The most important American essay about liberal education does not contain the words ‘liberal education’ at all. The essay is Emerson’s “Self-reliance,” published in 1841. Its thesis is deep but simple: what makes a human life most worth living is the capacity to think and to act for and from oneself; the most insidious enemy of human excellence is a complacent, perhaps unconscious, conformity, the parroting of opinions and actions one has, knowingly or not, taken over thoughtlessly from others. For Emerson, and for me, what we most admire and cherish in our fellow humans—you, at your best—is the cultivation of a genuinely individual way of seeing, thinking, feeling, and acting. We want, for ourselves and for others, a mode of life that is not routine, boring, and common; we aspire to freshness of perception and depth of response. We admire those who can see things in novel ways, who recognize possibilities for good (and for evil) most of us are blind to; we cherish those whose life bears a stamp of originality, who speak with their own voices and do not pass along the comfortable words of convention and cliché. Emerson calls this capacity for original action and thought self-reliance.
Neither he nor I thinks self-reliance is the only good, of course: loyalty, kindness, curiosity, courage, patience, good humor, and lots of other virtues are important elements in a life well-lived. But without self-reliance—the spice of an authentic originality—those other virtues are timid, one-dimensional, and sometimes even dangerous.
Rather than talk about the “principles” of liberal education, I would rather talk about its goal. If that goal is the cultivation of self-reliance, as I believe it to be, the question before us is: what habits of mind and heart tend toward such originality?
I would mention two, the first a habit of mind, the second a habit of the heart. Both are, in their statement, crashingly obvious, I’m afraid. Everything depends on the way they are instantiated: the authenticity, if it comes, resides in the particular fashioning of a life defined by these habits. As Goethe had it, theory is gray, always gray; but the golden tree of life is green. (A useful reminder for our committee, I think.)
Self-reliance requires the capacity for genuine and sustained self-interrogation. Originality of thought or action demands that we be able to distinguish the real from the fake, the authentic from the conventional, the truthful from the sentimental. If liberal education aims at self-reliance, then the first step is the cultivation of those powers of mind that both encourage and empower one in one’s attempt to speak and act for and from oneself. Appropriately enough, Nussbaum calls these powers of mind “Socratic rationality.” Liberal education should cultivate Socratic rationality.
A second habit necessary for self-reliance, this one a habit of
the heart, is the ability deeply to appreciate the world from a point of view
not one’s own.
Although of course we know, intellectually, that our own experience of things
is peculiar and limited, in fact this is amazingly easy to forget. We blunder
through the world assuming we know what we are doing, because we assume we know
how our words and actions are perceived by others. (Think of
So, there are, for an Emersonian like me, two touchstones of liberal education: Socratic rationality and active sympathy. Other things are good to have; these two are essential. Is there a single curriculum or course of study best suited to their cultivation? I don’t think so. There is no royal road to self-reliance: authenticity is possible for chemists, philosophers, and musicians. Sir Francis Crick may never have read a novel or played the clarinet, Emerson himself may never have solved a quadratic equation or fired up a Bunsen burner; but both were models of liberal education. We don’t know how to program for authenticity. We know what is necessary; we don’t know what is sufficient.
Thus in designing a curriculum one should encourage as much flexibility as possible. Course topics are less important that the kind of pedagogy the courses should encourage. Intensity of engagement is more important than breadth of coverage. Information matters less than fostered passion. Since the world is more complex than academic organization, interdisciplinary work is a good thing. Individuation, not socialization, is the point.
For me, curriculum design is less about student education, which is anyway mysterious and unpredictable, than about creating the economic and social conditions for keeping around a diverse group of passionate teachers and scholars who will offer students the chance to recognize and to nurture their own gifts and obsessions. (If you’re curious about what I think that would mean for Furman’s curriculum, there’s another document on the way.)
Posted by love at
September 17, 2004 10:39 AM
Discuss this proposal in the forum, or leave a comment below!