Liberal education: What It Is and Why It’s Good

What is the interest of a liberal education?

If a person reads the news, but has little perspective on the broader developments of human society, then they will not be in an ideal position to understand much of what is going on, how to evaluate it, or what to do about it.

A liberal education is the notion of preparing one to be a good citizen, in the sense of being equipped to think and act with wisdom. It is also a means of ensuring that society is filled with richly informed, creative, resilient folks.

Qualities pursued through liberal education include insightfulness, self-development and exploration, individual creativity, wide-ranging perspective, rational thinking, listening and contemplative skills, clarity of argument.

Goals include a cultivated knowledge and awareness of historical trends, patterns, and processes; contemplation of a wide range of political ideas; development of analytical skills; novice technical knowledge of mathematics, music, language, philosophy, and the history of science; keen awareness and some specific knowledge of multiple religions, societies, and cultures.

The inverse of liberal education is no education; political indoctrination; a narrow scope of education; religious education; or technical education (automotive mechanic; or aircraft engineer; or business management).

A person who has spent a few years studying in a liberal education regime is likely to be in a better position, when reading the newspaper, to understand and interpret what they find there.

If a person doesn’t understand anything about economics or political economy, they’ll not be able to follow talk of markets, state interventions, or the reasons behind foreign policy discussion. They will also be ill-equipped to perceive the forces at work within their own society, the concentrations of economic power, and the implications of various forms of social arrangements.

If a person doesn’t know much about history, they won’t be in a position to understand the long-term sources of most inter-state conflict, or how the modern states took the shape they have, or what historical trajectories and processes are playing out in the present.

If a person has never studied the history of science, philosophy, or rational inquiry, they will be ill-equipped to evaluate claims made in the name of science or to modulate their expectations about what science and technology can accomplish.

Finally, without a liberal education, a person will tend to see the present situation as normal and exclusive, rather than seeing it as historically relative and being able to think critically about it in terms of other historical moments.

This bears crucially on how one judges one’s own society, one’s own state’s policies, and the way they ought to be. Without a liberal education, one is limited to thinking about the present only in the terms provided by the present, since all alternatives, imaginative and real, have been consigned to the inaccessibility and darkness of ignorance.

Definition and types

Liberal arts has classically referred to a form of education that is not narrowly technical or output-oriented, but broad, exploratory, and which leaves room for the individual student to cultivate and pursue intuitions and interests.

Some of the classical subjects included in a regime of liberal education include literature, history, mathematics, science, art, and philosophy. It is thought that by studying or sampling the best that the human mind has produced in the way of ideas, knowledge, and cultural productions, the individual student will be best offered the opportunity for stimulated inquiry, cultivated curiosity, and development of interests. This richer environment is understood to provide the groundwork for people with a deeper, broader understanding of human society, and therefore better fit for making good choices and decisions when it comes to politics (self-rule, or democracy).

Liberal education is often associated with democratic civil society because it is assumed that students who have the chance to learn and study broadly will be wiser than students whose experience is limited to a narrow or technical domain.

There are two major strains of liberal education: libertarian and elitist. The elitist form seeks to “form” model citizens who will act “responsibly.” Students are supposed to be taught the right or correct set of morals, political ideals, and a set of dogmas about society. The libertarian formulation is more content to allow students to develop and follow their own interests, and seeks to provide them a rich, stimulating environment in which to do so.

The liberal tradition of education began with the seven “liberal arts,” of which three focused on language, and four on numbers: grammar, rhetoric (history and practice of political speech), logic, arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy. This was the core curriculum.

Today’s colleges attempt to update this notion, offering a core curriculum that all students are required to sample: some history, some literature, some arithmetic, some science, and so on.

Grinnell Curriculum

This is an excerpt from the curriculum presentation at Grinnell College, a well-regarded liberal arts school:

Grinnell faculty members have articulated six areas of study in the current curriculum that are important elements of a liberal education. Students should review this list for guidance as they consider their curricular plans.

1. Nothing enhances the expression of knowledge better than engaging, clear, and accurate language. Reading closely, thinking clearly, and writing effectively form a web of connected skills, whether practiced in the First-Year Tutorial, in the Writing Lab, in designated writing courses, or in courses ranging from the introductory to the advanced level in almost every discipline. Students planning their academic programs should strive for the ability to convey their ideas with power and grace, to analyze and formulate arguments, and to adapt each piece of writing to its context and audience.

2. Study of a language other than one’s own opens the mind to new ways of thinking. Language placement tests are offered during New Student Orientation, and students are asked to determine their appropriate level at that time. Many Grinnell College faculty members urge their advisees to study a nonnative language and its literature, not only for the exposure to a rich alternative world of cultural meanings, but also to gain a valuable perspective (unavailable to the monolingual person) on the workings of language itself. For careful planning, students should note that many off-campus study opportunities, the Alternative Language Study Option, certain academic majors, and many types of postgraduate study require specific levels of demonstrated ability in foreign languages.

3. An education in the natural sciences—biology, chemistry, physics, and psychology—introduces techniques of observation and experimentation, the relation of data to hypotheses, and the practice of scientific reasoning. This work trains the mind to relate concrete empirical information to abstract models, stimulating multidimensional and creative habits of thought. Sustained experience in the laboratory and a grasp of basic scientific principles lead to a better understanding of commonly observed phenomena. Nonspecialists who are scientifically literate bring valuable understanding to public discourse and to an increasing number of professional settings.

4. Quantitative reasoning, with emphasis on mathematical models and methods above the secondary-school level, aids in the expression of hypotheses, processes, and theoretical relations. A course in statistics can be helpful for all students, and particularly for those who might work in the social and behavioral sciences. Studies in computer science offer valuable exposure to principles of logic and problem-solving paradigms.

5. The study of human behavior and society leads students to investigate their own identities and to gain insight into social categories and relations. Faculty advisers often urge students to take a sustained look at the history of a specific society, and also to examine a contemporary society (or a segment of it) that is unfamiliar. In light of these encounters, students learn to make and evaluate their own political and ethical choices. Whether a student explores anthropology, economics, education, history, philosophy, political science, religious studies, sociology, or interdisciplinary studies, this question will lie near the heart of the inquiry: in what ways have people lived together, and how should they live together?

6. Students enlarge their understanding of the liberal arts through the study of creative expression. In the analysis of creative works, whether through historical survey of forms, aesthetic theory, or interpretive practice, the arts occupy the foreground, though knowledge of history and society may inform the analysis. In this way, courses in literature, music, theatre, dance, and the visual arts complement studies in anthropology, history, philosophy, religious studies, and other fields. Students also benefit from learning, through direct instruction in artistic or literary technique, the intense discipline of art and its interplay between conscious intent and unconscious design.

Students of the liberal arts should use this framework as a starting point for intellectual discovery and personal development as they plan their four years of study in consultation with their advisers. (Source)

Relevant quotes

Thomas Jefferson:

Those persons, whom nature has endowed with genius and virtue, should be rendered by liberal education worthy to receive, and able to guard the sacred deposit of the rights and liberties of their fellow citizens; and . . . they should be called to that charge without regard to wealth, birth or other accidental condition or circumstance.

In 1862, President Abraham Lincoln signed into law the Morrill Act to set up a system of public colleges throughout the United States.  The purpose of these land-grant colleges was, in part, to

promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life

Truman Commission on Higher Education:

Education is by far the biggest and the most hopeful of the Nation’s enterprises. Long ago our people recognized that education for all is not only democracy’s obligation but its necessity. Education is the foundation of democratic liberties. Without an educated citizenry alert to preserve and extend freedom, it would not long endure.

W.E.B. DuBois:

Of all the civil rights for which the world has struggled and fought for 5,000 years, the right to learn is undoubtedly the most fundamental.

Martha Nussbaum:

When we ask about the relationship of a liberal education to citizenship, we are asking a question with a long history in the Western philosophical tradition. We are drawing on Socrates’ concept of ‘the examined life,’ on Aristotle’s notions of reflective citizenship, and above all on Greek and Roman Stoic notions of an education that is ‘liberal’ in that it liberates the mind from bondage of habit and custom, producing people who can function with sensitivity and alertness as citizens of the whole world.

Mortimer Adler:

It seeks to develop free human beings who know how to use their minds and are able to think for themselves. Its primary aim is not the development of professional competence, although a liberal education is indispensable for any intellectual profession. It produces citizens who can exercise their political liberty responsibly. It develops cultivated persons who can use their leisure fruitfully. It is an education for all free men, whether they intend to be scientists or not.

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