Magazine article Liberal Education

The Odd Couple: Reflections on Liberal Education

Magazine article Liberal Education

The Odd Couple: Reflections on Liberal Education

Article excerpt

LIBERAL EDUCATION is crucial, among other reasons, because it educates people to have a textured, informed, articulate understanding of the ways in which conceptual, empirical, and normative issues are interrelated. It can cultivate habits of intellectual responsibility that motivate people to think through and across those issues in an integrated manner, without compartmentalizing them. It also helps people develop abilities to formulate and address questions in ways not confined to the perspective of just one or another discipline, while also educating students in the rigor of different disciplines.

Liberal education enables people to appreciate that our thinking often comes to a stop too soon, and that, in fact, we are never done. Our understanding is always partial, less than fully informed and fully coherent. It can always be more integrated, more explanatorily complete, more fine-grained, and so forth. In addition, liberal education also helps people appreciate the significance of thinking as an exercise that is never complete. Acknowledgment of this helps sustain the recognition of liberal education as a necessity for the culture rather than just an expensive detour before entering the "real world." In addition, to the extent that liberal education is general or involves general education, it is not merely general. Rather, it is an education in abilities and habits of mind that are applicable in nearly all contexts. It would be better to see it as fully general rather than merely general. For all of these reasons, we should be alert to habits and tendencies of thought that misdirect or undermine liberal education.

In the following discussion, I identify some tendencies evident in liberal education and suggest reasons why those tendencies should elicit considerable concern. The concern is appropriate because of the importance of liberal education and the ways in which the tendencies defeat its purposes. The main phenomenon I want to draw attention to is what I shall call "the odd couple," a combination of naivete and cynicism that is evident in many students. It is especially unfortunate when this combination of naivete and cynicism is a result of their education, as it should be something that is overcome by it.


There is wide agreement that liberal education should not simply teach doctrine but that it should instead cultivate critical abilities, analytical rigor, and both intellectual responsibility and intellectual curiosity, perhaps with a measure of skepticism as well. There need be nothing corrosive about the critical dimension. Appreciation and criticism can be taught together. There is hardly a more compelling example of this than Aristotle's standpoint with respect to his teacher, Plato. The combination of respect for his teacher along with powerful critique of his views and arguments is an extraordinary model. Moreover, the notion that if we teach key texts and ideas from the past we are just reinforcing certain intellectual or cultural prejudices is simply an error. A great many of those texts and ideas are themselves critical responses to others. They teach thought, not doctrine. Originality, imagination, and one's own thinking are made possible by developing fluency with ideas. Otherwise, education is easily corrupted into a competitive form of "what about me" in a free-for-all of perspectives, rather than an attempt at enlarged understanding through engagement with texts, ideas, and classmates.

Accordingly, liberal education should teach the importance of comprehension preceding judgment. Otherwise, power and manipulation replace good reasons as the currency of intellectual exchange. For too many students there is a comfortable rush to judgment, which is not just reflective of their youth. One effect of some recent trends in education is that many students seem increasingly comfortable with what I shall call a "verdictive" approach to issues and problems. They take the valuative dimensions to be the most evident, rather than the last to be brought into view-at least in the justificatory sense-and as needing to be supported by evidence. …

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