Liberty Matters

Liberal Education and Human Flourishing

Few people have written more powerfully, passionately, and poignantly about the value of liberal learning than Roosevelt Montás. For Montás, the issue of liberal education is deeply personal: liberal learning, grounded in the classical texts of the Western tradition, transformed his life. It is not just that such an education took him from poverty to the halls of power at one of the most elite institutions in the country; far more importantly, it helped him to articulate and begin to answer the most fundamental questions that he faced as a young person with his life ahead of him. These questions are not just about career paths, pleasures, or talents, but what it means to be a good human being and citizen generally. The liberal education that Columbia University offered afforded him the opportunity to explore what the meaning and purpose of his life was, which is the beginning of the sort of practical wisdom necessary to flourish and live a happy life. 
One of Montás’s major claims about a properly liberal education is that it should take place outside the confines of disciplinary boundaries. It should be focused on fundamental questions pertinent to students by virtue of their shared humanity, regardless of their professional ambitions (even if those ambitions are scholarly). Such education is “truly liberal” in that it is “pursued for the affirmative value of the activity of inquiry itself,” liberated from the tyranny of outcomes, including the uninspired and skill based ‘learning outcomes’ that dominate our syllabuses today. 
But the issue of the liberatory potential of study for its own sake may seem orthogonal to the question of what to study—in particular, to the question of whether we should study a “canon” or the classical texts of a specific intellectual tradition. In this brief reflection, I want to try to bring these two aspects of liberal learning together. To do that, I want to pose a more fundamental question: what is the goal of education? Does it have an internal aim—one that both defines and measures it as a specific form of learning? And if it does, how does that goal help us to think about what is worthy of our attention in higher education?
Education is much more than the transmission of knowledge and skills. Education is the formation of human nature—specifically human potential—into a certain characteristic shape that we easily recognize as exemplifications of human goodness. Its goal is nothing more nor less than human flourishing. 
I’ve never met anyone who thinks that an education in merely surviving life is the best or highest kind. The whole concept of higher education rests upon the notion that we are made for more than a life of work. We want to create and appreciate what is beautiful and meaningful; we want to enjoy and rest in what is really and truly excellent, and we want to know what is true, not in piecemeal fashion, but in a way that fits into an integrated system of knowledge that makes sense to us as a whole. These higher aspirations in us go well beyond the life of work—of what is pursued as a means to a further end, like money, status, or power. And these higher aspirations are only pursued freely when we understand why they are worthy of being pursued by us—when we have an account or understanding of how and why they exemplify real human excellence. 
In order to unpack these claims, a few distinctions are in order. The first is between contemplative and practical study or learning. Contemplative study simply aims at the acquisition of knowledge, or the rationally apprehended truth. For instance, one may simply want to study and contrast Euclidian and non-Euclidian geometries, with no ulterior purpose in mind other than knowing and understanding. Or, one may study various forms of geometry to use it in the practice of civil engineering. In the latter case, geometrical knowledge is sought practically; in the former case, contemplatively.
One can study anything contemplatively. Perhaps one wants to count the number of cracks in the sidewalk in the neighborhood or study the driving rules in one’s state. While such study is contemplative rather than practical, I very much doubt we would call such study higher or liberal. It is clear that when we think about higher education the objects of study matter—and we think that some objects are more worthy of our time and attention than others. A higher and truly liberal education helps us, at minimum, to think about who and what we are and what sort of person we should want to become; for without some understanding of this, we are unable to live well: to think, choose, and act in a manner that exemplifies human flourishing. Everyone will, of course, have to live, choose, and act under some conception of who and what they are, and of what is most valuable in human life; but unless one understands the reasons why they pursue what they do, they are not truly free. Such a person may realize one day that they are simply living the life their parents want for them, or the life that the broader culture values. Their reasons will not be their own in some deep sense. 
A general, liberal arts education that focuses on classical texts is aimed at helping us gain the requisite self-knowledge to live well. It invites students to reflect upon these questions together, by studying those texts that have raised the fundamental questions of our intellectual tradition, and that have put forward the most influential answers. A liberal education does not “teach the truth” as if it is fixed for all time, nor does it teach students to be experts about these authors or texts. Rather, it teaches students to search for wisdom together as a common end. The conceit of such an education isn’t that Plato was correct, but that Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Augustine, and the like are among the proper starting points of the journey that is liberal learning—the search for truth and wisdom as common goods, pursued cooperatively rather than competitively by members of a community of learners. Classical texts are valuable because they pose the perennial questions of human life—questions that transcend the time and place of their authors, and address readers on the most fundamental level: as human beings and citizens. A truly higher and liberal education must address its students at this level if it wants to remain truly higher—i.e., focused on human flourishing.