Sunday, November 3, 2013

What is Liberal Education?

In the previous post, we mention a symposium on the future of liberal education.  There is a lot of good information and argument in the papers delivered in that symposium, but one particularly nice description of what a liberal education is can be found in "Why Do We Wear These Robes and These Hoods?", which was originally delivered at a Phi Beta Kappa induction ceremony. Author Timothy Burns points out that the Greek letters, Phi Beta Kappa, "stand for Philosophia Biou Kubernetes: philosophy, or love of wisdom, as the guide of life." Burns begins his explanation of what what liberal education is like this:

[P]erhaps the best starting point for getting a hold of its purpose is the adjective in the term liberal education. “Liberal tells us that the education was originally held to be education that becomes a free human being, a liber, rather than a slave (i.e., a human being with the potential for sufficient virtues of mind and heart to rule himself or herself within a society of like-minded human beings). It is an education aimed at developing the human potential to be free—to be not in need, as slaves were thought to be, of being commanded and watched over and reminded of the fearful consequence of doing what a master forbids. It is an education becoming, then, a full human being, and therefore choice-worthy as an end in itself. It is a high or noble common enterprise that can fulfill ones distinctively human potential, regardless of how useful it might be for other things. Liberal education so understood is emphatically not career, or job, or professional training, in which you learn things useful for something else—information or theories” that you will apply later. For this reason, classes in preprofessional programs to this day do not count toward Phi Beta Kappa credits. In fact, to think of liberal education as a means and not an end in itself is like encouraging someone to study violin so that she can have limber fingers. It is to mistake a very real effect of liberal education for its purpose.
Liberal education is likewise emphatically not a political indoctrination, an education in how to be a liberal or a conservative.

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