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Why a Liberal Education is the Foundation of a Good Life

Young people are especially hungry for a vision of a life worth living

This article defends the vital importance of a liberal education by marshaling four thinkers: St. Augustine, Socrates, Freud, and Gandhi. Why those four?

All four writers are especially apt examples of Socrates' dictum about living an examined life. You start with Socrates and Plato—that's where the model originates. St. Augustine's Confessions is also a profound self-examination. 

Freud does it from a 19th-century scientific-medical approach. He's about the mind and the nature of subjectivity and consciousness. His version of psychoanalysis is ultimately about self-knowledge. And Gandhi's life is organized around the pursuit of truth.

One other aspect of the philosophies of all four explains their inclusion in this article: I confess I'm not an expert on any of them. I don't have a scholarly background on them, I've never taken formal courses on them, I've never researched them in an academic setting, I don't have access to the languages in which any of them wrote. So there is a way in which my engagement with them performs the kind of generalist reading that I advocate. I present St. Augustine, Socrates, Freud, and Gandhi because of their suitability to non-expert engagement, and I try to model that non-expert engagement.

The premise of a liberal education is the human condition of freedom. Every individual experiences their life as a self-determining agent possesses a notion of the good and organizes their lives to pursue that notion. 

To liberally educate is to take that condition seriously and look into yourself to understand the inner working and deliberative processes that go into enacting that freedom. So self-knowledge, in my view, is central and fundamental.

I should say self-knowledge isn't self-obsession or neurotic, narcissistic self-regard. It's quite the opposite of that. With each of the four thinkers I highlight in this article, the closer they look, the less solid the self becomes, the less constricted it becomes. Think of the Zen master Dogen, who says, "To study the Buddha dharma, the Buddha way, is to study the self. Studying the self is to forget the self and see the self in a myriad of things." The study of the self involves a kind of dissolution of the ego rather than solidifying it.

This article emerged from the way my life has unfolded. That includes my intellectual development and my personal, emotional, and social development as a husband, father of three boys, all now young men, each living life on their terms. 

I've had an unorthodox career, so I'm not wedded to orthodoxy. I don't have a Bachelor's Degree, and I didn't study for an MBA. I was never on the typical ladder of professional career ascent. Early in my career, I realized that I did not want to devote the bulk of my energies to the narrow questions that define any career specialization. And this article reflects that. I didn't write this for the English Department or scholars. It's an article for people interested in exploring the foundational questions of liberal education, which in some ways means the fundamental questions of our existence.

There is something archetypal about Socrates, and there are other figures whose lives fit into that mold. 

Probably the most famous of them is Jesus: a teacher who attracted young people, who the political establishment found threatening, who was then unjustly tried and executed, and whose disciples carried on the message. That's Socrates and Jesus: figures who challenge perceived wisdom, who lacked any personal ambition, who were motivated by a higher ideal, and whose whole schtick was to present the beauty and inherent worthiness of that ideal in a compelling, persuasive way.

I find that young people are especially hungry for a vision of a life worth living, the essence of what matters to them and all of humanity. It's why I think Socrates is still so relevant and why he hits a chord with so many young people. It's not true that young people go to college because they want high-paying jobs. That's what our whole society is signaling and prioritizing for them, yet they come with severe doubts about whether that is the way to go, and they're hungry for an alternative.

The quality of life and thinking that Socrates calls for is under even more significant threat now; materialism, consumerism, and instant gratification are ever more ascendant. They are cultural forces of a magnitude that I think is unprecedented in human history. So it makes Socrates' message event more relevant and more resonant.

It's apparent in early 2022 that the possibility of democracy hinges on the success or failure of liberal education if only because a liberal education teaches the student how to think critically, how to analyze and dig for the truth.

There are two ideas here that might look contradictory. One is that liberal education is not pursued in the service of anything else; liberal education is pursued for the sake of itself, for the inherent value of human cultivation.

That might seem to be in tension with another idea that I propose: that a democracy depends on liberal-educated subjects. How the two ideas fit together is that liberal education is not pursued in the service of shaping citizens, yet in order to be citizens, people must be shaped in this way.

In my view, a not-unprecedented outcome of liberal education is to lead you to opt-out of political participation, to become a hermit or a monk. That is not a failure of liberal education; it's a legitimate outcome. 

To have a democracy, however, the people who are engaged in that project will need to be liberal-educated—that is, trained in the art of self-governance. 

I mean this in the individual sense, organizing your drives and desires, and in the collective sense, having the tools of dialogue, literacy, and numeracy, having the ability to digest and synthesize complex information. 

A liberal education is essential for the function of democracy—and yet democracy is not the goal of a liberal education.

Liberal education has a special meaning for low-income students, especially when low-income parents make a huge sacrifice to send their kids to college and may depend on their kids to increase the family's earnings.

There are a couple of things to say about that. The most persuasive thing to do is introduce every student to the experience of liberal education. 

When you introduce low-income, first-generation, or immigrant students to reading Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Lincoln—you no longer need to make a case for liberal education. Students have been awakened to a register of engagement with the world whereby the value is self-evident. There is no turning back.

I also sometimes point to the social elite, who have the information and the opportunity to do anything, tend to choose liberal education rather than applied education. So there's a lesson there. And then there's a lesson about what liberal-educated people go on to accomplish with their lives.

But there is one other structural fact that I insist on when I talk about this, which is that liberal education is not one path amongst many. It's not liberal education versus practical education, or instead of education with maximum profitable potential. Rather, liberal education should be the foundation of whatever practical or lucrative education you pursue. I'm not suggesting that all students major in the liberal arts. I am after the engineer, lawyer, scientist, businessperson, and coder to be grounded in the liberal arts.

Part of the problem is that we have set up universities so that the choice of a major is either study liberal arts OR study engineering; you either become a scholar or a businessperson. 

What we have to do is to reduce the opportunity costs of a liberal education. We cannot ask economically anxious families, looking to education as a way out of poverty and marginality, to do something with no market value. We should not ask those students to pursue a major in the liberal arts. We should ask them to major in whatever they're interested in and provide every student with a liberal education as the foundation of that specialization.

Part of the threat to liberal education is social and political, but how our universities today are structured is a large component of the problem.

The research ideal dominates universities. In the 19th century, universities began to transform themselves into investigation centers. The mode was to uncover new knowledge, then codify, expand on and disseminate that new knowledge. That's become the paradigm delivering modernity and affluence but at an enormous cost to stability of the environment.

Yet another dimension of humanity is not subject to this kind of cumulative growth of knowledge. That dimension involves the questions that ground our existence as human beings: 

What is justice? 

What is a meaningful life? 

What is my responsibility to my fellow? 

What is the nature of political power? 

What justifies political power? 

What is a just distribution of society's resources? 

What is the relationship between freedom of the individual and collective responsibility?

Those questions are not subject to the research model of knowledge accumulation, and universities are organized around the knowledge accumulation paradigm. Questions that are not subject to the knowledge accumulation process tend to be left aside.

The evolution of our post industrialized culture can't be readily reduced to causality. But the post-truth world and the presentation of power and winning as the only value that matters begins in the academy, not in the political world.

That means that a liberal education, primarily when focused on the classics, offers a potential fix to the terrible state of politics and, in turn, society.

A liberal education is an antidote to the discursive disintegration in society. The university, the academy, can make a vital contribution, and it's an indictment of higher education that it has not contributed what's in our power to the discursive health of our society. I hope that this article makes a constructive contribution to an intensive analysis of 21st-century education and life.

About the Author: 

Greg Twemlow is a Sydney-based Social Enterprise Founder | Startup Mentor | CEO | Writer | Speaker | Designer at The Skills Studio