Darwin’s Tangled Liberal Arts Education

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

Despite Darwin’s antipathy toward liberal arts education, it successfully prepared him for greatness. A closer look at three entangled features will illustrate why a liberal education succeeded in Darwin’s case, despite his disinterest. They also provide insight into how conversations may be instigated across the fragmented landscapes of our own campuses, promoting a more unified view of the liberal arts tradition.

The biological tangled bank that Darwin describes in On the Origin of Species refers to three factors that I will put into an educational context. First, the bank is populated by numerous species. In educational terms, I’ll reference different species of instruction, formal and informal. Second, is the environment of the bank itself. Our contemporary university is often painfully fragmented between faculty, staff, and administration. This fragmentation tends to work against the grandeur of the tangled bank of education. Third, is the “fixed law of gravity,” or what I will understand as the natural law of the university. It was not lost on Darwin in his elder age that the formal exercises of school forced him to cultivate his intellectual character. The inescapable natural law of passing the BA exam continually reminded Darwin that the classics were not to be neglected if he desired to continue searching for beetles. All three of these factors came together through Darwin’s education in cultivating a liberal, creative mind—even when Darwin actively disregarded his studies.

Taking the factors in turn, Darwin flourished under what might be called informal education. At both Edinburgh and Cambridge, Darwin cultivated relationships with various faculty mentors. The traditional curriculum may have been tedious, even those courses taught by his mentors, but the same mentors, outside of class, brought the love of learning to life. He walked the Scottish coast with Robert Grant and the English country-side with John Henslow and Adam Sedgwick. These men took special interest in Darwin, providing that species of informal education that we too cherish when finding kindred souls in our students. Conversations extend beyond the classical curriculum into matters of life, society, and the future.

The unrecognized role of the mentor is his or her commitment to the liberal arts. This is the antidote to the poison of not seeing any value in classical education.

Darwin’s mentors were living the life of the mind, infecting students with its ethos along the way. The tangible effects of such informal education are legion, even if not directly quantifiable. It is one thing to speak about the value of liberal arts in front of a class or colleagues; it is another to see it lived. Darwin’s relationship with Henslow was key to him choosing a life of the mind over other endeavors.

Related to mentorship is the more general concern of student life. Current educational environments are often in tension between an unholy triumvirate of faculty, student life/services, and administration. I will not comment on administration, but Darwin’s educational history seems to be a success story for the relationship between student life and faculty. Darwin’s educational environment was an entangled bank of faculty involved in the daily doings of student life.

Apart from the walks with faculty, Darwin enjoyed the various free thinking student societies often attended by faculty members, the “field trips,” the informal and formal dinner parties at professor’s houses, and the general excitement of being in a community of young and mature minds. The social atmosphere at Edinburgh and Cambridge was a living liberal arts community, bombarding students with liberal arts experiences.

I fear that this communal aspect of the university has been disentangled more and more from the faculty. Instead, it is being developed by professional student life/services staff divorced from the life of the mind. Predictably, the difference is comical as any walk around the campus finds more flyers for bounce houses, bonfires, and amusement parks than poetry readings, faculty panels, and other traditional free thinking exercises.

Lastly, while Darwin might have been more interested in the extracurricular activities at university, he could not escape the formal curriculum. The universe of the school was bound to classical education. This provided the necessary natural law for Darwin to engage with the texts—even if he ultimately still credited them as less formative to his education. Darwin at least knew why they were unhelpful as he crammed for his BA examination. He cultivated the aesthetic sense of the “higher animals,” recognizing the grandeur of life in direct relation to his work with the liberal arts.

The loss of a solid, required classical liberal arts curriculum has left a generation of students without meaningful questions to ask.

At the very least, we owe it to our students that they understand what they are rejecting.

The intent of my all-too-brief look into Darwin’s educational history is to elucidate the ways that the liberal arts may impact students by less than formal avenues. The trend in education has been toward disentangling our institutional banks, to become more professional, more specialized, more divided. But Darwin’s history suggests that even as a student apathetic toward the formal curriculum, the liberal arts are effective in cultivating minds when integrated across the curriculum.

Darwin was the product of a liberal arts education, not only because he read the appropriate books and passed the appropriate exams; he was liberally educated because he couldn’t escape a liberal arts environment. It pressed upon him from his mentors, various student activities as well as the required nature of the curriculum. Thus, despite Darwin’s apathetic attitude, the liberal arts succeeded with him, ensnaring him in the entangled bank of education.

How might our current institutions work toward such an integrated liberal arts approach to education? How can faculty discuss such things with student services? What moves administrators to get on board with such goals over and above other endeavors? I don’t have answers, but if anything, we can draw inspiration from Darwin’s history that the liberal arts can have a positive effect upon those in denial of its importance, that is, as long as the educational bank is adequately entangled.

Daniel Deen is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Concordia University Irvine