My View of the Nature of A Liberal Arts Education:1


Copyright © 2014 Bruce W. Hauptli


A liberal education should transform the student.  As Brand Blanshard said, “to educate a human mind is not merely to add something to it.  It is to transform it at a vital point, the point where its secret ends reside.”2  What is central to such an education is not that the student comes to acquire specific bits of information (certain basic units of cultural literacy, for example), but rather that a habit of reasonableness and critical thinking becomes inculcated.  According to Harvey Siegel, a critical thinker is someone who is “appropriately motivated by reasons: she has a propensity or disposition to believe and act in accordance with reasons; and she has the ability properly to assess the force of reasons in the many contexts in which reasons play a role.”3  Critical thinkers must not simply understand how to critically assess a position, they must be moved by reason and, as Siegel notes, “when we take it upon ourselves to educate students so as to foster critical thinking, we are committing ourselves to nothing less than the development of a certain sort of person.”4 


  Of course, a liberal education is directed toward individuals’ intellectual powers.  The sort of transformation which Blanshard alluded to is the transformation of an individual into a critical thinker who employs her intellectual powers to their fullest extent.  As the Lawrence University Catalog states: “open and free inquiry, a devotion to excellence, the development of character, the mastery of competencies, the ability to think critically, the excitement and rewards of learning—these are the aims and principles of a liberal arts education.”5  This sort of education does not promise to produce happiness; indeed both Plato and J.S. Mill contend that even were it to produce dissatisfaction, the sort of life it engenders is preferable to the life of a contented pig which does not pursue these ends.  As Blanshard says:

...Socrates’ life was better because, whether more pleasant or not, it involved a completer fulfillment of powers.  Grant the pig as generous a gastronomic capacity as one wishes, still one must admit that its intellectual, moral, and aesthetic horizons are limited, while those of Socrates are all but unlimited.  What gave Socrates’ life its value was the free play of a magnificent mind, the fulfillment in thought, feeling, and practice of a great intellect and a great heart.6 

While Socrates, Mill, and perhaps Blanshard believed that there is a single “human excellence” which we should all seek to approximate, one need not hold this in embracing the ideals embodied in a liberal education.  Indeed, if questions of ends are not clear-cut, and if there are either a variety of ends or a variety of contenders for the exalted status of “the” end, then the critical and reasonable capacities become all the more important—it is only by critically and reasonably examining the contenders that one may make an informed choice.  Thus whether or not she agrees with the particular sort of life recommended by Socrates, Mill, and Blanshard, the critical thinker engendered by a liberal education will emulate Socrates and seek a life firmly rooted in those values, beliefs, and theories which pass critical scrutiny. 


  Critical thinkers may arise without attending a college or university—indeed both Socrates and J.S. Mill leap to mind as examples here.  Moreover (and unfortunately) colleges and universities do not always foster either reasonableness or critical thinking.  Indeed, all too frequently American colleges and universities praise the ideal of a liberal education but go about their business without any serious efforts to instantiate that ideal.  It is the ideal of a research university which really dominates the American higher educational scene.  Such institutions claim that they dedicate themselves to research, teaching, and service, but they truly devote themselves to transmitting, extending, and publishing specialized domains of human knowledge, values, and culture. In such educational institutions undergraduate education is seen as preparatory—its aim to produce individuals who are capable of pursuing graduate work in one of the specialized scientific, scholarly, or professional fields.  This is a noble goal, but it should not be the central goal of undergraduate education.  Students can become skilled in the methodologies, doctrines, and values of a particular field or profession without becoming critical thinkers or reasonable individuals. 


  Of course extensive training in a particular science, scholarly field, or profession may generate individuals who are excellent critical thinkers—indeed John Dewey thought that critical thinking could be best fostered while pursuing particular scientific, professional, or practical problems.  The hallmark of a liberal education is not training for a particular science, scholarly field, or profession however.  A liberal education trains one for life.  Individuals frequently find that they need or want to change professions or fields as their lives progress, and even where one is lucky enough to find a fulfilling life path and pursue it from the start, there is more to life than one’s professional endeavors. 


  Oftentimes people contend that a liberal education is not “useful”—it requires that one study fields, acquire information, and understand methodologies which one will never employ in one’s later life.  This criticism is very wide of the mark however.  Reasonable individuals will be most able to lead the sort of life which is genuinely fulfilling.  As Blanshard says, “the case for being reasonable is not that it will make one successful, still less that it will make one spectacular, but that without it everything else is apt to turn to ashes in one’s mouth.”7 


  A liberal education is both a challenge and a privilege.  It is a challenge because the student must make considered choices if she is to acquire the traits noted above.  One can not “learn how to learn” without acting and critically observing the consequences of these actions—one must learn by doing, and such learning is a function of choice and self-discipline.  A liberally educated individual asks “Why” rather than “What,” and proceeds to critically consider the various proposed responses.  Such critical abilities are not easily developed and the challenge posed by a liberal education is that of choosing to become a critical thinker—of choosing to accept the responsibility, discipline, and effort which this involves. 


  While an individual may impose such a responsibility upon herself without ever attending a college or university, the enterprise of becoming such an individual is sufficiently difficult that most are aided by becoming part of a community which can foster and instantiate such a life.  The college or university which would educate reasonable individuals who are critical thinkers must foster diversity, skepticism, and debate.  This is not important because diversity, skepticism, and debate are themselves worthwhile—a diverse society of skeptical debaters might be a woefully uncritical community.  These traits are important because a liberal education requires an intellectual community wherein individuals can cooperatively and collegially explore, debate, and consider the problems of this and other ages (and of this and other cultures). 


  A college or university seeking to promote reasonableness must seek to develop critical thinkers who do not simply limit their critical activities to one specialized problem or area of human concern.  A liberal education does this by promoting a skeptical community which values both specialized and general knowledge.  A liberally educated individual thinks critically, writes clearly, and speaks effectively whether considering mathematical problem, a scientific theory, a political argument, or a musical composition.  By being exposed to a wide range of subject matters while also focusing her attention on a single area of knowledge, the liberally educated individual acquires the ability to respond to the unforeseen and unexpected—her education enables her to make considered judgments, and to treat ideas (whether her own or others’) critically, reflectively, and reasonably. 


  If such an education is to be possible, the educational community itself must be committed to this ideal and it must provide models of critical thinking which the undergraduate student may observe and emulate.  For this reason, teaching in such a community takes time and effort.  Such teachers must adopt Israel Scheffler’s model of teaching which holds that:

to at some points at least to submit oneself to the understanding and independent judgment of the pupil, to his demand for reasons, to his sense of what constitutes an adequate explanation.  To teach someone that such and such is the case is not merely to try to get him to believe it: deception, for example, is not a method or a mode of teaching.  Teaching involves further that, if we try to get the student to believe that such and such is the case, we try also to get him to believe it for the reasons that, within the limits of his capacity to gasp, are our reasons. 

  Teaching, in this way, requires us to reveal our reasons to the student and, by so doing, to submit them to his evaluation and criticism....To teach is acknowledge the “reason” of the pupil, i.e., his demand for and judgment of reasons.8 

  The challenge of becoming such an individual and the difficulty involved in providing such an education certainly legitimate the demand that such an enterprise be justified (although for one to call for such a justification, or for one to comprehend a putative justification, one must already have traveled a good way down the road with the critical thinker).  One justification has already been touched upon—the claim that individuals who become such thinkers lead lives which are more worthwhile.  While the satisfied pig will never accept this justification, most of us will allow that the barnyard animal is incapable of the intellectual pursuits and pleasures, the moral character, or the aesthetic enjoyment which can characterize the life of the critical thinker.  Those individuals who have no inkling of the possibility of the sort of life which Socrates lived will, of course, not assign much credence to his claim that “the unexamined life is unworth living for man,” but those who are exposed to these possibilities generally allow that a life without such activities is relatively empty.  Moreover, those who do not lead an examined life often allow that there is an emptiness which, while they can not quite pin it down, nonetheless undermines the satisfactions which they do experience. 


  In addition to this classic justification for accepting the challenge of becoming a critical thinker and a reasonable person, it is also important to note that by developing such a character one increases one’s moral autonomy and becomes a more self-sufficient individual.  A liberal education empowers the student enabling her to take control of her future and, as much as is possible, permitting her to create it rather than merely follow a predetermined course of events.  True choice is facilitated by the independence which such an education encourages and by the variety of alternative conceptions which it exposes the individual to.  This justification for becoming a reasonable person is independent of the classical one mentioned above—it does not rely upon the singular conception of human excellence which lies at the heart of Plato’s, Mill’s, and, perhaps, Blanshard’s view of human excellence. 


  It is also important to note that such an education is essential for a democracy.  Where the citizens are not critical thinkers, it is all too easy for their thought, actions, and values to be manipulated by others.  A true democracy requires that the citizens themselves critically assess both the means and the ends which society is to foster and pursue.  Plato favors the rule of the state by philosopher kings because he believes that the ship of state must be directed by a “navigator” who has a special kind of knowledge.  His ship of state metaphor flounders, however, when it is recognized that navigators do not generally choose this ship’s destination—the members of the crew of the ship of state are not simply hired hands.  They are the state, and they are vitally interested in the choice of a destination.9  If they are not critical thinkers, however, their preferences may result from manipulation rather than rational contemplation, and their fate may not be greatly different from that of satisfied pigs. 


  To attempt to justify liberal education by appealing to our nature as rational animals, the “higher pleasures,” the possibility of “moral self-sufficiency,” or the prerequisites for “democracy” does not end the justificatory responsibility which arises here.  Someone may well ask what justifies these ends—asking “What assures you that humans are rational,” “What justifies the stated preference for democracy,” or “Why should we seek to become moral, autonomous, or self-sufficient?”  Such questions lead to lengthy philosophical debates, but I will not pursue these issues here.10  I do not presume that everyone shares these ends—the fideist, the skeptic, the egoist, and the fascist will certainly have reservations which I can not meet here without going too far afield.  I will, however, appeal to Winston Churchill’s justification of democracy since it offers a point worth noting in regard to such extended debates. Churchill notes that:

many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe.  No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise.  Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time; but there is the broad feeling in our country that the people should rule, continuously rule, and that public opinion, expressed by constitutional means, should shape, guide, and control the actions of Ministers who are their servants and not their masters.11 

Surely no one pretends that a liberal education (especially as offered by past or current colleges and universities) is perfect.  Indeed certain “deficiencies” are widely discussed (as the current debates regarding “political correctness” and “the canon” clearly illustrate).  In fact, a healthy community intent upon fostering a liberal education will necessarily engage in regular debate as to the character of the end and the preferability of various means toward that end. 


  It is not accidental that much of the debate regarding the canon and political correctness arises at research universities.  Legislatures, businesses, accrediting agencies, the public at large, and the students themselves often articulate demands which point toward a full liberal education.  While the business and engineering accrediting agencies do much to restrict the students’ undergraduate education, they also call for the core components of a liberal education and lament that so few business and engineering majors have the compositional, critical, cultural, humanistic, mathematical, and scientific understanding which a liberal education provides.  Like democracy, however, liberal education takes work—neither is something which individuals may create merely by coveting.  Active endeavor is called for if individuals are to have these traits (rather than simply having the capacity to some day instantiate them in action). 


  Some might believe that there is something particularly American in the hopes expressed by the American Assembly of Collegiate Schools of Business or the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology that a mere smattering of “core” courses will produce liberally educated business or engineering professionals.  It would be wise to note, however, that Socrates had great trouble convincing the educated Athenians of his own era that the sort of extended learning process which he recommended was worthwhile.  In both ancient Athens and contemporary America the rhetoricians offer a more attractive educational model on the face of it—students willingly pay for short-term classes to acquire the ability to score higher on the SAT, GMAT, LSAT, and GRE tests where what is really sought by those who require these tests is the ability to think critically and reasonably.  The student’s efforts (and their parents’ money) would be better spent in redoubling their exertions and expectations throughout the student’s education itself.  After all, simply being able to score high on tests ultimately nets one nothing—unless that is the goal of life (and it should be clear that a life of successful test-taking is not at all what Plato had in mind when claiming that "the unexamined life is un worth living for man").  . 


  It seems to me that Churchill’s justification of democracy may apply quite well to the justification of a liberal education in the current context.  While such an education is not perfect, given the expectations we have, it is not clear that there are any truly viable alternatives.  While there are other educational models, they do not facilitate the ends we actually wish to achieve.  Unfortunately, a liberal education is something one must actually work at—the challenge of accepting the responsibility to become a critical thinker and a reasonable individual is a difficult challenge to accept when one is a member of a passive consumer society. 


  I noted above that a liberal education is both a challenge and a privilege.  Let me switch from discussing the challenges to discussing the privilege for a moment.  Such an education is a privilege because it is not the educational norm within the larger community—relatively few citizens actually receive such an education (although such an education is, truly speaking, something all citizens should receive).  Those who receive such an education become not only personally empowered, but they also come to have a civic responsibility.  The American “founding fathers” clearly believed, and acted, upon this—and Adams and Jefferson did much to mandate and facilitate the liberal education of the populous.  As their example shows, liberally educated individuals have the ability to improve society and better the lot of all citizens. 


  Liberally educated individuals who do not direct at least some of their energies in an effort to improve their society act irresponsibly and betray the fact that they have acquired but the veneer of a liberal education.  Socrates and J.S. Mill were social activists—neither pursued the higher pleasures simply to make himself exceedingly happy.  Each believed that their happiness was intimately tied to the happiness of others, and each worked selflessly to help others improve their lot.  While their examples may be hard acts to follow, liberally educated individuals find that the privilege of empowerment carries the responsibility of social commitment. 


  In the truest sense, a liberal education is vocational—it prepares individuals for lives as responsible and critical agents and citizens.  It equips them with the skills requisite to master new vocations rather than limiting them to a single niche in a continuously evolving world.  Those who receive an undergraduate degree without becoming liberally educated have been trained and conditioned—and, ultimately, they have been shortchanged. 



Notes: (click on note number to return to the text for the note)


1 A Wittgenstenian should be suspicious when she is tempted to define the essence of anything, and a naturalist should be wary of those times when she is tempted to speak about intrinsic values, but there are centrally important aspects of a liberal education which stand out if one pauses to reflect on such educational programs and experiences.  What I have to say on this matter is by no means original, and I have borrowed particularly heavily from the 1989-1990 Catalog of my alma mater, Lawrence University.  That description of a liberal education is excellent. 


2 Brand Blanshard, “The Uses of A Liberal Education,” in his The Uses of A Liberal Education (La Salle: Open Court, 1973), pp. 42-43. 


3 Harvey Siegel, Educating Reason (New York: Routledge, 1988), p. 23. 


4 Ibid., p. 41. 


5 Lawrence University’s Course Catalog, op. cit., p. 13. 


6 Brand Blanshard, “What Is Education For?,” in his The Uses of A Liberal Education, op. cit., p. 98. 


7 Ibid., p. 93. 


8 Israel Scheffler, The Language of Education (Springfield: Charles C. Thomas, 1960), p. 57. 


9 Cf., Renford Bambrough, “Plato’s Political Analogies,” in Philosophy, Politics, and Society, ed. P. Lasslet (Oxford: Blackwell, 1956), p. 105. 


10 My The Reasonableness of Reason: Explaining Rationality Naturalistically (Chicago: Open Court, 1995) develops an extended defense of the commitment to reason against the skeptical and fideistic challenges which contend that such a commitment is arbitrary, unjustified, or only justifiable in a question-begging manner. 


11 W.S. Churchill, W.S., Churchill: His Complete Speeches 1887-1963, R.R. James (ed.), v. 7 (New York: Chelsa House, 1974), p. 7566. 


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Last revised: Revised: 04/30/2014