The idea and practice of granting such a degree originated in 1223 with a Papal Bull from Pope Honorius III. It declared that “anyone admitted to the mastership in the University of Toulouse should be allowed to teach freely in any other university … This gradually became formalised as the licentia docendi (licence to teach)” (https://bit.ly/1QIbTHy).
Accordingly, the Master of the Arts was awarded to students who’d successfully completed both the Trivium and Quadrivium. It’s precisely their “joining together” these several branches of knowledge into a meaningful gestalt that confers mastery.
A Master of Arts is someone able to fit branches of learning together to create new meaning and knowledge. A Master of Joinery is someone able to fit together wooden parts to create functional artifacts like cabinets. These titles both essentially denote the same skillset. Yet the academic designation is valued more than the vocational one. A similar dichotomy exists within academia itself vis-à-vis the difference between a Master of Arts and a Master of Science. Research shows the latter graduates earn more income than the former. (https://www.monster.com/career-advice/article/best-and-worst-paying-masters-degrees)
This enduring bias goes back to antiquity. Plato and Aristotle believed that intellectual pursuits were superior to physical ones. “Psyche”, “knowing what” was more valued than “techne”, “knowing how”. The Medieval Church, as stewards of this ancient philosophy, sustained a deep bias towards matter, the human body, and common manual labor. Consequently, the artisan, or ‘maker of things’, held slightly more status than the lowly peasant.
However, this ancient enduring dichotomy is being radically “disrupted” by escalating technology, artificial intelligence, machine learning, robotics, big data, biotech, the internet of things, etc. It’s no longer a question of whether hands or minds are more valuable. Neither is a sufficient guarantor of sustainable meaningful livelihood in an increasingly automated world of work. For example, “75 million jobs are expected to be displaced by 2022 in 20 major economies” (https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/04/skills-jobs-investing-in-people-inclusive-growth/).
What is needed to survive and flourish in the 21st Century? What type of education, knowledge, and skills are being called for? Prescient artists and scientists have been addressing this question since the early 20th Century and even further back.
Herman Hesse’s “The Glass Bead Game” was published in 1943 in Switzerland. Hesse imagined a 23rd Century world where international scholars compete by skillfully joining together diverse strands of science, mathematics, logic, philosophy, art, music, and spirituality into one beautiful grand multifaceted creation. The winner is awarded the coveted title of Magister Ludi, meaning Master of Play
Einstein in a famous 1945 letter to French mathematician Jacque Hadamard touches on just this idea. “From a psychological viewpoint, this combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought–before there is any connection with logical construction in words or other kinds of signs which can be communicated to others.” This idea of “combinatory play” is really at the heart of what a true master of the arts does.
In “The Act of Creation” (1964), Arthur Koestler offers a comprehensive analysis of this creative, conjunctive process at work throughout the history of the arts and sciences. One of his many examples involves Guttenberg’s quest to create what didn’t exist and had no name. Guttenberg, through much trial and error, with fervent, fertile inventiveness, ultimately and ingeniously married together three entirely different manufacturing processes – the manual hand printing of pictures from wood blocks, the metal-die standardized coin punch, and the wine press – to create the first printing press with movable type.
Koestler’s key finding is that all acts of creation involve the novel intersection of idioms, concepts, processes, and materials. He developed a conceptual framework called the bisociative pattern of creative synthesis to describe this process. He also coined the term “bisociation” in order “to make a distinction between the routine skills of thinking on a single ‘plane’, as it were, and the creative act, which, as I shall try to show, always operates on more than one plane.”