Here is a nice article on liberal education. It first gives what I take to be a nice summary of what liberal eduction is (couched in terms of “stewardship”). It strikes a nice balance between the requirement for attentive listening (submission) and later critical judgment in our reading of great books. Perhaps most interesting are the final points in the article concerning the “cosmopolitan temptation”. Liberal education can make us lovers of abstractions, people who move so easily through different times and places (through our reading of great western works) that we find ourselves not properly “situated” in a concrete time and place of our own, sacrificing our own particularity and hence our own capacity to really flourish as human beings (the kind of beings for whom flourishing is always “caught up in” the particular time and place of their lives). Here is a little taste of the article:
“In such a context, stewardship suffers, for the mind given to abstract universal concepts will readily gravitate toward saving “the world” or “ending hunger” but will find it less natural to consider how to preserve a local community or care for the poor widow around the corner. In short, if a liberal arts education makes it more difficult for human beings to live lives suited to human beings, then it has fallen victim to the temptation of abstraction. A properly conceived liberal education must, to be sure, include an appreciation of abstract universal principles, but at the same time, it must include resources that equip the student to return to the particulars better suited than before to engage the local community of which the student is a part.”
2 thoughts on “On liberal education”
Grau, teurer Freund, ist alle Theorie,
und grun des Lebens gold’ner Baum.
Paraphrased: Gray is all theory, but the tree of life is green and golden! This is an attractive statement, and when I first came upon it I thought it was a superb aphorism. For some things it is. But now I’m more skeptical. It’s important to keep in mind that it is Mephistopheles (Satan) who issues this dangerous advice. Increasingly, I think that theory (abstraction) is generally what enables us to most fully appreciate life and most properly attend to it.
Certainly there are intellectuals who forever remain aloof, lost in labyrinths of thought. It is something we must always be cautious of. But I think far more common, and far more dangerous, are those who take brash action without prior abstract contemplation (Would that George W. had been more capable of abstraction!). In many European countries, where a liberal arts education is still hugely popular, most people (young and old) are more politically and socially engaged, and far more well informed, than their American counterparts.
In short: the most practical and fulfilling things generally begin as abstractions. Hooray for liberal education!
I just came across this beautiful quote which concisely sums up the point I was trying to make above:
“Pragmatism is true in theory, but it doesn’t work in practice.”