Sunday, March 23, 2008


One of my career-long obsessions as a college professor is trying to define rightly a “liberal education.”

As May graduation approaches every year, a seasonal urge arises in me to take yet another whack at that nail. Each year I try to be more succinct. So here I go again.

A liberal education is for liberation. It aims to free those who engage in it from many constraints and into many abilities, as many as possible.

To become wholly developed human beings, we need to transcend the confines of ignorance and ineptitude; that is, we must both know and do all we can, as well as we can, to the utter limits of our potentials.

That’s the ideal toward which we strive but can approach only approximately, being inherently imperfect, incomplete, unfinished.

Collegiate “liberal education” neither begins this process nor concludes it, for such learning is a life-long endeavor, always undone.

What college can do best, however, is to ignite and inflame our motive to become first-rate knowers and doers, urging and guiding us to realize—to make real—our latent capabilities for comprehending the whole range of human experience—our arts and sciences—and for practicing those arts and sciences as capably as we can, as wisely as we can.

A college of liberal arts and sciences should ensure its students’ widest possible exposure to the full range of human learning, typically represented in the “disciplines” on which academic departments are based.

To be ignorant of languages, literature, art, music, religion, philosophy, history, economics, geography, political science, psychology, anthropology, sociology, mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, ecology, communication, media, and information technology is to be unfree.

And we’re all unfree to some degree. Our liberation is on going and life enhancing for as long as we can pursue it, which college should incite us and equip us to do.

There. Next year I’ll have even less to say.