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What is a Liberal Education?

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In The College Curriculum: a reader, ed. by Joseph DeVitis, 2013, Peter Lang: New York, Berlin, Oxford, pp. 7-13

ISBN 978-1-4331-1789-3

Roger William Gilman, Dean of Fairhaven College                                                    

Western Washington University

In my role as academic dean of a college offering students a ‘liberal education,’ I am often asked by new students what this means.  What is a liberal education?

Our students are not alone; most people asking this question are genuinely puzzled by its meaning; and I find that the few who do have some ideas about the nature and purpose of a liberal education often hold misconceptions.  It’s not just our students who want to know: potential employers of our students, donors to the university, state legislators, trustees, and even colleagues in our colleges sometimes wonder about the nature, purpose, and value of liberal education.

The deep values of liberal education are liberty, actualization, and imagination.  A liberal education develops a range of methods for liberating us from an impoverished set of problem-solving skills and narrow points of view while actualizing our potential for being fully human and preparing us for our major roles in life for the sake of imagining a better world and a vocation by which to implement that greater good.

Liberation is a practical value; actualization is an intrinsic value; and imagination is an idealistic value.  These deep values underlie the nature and purpose of liberal education.  Liberation is a means to an end: problem-solving.  Actualization is an end-for-itself: fulfillment.  And Imagination is an ideal goal: a larger purpose for a person’s life.

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              Let’s examine several misunderstandings of liberal education as a way of clarifying its meaning.  Let me begin with three big mistakes: that liberal education is a political ideology, that liberal education includes every type of learning activity, and that liberal education consists of the “liberal arts” but not the sciences.

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

Others understand liberal education as inclusive of all educational activities. That definition is too broad.  For instance, vocational and professional curriculums are often organized in exclusively job-focused ways separate from any context of liberating disciplines and without any integration of learning capacities for work with capacities for citizenship, partnering and parenting — without, in other words, the contexts and purposes of the liberating arts, humanities, and sciences.  State and federal policies often designate applied-sciences and technologies as being “high-demand” training programs that exclude the valuing of capacities for our other important roles in this life.  This is doubtless short-sighted.

Some use the term ‘liberal arts’ to stand for the concept of a liberal education. The original meaning of the term ‘liberal education’ was in fact identical to ‘the liberal arts’ when first developed in the ancient Greek academy.  At that time the phrase ‘liberal arts’ did cover all the disciplines, all the methods of testing claims to knowledge and value.  Today, however, most people identify ‘the liberal arts’ more narrowly, with the fine and performing arts – painting, dance, music, theatre, and the like.  The phrases ‘the liberal arts and humanities’ or ‘the liberal arts, humanities, and social sciences’ also are impoverished names for the notion of liberal education because a liberal education includes the life sciences, physical sciences, and mathematics along with those fine and performing arts, the humanities, and the social sciences.  All these disciplines help liberate us from our ignorance and incapacity, and contribute to preparing us for our basic roles in life as human beings.

On a different level, there are three more-subtle misunderstandings of the idea of liberal education.  They are on the right track, but not precise.  Liberal education may include but is something more than general education, more than interdisciplinary education, and more than applied education.

For instance, the idea of liberal education encompasses, but significantly surpasses, the idea of “general education” as it is defined today.  Today a general education curriculum in conventional institutions typically involves large lecture classes of an introductory nature that pump information into students.  The introductory information conveyed is the result of others’ work, not that of the students.  Students are expected simply memorize the information; they do not evaluate it.  The information typically consists of basic definitions, claims to fact, and the outlines of theories.  But there is little practice with any actual methods of testing the preciseness and practicality of definitions, the probable truth of factual claims, the validity of a theoretical packaging of beliefs, or utility of a proposed design.  In these large general education classes, the ways to liberate persons for work, citizenship, partnering and parenting – skill with the methods of composing and testing knowledge and value claims – are usually not even discussed, let alone practiced. 

In order to become facile with a disciplined method of knowing or valuing, general education course syllabi would need to be organized by an important question or problem (the course would be inquiry-based) rather than organized by themes that simply summarize content, i.e., the results of others’ work.  But most Gen Ed courses are simply information dumps, with an expectation that students will memorize the information they are asked to trust as already justified.  But students want to know when they should trust what they are told by a professor or textbook.  In an age when information is cheap — because you can look up anything on the internet from the electronic device in your pocket — what you need to know is whether the information you’ve easily found is good information or bad information. You don’t need to memorize it; you need to test it.  Liberating education is based on evaluating information, not on accepting it at face value.  How do you know whether to affirm or deny a claim to clarity, validity, truth, or aptness of the information you’ve encountered?  That’s the question!

Similarly, interdisciplinary study is a necessary part of a liberal education; but it is not by itself an adequate substitute for the full idea of ‘liberal education.’  Delivering a liberating education through interdisciplinary formats makes sense because real problems and opportunities in the world do not fit into artificial subject areas. But if interdisciplinary study consists merely of integrating the work-results of others and does not include use of the disciplined methods of testing (if not also generating)  knowledge or value claims, then interdisciplinary study is not as liberating as it might be.  In order to design solutions to problems in the world, it is important to learn how to integrate the use of the tools (methods) in one’s tool box.

Another idea that goes in the right direction but is an incomplete understanding is the view that liberal education consists primarily of implementing truth and value claims — in the community, on the job, and at home — to see if they work as well in practice as they do in theory by solving problems in the real world.  Students and others rightly believe that applied work — testing proposed design-solutions — can tell us if the knowledge and value claims involved are practical and if they will, in fact, increase our well-being and common good.  But should we attempt to implement just any old claim someone professes? Beliefs can be wrong, and dangerous, irrational and unfair.   Implementing the belief that every green-eyed person is immoral because of that feature and therefore deserves to be treated as a second-class citizen, may not be a belief we should even try to implement in the first place; it is irrational and prejudiced. 

So, methodology, interdisciplinarity, and implementation may be important dimensions of liberal studies; but not the whole of it.  Two more important aspects of liberal education (but not the whole of it) are international and domestic cross-cultural competency, and the skills of democratic citizenship.

A useful, but limited, definition of liberal education is based on the fact that knowledge and value claims address the embedded nature of phenomena.  This view implies that reasonableness and impartialness 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 and 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 not only geologic, energetic, historical, and ecological; it is also economic and political, among other things.  The world’s peoples are connected and interdependent, i.e., they share a future.  A liberal education helps us understand our world and how to cope with it. Knowing only part of the world is not to know the world 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 citizenship, but whether we can afford not to.

Capacities for global citizenship are similar to those that enable national democratic citizenship — 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 re-adjust them so they become compatible with (though not identical to) identities of those in other groups.  Personal responsibility for critique and adjustment of one’s complex of identities should be guided by disciplined methods of evaluating ideas and actions so that we all end up with 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 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 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 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 of 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.

It is important that we overcome our partiality not just our ignorance.  Democratic societies will not work without impartial policies and judgments.

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 knowing and valuing well.  All these capacities create freedom from various threats and fears, and freedom to become what we hope to be. 

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Now turn from misdirection and partial definitions of liberal education to a more focused and complete definition.  A liberal education is undertaken for the sake of liberty from false belief and bad judgment; it enables both positive and negative kinds of freedom: freedom as power and freedom as protection.  These forms of freedom liberate us from our constraints and limitations of ignorance, sectarianism, and myopia.

What does it mean for a liberal education to facilitate a person’s negative and positive freedom? Negative freedom consists in the absence of, or successful defense against, unwanted interference in a person’s life – on what one wants to do or be.  Positive freedom consists in the development of one’s talents and the capacities to intervene in the world, influencing one’s circumstances in desired directions.  Freedom is both protection and power.

Say you were a political dissident, jailed for 20 years and you finally win a legal battle for your freedom.  The reversal of the judgment and the unlocking of cell doors and shackles on your legs represent a wonderful negative freedom – an absence of external constraints on your life.  But if your muscles or will-power has atrophied in the meantime, then you might still lack the positive freedom — the power — to walk, or even crawl, out of prison.  A sad condition that would be! Every one of us needs both negative and positive freedom.

From what external constraints and internal limitations do we need to be liberated? For what external and internal potentials do we need power?

Well, for instance, each of us is limited in our experience of the world; without disciplined effort we will only know our own personal experience since we don’t have immediate access to the experience of others.  We need methods of gaining insight into the experience of others; without it we have a narrow view of the real and the good; and this narrowness may be distorting and misleading.  We will be trapped in our ignorance of how the experience of others is similar and different from our own.  It is liberating to consciously understand the experience of others since our own thought and action is unavoidably a response and adjustment to their experience.  We can decrease the likelihood of our endangering or abusing others by transcending a narrow self-confined point of view.  And our own survival and flourishing too require us to understand and value – i.e., adjust to — the lives of others.

The same holds true for our partly-shared identity in groups: the cultures of other families, religions, economies, governments, and schools, for example, may be quite different from our own.  Their cultures may embody understandings and valuations alternate to ours; and their members may experience the world differently than we do.  Failing to understand the differences and similarities in the biology, experience, beliefs, and practices of members of those groups with whom we must negotiate our lives is dangerous.  To willfully ignore other cultures would be even more presumptuous and self-destructive.   Our ignorance of a genetic difference (typical of a subgroup of persons that we do not belong to) could be crucial to its members’ health.  Our efforts to be helpful to them will not be helpful if we do not understand their situation and motivation.  On the other hand, having useful knowledge of a particular difference but using it to assign lower social status to a group would be morally abusive. The physical, social, and moral health of our relationships can be at stake in failures to understand others or to value them appropriately.

And in addition to the value of knowing more than one point of view, it is vitally important that we transcend the limitation of knowing only one discipline – one method of problem-solving.  Working with only one method of learning is like having only one tool in your toolbox.  How much can you build with only a saw? Working within a single field of study will give you only a partial view of the nature and value of things or an unrealistic view of the challenges and opportunities in our interconnected and interdependent world.  You can’t live on history alone; for instance, knowing that civil wars have killed millions of people won’t help you understand that a2 + b2 = c2 (the Pythagorean Theorem). Nor can you live well knowing only principles of good nutrition; that knowledge, though valuable, won’t tell you how you should vote, what candidate and platform to support.  Facility with calculus will not make you a successful spouse.  In general, knowing how to do only a fraction of what you need to do can diminish or risk your life and the lives of those you love, not to mention the lives of many others.  And not knowing what you don’t know is even worse.

In short, each discipline is a powerful, yet limited, tool for determining the reasonableness or impartiality of ideas and actions.  Freedom from only one kind of deficiency is not sufficient freedom for flourishing in the real world.  There are different forms of limitation and constraint that can make us powerless and vulnerable and dangerous; and so we need a whole range of methods to combat these deficiencies and threats and ignorance.

Methods are disciplined practices of testing claims to clarity, validity, truth, rightness, goodness, and usefulness.   Disciplines are not merely accumulations of beliefs endorsed by others. Content areas (clusters of beliefs endorsed by those in an academic profession) are not the methodological hearts of disciplines. A collection of claims made by people claiming authority to make them must not be taken at face value, but rather tested for being clear, valid, true, right, good, and useful.  Methods are the heart of disciplines.

In general, a liberal education contextualizes our beliefs, judgments, and skills – historically, socially, culturally, globally, theoretically, and so on.  Early declaration of majors, along with too many pre-requisites for courses diminish the opportunities to do the exploring and contextualizing necessary to a genuine liberal education.  Liberal education asks students to explore fields and methods to which they do not themselves owe personal allegiance and in which they have no intention of developing expertise.

Not only does a liberal education free us from being locked inside our private experience, and free us from having only one method by which to determine the reasonableness or impartiality of our claims.   A liberal education also  develops our talents and actualizes our potential to be truly human as it prepares us for succeeding in all the basic life-roles we expect (and are expected) to play.

What are the basic roles for which each person will want to develop capacity? In my view, there are three basic roles we must play as humans and should be prepared for: employee or employer, citizen and neighbor, partner and parent.  A liberating education is one that builds a variety of capacities for each of the roles a person will face. 

It is tragically limiting to be prepared for only one of the several roles you must play.  A liberating education prepares us for all major roles we must play; otherwise, we are doomed to play some roles poorly. Being unprepared is to lack freedom to defend or express yourself.  If your education trains you only for a job, then you are not free to flourish and to succeed at everything you deeply aspire to and are widely expected to do. Most of what you value will not materialize. And so you must not only become a skilled, creative and hard-working employee or employer, you must also become a widely informed and evaluating citizen with skills of civilizing debate and conflict resolution.  And you will need to have acquired the emotional intelligence for developing and maintaining long-term intimate partnering and parenting relationships.  Without methods for understanding and valuing others appropriately, we will fail some of our obligations to others and miss privileges for ourselves of our species-being as humans.  We will not lead happy and meaningful lives if we are unprepared for important dimensions of our lives.

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Unfortunately, many universities that adopt the mission of facilitating a ‘liberal education’ have, in fact, failed to deliver what is needed to prepare students for all their future as citizens and partners along with their futures as employees. These universities are job-oriented while giving only lip-service to the ideal of liberal education.  We need to re-double their commitment to holistic, liberating education!

In short, after all this we might say that a liberal education facilitates the learning of shareable, agreed upon methods of creating, testing, implementing, and integrating knowledge and value claims so as to prepare persons for all their adult roles: employee or employer, neighbor and citizen, partner and parent.  Liberating education is holistic — for a whole person.  Only persons prepared to engage all the dimensions of human life are really free to make their lives — and the lives of those they love — meaningful and joyful.

Since most universities and colleges do not actually deliver on their promise to provide a rich liberal education, a student must plan early and carefully how to acquire a whole education for a whole life.  “What is a liberal education?” That’s an important question indeed!

And so, when students ask “what is a liberal education” our answer might well be: a liberal education is one that cultivates our full humanity  . . . individually and together.

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