The Goals of a Liberal Education
What does it mean to be a liberally educated person? It seems
such a simple question,
especially given the frequency with which colleges and universities genuflect toward this wellworn phrase as the central icon of their institutional missions. Mantra-like, the words are endlessly repeated, starting in the glossy admissions brochures that high school students receive by the hundreds in their mailboxes and continuing right down to the last tired invocations they hear on commencement day. It would be surprising indeed if the phrase did not begin to sound at least a little empty after so much repetition, and surely undergraduates can be forgiven if they eventually regard liberal education as either a marketing ploy or a shibboleth. Yet many of us continue to place great stock in these words, believing them to describe one of the ultimate goods that a college or university should serve. So what exactly do we mean by liberal education, and why do we care so much about it?
In speaking of “liberal” education, we certainly do not mean an education that indoctrinates students in the values of political liberalism, at least not in the most obvious sense of the latter phrase. Rather, we use these words to describe an educational tradition that celebrates and nurtures human freedom. These days liberal and liberty have become words so mired in controversy, embraced and reviled as they have been by the far ends of the political spectrum, that we scarcely know how to use them without turning them into slogans—but they can hardly be separated from this educational tradition. Liberal derives from the Latin liberalis, meaning “of or relating to the liberal arts,” which in turn derives from the Latin word liber, meaning “free.” But the word actually has much deeper roots, being akin to the Old English word leodan, meaning “to grow,” and leod, meaning “people.” It is also related to the Greek word eleutheros, meaning “free,” and goes all the way back to the Sanskrit word rodhati, meaning “one climbs,” “one grows.” Freedom and growth: here, surely, are values that lie at the very core of what we mean when we speak of a liberal education. Liberal education is built on these values: it aspires to nurture the growth of human talent in the service of human freedom. So one very simple answer to my question is that liberally educated people have been liberated by their education to explore and fulfill the promise of their own highest talents. But what might an education for human freedom actually look like? There’s the rub. Our current culture wars, our struggles over educational standards are all ultimately about the concrete embodiment of abstract values like “freedom” and “growth” in actual courses and textbooks and curricular requirements. Should students be forced to take courses in American history, and if so, what should those courses contain? Should they be forced to learn a foreign language, encounter a laboratory science, master calculus, study grammar at the expense of creative writing (or the reverse), read Plato or Shakespeare or Marx or Darwin? Should they be required to take courses that foster ethnic and racial tolerance? Even if we agree about the importance of freedom and growth, we can still disagree quite a lot about which curriculum will best promote these values. That is why, when we argue about education, we usually spend less time talking about core values than about formal standards: what are the subjects that all young people should take to help them become educated adults?
This is not an easy question. Maybe that is why—in the spirit of E. D.
Literacy and a thousand college course catalogs—our answers to it often take the form of lists: lists of mandatory courses, lists of required readings, lists of essential facts, lists of the hundred best novels written in English in the twentieth century, and so on and on. This impulse...
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