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Liberal Education and the Future of American Schooling

By Thomas Dillon — March 06, 2009 6 min read
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With a new administration in Washington, Americans can reasonably expect that aspects of the Bush-era “No Child’ legislation will soon be “Left Behind"—but then what?

The challenge facing President Barack Obama and his administration is to relieve the stringencies of the last eight years’ educational policy without reverting to the laxities from which they resulted. As a country, we must be careful not to leap from one slogan to the next, but to draw on the practices that have historically served society best.

With that objective in mind, perhaps it is time to consider the role liberal education can play in forming America’s young people.

For nearly four decades, I have taught students at Thomas Aquinas College in Santa Paula, Calif., first as a member of the teaching faculty, and for the last 18 years as the college’s president. During this time, I have witnessed certain trends among our incoming students that should be familiar to other educators. These trends point both to successes and to failures of national education policies, and can serve as a useful, if only partial, guide to reform.

Freshmen at my college arrive quite well prepared in basic skills and concepts. They have sufficiently strong abilities in vocabulary, mathematics, and reading comprehension to earn impressive SAT scores, and they have mastered their classroom material well enough to conquer the Advanced Placement and subject tests. Still, even among these high achievers, two common weaknesses must be overcome before further learning can take place.

How can we instill in our children the tools, habits, and attitudes that make clear thinking and expression possible?

The first is that many young people have grown accustomed to ingesting and repeating information—the Bill of Rights, the periodic table, trigonometric identities, or any of a host of other important pieces of knowledge—without comprehending the underlying reasons and causes for their study. Relying on teachers and textbooks as unquestionable authorities, these students are frequently able to enunciate a position but unable to defend it. Opinion passes for knowledge, memorization of data for understanding.

The second shortcoming is in written communication. Too often, even college-bound high school graduates lack a grasp of the rules of grammar and the nuances of language and usage. Whether this is because they were taught that unbridled self-expression is more important than coherence, or whether they spent too much time on fill-in-the-bubble tests and too little on actual composition, they lack the ability to write intelligibly.

How can we address these deficiencies, and instill in our children the tools, habits, and attitudes that make clear thinking and expression possible? How can we capture students’ imaginations, engage their sense of wonder, and nourish within their hearts a love of learning? The answer may lie, at least in part, in liberal education.

Unlike career education—that is, training for a job—liberal education is undertaken for learning’s own sake, with the aim of coming to an ever-deeper understanding of reality. It examines the most important questions about nature, man, and God that everyone faces in every age. The roots of liberal education lie in the wonder with which children are naturally endowed, and its culmination is found in the wisdom to which adults aspire.

Socrates famously remarked that “the unexamined life is not worth living.” In liberal education, one finds the beginnings of the examined life. And I would venture that the best way to conduct liberal education is through a systematic and dialectical study of great books—the works of the finest minds, in various fields, that the world has ever known.

C.S. Lewis once recommended keeping “the clean sea breeze of the centuries blowing through our minds” by reading one old book for every new one. His point was a good one. Reading books from eras other than our own gives us a broader perspective than that we can obtain if we are only studying the work of our contemporaries. It challenges our assumptions, expands our vocabulary, and compels us to grapple with the unfamiliar.

When these old books are great books, they serve the further purpose of raising our standards and refining our tastes. Or as the Boston Globe columnist Alex Beam acknowledged in A Great Idea at the Time, an account of the great-books fervor that swept the nation in the mid-20th century, “greatness can spoil one’s appetite for the merely normal.”

Far from being obsolete, great books have achieved an enduring relevance because they contemplate timeless questions and humanity’s place in the world. They are seminal, having seeded the various disciplines, ideas, and intellectual movements that have come from them. Familiarity with great books is thus integral to developing a thorough, organic understanding of any area of inquiry, and even of the times in which we live.

Great books, by their very nature, demand thoughtful analysis. When students break down, examine, and account for the arguments these works contain, they develop the ability to construct, articulate, and defend positions of their own. Moreover, since clarity of expression depends in large measure on clarity of thought, providing young people with a solid grounding in great books, properly taught, would help them cultivate the habits of both good thinking and lucid composition.

Great books need not be the exclusive province of college students. There are titles for every age and ability. Even the youngest readers, who are far from ready for Aristotle, can still delight in Aesop, just as older students may appreciate Twain well before they can tackle Tolstoy.

A frequent objection to liberal education is: How can it prepare our students for life in the “real world”? What good are a bunch of dusty old tomes in a highly competitive global marketplace?

Such questions remind me of a visit I once took to Monticello, where I encountered on Thomas Jefferson’s bookshelves authors such as Virgil, Plato, Cicero, Locke, and Ptolemy. If these thinkers shaped the minds of our country’s founders, then surely they have something to offer the minds of those who will shape our country’s future.

Yet one need not look back to Jefferson to appreciate the value of liberal education. Thomas Aquinas College, for example, offers students a uniform curriculum consisting solely of great books. Despite receiving the same undergraduate education, these students go on to thrive in a widely diverse range of disciplines, including science, law, religion, government, engineering, medicine, and education.

Far from limiting career options, this kind of education opens up countless opportunities to our graduates. The liberally educated person is intellectually nimble enough to prosper in almost any professional environment. Even in our age of hyperspecialization, few traits are in higher demand than such versatility.

But the benefits of liberal education far exceed its workplace applications. As Aristotle observed, if we can order our knowledge, see the relations among truths, and know truths about the highest things, we will have wisdom. By focusing on truth and the “highest things,” liberal education nurtures wisdom, which is why it is invaluable to the future of America’s schools.

After all, the broader purpose of national education policy is to form responsible citizens—the husbands, wives, mothers, fathers, friends, and neighbors who will sustain society for future generations. We can do no better than to foster wisdom within our schools, and because liberal education elevates the mind, it is uniquely suited to ennoble the nation.

A version of this article appeared in the March 11, 2009 edition of Education Week as Liberal Education and the Future of American Schooling

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