Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Liberal Education is What It Says It Is


These will be random thoughts on a liberal education.  Please excuse in advance the lack of a cohesive development in this post.

Please understand that I’m using the term “liberal education” to mean the education received in high school and college.

I had a great liberal education.  It was, after my family and friends, the greatest gift that life has given me.  All four of my daughters also have had good liberal educations, and that is another blessing life has given me.

I’m convinced that a liberal education is meant to teach students how to think in a complex world.  A liberal education includes all the basics—language skills, mathematics, sciences, history, philosophy, and the arts.  It allows a student to integrate these various disciplines into the student’s own world view.  It prepares the student for a lifetime of self–teaching.  It inculcates in a student a curiosity about the unknown and the different, along with a confidence that the unknown is frequently knowable and the different is almost always non–threatening.  A liberal education allows a student to develop a perspective that is the student’s own—a combination of the knowledge attained by study, the experiences of the student’s life, the experiences of others whom the student knows, and the transmitted unlearned wisdom of the student’s family and, in some instances, the student’s family’s faith.  A liberal education will show a student how to test the student’s personal perspective against the reality of the student’s life and culture.  It also will help the student be comfortable with seeking help of various kinds when the student’s perspective seems askew.  Once a personal perspective has started to form, the student throughout life will be able to continue its development by testing ideas and experiences against it, adding sound ideas and good experiences, and tossing out bad ideas and remedying bad experiences.

A good liberal education is essential for a society in which the people govern themselves, directly or indirectly.  A society whose citizens can’t think soundly for themselves is at risk of being a society run by intellectual bullies and charlatans.

A liberal education’s purpose is to free the student from the constraints of intellectual dependence on parents, teachers, pastors, friends, and politicians.  That is its purpose.  Period.  A pure liberal education prepares a student for any job, but qualifies the student for no specific job.  A liberal education isn’t a trade school.  It isn’t a professional school.  It is a school that teaches a student how to think independently.

A liberal education is costly.  As a father of four, I can tell you it is costly in more ways than one.  Unless it is seen as essential, unless parents believe that their kids must have such an education, then the kids will have a very hard time getting one.  More than that, unless the entire society sincerely values liberal education and collectively works to make such an education available to its children, then only the wealthy will be educated and only the wealthy will prosper intellectually and materially.

Neither my Dad nor my Mom went to college.  When I went to graduate school,  my Dad kept calling me a “perpetual student.”  Mom and Dad saw the value of my education only in  terms of the money they hoped I might make because of it.  Parents who haven’t been educated need to take a leap of faith, therefore.  They need to trust that what is happening in the classroom is of value.  They need to trust that time spent studying art history or Plato isn’t time and money wasted.  I know from personal experience that this is difficult for parents who haven’t been educated themselves.  Helping the individual parent make that leap of faith would be a society that cherishes learning and independent thinking, that understands that knowledge really is personal power, and that life in the 21st century cannot be lived with an education from the 15th or 19th century.

The conservatives around the country are mounting an attack against public education, against intellectual excellence, and against secular knowledge itself.  They are like the Church in the Middle Ages who limited education to priests.  The medieval Church did that, in my view, because they were afraid an educated Christendom would be a rebellious Christendom.  The Reformation, product of the Renaissance (or the re-birth of learning), proved their fears warranted.  Similarly today, conservatives and especially conservative Christians, are afraid.  They home-school their children and limit their exposure to the wider world, again in my view, to ensure that their kids have to rely on what their parents and pastors tell them, to ensure that they remain faithful members of a benighted flock.

The good guys have to win this one.  They really do.

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