Graduation Speeches

2007 The Liberal Arts at Kepler

Speech by Robert Hand, MA, Kepler faculty member
Given at the Kepler Commencement on October 26, 2007

At the risk of seeming to hammer too much on a theme, I am once again going to speak on the liberal arts at Kepler. This theme has been a constant of our public talks, and that is not likely to change in the near future. The reason for this is simple: there is a widespread misunderstanding in American education of what the term “liberal arts” means; and the level of this misunderstanding seems to be increasing rather than decreasing. However, on this occasion I am going to focus specifically on what the term “liberal arts” means at Kepler and tell you something of how it has been implemented and what the consequences of this are for astrology, astrologers, and those whose sympathies lie with astrology.

Part 1

Part 2

In this talk I will concentrate on the undergraduate program at Kepler not because it is more important than our masters program, but because I suspect people who are interested in our masters program already understand the issues involved in a liberal arts education. For them to the role of the liberal arts does not need to be addressed as much as it does at the undergraduate level. So that will be my focus.

But first of all let me restate the basic definition of the term. The “liberal arts” are those skills and bodies of knowledge necessary for one to be a free citizen.

I want to begin by citing one of my favorite Kepler stories. It is one of my favorites especially because it happened in the very first year of Kepler near the end of the last term. There was a round-table discussion of the students and faculty who were present. The general theme of this discussion was “what were the students getting out of Kepler?” I have to add that this was not an organized round-table discussion. It was just something that happened spontaneously at the end of a class. One student got up and said that he had had an interesting encounter with a Christian fundamentalist in which said Christian fundamentalist began reeling off a list of objections to astrology, apparently believing that these arguments were authentically derived from scripture. The Kepler student said something to the effect of “Oh yes! Saint Augustine, City of God, Book V!” This first-year Kepler student not only knew that the arguments being presented were not from the Bible but he knew exactly where they were from. Also, and I don’t know if that particular Kepler student knew this at the time, Augustine’s arguments were not even derived from Christian sources. If the student did not already know, he would have eventually found out at Kepler that most of Augustine’s arguments were taken from pagan philosophers such as Cicero. And, as the great historian of science Lynn Thorndike pointed out, Ptolemy had answered these objections very tellingly in Book I of the Tetrabiblos over two hundred years before Augustine. It is clear that Augustine had never read Ptolemy. Maybe Augustine would have benefited from a good liberal arts education. About the only argument that Augustine presented that was not derived from pagan philosophical sources was his contention that, when astrology seemed to work, it was because of the actions of demons.

Now I have to ask the obvious question. Would this knowledge of the real source of the fundamentalist’s anti-astrological arguments have helped this student later on in the consulting room with a client? Probably not, unless the client were hostile to astrology and had to be rendered un-hostile. But typically people who come to astrologers are not overtly hostile to astrology; they are sometimes skeptical, but not hostile. However, many astrologers make the mistake of thinking that astrology exists only in the consulting rooms of astrologers and the lecture halls of conferences. Astrologers are also citizens in the world, and they, whether they like it or not, are seen as representatives of astrology. I don’t know whether or not this Kepler student made any impression on the beliefs of his fundamentalist opponent, but at least the student was not bowled over by the apparent force of the fundamentalist’s arguments. The student more than held his own. Too often I have seen astrologers representing astrology in the media who were completely overthrown by opponents who, while completely ignorant of what astrology really is, were extremely learned in philosophy and science. Astrologers often look like fools in these encounters. (I do want to add parenthetically that in recent years astrologers have gotten much more canny about these encounters, but there is still a long way to go.) This is one of the issues that a liberal arts education addresses and there are others as well.

 

Let me describe the Kepler method. First of all, astrological studies at Kepler play the same role at Kepler that “majors” play at other colleges and universities. One studies deeply in the subject area of the major but one also has to take courses in quite a few other fields which the university has deemed necessary to be an intellectually well-rounded citizen. Kepler takes the same approach except that we are more likely to integrate the astrological and non-astrological subjects into single courses. For example, this term our president Enid Newberg and I are presenting a course on the philosophy of science. In this course, the philosophy is presented on its own and then integrated into astrology by presenting the question of how all of this relates to astrology and its philosophical foundations. Thus, the astrology is directly integrated with the philosophy.

In the first year at Kepler all students take a single set of courses, the IS-100 courses. These are all history courses. In fact they are predominantly intellectual history courses (that is, the history of thought and ideas). In these three one-term courses, 101, 102, and 103 we take the history of religion, philosophy, politics, and the sciences from the ancient period, through the middle ages into modern times and integrate all of the above with the history of astrology in these same periods. The three courses collectively are a survey of astrology in the history of our culture. (This is where the student encountered the City of God, Book V.) This is not one of those bogus histories of astrology that astrologers used to write which try to justify astrology by proving that anybody who was anybody in the past was also an astrologer. We quite rigorously present the facts as they are understood by historians as to what astrology was in each period, how it related to the historical mainstream of the time, what the objections were to it, who practiced it and so forth. One contemporary academic historian in the field of the history of astrology, one David Juste of Belgium currently working at the University of Sydney in Australia, was surprised to discover that we not only knew of his work in the field but presented it in our course. (Dr. Juste has presented previously unknown material from the Dark Ages of the West after the fall of Rome that indicate that learned horoscopic astrology had not died out there in that period. Prior to his work, the orthodox opinion was that astrology survived only in the Greek and Arabic East.) When he looked at our syllabus he was amazed at the breadth and sophistication of the material covered and expressed great regret that he had not had access to something like our IS-100 courses when he was first working in the field.

After the first year Kepler students begin encountering astrology on a much more nuts-and-bolts level, as well as continuing their studies of history, philosophy and culture; that is, they begin to study what astrology is, what are its ideas, methods and the techniques make it up. They also study how people have gone about doing astrology among the ancient Greeks, Hindus, Arabs, and European Latins right up to modern times. They do learn genuine practical astrology (despite rumors to the contrary) but always in a comparative and critical context. To take a concrete example, when house division is discussed, no one position is ever taken as a “correct” position, but all systems are presented, compared and evaluated according to various philosophical and technical criteria as well as the historical context of its use. Everything at Kepler is presented as much as possible in a survey mode. Things are compared, criticized and evaluated. There is no orthodoxy. Students do not even have to “believe” in astrology. We do not encourage beliefs. We encourage practical modes of inquiry.

Do we teach literature? Yes we do. Much of it has an astrological slant, but we do teach literature as literature. Do we teach writing? Yes, we do. We have both practical courses in composition and, also, all teachers demand a considerable amount of writing and we all take seriously the idea that all of us must teach proper composition. Do we teach science? Both implicitly and explicitly yes. One of our foundational courses teaches statistics and experimental design. This is taught by Dr. Mark Urban-Lurain of Michigan State University one of the pioneer researchers in astrological research design as well as research design in more orthodox contexts. Do we teach foreign languages? Yes, we do. We teach three, Latin, Classical Greek, and Sanskrit. The only major language of astrology that we do not currently cover is Arabic and we hope to fill that gap at some time in the near future. We also plan to add modern languages as well. Do we teach counseling? Within the limits imposed on such curricula by state and academic regulations we do cover counseling issues. This is an area where regulations over which we have no control do restrict what we can present, but within those limits we present it. Do we teach astrology? Yes, of course we do, but we do not teach any one method, but all methods insofar as it is practical to do so, and we do it comparatively.

What do we see as our role with respect to more traditional forms of astrological education? We believe that astrologers must we be well-educated and well-informed persons in a wide variety of ways. Each one needs a proper foundation so that he or she can make intelligent choices about the role of astrology in his or her career, life, and creative activity in general. Then when this is all done, those that want to do so can choose the formal professionally oriented program that most serves his or her needs and place that additional knowledge within the context of the broader knowledge that each has acquired at Kepler. The model that we would like to see is that Kepler would function in a manner similar to a pre-law or pre-med major at the undergraduate level in conventional universities. Then, professionally oriented courses of instruction provided by schools and astrological organizations would serve the same role for these individuals as law and medical schools do in those fields. This would produce a level of astrological professionalism that has not been seen since the days of the middle ages when astrologers were university trained scholars with a deep knowledge of medicine, and philosophy.

But finally for those who do not use the Kepler College education as the foundation for becoming a practicing astrologer, what use does the education have for them? First we do teach our students a great deal about the art of thinking. We teach about how to argue, debate and see what others are doing when they argue and debate. We teach logical skills to a much greater degree than many other programs that describe themselves as liberal arts programs. That such is the case may seem a bit strange to you, but let me share with you an opinion of my own. This is not an official Kepler College position although I would not be surprised if many of my colleagues share my opinion.

In many of our courses we deal with the issue of why astrology is not irrational. We show why astrologers do not in fact have to apologize for having faith and trust in an art that many regard as superstition, craziness, or even, in the case of some of our more fanatical religious brethren, something diabolical. We do this by presenting alternative views on philosophy, religion, science, metaphysics, and even logic and rhetoric. We do not present such views as “more true” than the conventional alternatives, but simply as alternatives. No one can get through a Kepler education without learning to think (to use that dreadful cliche) “outside of the box.”

When a systematic attack on individual civil liberties is called a “Patriot Act”, when an educational reform program that is destroying liberal arts education is called the “No child left behind act,” and when politicians of various stripes on both sides cover up their self-interested and often anti-social maneuvers with clever rhetorical devices and catchy labels that obscure their real intentions, “thinking outside of the box” becomes a liberal art in its own right. No one can come through the Kepler experience without learning this skill whether they use it for an astrological career or not. Let me welcome you to our annual celebration of alternative thinking.

Thank you.