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Liberal Education, the University and the Truly Educated Person

Education 18 Sep, 2019 Follow News

Liberal Education, the University and the Truly Educated Person

It is quite fashionable for the new student, just entering university, to have the view that making lots of money is the imperative of education and so begins to focus on what he or she is to do, rather than who he or she is to become. A fixation on specialization as the key to this end may cause that student to miss out on an education. It may turn out that study gets in the way of education.


For the typical college student, a specialty such as accounting, computing, economics or marketing is pretty straightforward, but why, in addition, courses in literature, history, philosophy, psychology, etc.


Getting to see beyond mere specialization is the challenge of liberal education. The view that the education process should develop the person not just as a businessman, farmer or physician – but as a human being – is easily sidelined, especially in the context of globalization and the urgent need for ‘belt-tightening measures’ even in education


In lean times, the humanities come into question and so areas like languages, the arts history, cultural studies, philosophy and religion are usually hardest hit. The ‘idealistic’ notion that critical thinking, civic and historical knowledge and ethical reasoning, areas the humanities especially develop, are necessary for effective participation in a free democracy regardless of career choice, becomes sidelined for the ‘urgent’ and the ‘now’.


And, yet, the purpose of education must be to prepare the student to think, to adapt, to be creative, especially knowing that job skills learnt today soon become irrelevant. A liberal education is vital.


A liberal education is one that ensures that a person becomes more than a specialist or technician. It is education that takes the long-range view and so concentrates on what shapes a person’s understanding and values, rather than on what he can use in one or two of the changing roles he might later play. As Marshall Gregory says in his article ‘A liberal Education Is Not A luxury’ published in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Sept.12, 2008, students overriding concern should be how to develop as fully as possible their basic human birthright: their powers of imagination, aesthetic responsiveness, introspection, language, rationality, moral and ethical reasoning, physical capacities and so on.


Liberal education focuses on developing the students as fully as possible as human beings, as human persons, reflective, thinking beings and as responsible agents thus ensuring that a person becomes more than a specialist or technician. It trains but it also educates. In explaining its devotion to a liberal education, Yale University says ‘At Yale you are required to learn broadly and deeply. Depth is covered in your major. Breadth is covered in three study areas: the Humanities and the Arts; the Sciences, and the Social Sciences and three skill areas: writing, quantitative reasoning, and a foreign language.” Yale University Website – Fareed Zakaria in his excellent book on the subject – In Defence of a Liberal Education, says that “A Liberal Arts education teaches you how to write, how to speak your mind, and how to learn, immensely valuable tools no matter your profession. Technology and education are actually making these skills even more valuable as routine mechanical and even computational tasks can be done by machines or workers in low wage countries.”


‘Students are clamouring for degrees that will help them secure jobs in a shifting economy, but to succeed in the long term, they’ll require an education that allows them to grow, adapt and contribute as citizens. And this is why many schools are shaking up their curricula to ensure that undergraduate business majors receive something they may not even know they need - a rigorous liberal arts education.” The Atlantic, June 28, 2016.


“Business majors seem to be graduating with some of the technical skills they’ll need to secure their jobs, but without having made the gains in writing or critical skills they’ll require to succeed over the course of their careers, or to adapt as their technical skills become outdated and the nature of the opportunities they have shifts over time.” Yoni Applebaum - Business Majors and the Liberal Arts, June, 2016.


Because by our very nature, human beings desire to know, the first task of liberal education is to fan the spark and ignite the natural inquisitiveness. Arthur Holmes, in one of my favorite books on education, The Idea of a Christian College, explains that if the mind is to be formed, the imagination stretched, the vision enlarged, the intellectual powers sharpened, then courses in reading and writing are mandatory. With reading, he explains, comes the gaining of input, the fertilization of imagination, conceptualization, and evaluation. To write trains one to become articulate, to express, to expound, to argue, to explore relationships, to have a sense of the whole.


Friendships, marriage, family, work, recreation, political involvement, social action, technology, etc, requires understanding and right values. These all need reflection informed not only by the natural and social sciences, but also by the insight and sensitivity about human affairs which the humanities afford.


So values and facts must be taught together. The student must be exposed to ethics, to social problems, to aesthetics and to the logical structure of value judgments.


In modern societies, career mobility, rather than a job held for a long time, is critical. Career preparation, therefore, requires large understandings, rich personal qualities and lasting values. A liberal education contributes greatly to this. It does this by attention to thinking and values and by its emphasis on breadth of education


These underlie the understanding of management processes; historical perspectives on sociopolitical institutions and values as a precondition to understanding labour unions, free enterprise and alternative economic structures; cross cultural awareness and foreign area studies are essential in firms that have international relationships; the humanities , especially literature and philosophy, demand clear thinking, precise writing, and scrutiny of one’s own values that prepare one for any career involving careful communication and continued self examination. The broadly integrative character of liberal learning moves the student beyond narrowly focused analytic techniques to see the overall picture.


In the end, it is liberal education, steeped in the thinking that education should develop the human being as an entire person that is best able to produce an educated person. The truly educated person possesses moral virtues - the qualities of character such as love and fairness, integrity and the courage of one’s conviction.


It includes intellectual virtues – what Holmes calls qualities of mind, such as breadth of understanding, openness to new ideas, intellectual honesty about other views, analytic and critical skills, and a sense of history, freshness of imagination, independence and creativity of mind.


An educated person is characterized by his or her responsible action in all areas of life. This person is conscientious, helpful, decisive, self-disciplined and has the ability to correct his or her course and start afresh.


The educated person also possesses qualities of self-knowledge. He or she is capable of an honest appraisal of his or her strengths and weaknesses and harbours no false modesty or overconfidence. Instead, he or she is willing to address weaknesses, to invest in his own strengths and, importantly, to learn from others.


The educated person is widely read and alert to the issues of the day. He or she continues to read and to grow, aware that however large the circumference of his or her knowledge, just as large are the borders of his or her ignorance.


Arthur Holmes is dead right. At the end of the experience, the university education should sharpen the mind, heighten the imagination, deepen the understanding, broaden the sympathies and kindle new interests. It should produce in the student the anxiety to shoulder his load of responsibility for himself and society.


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