Thursday, April 5, 2012

A Thesis Concerning Liberal Education

The task of educating free men is one of bringing them into an unimpeded relation to the good, insofar as such a relation has already been made possible by the ideas of the good in the light of which the various human sciences have found freedom. This task has two purposes: 1) primarily, to ground as deeply and rationally as possible a respect for the mysterious being and self-relation of the good, and 2) secondarily, to remove as far as possible the obstacles to the perfect operation of prudence in all dimensions of human relatedness to the good.

photo by jitze
The secondary purpose is accomplished by directing students through a carefully sequenced, pedagogically principled, distinct course of study in each discipline, not to the point of mastery, however, but only in the measure in which thorough comprehension of the special character of the discipline requires acquisition of a considerable amount of its particular content. This includes the discipline of philosophy, whose function is to reflect on the natures of the dimensions of human relatedness to the good in as comprehensive a light as possible, and to determine their interrelations in that light.

The primary purpose of liberal education presupposes the accomplishment, at least to some degree, of the secondary purpose. The conventional Socratic seminar seems to have this function of creating a space for the mysterious undisclosedness of the good to show itself. It demands a careful letting-things-be, which at times brings those bold enough to venture it and patient enough to endure it into an acute sensitivity to the good not yet revealed in things. The traditional concept of a disciplinary major also contributes to this sensitivity, by bringing the student closer to the crisis or crises at the boundaries of his own elected discipline. Because the approach to this purpose involves discovering limitations, ambiguities, and cross-purposes in the synoptic framework determined by philosophy, it requires that this framework be already articulated as clearly and completely as possible. Unlike the secondary purpose, the primary purpose cannot be executed according to any preconceived plan. Its success cannot be measured. Indeed, it can easily be faked by combining a cynical attitude towards human endeavor with a habitual lip service to pious truisms. It requires patient courage, sober hope, and a good will. We call it "thinking."

Two notable consequences follow from the above thesis:

  1. For the purposes of liberal education, a curriculum cannot be defined by a selection of texts or even by a selection of disciplines, but by a certain way of dealing with all disciplines. This result imposes a challenging requirement on liberal education that it incorporate not only the traditionally liberal studies, but all dimensions of human relatedness to the good, ranging from agriculture to music. On the other hand, it eliminates the need for much vagueness and embarrassed silence on the question of what qualifies a field of study to be included in a complete liberal education.
  2. The two purposes of liberal education articulate the means for the accomplishment of its task into two distinct activities, which must always be held apart. The attempt to construct interdisciplinary confrontations when the disciplines themselves are not yet clear can only issue in confusion or cynicism regarding philosophical reasoning. This prematurely poetic form of education amounts to a beautiful invitation to the skeptical ersatz thoughtfulness which enables many a liberal arts major to pass for educated.