How Much the World Has Changed

Most of my students seem to feel oppressed, not enabled, by their education, so I like to remind them of what it means to have a liberal education. Artes liberales free one to explore the vast sea of knowledge, giving one the agency to choose to live a life of quality.
Such ideals accompanied the entry of science into the college curriculum: many thought the physical sciences were to lead us to larger views of moral and spiritual truths. At its inception, lab work was considered good for ethics, in that it requires truthful statement, self-control and industry.
But there were a few critics who objected to the "material" study of those labs in which chemistry was applied to machinery, for instance. John Ruskin was one of them. He claimed that a future age would hate those scientific achievements made despite the millions still dying of famine. While his contemporaries made "weavable fibres out of the mosses and made clothes for itself, cheap and fine," man would one day see that the natural sciences lead to happiness not by providing material benefits, but by leading to appreciation of God's presence in His handiwork.
So, the rhetoric of education in the early 20th century was still ethical, but Ruskin foresaw, by considering the consequences of contemporary thought, that the age of science would become materialistic, soulless, oppressive.
We all know that science has become extremely specialised - even specialists are outmoded once they retire (as in genome science, for example). Such specialization was ushered in by science, perhaps unwittingly at the cost of the bigger picture. Along with scientific professionalism has come impersonal bureaucracy; reactions of antielitism (e.g. when the media rejoices in showing the weakness of the strong); alienation; stereotypes (of nations; in reductionist speeches); false standards (a precedent being the ancient Greeks considering themselves in the middle of the barbarians from the West and the wise but cowardly peoples of the East). A glance at the world today reveals a society not founded on the liberal ideals of yesteryear, the time of the polymath and authority - whose learned eyes could diagnose such general ills.
There are dangers inherent in learning, not due to specialisation so much as to how that research is conducted. For example, it is said even of spiritual learning: what good is mastering more advanced lessons if one has left one's fellow humans far behind?
I will support that last question with an anecdote. Back in the day, I used to ride my bike round Manhattan. One day, a youth pedaled next to me and invited me to the private swimming pool in the suburbs above the city where he life-guarded. There, I met an exchange student from a Nordic country who said she'd once had a friend who'd wanted to take his life. So, she said she'd injure her wrist with him - and as a result, he couldn't go through with his wish all the way, and she saved his life by offering her own.
If we look back at the 19th century scientists, like at Faraday and Maxwell, we see men of incredible character. Faraday died impoverished, which is shocking if you consider all he did for science, education and his country. But perhaps there's a lasting liberation in thinking of more than just oneself.

Elements: doily; needlework; brush.