Liberal education—that is, the kind of education
that befits a free human being—emerged at a particular time and place. Although its roots reach
back to ancient
In the late modern or post-modern
period, the notion of a university survives more in name than practice; the
essential dynamism of higher education has transformed places of higher
education by an explosion of knowledge such that they are better likened to
multi-versities. Nevertheless, there exists a deep continuity in the notion of
liberal education, one that both reaches back to the roots of the Western
tradition from whence it has sprung, and outward to include any developed or
developing culture. At the center of liberal education, I place the effort to
understand the nature and purpose of a human life—a distinctively human
activity not bound to any particular culture. I understand the essential modus operandi of liberal
education to be dialectical; that is, engagement with the considered thoughts
of those possessing a claim to wisdom living in any place and at any time.
Although this conversation is by no means bound by traditions of various kinds,
its own tradition provides ballast against the all too human tendency to
submerge oneself in the present, to imagine that ours is the best of all
possible worlds, or to assume a stance of superiority to thinkers, writers, and
artists who have come before. So while good readers examine critically the best
ideas of past authors, partisans of liberal education simultaneously allow
those authors to challenge the favored and often uncritically accepted opinions
of their contemporary readers.
My premise here is partly a post-modern one: Each culture or historical epoch both conceals and reveals truths about the human condition, and I believe that our own is no exception (the persistence of beliefs in American exceptionalism notwithstanding). But I also understand this to be deeply consistent with a Platonic view that elevates the dialogue or conversation as the privileged point of access to the whole of which we constitute a part. While it is certainly the case that we have made tremendous advances in our understandings of science and unleashed its practical potential in unprecedented ways, comparable progress is not obviously the case with respect to the fundamental human questions—questions about the meaning of human life, of death, of justice; reflections about the sources of human happiness, the nature of love and friendship, and the possibility of transcendence; or the development of capacities to make (inescapable) judgments about right and wrong or good and evil; as well as larger questions concerning the place of a human life within the delicate web of vital networks that constitute the larger cosmos within which we find ourselves. It is in my opinion at least an open question whether denizens of the contemporary world are happier, more ethically attuned, or more thoughtful about these questions than those who lived in the past. I find myself more inclined to think we do better in some respects but worse in others.
I do not want to give the impression that I think liberal education to be backward looking. Rather, I understand a liberal education to reach out in any direction that promises deeper self-understanding—backward, forward or sideways. I emphasize this dimension, simply because it is most foreign to a pervasive way of thinking predicated on often unexamined notions of progress.
In Plato’s Republic, Socrates maintains that education is not what most claim it to be: It is not putting knowledge into a student (hence not about accumulating “information”), but rather (as the word “education” suggests) a drawing out of capacities already present but as yet unexercised or even discovered. The central activity of liberal or “liberating” education is critical self-examination. This, however, involves more than the individual, since an individual’s self-understanding is necessarily shaped by a range of more or less conscious contexts. Certainly, family, upbringing, neighborhood, class (however defined), country, religion, and historical epoch profoundly shape an individual’s self-understanding. Hence critical self-examination necessarily involves thoughtful and critical engagement with family, friends, neighbors, country and the larger world in which we find ourselves. The liberally educated or “liberated” self is not the starting point, but the goal of a liberal education. By discovering and developing abilities previously unknown or imperfectly sensed, one is liberated to be more fully oneself. As Socrates put it several centuries ago, “the unexamined life is not worth living for a human being” because, I am tempted to add, it not a recognizably human life, one that befits a free human being.
But liberated individuals do not live in a vacuum; we are, as has been famously maintained, “political animals.” I understand this to mean in part that we develop as human beings only in and through our interactions with others. Not only do we come to know ourselves by living in a variety of overlapping and sometimes competing contexts, but context is an unsurpassable condition for being human. Self-knowledge and a sense of self is inextricably bound up with our relationships with others; we are essentially contextual beings (though of course that context takes different forms for the parent, writer, hermit, artist, philosopher, political activist, etc.) As Aristotle put it, one who is self-sufficient is not a human being, but rather a beast or a god.
The dialectic between the individual and the larger social and political context within which human beings find themselves is fraught with tension, danger, promise, and creativity. It is also rich in implications for understanding liberal education since I maintain that both poles of this dialectic need to sustained and developed throughout the undergraduate years. If we aim at inviting students to develop themselves as individuals, this needs to be balanced with a growing appreciation for the formative power of contexts—not simply as something to be transcended or escaped, but as essential conditions for a flourishing human life. If all forms of life require a habitat of some kind to survive and flourish, the same is true of human beings who, in addition to the physical conditions that make life possible, require a variety of human and political (in the broadest meaning that word) habitats to flourish. As a consequence, I think a liberal education should aim to both situate and liberate students, inviting them to understand at greater depth the formative roots of the culture in which they find themselves, as well as prodding them to look beyond it; inviting them to understand the deepest sources of their own particularity, while simultaneously cultivating a more cosmopolitan sensibility that renders nothing human foreign.
Posted by love at
September 17, 2004 10:04 AM
Discuss this proposal in the forum, or leave a comment below!