The Content of a Liberal Education

Easy read summary for administrators and legislators.

The content of a liberal education is that which teaches you to think.

 

 

 

            The foundation idea of a liberal
education goes back to the medieval university, which was in turn heavily
influenced by classical notions about the educated man.  The content of that education will of course
no longer do, since the early university existed in an intellectual environment
dominated by Christian theology and an uncritical acceptance of classical ideas
(at least those that did not conflict with the Church).  Both held the university in the confining
grip of truth based on unquestioned and unquestionable authority, that of the
ancients and that of the true faith.  In
addition to limiting academic freedom this fact of late medieval life created a
basic curriculum that overemphasized some subjects, such as theology, and
neglected others, such as the natural sciences.
Fortunately, the decline of the Church and the rise of modern science,
which broke the spell of the ancients, ultimately undermined the idea of
authority-based truth, and the curriculum of the modern university has expanded
into every conceivable area.

A modern liberal education has two
essential components.  The first of these
is the clutch of intellectual skills necessary for any intelligent interaction
with the world and the acquisition of further knowledge.  The most basic of these tools, the ability to
read and write, to calculate and to solve simple problems, are acquired in the
process of primary education, though the sad state of American public education
can no longer guarantee this.  A liberal
education should build on these skills and develop further the individual’s
ability to read analytically and critically and write clearly and
persuasively.  It should train him how to
examine and approach logically any sort of problem or situation and how to
argue and defend a proposition, whether in speech or in writing.  In a word, a liberal education ought to teach
one to think.  If the university did
nothing more than this, its existence would be more than justified.

The individual who can think,
analyze and communicate is equipped to continue learning on his own, but a
proper liberal education will also provide a second component: a broad basis of
general knowledge that will give the student a leg up, as it were, in his
further education.  The emphasis here is
on the broad and general, the acquisition of the information and ideas
necessary for a basic understanding of how the world, both natural and human,
works.  From this one can easily proceed
to a deeper understanding of any specific aspect of the nature of things.

A liberal education thus requires a
grounding in both the sciences and the humanities.  In the case of the sciences, the goal is not
a detailed knowledge of any particular science, but rather an understanding of
what the various sciences deal with, the important questions to which they seek
answers and the general principles upon which they operate.  More important than an expertise in any
specific scientific field is a thorough understanding of science itself,
what it is and what it is not and how it functions.  Such an understanding of science and the
fundamental principles behind our universe will allow the educated individual
to recognize and counter the pseudo-science, fantasy and general irrationality
that constantly threaten to overwhelm the human race.

A similar goal is sought in the
humanities, that is, a broad understanding of the human condition in all its
aspects.  Such an understanding requires
some exposure to and basic familiarity with history, religion, philosophy, the
political and social sciences and the arts.
Again, the point is not to acquire knowledge in depth, but rather to
gain a general understanding of these fields, particularly as tools for
understanding the individual and society and making reasoned judgments about
them.

Especially important in this regard
are history and literature, both of which provide direct access to the human
experience and thus contribute immediately to an understanding of
ourselves.  Engaging in these disciplines
will not only reveal the tremendous variety found in human society, but in
doing so will also illuminate the general human condition.  To study the Greeks or Zulus or Chinese is
simply to study ourselves from another perspective; to read the literature of Russia
or India or Brazil
is to see ourselves through different cultural eyes.

For
the American university student study of the history and literature of western
civilization ought to be the starting point for this examination of human
culture.  This western tradition
comprises the values, perspectives and methodologies that have shaped our own
society and thus has the most direct relevance to an understanding of
ourselves, who are products of that society, regardless of superficial ethnic
differences.  It is necessary to
comprehend the forces that shaped one’s own point of view before examining that
of others.  And for good or for ill
western culture and its ideas have had and will continue to have a dramatic
impact on the rest of humanity, making a study of the west a vital component of
the liberal education of every individual, irrespective of his cultural
origins.

A broad understanding of ourselves
and the world about us and the ability to think analytically and communicate
clearly, these are the goals of a liberal education.  While not filling any specific workplace
niches, a general education of this sort possesses a social utility far more
important than that of any professional training.  Common sense and the evidence of history
demonstrate that the greater the portion of the citizenry that is generally
educated, the better the society is able to solve its problems, employ its
resources and improve its material and intellectual circumstances.  Such is especially the case in a democratic
state, which regularly asks its citizens to render political judgments, and it
was the discoverers of urban-centered democracy, the Greeks, who first realized
that a general education was a basis for civic virtue, that a general education
was in fact a political education.

In the modern world of course
political education has increasingly come to mean simply political
indoctrination, which has rarely, if ever, been a benefit to any society.  A proper political education instead consists
of a general understanding of society and history and the intellectual tools to
employ that understanding in shaping the political environment.  Such is obviously not popular with
governments and politicians of any stripe, since a liberally educated society
is the most resistant to political oppression, the least likely to be taken in
by appeals to emotion rather than reason.
Democracy in particular rises and falls with the education of its
electorate, and the ignorant voter is an easy target for demagoguery and
sloganeering, for the fear mongers and feel-good politicians.  Recent American history amply demonstrates
the serious danger posed by an uneducated electorate.

A final note about a liberal
education: it is work.  While learning
can be generally interesting and often fun, it still requires discipline and
effort.  Learning demands mental
exercise, memorization and practice.
Interaction and dialogue are a vital part of education, but at its root
learning is a solitary occupation of reading, writing and most important,
thinking.

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