Darwin’s Apathy for the Liberal Arts

Cambridge January 17 2010
Charles Darwin Bicentenary Statue in Cambridge

This is the first post of a two-part essay on Darwin’s liberal arts education and its implications for education today.

In 1859 Darwin brought closure to his 490-page abstract, On the Origin of Species, with the following reflection:

“It is interesting to contemplate an entangled bank, clothed with many plants of many kinds, with birds singing on the bushes, with various insects flitting about, and with worms crawling through the damp earth, and to reflect that these elaborately constructed forms, so different from each other, and dependent on each other in so complex a manner, have all been produced by laws acting around us. . . . Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

This poetic passage hides a tortured educational history. It is a narrative openly disparaging of the liberal arts, despite being penned in the spirit of the liberal arts.

My aim in this two-part essay is to make sense of Darwin’s tangled educational bank with a brief historical jaunt through his educational history to understand how the liberal arts succeeded with him despite his apathy toward traditional education. My hope is to bring forward some underrepresented aspects of the contemporary liberal arts university, raising a few questions as to how we might better entangle our own educational banks. My contention is that intentionally incorporating the liberal arts across the various aspects of the university ensnares young minds in liberal education even if they are hostile to the liberal arts curriculum.

 Darwin’s educational history is replete with failed attempts to appreciate the liberal arts. Commenting in his autobiography about his early education at the local Shrewsbury school, Darwin says, “Nothing could have been worse for the development of my mind than Dr. Butler’s school, as it was strictly classical.” An early exit to Edinburgh, much to Darwin’s father’s dismay, did not ignite any formal educational fires. Thus a young Darwin found himself in Cambridge destined for the cloth. Reflecting upon his time in Cambridge, Darwin states, “During the three years which I spent at Cambridge my time was wasted, as far as academical studies were concerned, as completely as at Edinburgh and at [Shrewsbury].” Darwin puts the final nail in the coffin of liberal arts education when he states, “The careful study of these [classical] works, without attempting to learn any part by rote, was the only part of the Academical Course which, as I then felt and as I still believe, was of the least use to me in the education of my mind.” Notice that Darwin did not find his education useless, only those parts that were a part of the core liberal arts.

Darwin threw himself with reckless abandon into various extracurricular activities, both social and academic in nature. He writes fondly of the free thinking student societies of Edinburgh and Cambridge, the social dining clubs, and the hunting involving guns and nets, partridges, and beetles. Recapping his undergraduate experience, Darwin comments, “my time was sadly . . . worse than wasted. From my passion for shooting and for hunting and when this failed, for riding across country . . . in the evening . . . dinners . . . [where] we sometimes drank too much, with jolly singing and playing at cards afterwards. . . . I cannot help look back to these times with much pleasure.”

Thus, we see a picture of Darwin’s education that is not much different from many contemporary students: a life of neglected study, pleasure seeking, and apathy toward the liberal arts.

We might even join chorus with Darwin’s father reprimanding a young Darwin and our students: “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs, and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.”

Darwin paints a rather bleak picture of his classical education. I, however, see hope in his narrative. First, it is somehow comforting to know that the problems encountered in today’s students are only a difference of degree, not kind, with students of yesteryear. Second, if Darwin, a poster child of apathy for the liberal arts, can succeed in merging his liberal education with his career—as I suggested that his tangled bank passage illustrates, then there is hope for similar success with our current generation of students.

The next installment of this essay will examine how Darwin’s education was a thoroughly entangled bank devoted to the liberal arts. From faculty mentors, to student life, to the incessant drive to qualify for the BA, all were connected to a liberal arts education that helped shape the person Darwin became.

 Daniel Deen is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Concordia University Irvine