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Liberal Arts 2.5

a portion of the cover for a book called a New Liberal Arts

Once, Kottke.org’s tagline was “Liberal Arts 2.0.” It’s a terrific description of everything the blog covers and how Jason covers it; unpacking the web with a humanist lens, looking for noteworthy specimens and bigger connections.

It also chimed with “Web 2.0,” which was a popular descriptive and prescriptive phrase at the time.

Tim Berners-Lee famously derided “Web 2.0” as “jargon,” claiming that the web was always intended to be a social and collaborative medium and that the things proponents of a renewal of the web wanted to emphasize were there from the start. Which is… basically accurate!

But the liberal arts badly needed (and still badly need) an update for the age of the web. So many of the big Web 2.0 projects (social networking and commerce, folksonomies, the web as a development platform) either betrayed some of their initial democratizing promises as they were taken over by giant companies, or got crowded out by the same.

And “Web 3.0” — well, the less said about that, the better. A straight marketing play that ropes together a few promising technologies with total dead ends.

Liberal Arts 2.0, though — that’s a concept that still has legs. But perhaps twenty years after Snarkmarket got rolling, and twenty-five years after Kottke.org hung up its shingle, we can propose a modest, incremental (but still significant) update: Liberal Arts 2.5.

In 2009, me and my partners Matt Thompson and Robin Sloan plus a community of collaborators at my old site Snarkmarket were so struck by Jason’s idea of Liberal Arts 2.0 that we decided to make a book that outlined a series of emerging disciplines that we thought might make up a set of New Liberal Arts.

This was pre-Kickstarter, so we rolled it up ourselves. With help from Revelator Press, we created it as a limited-edition paperback book; the print run was just 200 copies, so it’s quite a collectible nowadays. Once we cleared our production costs, we also offered it as a free, Creative Commons-licensed PDF, ebook, and as plain HTML — an early example of what I later called unlocking the commons.

I’m actually quite pleased that the plain HTML version I made (and hand-edited!) so we could turn it into an ebook is still up. The PDF version we had hosted succumbed to linkrot, but it’s still available on Issuu. For fun, I just posted a copy of the original New Liberal Arts PDF on Dropbox just for readers of Kottke.org.

New Liberal Arts is the apotheosis of everything I loved about Snarkmarket. It asks big questions about the past, present, and future, including especially the past/present/future of media. It is a collaborative project we made with our community. And it’s a concrete thing we put into the world, under our own terms, that got people excited and sparked more conversations.

And it’s a conversation that I think is still going. If anything, liberal arts education is even more under attack today than it was in 2009. And between then and now, liberal arts practitioners have had to reflect on what it means to teach, learn, and operate in the world given the rapid rate of technological change — not just between now and when the medieval trivium and quadrivium were formulated, but between now and the postwar university, or even the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s.

It’s something we need to keep rethinking continually. (And not coincidentally, “rethinking things continually” is something that the liberal arts traditionally has done extremely well.)

Here is our original list of “New” Liberal Arts:

  • 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
  • Video Literacy

Contributors included myself, Matt Thompson, Robin Sloan, Andrew Fitzgerald, Gavin Craig, Diana Kimball, Aaron McLearan, Dan Levine, Theresa Mlinarcik, Laura Portwood-Stacer, Jennifer Rensenbrink, Alex Litel, Jimmy Stamp, Tiara Shafiq, Matthew Penniman, Rex Sorgatz, Rachel Leow, and Kasia Cieplak Mayr-Von Baldegg.

If you want to read more about what we had to say about any of these things, please read the book, or browse individual chapters at leisure — it’s really not very long.

But in true Snarkmarket/Liberal Arts 2.0/Web 2.0 fashion, I also want to open up this conversation to the Kottke community.

  • What do you think are the new liberal arts?
  • How do the liberal arts need to change to reflect new technologies, media ecologies, and social and political transformations (and crises)?
  • What do we need to hold onto from liberal arts education that’s in danger of being lost?
  • If you were teaching a youth today what they needed to know to be a free person in the world, what subjects would be on your curriculum?

Discussion  9 comments

Timothy C Truxell

The idea of Liberal Arts 2.0 (or 2.5) has long fascinated me. I am a product of a liberal arts education, and I wouldn't throw all of it out to replace it wholesale (particularly History and Literature for example), but I also agreed it was in need quite a few additions, particularly around digital literacy (basic coding and video literacy). Thank you for resharing the PDF of the book. I'm setting it aside to begin reading over the weekend.

Jennifer Rensenbrink
💯 🙌 🤯  comment

The biggest liberal arts needs I see today are: creative problem-solving, cutting through the noise to discern fact from fiction, and public health.
 
I wrote my New Home Economics chapter of the book during a time of great economic uncertainty, and two new babies to care for, and it affected my thinking enormously—I was really focused on hearth & home, and what skills I could and ought to share with them as little kids.
 
Now that they’re 16 and I’m 45, my thinking on the home ec project has shifted. Where it used to be about how much food I could possibly grow in my tiny inner city yard, it’s now about finding efficiency, and forcing myself to be realistic about the time and energy I have to give to my gardening projects as a full-time American corporate worker in 2023. We deserve joy in our lives, too, and that joy has to be chosen and cultivated, over and over again, despite of the barrage of bad news on our tiny little screens.

Furthermore, the pandemic and climate disasters have both brought home to me the desperate need for creative problem-solving. This isn’t about a new liberal art, it’s about a refocus on a traditional one, namely arts education—whether it be music or visual arts. And that’s not just because of its role in cultivating joy, but because we all desperately need to flex our imagination muscles to visualize what could be.
 
Over my last 15+ years of writing, the limits of how much I can truly influence others towards the things that I am passionate about has to come into stark focus, and I have begrudgingly given myself permission to not try quite so hard. The realities and limits of middle age, I guess: an endless cycle of taking on too much, burning out, stepping back, and then starting over again.
 
Snarkmarket meant a lot to me as a 20-something. Thanks, guys! I’m so proud to have been a part of this.

Matt Thompson

I am so happy to hear from you here, Jennifer, and these are such cogent and moving thoughts for me to read right now. (Also, hello to you and Adam and Rowan and Anneka!)

I've spent my last two years as an editor diving more deeply into housing, homelessness, and the built environment than into any other issue, and now I feel way more evangelical about Home Economics as a necessary art. I think how we think about homes and housing — how do we care for and build on our housing stock? how we share space and subdivide the work of maintaining it with others? how do we make dangerous spaces livable? how do we flow and arrange gathering and food preparation spaces? what do we waste, what do we keep, what do we buy? — deserves a huge place in any education that would purport to make a free person. I love the evolution of your thinking on this; it feels so grounded and resonant.

Jennifer Rensenbrink

I love your questions. Additional ones: how do we retrofit existing housing stock for the next 50 years to account for increasing intergenerational home sharing, as well as building in resiliency to new climate threats? So much to think about. I usually try to stay in my lane with gardening and landscaping solutions, but I also know my kids aren't going to leave home at 18 like I did, so I'm thinking about all those other things as well. Thanks for the reply. Hi to you and Bryan as well! So nice to hear from you.

Bison Bison

I think “wellbeing” should be added to the list. How do you thrive at work, with your friends, in your community? Do you have enough money to do what you want to do? Are you healthy? Gallup has been doing some awesome research into this for a while. It touches on many aspects on the 2.0 list, but I think it deserves its own mention and focus.

Andrew Cafourek

Wow, just last week, I pulled the New Liberal Arts from my bookshelf and flipped through it for a moment. I distinctly remembered the era of my life when I acquired it but I couldn’t recall from whence it came or how it found its way to my bookshelf. And within a week here is the serendipitous answer! I didn’t realize the run was only 200, now it must move to a position of honoring the bookshelf!

My addition in 2023 would be an exploration of how to learn in an era where everything is available and it can feel overwhelming to explore a new topic. You must go broad to understand context and connection but you must also go deep to understand nuance. That balance has always been true but physical limitations often restrained one or the other when your materials were finite.

In addition, it may be quite valuable to develop an “art” focused on knowing what is real. From “fake news” to AI, such discernment is critically necessary but not often practiced.

Tim CarmodyMOD

Here are a few ideas of mine I didn’t put in the post:

  • everyone needs some AI literacy, knowing what the bots can do and what they can’t
  • everyone needs to know about essential infrastructure (Deb Chachra’s book is a great place to start)
  • we need to study transportation as a liberal art
  • we need to study justice, punishment, and death as a liberal art
Nevan Scott

+1 on all of these!

I keep asking myself how data literacy / competencies fit in. Since the original, “data science” has developed into a full-blown practice with its own set of internal discussions about different sub-fields. I think it fits somewhere between “coding and decoding” and your proposed “AI literacy”. For me it feels like a cross-sectional area of literacy which can be applied to so many of the other areas.

Ben Orlin wrote a thoughtful post about this recently, where he breaks down some key areas of questioning:

  1. The promise and perils of quantification
  2. Questions internal to the data itself
  3. What happens when humans interact with data?

I think there’s some good food for thought here.

Dan Cryer

I teach college English - mostly writing but also some literature - and I’m loving this post and thread. I’ve recently reinvented my composition class to focus on argument - understanding and creating them. I’m mostly happy with where this leads us, but with each reinvention of this (or any) class, I’m struck by just how much I want to teach my students and how long it takes to really teach anything effectively and responsibly. With each new thing I want to teach, I have to take something away to make room. Those decisions are hard.

This thread is closed for new comments & replies. Thanks to everyone for participating!