The Purposes of Liberal Education

It is the start of another academic year. Many students will be beginning their courses this week. It may be a bit late to inform a currently present choice, but it can inform one if that choice is coming down the road, or if you, in a fit of despair, have the cynical thought, was it worth it to get my B.A.? There are a variety of models for education that are offered for post-secondary students. For the purposes of clarity, let’s consider liberal education (the typical Bachelor Degree) in contrast to: 1) STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), and 2) career and community colleges (CCC).

For the moment, I want you to think of the liberal education starting this week as a game; let’s take, for example, a football (soccer) game. You may think you know how to play football because you know the rules of football (soccer). One can know what counts as a foul, or a handball, or what counts as off-side. One can very well know the rules, and know that the rules are based in ideas of what is fair. But that doesn’t count as playing the game. It is the same with being a student at University. You may know the rules of studying well for a test, or of writing original work in an essay, but you aren’t an academic student until you start playing the academic game.

Before I attended Bible College and then university in Manitoba, I was profoundly impacted by three general situations. First, I was deeply moved to understand God’s word and God’s actions in the world with my whole being. I was enamored by the feeling of connection I had with God when I took communion, and I had similar connection to God at various points in my life which happened away from the communion table. Second, I was deeply concerned with suffering in the world, and was thoroughly amazed by the huge number of marginalized people I encountered both in inner city Winnipeg, and on the world news. The 1980’s famine in Ethiopia, the 1990’s genocide in Rwanda had both impacted me, and so too had the fall of the Berlin Wall. Third, I had understood that University was the place where I could study the relationship of the marginalized to mainstream society, and in University I had understood this problem as encapsulated by the relationship of the individual and the community.

I really wanted to explore the multitude of issues surrounding the fragmented and broken relationship between the individual and the community. STEM, a more recent phenomenon, and career colleges did not offer me this choice. While these other options offer a directly economic gain (you will be certified to get a job in highly regulated employment environments like Canada), they had little to offer in terms of coming to terms with problems in the human condition.

Regrettably, most of us committed to liberal education agree that the outcomes of an undergraduate liberal education are not widely understood or valued by the general public. I mean who really cares that I have some deeper understandings of how individuals relate to their communities? Does it even matter that marginalization occurs?

Yes, the college degree is universally recognized as the key to economic and social mobility. However what lies behind that credential—the educational experience, its full value and its purposes—is more or less ignored. In the popular imagination, undergraduate education is a commodity: students and their families are customers, faculty are service providers, and institutions compete to provide accommodations. Specific attention to the full purposes of liberal education is even less focused; and in light of that, it is now rarely considered a necessary element of undergraduate education.

Since it has frequently neglected the core purposes of liberal education, the academy itself bears some responsibility for popular misconceptions—or, lamentably, ignorance of what liberal education promises.

There has been, and remains, a “triad” of interrelated core purposes for liberal education: the epistemic (coming to know, discovery, and the advancing of knowledge and understanding); the eudemonic (the fuller realization of the learner, the actualizing of the person’s potential—classically to achieve individual well-being and happiness); and the civic (the understanding that learning puts the learner in relation to what is other, to community and its diversity in the broadest sense, as well as the responsibility that comes from sustaining the community and the civic qualities that make both open inquiry and self-realization possible).

On one level, members of academia have lost track of this complexity—focusing in the university only on the epistemic purpose of education. On another level, we have hardly attended to the issue of purposes at all. The gaining and transfer of knowledge and discovery, the “epistemic” purpose of liberal education, has been emphasized at the expense of the other core purposes—namely, fostering self-discovery and well-being, and establishing the relationship between knowledge and responsibility for what is beyond self, the “civic” purpose. While other institutions, such as church or the family, and other educational or training experiences certainly can separately contribute to a dimension of this triad of core purposes, liberal education is unique in that it contributes to achieving all three purposes and reveals their inter-dependency. Let’s see how this course addresses them.

First, by the undertaking of a liberal education, one will activate the epistemic purpose of liberal education. One, in fact, would consider what is desirable to learn, and would choose course accordingly. There would be a “project-like” mind, which would ask questions, research the best available answers, and come to an informed and independent judgment. You would really learn. In effect, a learner would ask questions of meaning, about stuff that matters, and develop skills that are not just useful, but are integrated into capable persons who make good judgments.

Second, by the undertaking of a liberal education, one will participate in the second purpose of liberal education, i.e. one will develop and internalize skills in a personal academic toolbox that will tap into one’s potential as learners, human beings and children of God. A person with a solid liberal education will not only be able to describe a bit of knowledge with some vividness, but they will pick the right words and phrases to impress upon readers and listeners exact meanings in profound conversation. One will have a natural way to communicate that has both authority and precision.

Third, with the diversity of viewpoints, ethnicities, genders, religious beliefs in the classroom as a model for life outside the university campus, one will indeed start to take on the responsibilities of living in community, and of being in relationship with diversity, and these with the idea to make open inquiry and self-realization possible. The structure of liberal education requires you to participate in its execution, and participate in its discovery. Perhaps one will even discover that the forms of presentation affect what is presented, that the topics we write about affect the forms of language we use, and that both the forms and the content of academic work exist in a closer relationship than is often realized.

With these three general purposes of a liberal education, namely: the relationship to what is known, the uncovering of the potential you have, and the impact you have on the world around you, a liberal education will not merely improve your job prospects, it could also improve you as a person. In fact, one can see it as one point of entry into a more meaningful, engaged, and fuller life.

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