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Liberal Education for the Twenty-First Century

Our competencies, unlike philosophy or theology or poetry, disconnect the method from the end, and that means they’re disconnected from liberal education.

So my title is misleading. The basic content of and case for liberal education didn’t change when we moved from one century to another. I’m not big on century analysis and even less on decade analysis (the Sixties!).   

Liberal education is under attack these days in pretty predictable ways. It’s irrelevant, unproductive, too expensive, excessively time-consuming, and even undermines the habits required to flourish in our high-tech society. All those criticisms have some merit but none of them is new. They all miss the point of liberal education.

Liberal education is certainly counter to our obsession with proving education is worth the time and money though measurable competencies and outcomes. If education is about the competencies required for today’s world of work, then most of the liberal stuff can be jettisoned. A college education could be achieved more quickly and a lot more cheaply. Most competencies can be delivered and demonstrated online. And the only reason college takes a whole four years is that students are required to do more than demonstrate their competence.

When liberal education is defended as indispensable or even very useful for the world of work, its defenders end up looking pathetic.

The “effective communication” required for the business world isn’t enhanced, it seems, by courses in literature. Professors of literature have gotten all theoretical, and nobody knows what they’re talking about. Their communication may be profound, but it’s hard to say it’s effective in a way any productive employer can use. The study of foreign language is more dispensable than ever, because everywhere the language of business is English.  Knowing some Mandarin the manner of John Huntsman might be a useful adornment, but the effort put in, truth to tell, is not worth the “value added.”  Huntsman, a Mormon missionary, used the language to convert the Chinese.  But for almost all business purposes, there’s no need to think much about the souls of one’s partners in profit. Even former Harvard president Larry Summers, who you’d expect to have some interest in culture, says don’t waste your time on learning languages or working through tough texts from the past. Everything you need to know on the culture front can be Googled.

The same thing goes for “critical thinking” or “analytic reasoning.” Once you regard these skills or competencies as divorced from any particular content (or culture or civilization or permanent human questions), then they can be just as easily—or better—be learned through solving problems that arise in the business or engineering worlds.  Philosophy is (or used to be) less about a method of reasoning than joyful discovery of the truth we can hold in common.

The “Socratic method,” so to speak, was conversational, and its results hugely time-consuming and inconclusive.  The conversation in the Republic takes 14 hours, and when it’s over it’s unclear anyone knows what justice is.  One thing the guys do end up agreeing on is that conversations of that importance deserve a whole lifetime.  Who has that kind of time these days?  (Well, things may change if the singularity really comes.) But the truth remains that liberal education does deserve a whole lifetime, and anyone who doesn’t have it is missing out.

A good clue at what you miss is described by the philosopher-novelist Walker Percy.  He contrasts the old method of conversational psychiatry (often Freudian), which involved a huge number of expensive, talky sessions and got unreliable results, with the new drug-based psychiatry which often gets fast and reliable results.  The alleviation of symptoms, however, isn’t the same as really knowing what’s wrong with you.  That’s why Percy said you have a right to your anxiety as an indispensable clue to who you are.  Anxiety, of course, can be prelude to wonder and the joy of shared discovery.  You have the right not to be diverted in one way or another from knowing the truth about who you are.  The old-fashioned doctor of the soul was far less about cure than about understanding.

Our competencies, unlike philosophy or theology or poetry, disconnect the method from the end, and that means they’re disconnected from liberal education. We also learn from the Republic that the rhetorical method—disconnected from the end—is characteristic of sophists or technicians for hire. Some of my best friends are sophists, and marketing, management, public relations, (even) law, and so forth are all education for sophistry. There’s nothing wrong with that!  (One good criticism of Plato—made by many modern philosophers—is that he gave such useful, productive, and ambitious people an unfairly bad reputation.)  But education for sophistry is not liberal education.

One way to defend liberal education is to distinguish properly between labor and leisure as two goods that should be characteristic of every human life. So to bolster the case for the defense, I’ve uncovered—through Googling, of coursea classic essay by Mortimer Adler, “Labor, Leisure, and Liberal Education.” 

Liberal education is about nothing, Adler contends, but the thoughts and activities that fill up our leisure time.  Liberal education is good for its own sake for the same reason that every human being—every person—is good for his or her own sake. I’ll say a lot more about the strengths and limits of Adler’s essay soon.

Let me close for now by dissing or at least qualifying another contemporary defense of liberal education: Some claim liberal education should be about what’s required to be a productive citizen. I’ve already said that the case that liberal education makes us more productive is weak. The case that it can contribute to citizenship is stronger.  To be a citizen is to be a part of a particular place in the world with its own traditions, customs, understanding of justice, and both privileges and duties. A citizen needs to do a lot of untechnical reading unrelated to most work to experience himself or herself as properly at home. So citizenship really does require “civic literacy,” as long as that phrase is understood broadly enough. That education might be called liberal education insofar as it’s required to be a free man and woman located particular, political place in the world.

Still, to be a citizen purely speaking is to be all about service to a country (or “city” in the Greek sense). Each of us knows that he or she is more than a productivity machine and more than a mere citizen. It’s finding out who we are when we’re not working for money or our country (or even our family) that liberal education is all about. In the pure sense, liberal education isn’t about citizenship—although it far from abolishes the duties of citizenship, just as it as far from abolishes the duty to work.


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