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The Nature and Value of a Liberal Education

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A talk for the 50th Year Celebration of the Santa Fe campus of St. Johns College, October 2014

Roger William Gilman

We live in an era where students and their families in our nation have been forced to regard higher education as a consumer good, a personal, private investment in the student’s future life-style — one that pursues an individual view of happiness and well-being as a competition (for a credential) structured by the marketplace.   The alternative, common in our past, was to regard a liberal education as an investment in our neighbors and co-workers  . . . investment in decent and caring partners and parents, and persons with well-cultivated souls.  But now we have privatized almost everything in our lives. And funding of these private investments in ourselves has become a personal responsibility; the debt accrued for advanced education, for instance, is a private not public debt.  This implies that our society currently regards advanced education as a private value, not a public one.

But things might be even worse than this: some pundits claim that a broad and deep education across centuries and hemispheres of discovery and invention, across a multitude of disciplines and methods, as a lifelong learning project – is, in the first place and as a matter of fact, not a good investment of one’s time, talent and treasure . . . at least not in our market-driven society.  They claim that a liberal education is now, actually, a dis-value; it is a disadvantage!

So we are presented with the question: Is a Liberal Education outmoded? Well, as you know, the answer will depend on what you mean by “a liberal education.”  

There’s a lot of social pressure (I’m not exactly sure why) to come up with a single shared definition or model of liberal education.  I will argue that the idea of liberal education is “an essentially contestable concept” (not only an historically contested one); and so we should not expect to eliminate all but one of its definitions — even though we probably should in fact eliminate many suggested definitions as inadequate.  Several, but not all, definitions might be acceptable for some kinds of concepts.  In particular, for the idea of liberal education it might in fact be desirable, not just unavoidable, to have more than one acceptable definition.

I will argue here not only for multiple definitions but also for generous definitions of liberal education, and for a variety of experiments in facilitating such an education.

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Let me begin by reminding us that, just as persons can manifest intrinsic and instrumental value at the same time, so too can they experience several different values of a liberal education at once.  As human beings we have value as ends-for-ourselves and at the same time have value as means-to-others’-ends. We are both psychological and sociological creatures; we are inward and outward regarding animals. We cannot help but be intentional for ourselves and consequential for others.  Our intrinsic value may constrain, but it need not eliminate, our instrumental value.  And so we need not choose between these values, as some insist.  We may simply need to ensure that one of these values regulates the other.

In fact we can, at the same time, pursue and manifest three very different values — three compatible values inherent in a liberal education: liberty (a practical value), actualization (an intrinsic value), and imagination (an ideal value).  Just as a person can wear several identities at once – being a friend, a wife, a mother and a daughter, and a lawyer — all at the same time — so too can any human being pursue and manifest several values at once.

First. A liberal education should cultivate our humanity, our whole personhood, by liberating us from our limitations: from limited personal experience, from limited methods of inquiry, from unexamined beliefs and feelings, from non-defensible judgments that derive from social arrangements that distort our attempts at knowing and valuing.

Second. A liberal education should prepare us for our basic roles in life (employee, citizen, neighbor, partner, parent, and human being) by helping us actualize our human potential to live intelligent and beautiful, responsible and caring lives, with a style and calling of our own.

Third.  A liberal education should stimulate our consideration of varieties of ways of becoming a person (and living a good life) by helping us learn how to imagine our Selves as if we were Others — in order to appreciate the intelligence, beauty, and goodness of alternative ways of living out our species-being . . . ways of cultivating our humanity; a liberal education should transform our consciousness.

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My contribution to our conversation here about the nature and value of a liberal education comes out of my primary experiences as student, professor, and as chair of a department or dean of college in two quite different institutional models for delivering a Liberal Education (one experimental, the other traditional).   My double-tracked experience provides a picture of two different kinds of institutions of higher education offering two very different ways of facilitating a liberal education: Fairhaven College of Interdisciplinary Studies, and The University of Chicago.

The progressive experimental College (in which I was an undergraduate, professor, and dean) did not offer grades as a tool by which to improve one’s learning, but rather offered lots of narrative, qualitative feedback on the strengths and weaknesses of one’s thought, one’s expression and evaluation; grades were regarded as meaningless roadblocks to learning that generated fear and coercion rather than joy and curiosity.  The University offered letter grades and ranks of achievement and competence.  The College asked students to compete against themselves (their own past accomplishments and their future ambitions); the University offered students motivations for competing against each other (grades and class standing).  The College interpreted “think for yourself” as requiring one to think from the beginning with others collaboratively; the University interpreted “thinking for oneself” as entailing a lot more thinking by yourself before you tested your opinions in the marketplace of the seminar room or thesis paper.

The College offered a mixed canon of books and authors (ancient and modern), of cultures and exemplars (east and west), and of ideas and methods (not only deductive and inductive, but analogical and teleological, ecological, and evolutionary methods of thinking).  Whereas the University had a more historic curriculum of great books of the Western world. The College interpreted its pursuit of excellence in value-added ways for each individual, while the University measured excellence by comparative standards. At the undergraduate level the College offered an interdisciplinary curriculum with lots of individual research and self-initiated study-plans that were negotiated with a faculty committee.  While the University offered me these opportunities at the graduate level, they offered the traditional disciplines and methods in a “common core” curriculum and pre-packaged “majors” at the undergraduate level.  The highest priority of the College faculty was teaching; the highest priority of the University faculty was researching.  The knowledge learned in College was more applied and immediately practical than was the learning program in the University where knowledge was more often theory-driven.  And the College seemed more inclined to criticism of past ideas and practices while the University seemed more about appreciation of that past.

I flourished in both systems (though not everyone would, I know).  All in all, I’ve profited a lot by experiencing two very different models of the content and process of liberal education.  This divergent experience has led me to a generous but not promiscuous view of the ways to implement a liberal education and to an expansive view of its purpose and value.

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From the presumption that I hold — that it is desirable for a liberal education be ambitious in its scope, simultaneously manifesting practical, intrinsic, and ideal values — let me examine what I believe to be several current misleading views about the curriculum and pedagogy of liberal education.  Then we’ll look at five currently popular ingredients of liberal education which are sometimes thought to be the whole of the enterprise.  We can salvage them for the construction of a properly inclusive conception of a liberal education.  We will see that all these cases provide incomplete conceptions that fail to facilitate the development of one or more important capacities for actualizing our practical, intrinsic, or ideal value as persons.

First the misunderstandings; they consist in  assuming that liberal education is a political ideology, or assuming that liberal education includes every possible kind of learning there is, or assuming that liberal education embraces the disciplines of the arts and humanities but not those of the sciences.  Let’s briefly look at each of these, one at a time:

A confusion often heard in casual conversation is that the term ‘liberal’ in the phrase “liberal education” is a narrowly political term, referring to partisan politics.  This standard ideological use of the term leads some people to assume that a liberal education is not sincerely or in fact liberating because it inherently favors progressive political parties and their adherents.  But the methods of liberal disciplines – creating clear definitions, reasonable interpretations, valid deductions, warranted inductions, complex analogies, and so on – do not pre-judge outcomes in terms of left-oriented or right-oriented politics.  The tests of rationality and impartiality are, by themselves, ideologically neutral to partisan politics.

Others understand liberal education as embracing any kind of educational activity.  That definition is too broad.  For instance, curriculums exclusively focused on vocational skills do not offer sufficient methods for liberating us from some of our most important limitations (from limited personal experience, for example); and such narrow curriculums do not prepare us for many of our important roles in life (like becoming competent neighbors and partners and parents, let alone for becoming human beings with well-constructed souls); and they do not help us imagine alternative ways of being a person (or of living our lives) in the world.  Without adding programs to facilitate our acquisition of competencies in citizenship, partnering and parenting, and for actualizing our full human potential, vocational education (by itself) sells us short. We have a personal obligation and therefore a right to become full-fledged human beings (not merely homo sapiens). Our liberation requires use of ideas and methods of the arts, the humanities and the sciences, not just those of technology.  Government and corporate policies designating only applied science disciplines as “in high demand” constrain our potential to become full-fledged human beings.  There is more to life, to human beings, than earning a living.

Some people think the term ‘liberal arts’ stands for the concept of ‘liberal education.’  This is imprecise in today’s context.  The original meaning of the phrase ‘liberal education’ may have designated the ‘liberal arts’ before the term ‘arts’ got re-defined and narrowed over time.  At one point, liberal education was an umbrella term covering all the ways of generating and testing ideas with methods — testing any knowledge or value claim.  Today, however, most lay people identify ‘the liberal arts’ more narrowly, with the fine and performing arts – painting, dance, music, theatre, literature and the like.  And so, today it is confusing to use the phrase ‘liberal arts’ to stand for the concept of liberal education. For the same reason the phrases ‘the liberal arts and humanities’ or ‘the liberal arts, humanities, and social sciences’ are impoverished names for the full-fledged notion of liberal education; a liberal education includes the life sciences, physical sciences, and mathematics (along with the fine and performing arts, the humanities, and the social and psychological sciences).  All these disciplines can contribute to liberating us from our ignorance and incapacity, and to preparing us for all our basic roles in life as human beings.

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There is another batch of suggestions concerning liberal education that exhibit more subtle mistakes than do these we’ve just looked at.  These new ideas are on the right track but lack precision.  They identify the whole of liberal education with one of its parts.  The first three of five such parts are: (1) general education, (2) interdisciplinary education, and (3) applied education. Though a part may be a proper one, it is not the whole.  But we should consider these ideas as possible ingredients of a robust conception of a liberal education.

First. The idea of liberal education encompasses, but significantly surpasses, the idea of general education as it is defined these days.  In the present age, the general education curriculum in a conventional institution of higher learning typically involves huge lecture classes that dump large amounts of introductory material into student skulls.  This introductory information is the result of others’ work, not the work of the students themselves.  Students in this model are expected simply to memorize information and spit it back on a test.  They are seldom taught how to evaluate the information.  This information typically consists of basic definitions, claims to fact, and the barest outline of theories. But there is little practice with methods of generating new ideas or with methods of evaluating ideas that have been handed-on by others . . . little evaluation of the preciseness and practicality of definitions, the probable truth of factual claims, the validity of a theoretical packaging of beliefs, or the utility of a proposed solution, let alone methods of impartially judging value claims (policy, moral, aesthetic judgments).  In large general-education classes, the ways we can liberate ourselves — for successful work, citizenship, partnering and parenting, and most importantly, for developing our full potential for becoming human — are seldom even discussed, let alone practiced.

In order for a student to become facile with any disciplined-method of knowing and valuing, general education course syllabi would need to be organized by important questions or problems (the course would be inquiry-based) rather than organized merely by themes that invite summaries of other people’s work.  Why should anyone trust a textbook?  Why should anyone trust a teacher?   In an age when information is cheap (you can look it up on the internet from a small device you pull from your pocket) what we need to know is whether the information available to us is good or bad information.  We don’t need to remember information.  We need to test it.

Second. In a similar way, interdisciplinary study is a useful dimension of a liberal education; but it is not by itself an adequate substitute for the full idea.  Delivering a liberating experience via interdisciplinary formats makes sense — because real problems and opportunities in the world do not fit into artificial subject areas or academic disciplines. A discipline is an artificial boundary around an unreal box of activity. So cross-disciplinary and integrative-study strategies are important.  But, if interdisciplinary study consists in merely integrating the work-results of others and does not involve each person himself or herself using a variety of disciplined methods of testing knowledge and value claims, then interdisciplinary study is not as liberating as it might be.  In order to design solutions to theoretical or practical problems it is important to know how to generate and understand, but to also how to integrate and to test, claims of understanding and valuing.  We should think with others but take responsibility for our own conclusions.  This requires having a whole toolbox of skills for discovery and investigation, evaluation and integration; liberating, actualizing, and imagining ourselves and the world requires the tools of more than one discipline.  Not everything in the world is nail; but if all you have is a hammer you’ll be tempted to treat everything as if it were one.  You’ll need more than a hammer to build something worthwhile.

Third. Another idea that goes in the right direction but is incomplete as an understanding of the full idea of ‘liberal education’ is the view that it consists primarily of implementing or applying knowledge and value claims in the community, on the job, or at home — in order to see if theories of knowledge and value make sense in practice – to see if they solve real problems not just theoretical ones.  There’s a lot to like in this idea: we want ideas that are effective and fair.  But should we risk trying out every idea? Not really: some beliefs might be dangerous, or irrational, or unfair.  The idea that “everyone with blue eyes is a devil and should be eliminated” or the idea that “we should send someone to a distant planet” while working off the hypothesis that space is flat, rather than curved, might not be ideas we want to even risk testing.

An even more significant problem with narrowing the goals of college education exclusively to preparation for a job is that it disguises a desire to protect conformity and inequality.  The critics of a fuller definition of the education to which everyone has a right to aspire question whether it is worth it for secretaries and salesman to have spent time learning about the world and themselves when they could have been saving for a house.  They believe that liberal education creates “inappropriate” (unfulfillable) expectations in a “workforce” that will not be regularly asked to think critically and creatively even about their work, let alone about other aspects of their lives (as neighbors and partners and parents) and their humanity (personhood).

The narrow view – the commercial view – of liberal education presumes that not everyone has the right to simply become a well-rounded fully-developed human being in their own right.  The calls for “efficient, practical educations” will trap people in unfair forms of inequality, trained for yesterday’s jobs and using yesterday’s solutions who have been talked out of an aspiration to their full humanity.  Is this a society we really want?  Are these the kinds of neighbors and co-workers we want?  Is this what we wish for our kids?  For ourselves?    I think not!

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So, learning the content of traditional disciplines, learning to integrate the methods of all the disciplines, and successfully applying these in the real world may be important parts, but not the whole, of a liberal education.  We see this point again by considering two additional ingredients that cannot by themselves guarantee the whole of a liberal education: acquisition of (4) cross-cultural competencies (across both international and domestic boundaries), and acquisition of (5) skills of democratic citizenship. [Since these two ingredients provoke more debate than the first three, I’ll say a bit more about ingredients 4 and 5 than I did about 1, 2 and 3.]

Fourth.  A useful though limited definition of ‘liberal education’ is founded on the fact that knowledge and value claims address the embedded nature of phenomena. This fact implies that the reasonableness and impartialness of claims are best tested by the largest sample size and most inclusive context.  A global scale is the most inclusive scope for most claims of fact or value (setting aside the universe, of course).  Thinking globally about what is good or true liberates us from merely local points of view.  Yet even this dimension – globalizing – is only one among many tests of knowledge and value that compose a liberating education.

Global reality is geologic, energetic, historical, and ecological; but it is also economic and political.  The world’s peoples (not just its other species) are connected and interdependent; they share a future.  A liberal education helps us understand our world and how to cope with it – how to repair it.  Knowing only part of the world is not to know the world as a whole – as “a world.”  A liberal education helps us learn how to live together with our differences — in peaceful, just, and sustainable ways — as responsible citizens of a global community.  The issue is not whether we can afford to worry about education for global citizenship, but whether we can afford not to.

Fifth.  We are national citizens as well as global ones.  And so we need to learn the arts of democratic living in a multi-cultural nation state.  In addition to knowing more than one language, it is crucial to acquire the ability to critically re-appraise one’s culturally inherited identities and tweak them so they become compatible with (though not identical to) identities of those in other groups.  Mutual adjustment is an ecological imperative.  Personal responsibility for critique and adjustment of one’s complex identities should be guided by disciplined methods of evaluating ideas and actions (the tools of liberal education) so that we all end up with varied but non-antagonistic identities.

Another of these cross-cultural capacities for democratic life is the ability to reconcile individual interests and actions with the common good of groups, including the whole of humanity.  This assumes our understanding of the many ways we impact the lives of distant peoples.  This appreciation allows us to replace relationships based on conflict, domination, exploitation, fraud, and privilege . . . replace them with ones built on cooperation and compromise, on equality, reciprocity and mutual empowerment, on honesty and humility.  These acts of stewarding the common good set us free of the otherwise violent limitations on our lives.

And a liberal education prepares us to engage in democratic practices of collective inquiry and decision-making, of civilized debate, promoting mutual respect, dignity, and solidarity among diverse groups, across national boundaries.  It prepares us to resist blindly following tradition, public authorities, and peer pressure, and empowers us to hold everyone accountable for their bad behavior.  A liberal education prepares us to judge political leaders critically with an informed and realistic sense of the possibilities available to them.  It develops our ability to imagine other people’s inner lives, especially those with identities quite different from our own, and to recognize them as fellow citizens with equal rights, deserving of respect as ends-in-themselves rather than merely as means to someone else’s ends.  It leads to understanding of global systems and processes of exchange.

It is important that we overcome our partiality, not just our ignorance.  Democratic societies will not work without impartial policies and processes.  A liberal education develops our ability to discern the consequences of policy proposals for the life-chances of others – all kinds of others, not just those like ourselves – as a way of cultivating the common good of the whole nation or world community.  All these capacities are built on skills of knowing and valuing well.  All these capacities create freedom from various threats and fears, and create the freedom to become what we should hope to be.

These five ingredients, along with others, suggest a generous — but not promiscuous — definition of liberal education.

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It is worth noting that there are two kinds of freedom expressed in this analysis of liberal education: positive and negative freedoms.  Some of our freedoms from limitations are protections (are negative) while others are empowering (are positive).  Liberty as a practical value of liberal education takes away our limitations manifest as ignorance or partiality; the elimination of such barriers is a negative freedom.  Liberty requires a critique and replacement of unwarranted beliefs and practices; as such it is protection against unwanted constraints on our freedom of thinking and feeling and valuing. Such liberty implies the existence of rights to non-interference in exploration of answers to questions as solutions to problems.   This freedom from something bad is based on a moral permission to protest undesirable interference. Harm results from unwanted and unwarranted interference in our lives.  Liberty is the power to avoid harm.

The other two values of liberal education – actualization and imagination — involve positive freedoms.  First: it is intrinsically valuable to actualize our talents and capacities for fulfilling our major life roles.  Actualizing these is an empowering freedom to buy-up our opportunities.  Having equal opportunities or life chances is necessary to the equal exercise of capacities to actualize our species-being and personal potential. This equal freedom to cash-in on opportunities is a power to do things; the power to initiate help.

Second; the freedom of having a powerful imagination is another of our positive freedoms.  Having the capacity to imagine alternative ways of being a person and living one’s life manifests an ideal value.  Freedom of choice assumes alternatives to choose among: No imagination, no choices.  The freedom to cultivate our humanity in alternative ways is a power to do something good for ourselves and others.

These intrinsic and ideal values of liberal education entail the freedom that comes from having opportunities and resources (rather than from permissions and protections).  Capacity development and opportunity development come from the kind of help morally required of others for our sake not only from obligations to ourselves.  Guaranteeing these kinds of freedom is a mutual responsibility; we all must help each other.  Others’ satisfaction of their obligations to care with us makes us all free — collectively free to imagine alternatives practices and identities, free to cash-in on mutually provided opportunities.  These freedoms define our rights to expect certain kinds of intervention by others in our worlds.

Suppose you are a political dissident, jailed for twenty years and that you finally win a legal battle for your freedom.  The reversal of the judgment, the unlocking of cell doors, and the breaking of the shackles on your ankles represent a wonderful negative freedom – an absence of external constraints on your life.  But if your muscles or will-power have atrophied in the meantime, then you might still lack the positive freedom you need — the power to walk, or even crawl, out of prison.  A sad state of affairs that would be!  Each of us needs positive as well as negative freedom.  As selves we need protections from unwarranted interference from the world, but we also deserve the collective power of society to intervene in the world for our mutual benefit in effective and morally permissible ways that accord with our need for equal chances to become fully realized human beings.

In summary, given that the full complement of roles necessary to a fully realized human being requires both negative and positive freedoms, an adequate liberal education must facilitate our acquisition of both types of capacities.

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Historically American educators have put forth a variety of definitions of liberal education; contesting the concept is not new (not even for a young nation like the United States).  I add to this debate the idea that the definition of ‘liberal education’ is an “essentially contestable” concept – not just a contingently contested one.  As such, the debate over liberal education is in principle unavoidable and unresolvable in an absolute way.  And so we should expect to see and should in fact foster a variety of experiments in facilitating what is arguably a liberal education.

First a quick sketch of the humanizing conversation we’ve had in America about liberal education. In it you will find the seeds of all five of the ingredients (and more) suggested today for the structure and process of liberal education.  Then we’ll look at why this debate will and should go on indefinitely.

One profitable way of understanding the historical debate is to start with an over-simplification and then complicate the analysis.  In gross terms there have been two main experiments in designing and facilitating liberal education: a) Liberal education has the purpose of getting us to transform our selves, or b) Liberal education aims to get us to transform the world.  Either way, liberal education is meant to make a difference for the better.  This is a debate about what is a pragmatic philosophy of education – one that mutually adjusts values (goals) that must be satisfied: intrinsic, practical, and ideal.

Re-shaping our inner world and the outer world are both lofty goals.  We should eventually consider their relationship to each other. But first let’s sketch a characterization of these alternatives. Both views — of how and why to liberate our understanding, feeling, and imagining — require (in part) a critical stance toward self and society.  But some thinkers say this critical stance toward the present depends on first taking a reverential stance toward the best ideas and methods, authors and texts, we produced in the past.  First appreciate, then critique: given the complexity and relations of ideas worth understanding, the major portion of a college education should facilitate understanding more than critique.  But in reply the critics say that you don’t fully understand an idea or judgment apart from a thorough critique of it.

In the debate over liberal education in America then, there has been a felt tension between reverence and criticism as modes of liberating our Selves and our Societies.  I suggest that sterility and nihilism might result from deconstructive criticism that isn’t accompanied by constructive alternatives.  And I suggest that prejudice and violence might be sustained by a too-reverential deference toward established views and ways of doing things – toward “great” authors and their texts.  These pitfalls can be tragic ones.  And so, many educators today advocate deep and wide appreciation of the best ideas of the past joined with a strong, thoughtful critique of them.  Both seem necessary to a truly liberating education.  But can all this be accomplished in a four year degree program?  And if not, then what?

Should we prepare the next generation of persons for individually fulfilling lives or for socially useful ones?   Reflective selves, or caring selves?  Inward or outward facing selves?  Is our challenge to understand and value well our strangeness (our difference) to ourselves and others? Or is the challenge one of inventing ways of relating to our familiarity (and similarity) to each other?  Do we educate for assimilation of the world to us, or for our accommodation to the world?

Further.  Should we expect everyone to aspire to a fully liberating education or should some of us (girls, lower class boys, and ethnic minorities) be made to hope for no more than a partially liberating education, one narrowed into a technical skill or minimum-wage jobs — even unpaid work at home taking care of others?  And, is an education of either kind (narrow or wide) a public or a private good?  Is a liberating education a privilege or a right?  These are the questions hiding inside the essentially contestable idea of “liberating education.”

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Thomas Jefferson was inspired by Kant’s admonition that “in order to be free one must think for oneself.” [See his essay “What is Enlightenment?” (1784).] A liberating education, Jefferson thought, should enable every citizen and employee to competently judge [with impartial reason] for himself or herself what will secure his or her freedom and employment.  Economic and political inequality threaten our impartial reasoning and freedom of will.  Colleges and universities in a democracy must counter elitism by “raking the rubbish heap” for diamonds in the rough – smart, talented working class kids – in order to create the hope for upward mobility (if not genuine equality for everyone).  Otherwise the populace will despair and revolt.  [See Richard D. Brown, “Bulwark of Revolutionary Liberty: Thomas Jefferson and John Adams Program for Informed Citizenry” in Thomas Jefferson and the Education of a Citizen, ed., James Gilreath, Washington DC: Library of Congress, 1999.]

Providing equal access to opportunities to build the capacities for impartial reasoning and evaluating is not the same as compensating for economic or political inequalities that advantage some over others in their efforts to build these capacities (the exercise of which is the essence of our species-being). As we know, Jefferson himself was not fully free of prejudices and traditions derived from economic privilege: he held slaves that he regarded politically as two-fifths of persons.  Jefferson may not have addressed the fundamental moral issue of his day but he did suggest that a liberal education should at least be expected of the leadership class.  The curriculum would need to be based on a common core of studies accomplished prior to the offer of any opportunities to narrow ones interest into preparation for a profession.  [See the letter of Th. Jefferson to George Ticknor, July 16, 1823 in Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed., Andrew Lipscomb and Albert Berg, Washington DC (1903-1904).]  And a democracy must practice what it preaches.  The planning of one’s own education is a practice of rights and freedoms central to developing the capacities of democratic participation (skepticism, analysis, criticism, discovery, creativity, affirmation, cooperation, collaboration, and so on).  Government, religious, parental, educational leaders should not control students’ plans of study.  Students must be negotiated with, not dictated to.

Following Jefferson’s claims, Fredrick Douglas and David Walker [in The Narrative Life of Fredrick Douglas (1845) and in An Appeal to the Colored Citizens of the World (1829) respectively] told fellow slaves that “education is the pathway to freedom” because demonstrating one’s capacity to learn is the best way to prove to others one’s full humanity.  But first you must insist on your right to learn.  A liberating education must be as wide and deep as the Mississippi River.

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Ralph Waldo Emerson was also inspired by Kant.  He said that learning should be connected to experience – both the particulars and the universals in experience.  As such, liberal education is an encounter with both inner and outer realities.  In the process of learning we see as much of the world through our evolved conceptual eyes as we do through our evolved perceptual eyes.  And because these are unavoidably linked and interactive (as Kant demonstrated), experience is an activity, and so too is the education of experience.  Education is active critique and discovery, not just passive appreciation and accommodation.

Emerson often said that the point of educated experience is not just for constructing a self and a world, but for transforming the ones we already have for the better – making them soul-full.  Consciousness of the self and practices of institutions (both hearts and minds) must be “set aflame.” [See his essays “Self-Reliance” (1888) and “The American Scholar” (1837)]  So a liberal education “opposes rote learning and pre-packaged destinies” and “embraces curious inquiry and problem-solving.”

Later, John Dewy would express Emerson’s idea that “ideas should be ripened into realities” as: “thought only completes itself as action” (ideas fully manifest themselves only as policies in practice).  So persons engaged in negative and positive processes of liberating themselves and their neighbors and co-workers, must critically examine and creatively interpret the current claims to knowledge and value concerning self and society.  They cannot merely absorb and conform to conventional beliefs and practices.  They must not merely cope with realities given to them, they must be ready to transform them.

Another chapter in the on-going debate over liberal education in America was advanced by W. E. B. du Bois, in The Souls of Black Folk (1903) who argued against Booker T. Washington (in his Up From Freedom (1901) that when we narrow education to having one small purpose, preparing us for only one of our many roles in life, we enslave ourselves in that one role and flounder in our other roles.  Only an education for the whole person will set us free . . . truly free.  Freedom is a complex, not simple, thing. “Education must not simply teach work; it must teach life.” [See the essay “The Talented Tenth” (1903)]  And with this freedom — not only deserved but earned, the freedom from limitations and biases, and the freedom for self-authorship of one’s soul — comes the awesome responsibility to help others liberate themselves.  In this will be the transformation of society.

But in the years following this admonition (just after the Civil War) institutional leaders of higher education in America went in another direction, inventing the research university where truth claims, but not value claims (as if truth were not a value), were treated as the be-all and end-all of learning.  Only physical limitations need to be transcended; the rest of life will take care of itself: the study of the physical and biological sciences.  Other dimensions of human flourishing were ignored – the skills of democratic citizenship, the capacities for caring partnerships and parenting relationships, the art of being a human being.  For an elite few, the skills of productive employment were professionalized.  Up until 1875 students skipped undergraduate liberal education and went directly into seminary, med school or law school, or to business school.  When a liberalizing learning experience of a fuller nature became regarded as a pre-requisite to professional training it was grudgingly offered as a sop to tax payers who expected more for their money.  The “real” purpose of the university, these educational leaders insisted, was the creation of new knowledge that would technologically drive the economy.

Jane Addams’ version of the Kantian admonition to “free yourself” [through impartial reason and valuation] was invented at Hull House, a settlement house she founded in Chicago in 1889.  She believed that it took a settlement (a village) to raise a child into a happy, healthy, and successful adult human being . . . someone with “wholeness and balance.” [See Forty Years at Hull House (1910)]

She argued that a good education is what every community owed each of its members, no matter their age, race, religion, gender or class.  She agreed with Emerson (and her friend William James) that a liberating education is a practical thing, not just an ideal thing, and that it is necessary to the transformation of society into something that will liberate its members from being slaves to work and to others’ expectations.  She warned against “the snare of preparation” – of deciding to complete one’s education before trying out in practice what seemed to make sense to everyone.  As her friend John Dewey put it, “education is not a preparation for life; it is life itself.”  Too often, Addams warned, education as preparation for a profession becomes an “excuse for the educated elite to do nothing in the world to improve it.”  These professionals in training too often claim that a proper education makes them into observers, not actors, in the world.  Education as evasion of responsibility becomes a substitute for living with reality.  Education so conceived creates “dupes of deferred purpose”  . . . self-deceived “partners” that defer the dreams of others.  Addams’ first idea then is that a liberating education must be a service-learning, civic engaging, community partnering education.

Her second idea concerning education is that it requires “affectionate interpretation” of people and their circumstances.  A mutually liberating education requires our empathetic imagination of the lives of others – their interests and feelings and points of view.  This is best learned by spending service time in communities of others different from ourselves.  Rather than spending all our energy and intelligence in defense of our personal interests and point of view, we should learn the wisdom and goodness of the ways others address their concerns and needs.  Our freedom lies in the appreciation of other ways of being a person in a family, in a community.  “Cultivated persons use their social faculties and interpretive powers to put themselves into the minds and hearts – into the experience – of others.”  In a deep understanding of others lies our freedom.

William James joins Du Bois, Addams, and Dewey in arguing that a liberated person appreciates the equal value of others’ lives and the cognitive and moral significance of their experience . . . of their selves and their personal worlds.  Tweaking Emerson’s ideas, James says that self-reliance in judgment (and collaboration in learning prior to that judgment) requires transcending a narrowly egoistic point of view about truth and goodness.  Independence is based on interdependence.  And differences are based on similarities.

In his Talks to Teachers on Psychology and to Students on Some of Life’s Ideals (1899) James claims that a liberating education requires empathetic pragmatism, since we are “external to each other.”  We must “internalize each other” in order to free ourselves from the cave of our private existence.  Recognition of the difficulty in understanding and valuing others from their own point of view is the basis of embracing tolerance and compromise as the foundation of an honest and decent society.  Teachers must be adept in helping students recognize their limitations and biases in constructive ways by facilitating their learning to think and feel by analogy: oneself as another; another as oneself.  “If we cannot gain insight into each other, can’t we at least use our sense of our own blindness to make ourselves more cautious, and thereby avoid some hideous cruelties?” And “neither the whole truth nor the whole good is revealed to any single person.”  A liberal education should be organized around a self-imposed heroic ideal to be pursued with courage and persistence; this pursuit should help student’s live “morally significant lives.”  [For more on James’ assumption of a continuity of truth-value and moral-value see Julie Ruben, The Making of the Modern University: intellectual transformation and the marginalization of morality (1996).]

All this implies that if teachers deserve freedom to teach whatever they want, then students deserve some freedom to select where they begin their studies (though students would be wise to take seriously the suggestions of those who have more learning about how one might investigate these questions).

During the first half of the twentieth century the debate over liberal education was carried out by a series of presidents of various kinds of universities (research, land grant, and comprehensive universities – to use the Carnegie attributions).  Charles Eliot (Harvard) said that a liberally educated person pursues knowledge and value without due regard to its possible critical or creative “impact on our venerable institutions and practices, and on our precious feelings or traditional sanctities.”

Ezra Cornell (Cornell) joined Daniel Gilman (Hopkins) in claiming that the expansion of knowledge is more important than is seeking its underlying principles.  Commitment to discovery is enough to unify a university even if knowledge itself cannot in theory be unified.  But William James countered that not all of us are looking simply “for peppercorns of knowledge and value.”  The positivist program for unifying science eventually folded.

Although the Morrill Acts of 1862 and 1890 had set up “land grant” colleges and universities to “promote both liberal and practical education of the industrial and agricultural classes”, the two goals were soon separated, and the “practical arts and sciences” were given pride of place. [See Robert L. Geiger in “The Ten Generations of American Higher Education,” in American Higher Education in the Twenty-First Century: social, political, and economic challenges, 3rd ed., Philip G. Altback, Patricia J. Gumport, and Robert O. Berdahl (2011), p. 51.]

M. Carey Thomas, the second president (1894-1922) of Bryn Mawr College argued that women and men need the same liberation, the same liberating education that creates a “common culture” that would intentionally support their lives together as colleagues and friends and spouses.” [See M. Carey Thomas, “Should the Higher Education of Women Differ from that of Men?” in Educational Review, Vol. 21 (1902).]  This view implies that a liberating education must prepare each of us for more than jobs and voting; it must also prepare us for being neighbors and partners and parents.  It must inform all the roles we are expected to play in ways that leave both men and women free and equal.

And though colleges and universities continued to discriminate against women, Jews, blacks and Asians, they did establish “co-curricular programs” on campus in a division of “student-life services” that began to address some of the dimensions of life not covered by the “real curriculum”.  However, until recently this “alternative curriculum” consisted more of sports and entertainment than dimensions of understanding and judgment, of life-skills not covered by the “intellectual” curriculum.  Discoveries and inventions in the physical and life sciences continued to seem separated from the humanities, social sciences, and the arts which were not “value-free” and “objective,” and not necessary to economic progress (as were the physical and life sciences, and the professions of medicine, law, business, and engineering).

James Bryant Conant (Harvard), in the wake of the defeat of fascism and the rise of communism (1945-1965), argued that a liberating education was necessary for all citizens as a way of civilizing the newly diverse immigrant populations having just escaped these totalitarian societies.  Instilling common cultural values would require a “common core” curriculum in high schools and colleges in order to ensure both freedom and cohesion. [See Lester F. Goodchild, “Transformation of the American College Ideal: six historic ways of learning” in New Directions for Higher Education, Vol. 105 (Spring 1999), pp. 15-16.] A faculty committee at Harvard endorsed these ideas in a widely influential report which argued that a liberal education was a general education.  It endorsed Conant’s endorsement of Jefferson’s recommendation that universities “rake the rubbish heap” and find a few talented outsiders by which to produce examples of upward mobility so as to mollify a public agitated over gross inequalities in opportunities and resources. [See Conant’s articles “Education for a Classless Society: the Jeffersonian Tradition” in the Atlantic Monthly, May 1940, and “Wanted: American Radicals” in the Atlantic Monthly, May 1943).]

John Dewey was perhaps the most influential of all voices in the debates about liberating education – one that freed both self and society.  He said you cannot have a free self without a free society, or have a free society without a free self. [See Democracy and Education (1916).]  Both appreciation and criticism of the best ideas and practices of the past are necessary to real freedom.

Dewey argued that schools and colleges are social institutions through which social and psychological reform can be accomplished.  But first the schools and colleges must themselves be reformed in a democratic direction.  Institutions of learning must practice what they preach.  The curriculum and pedagogy for freedom must be problem-solving and actualizing of that with is best for each and all.  Individuals and their societies try to facilitate improvement of human beings and actualization of their full potentials.  A good curriculum with bad teaching (dictating information and testing recall) is worthless.  A good pedagogy with a bad curriculum (information without inquiry) is worthless.  Real learning relates information to student-driven questions about the world; and real questions do not fit in rigid boxes, they cross boundaries of disciplines and methods. [See The Child and the Curriculum (1902) pp. 13-14.]  And real teachers are facilitators not lecturers. [See My Pedagogic Creed (1897).]  Both the “great books” and the “interdisciplinary and inquiry-based” programs of study are educational progenies of Dewey.

Robert Maynard Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago (1929-1945), implemented a far-reaching reform of liberal curriculum and pedagogy (but not its fundamental goals) by introducing a system based on study of great books and authors (ones tested by informed opinion over time) via the Socratic method of collaborative debate and dialogue, with comprehensive exams instead of an on-going torrent of quizzes and exams.  This plan is the progenitor of the one we celebrate here today at St Johns College.

But by mid-twentieth century it had become difficult to find professors who were themselves widely enough educated (let alone willing) to teach a general education curriculum.  They had all become narrowly trained specialists themselves.  Few people even questioned the underlying assumption of general education: that we need a shared curriculum to ensure social cohesion.  Perhaps an overlapping consensus would be enough?

And by the end of the twentieth century things were even worse.  Research professors were not only unprepared to teach across the cognitive curriculum, they publically denied that liberal education properly involved preparation of a whole person for a whole life.  As long as students learned to write clearly, reason statistically, and become familiar with the best empirical information about the world, they will be fine: they’ll be ready for a professional career (as if there were nothing more to life worth preparing for).  This reflected the professors own lack of training in a wider curriculum that teaches how to not only understand things but also how to value them well, that teaches emotional (attitudinal) and social (behavioral) intelligence, that teaches how to make good decisions, that teaches them how to make something meaningful from experience and talent, and how to know what is worth hoping for,   In other words, teaching students how to develop their hearts and imaginations as well as their minds – teaching them how to build a self that has a soul – was not on the professors’ agenda.

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Now let’s move away from the historical debates, and consider this: not only has the concept of liberal education been historically (contingently) contested; it always will be, and always should be, contested.  The concept of liberal education should be regarded as “essentially contestable”.

Liberal education is one of those concepts for which there may be agreement on its most important ingredients or on a governing prototype, but any absolute definition or operational model of its general idea is properly disputed.  It is the sort of concept that is valuable when disputed – valuable because the dispute produces human hearts and minds (souls).  Such disputes produce our humanity one person at a time.  Such concepts invite valuable disputes that cannot be entirely settled by linguistic clarity, empirical evidence, or logical proof; we should not seek hegemonic consensus concerning such concepts.

So, dogmatism (”My definition is right and all others are wrong”) or skepticism (“All answers are equally true (or false); everyone has a right to his or her own truth”) . . . neither of these attitudes is appropriate toward the dispute over an essentially contestable concept.  These stances toward the nature of definitions presume falsely that definitions can be true or false in the first place.

Definitions are conventions, they are not empirical claims so they cannot be true or false.  They can be consistent with the use of related terms; they can be part of a coherent system of language usage; they can be useful for solving problems.  But they cannot be true or false.  Definitions are inventions; they are not discoveries.  Key terms in our understandings and valuations may be given definitions that are more or less clear, more or less consistent with related terms, more or less compatible with our best interpretation of the best evidence, more or less useful in solving our problems.  But they cannot be true or false in any ultimate sense.

Liberal education is a recognition that humans are symbolic animals; we mutually invent language, not simply for understanding and valuing things, but for changing the world we live in (and then healing what we’ve broken).  Because we can creatively change the world by the way we conceive our perception of its value, we are responsible for that world.  The price of our creativity is responsibility to and for others (including nonhuman members of the world we live in). [See “A Clue to the Nature of Man: the Symbol,” by Ernst Cassirer in An Essay on Man: an Introduction to a Philosophy of Human Culture (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1977) pp. 23-26.]

We profitably come to a historical consensus on the use of some of our key terms.  But for other concepts we fail to come to consensus.  And for a subset of these that remain contested it is desirable that we always fail to form a hegemonic consensus on their definitions.  There is value in having a loyal opposition, a minority opinion (a Talmudic Shmuel for every Hillel), on such concepts.  In these cases, the debate over the definition is essential to our development and evolution as a species – as human individuals (essential to our becoming more than merely homo sapiens).  When it is desirable that a dispute over a concept never be absolutely resolved (even in an ideal world) we label it an “essentially contestable concept.”

This is to say that the source of the dispute is not necessarily confusion (equivocation), polysemy (feet on legs, feet on ruler), or inadvertent homonymy (feet, feat); it is to say that the concept has the inherent potential to cultivate the essence of a species of language users.  In our species, the debate over the idea of liberal education cultivates our humanity.  Every program of liberal education should include the debate over the nature and value of a liberal education.  The debates over ultimate reality and value maintain and develop our species, actualize our potential to be creative and critical at the same time, honor our past and invent our future.  As a conceptualizing and communicating species we become human by engaging with others’ conceptions and perceptions of claims for the possible and the necessary features of experience — our knowing and our valuing.

And this implies that we’d all benefit from a number of experiments, a variety of practices, implementing some reasonably and impartially argued version of liberal education.  It is not reasonable and impartial to use economic or political power to impose a single model of liberal education on a population of human beings.  The critique and creativity that a liberal education produces should be turned back on itself.  A liberal education must be reflexive; it must practice what it preaches. Of course, in order to determine by impartial reason what capacities are necessary to the becoming a full human being and functioning successfully as a person in the world, we must figure out what we mean by ‘person’ and ‘world’ and ‘success’ and ‘functional’ and ‘human’ and so on.  And to do this is in itself to have become a liberally educated person.  The alternative is to dig our own graves.

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In summary: A liberal education is a course of learning suitable for the cultivation of a free and equal human being.  It is an education that empowers persons with the skills of knowing and valuing sufficient for successful human lives.

It produces persons conscious of their beliefs and values, and who ground these in empirical evidence, logical consistency, linguistic clarity, practical solutions, and imaginative alternatives.  It produces confident but unpresuming persons who are open-minded enough to tolerate (if not enjoy) disputes about key ideas and methods of understanding and valuing the metaphysical and moral concepts necessary or useful for supporting human life on this planet.

It produces persons ready to take responsibility for their self-development and their behavior toward others, and for the social and physical well-being of the world they inherit and invent.  It produces persons who can function well in all their basic roles in life as human beings – citizen, neighbor, employee, partner, and parent.  It produces persons with healthy skepticism for their own traditions and ideologies, ones who are able and willing to think collaboratively and yet take final responsibility for their own beliefs and behaviors.

An emphasis on technical knowledge (applied quantitative reasoning) to the exclusion of humanizing debate (idealistic, qualitative reasoning) diminishes us as human beings, impoverishes our societies and threatens our existence.  The recent return of some Chinese and Russian universities to liberal education after decades of narrowly focused curriculum is an acknowledgement that humane societies require more than technicians, and that happy, creative and productive people require more than a technical education. [See Chen Xin (2004) “Social Changes since the 1990s” in Asia Pacific Educational Review, Vol. 5 (1), pp. 1 – 13; and Gur Ofer (2007) “Teaching and Researching in Modern Economics in the Russian Federation” in F. Bourguignon, Y. Elkana, B. Pleskovc eds. Capacity Building in Economics Education and Research, Washington DC, World Bank.]

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So, we do well to pursue ambitious definitions of liberal education that manifest multiple values (practical, intrinsic, and ideal values), that involve several freedoms (negative and positive), that prepares us for our major roles in life (employee, citizen, neighbor, partner, parent) and cultivates our humanity (our species-being).  And because liberal education is properly considered an essentially contestable concept, we do well to pursue alternative ways of facilitating liberal education that arguably satisfy these goals, such as the Great Books and Authors program that St. Johns College offers us.

That program begins with Socrates and texts by Plato recording his life as a model of an intellectually, emotionally, and imaginatively free and responsible citizen of Athens.  He was a gainfully employed teacher who trusted students’ own questions to motivate their learning about themselves and the world.  He expected teachers to be mentors and midwives, bringing students to courage and honesty and impartiality and reason, with the intention of helping them find their way out of darkness into light, from fear into hope.  Developing these intellectual, emotional, and moral virtues allows us to practically liberate ourselves, allows us to intrinsically actualize ourselves, and allows us to mutually re-imagine ourselves.

Much of the historical debate that has cultivated our humanity is a mere footnote to Socrates.  St. John’s College is to be praised for continuing to raise this figure of liberation, actualization, and re-imagination for its students.  To reason together in seminar over great texts — their ideas and methods — is all the more inspiring of the desire for freedom from ignorance and prejudice when it is connected to its author, to her courage and critique, the curiosity and creativity, and to the story of his struggle to understand, value, and change the world for the better.  This is what St. Johns does well; we honor the college today for its excellence in providing a truly liberating, actualizing, and imaginative education.


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