New England hamlets specialize in, among other subjects, art, literature, language, philosophy, and history.

But is that all? Over the past 15 years, the Internet has profoundly — and increasingly — changed the way we live and learn. As such, the contributors of The New Liberal Arts suggest the definition may be due for an update. In other words: if, as former Harvard president Charles Eliot once put it, the books necessary for a liberal-arts education should fit on a five-foot shelf, this is one volume that ought to be sitting on the nearby end table.

"It's 2009," writes Carmody's co-author, Robin Sloan. "A generation of digital natives is careening toward college. The economy is rebooting itself weekly. We have new responsibilities now — as employees, citizens, and friends — and we have new capabilities, too. The new liberal arts equip us for a world like this. But . . . what are they?"

In alphabetical order, according to the authors: attention economics, brevity, coding and decoding, creativity, finding, food, genderfuck, home economics, inaccuracy, iteration, journalism, mapping, marketing, micropolitics, myth and magic, negotiation, photography, play, reality, engineering, translation, and video literacy.

If you want to know what some of those terms actually mean, you'll have to read the book. The good news? As soon as its initial print run of 200 sold out — in a mere eight hours — its editors immediately made it available as a gratis downloadable PDF at (In typical Web 2.0 fashion, they wanted the book to be as free as they could afford to make it, hence the limited first run.)

Carmody, on the phone from Philadelphia, says the book is geared toward people "who are interested in the ways that the Internet, new media, and technological and cultural developments are changing the way that we think about information and how it's disseminated — knowledge and how it grows."

"There are a huge number of people who use the Internet as a perpetual college space," he points out, "who continue to learn, continue to keep informed, and write and get feedback."

As the Web makes this goal of lifelong learning easier, free-er, and more fruitful than ever, the idea was to create a sort of syllabus for "a university that has no physical space . . . snippets from an imaginary course catalogue."

Meanwhile, with the Internet itself evolving faster every day, we can expect that this rethought set of liberal arts will be supplanted one day soon by an even newer one. "It's the problem education always has to solve," says Carmody. "A stable body of knowledge always lags behind what's happening right at that moment."

Related: War paint, Facing up, Geek power, More more >
  Topics: Lifestyle Features , Internet, Science and Technology, Technology,  More more >
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