Liberal Education

A professional requires a liberal education. Nussbaum, as we have seen, criticizes current formal education that focuses on economic expediency: it is, she says, literally valueless (Nussbaum, 2010). The “educated” person is straight jacketed, limited in imaginative and emotional sympathy, and actually reduced in professional competence. A liberal education is not an optional extra; it lies at the heart of a good education. Nussbaum especially commends the value of literature: “If the literary imagination develops compassion, and if compassion is essential for civic responsibility, then we have good reason to teach works that promote the types of compassionate understanding that we want and need” (Nussbaum, 1997, p. 99). The arts and social sciences, such as history, are ingredients of the formation of the character of every responsible citizen and a fortiori of a professional career.

Even in times of austerity, it is a false economy to unreasonably increase staff-student ratios in higher education. This has resulted in the virtual elimination of small seminar groups, thereby destroying a crucial personal dimension of the learning process. In such an interpersonal environment, skills of debate can be honed, new imaginative worlds opened up, ideas clarified, sharpened, or abandoned. The relevance of this process both for personal education and for professional practice is obvious.

Liberal education has also suffered as science has come to be regarded as the bedrock of real knowledge. A liberal education will, of course, include science and technology, even if that merely enables a person to be comfortable with the language of science and to be computer literate. There are two reasons for this. On the one hand, it is important for one to be capable—for example, as a lawyer who reads a brief that refers to scientific issues relevant to the case. On the other hand, only when one has some familiarity with the language of a discipline will one look for advice because one recognizes that one has insufficient knowledge to make a sound judgment.

Wittgenstein lamented an exclusive focus on science, as if poetry and music had nothing to teach people (Wittgenstein, 1980, p. 36e). He underlined the stimulus for self-knowledge and the moral imagination provided by these disciplines and indeed, he would agree, by a serious study of religious belief. The practice of a professional, be he or she a lawyer, doctor, priest, or businessperson, has purchase on life through its place in public understanding. Without awareness of this, the professional can do little more than try to satisfy the criteria provided by compliance. Yet we know that true satisfaction for the professional, as for other members of society, comes from personal commitment to the common good, for which nothing less than a sound liberal education will prepare one.

But we must not forget the role that a general education plays in the growth of self-knowledge. A sound liberal education will not only equip the professional to know facts about immediate experience in its various aspects but include a dimension that will enable the professional to cope with himself or herself. This is something that cannot begin in a crisis; it must be rooted in upbringing and the earliest phases of education. As the book of Proverbs puts it, “Discipline your children, and they will give you rest; they will give delight to your heart” (Prov. 29:17). “Discipline” is a term that can lead to misunderstanding. The Authorized (King James) Version seems, to me, better: “Correct thy son, and he shall give thee rest; yea, he shall give delight unto thy soul.” “Correct” implies that a parent’s duty is to point a child in the right direction, whereas the term “discipline” suggests punishment and parental control, which is unhelpful. The general education of the professional will include an element of correction that draws attention to the paramount importance of moral behavior and encourages a desire to serve the common good.

In formal education, moral standards are critical to a student’s capacity to learn. Despite much public criticism of the behavior of the young, the largest survey ever undertaken of the attitudes, dispositions, values, and virtues of those between 3 and 25 years of age showed the contrary (Arthur, 2010). There is sound reason to believe that they have values on which a good society can be built and the common good celebrated. But an education system dedicated to serving the economy threatens the very moral values that serve the wider interests of society at large and the common good. For this to be possible, we need an appropriate language, stories, opportunities for open conversation, and even some attention to philosophical and religious language.

I have mentioned previously our suspicion of the use of words such as “love,” yet we know that love points to an essential moral quality that we must learn to handle in a creative way. Terms such as “virtue,” “community,” “social responsibility,” “public service,” “sacrifice,” and especially “self-sacrifice” represent concepts that should feature in moral discourse. The extent to which they have slipped out of public conversation provides further evidence of our reduced capacity to debate moral questions. Ill-defined concepts, such as dignity and selfrespect, are readily discussed in relation to terminal illness, criminal conviction, and employment, but the suspicion remains that their use in practical decision making is precisely because there is no agreement about their moral significance. The same is true of concepts such as autonomy. Familiarity with the language of moral discourse must be developed in the process of preparing for a professional career; the seminar is an ideal context in which to pursue it.

Personal education and general education are both integral aspects of what we know as liberal education. The virtue of gratitude is the generous expression of the value we find in the development of character and the imaginative breadth of our educational experience. It embraces the fullest and deepest perspective in the Christian theological framework, which excludes nothing from our heartfelt appreciation of the goodness implicit in the creation. It encourages us to pursue the good, whatever our current experience, and awakens us to the fact that, as professional persons, we are committed to the well-being of society at large and care of the environment.

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