Reflecting back on my own college education and what I do know as an educator brings me back to the core idea in the prompt: does liberal arts education lead to more freedom?
Going to college (for a Bachelor’s Degree) was just assumed in my household; like many in college now, there is a societal and generational transfer of the expectations and benefits of higher education. Both my parents were professionals: my father a physician, my mother a social worker. However, I don’t recall when we decided I should go to college. If I had announced I wouldn’t, I don’t think I would have been chucked on the street or anything.
But was I free? Did I really choose to? Hard to say. I certainly felt a small, liberal arts college away from Knoxville, TN and my pretty homogenous, elitists private high school would give me huge amounts of freedom to say what I wanted, to study what I wanted, and to construct my own existence.
Looking back, I wish I would have thought to question more the rush to “go away to school.” How much more would I have learned in college if I had lived abroad for a year? If I had worked at something? Even just being financially independent would have been a learning experience. But, at the same time, so many new opportunities would open up at college. The freedom to learn, to meet new people, to be challenged, those freedoms to were more attractive than the freedom from the stilting atmosphere of suburbia or the confining social world of who I already knew.
Negative (freedom from oppression) versus positive (freedom to live, to reach your potential) is a classic distinction in thinking about freedom. Given the humanist origins of liberal arts education, I think the freedom to of open and vigorous inquiry is the core freedom one gains from liberal arts.
In fact, to me, liberal arts, with its emphasis on “liberation” and arts, to me, the art of skill, of performance, of doing, means that liberal arts are those arts that liberate one from all the potential sources of imprisonment, ignorance, occlusion, or oppression. The very Enlightenment ideals I am describing being the core of liberal arts is in fact quite ironic given the religious and ecclesiastical origins of the college as an organization. Really, think about it. The bait-and-switch here, of using an organizational form, the college, originally developed to convey and preserve religiosity and its emphasis on right thinking to, post-Enlightenment and in the 20th century, convey and advocate for any thinking, for the liberation of the mind from the blinders of faith-based knowledge is breath-taking. What would be an analogue? Perhaps having the military become a corps of pacificsts?
But the price tag is too high, now. Liberal arts for everyone, the freedom to question, to develop one’s thinking and communication abilities, should be the minimum for all. There will still be elite (but hopefully not elitist if I can make that distinction) schools. But the best of a liberal arts education should be available earlier, in grade school, more broadly to all, and in any college degree. The persistent drone of “why is that useful” and “what return to we get? Let’s test them!” in all levels of education is a deadly threat to liberal arts. The value of liberal arts, as it is rooted in the very process of education the “whole self” can not be reduced to a narrow ROI formula. Trying to do so is self-defeating.
Furthermore, defining liberal arts as the tools to free the mind also means that the tools and habits of the liberated mind matter more than the specific courses. For me, this is why I find the School of Management here, at a liberal arts school, inspiring. If we can help to educate people who understand how to act, how to create reality from ideas, but who are also deeply real, who are “whole selves,” than we will help our graduates be doers who avoid the self-imposed shackles of any kind of dogma, be it religious, economic, political, or managerial.
Emerson, often misquoted, said that a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.