God Bless my liberal arts education!
*Everyone from my Senior Seminar class, please groan in unison.*
In the search for an institution to serve me through 4 years of higher education, I had narrowed my search down to just The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) affiliated schools in the Mid-West United States. These schools were generally small and promoted “phenomenal student to instructor ratios” and “personalized education” “without any teaching assistants”. Well thank you, small colleges and universities of America, for telling all potential students the same crap to show that you’re sooooo UNIQUE.
Those key phrases were thrown around so much, that I began to think that a liberal arts institution meant nothing more than just a small, private college. But come Welcome Week at Eureka College, I learned quite the contrary. From the beginning we were fed into a freshman seminar class, structured to introduce us to the reading and analytical skills that we would need to excel in the liberal arts environment. (Let’s remember, the Liberal Arts is NOT for everyone!) Then to a class where we read the works of the greatest thinkers that Western Civilization has ever known. And we ended with a summary of our time together in “Senior Seminar”.
My Senior Sem class was focused on understanding and maybe even defining the liberal arts. And let me tell you, my classmates (and even I, at times) felt as if they were beating a dead horse. But the liberal arts education that I received defined how I will forever view education.
Oh, isn’t this the truth! Being educated brings you to the realization that there is so much more out there that you do not know about or understand. Even Aristotle said that knowledge is knowing that you know nothing at all. The liberal arts education is not about knowing anything. It is not about learning a trade or skill. As Jacob Klein explains, liberal arts isn’t even about learning specific subjects.
“It is not the subject matter that determines the character of studies as liberal studies. It is rather in the way in which a formal discipline, a subject matter, is taken up that is decisive: whenever it is being studied for its own sake, whenever the metastrophic way of questioning is upheld, whenever genuine wonderment is present, liberal education is taking place.”
– Jacob Klein, Russian-American philosopher
So what about engineering? That doesn’t seem to be a liberal field of study. There are ways to study anything in a liberal way. If your approach to studying medicine is to do so just to engage the thoughts of others in that field and to learn how medicine progressed and to have a conversation with the texts about why things are now done the way they are, then you are liberally studying medicine. To study medicine to be a doctor, then, would not be liberal.
But the liberal arts education is not just about why we study subjects, but what the studying does to us. Both Donald Kagan and Mark Edmundson agree that the liberal arts education should challenge and encourage growth in one’s world view, values, ideals, and self-concept.
“The greatest shortcoming of most attempts at liberal education today…is their failure to enhance their students’ understanding of their role as free citizens of a free society and the responsibilities it entails”
– Donald Kagan, American historian and classicist
“By embracing the works and lives of extraordinary people, you can adapt new ideals to revise those that came courtesy of your parents, your neighborhood, your clan—or the tube.”
– Mark Edmundson, University of Virginia English Professor
Our education, if pursued liberally, will only open us up to more and more questions and searching. We will begin to compare what we’ve always known to be true to others’ personal truths. It opens our minds and our souls and allows for great growth.
The most common way that liberal study takes its shape is through exploring the works of the world’s greatest minds and having a conversation with them. There are centuries and centuries worth of texts to read on any thought you’ve ever even had. Through my undergraduate experience, I read theologians and philosophers from all across the spectrum. I was instructed to analyze the texts and to write responses of my own personal reactions to the texts. No “cookie-cutter” tests were given where I had to answer questions about what the authors said. Instead I discussed what they said with my instructors and with my fellow classmates. I became very comfortable with that form of education. Because I have learned to be open-minded to exploring the world through liberal education, I will forever continue to grow. Education is never ending, which is why I continue to pursue knowledge.
My philosophy professor was not just a professor of studying philosophy, he was in the business of opening minds. He was such an influential person in my personal growth. And so I want to leave you with this quote from him:
“A fully developed soul needs a lot more than simple and straightforward lessons.”
– Scott Hemmenway, Eureka College Philosophy Professor