Sunday, November 23, 2014

Liberal Education and Freedom

In chapter 4 of his recent book, Conscience and its Enemies, Robert P. George makes a useful statement on freedom and the liberal arts.  Some people think that the purpose of liberal education is to liberate one from conventional opinions so that one can be perfectly free to construct one’s “self” in accordance with one’s inner desires and passions. Against that view, and appealing to the soul rather than to the self, George argues that we enter into the conversation with the great minds (Augustine, Dante, Shakespeare, etc.) to appropriate truths that can “liberate us from what is merely vulgar, coarse, or base.”  The kind of Intellectual knowledge made available through the study of these thinkers, he argues, has “a role to play in making self-transcendence possible. It can help us to understand what is good and to love the good above whatever it is we happen to desire; it can teach us to desire what is good because it is good, thus making us truly masters of ourselves.” He concludes in this way:  
The stronger and deeper reason (for respecting academic freedom) is that freedom is the condition of our fuller appropriation of the truth.  I use the term appropriation because knowledge and truth have their value for human beings precisely as fulfillment of capacities for understanding and judgment. The liberal arts liberate the human spirit because knowledge of truth – attainted by the exercise of our rational faculties – is intrinsically and not merely instrumentally valuable.  “Useful knowledge” is, of course, all to the good. It is wonderful when human knowledge can serve other human goods, such as health, as in the biomedical sciences, or economic efficiency and growth, or the construction of great buildings and bridges, or any of a million other worthy purposes.  But even “useful knowledge” is often more than instrumentally valuable, and a great deal of knowledge that wouldn’t qualify as “useful” in the instrumental sense is intrinsically and profoundly enriching and liberating. This is why we honor – and should honor even more highly than we currently do in our institutions of higher learning – excellence in the humanities and pure science (social and natural).
Knowledge that elevates and enriches – knowledge that liberates the human spirit – cannot be merely notional.  It must be appropriated.  It is not – it cannot be – a matter of affirming or even believing correct proposition. The knowledge that elevates and liberates is knowledge not only that something is the case but also why and how it is the case. Typically such knowledge does more than settle something in one’s mind; it opens new avenues of exploration. Its payoff includes new sets of questions, new lines of inquiry.  ... [F]reedom – freedom to inquire, freedom to assent or withhold assent as one’s best judgment dictates - is a condition of the personal appropriation of the truth by the human subject....

Many History and Political Science courses are seminars or conversations in which we read the kinds of works George mentions and examine and respond to one another’s opinions and arguments. George's statement is one way of understanding our approach.  That kind of conversation is the best way to understand the reasons for an opinion or theory - in George’s language, to “appropriate” it or make it your own.  And making the evidence and reasoning that supports an opinion your own is the only way to grasp the real meaning of an opinion and the only way it can truly benefit you. 

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