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Christopher B. Nelson liberal learning

Christopher B. Nelson

I have been reminiscing lately, probably a sign of my age, but I came to recall an episode in my earlier life before I returned to St. John’s College more than 20 years ago, when my second son announced: “Dad, I’m willing to talk with you about my college choices, but I’m not going to go to that school where my brother is (St. John’s College), and I don’t want a liberal education, whatever that is.”

This son happened to have an interest in automobiles, his uncle happened to be an automobile mechanic, and we happened to have an old junker in the driveway, a 1960s something Volkswagen bug. Almost nothing worked in the car; it wouldn’t go, and my wife and her brother were working to get the car to perform its principle purpose– going. My brother-in-law saw an opportunity to engage my uninterested son when he discovered that the windshield wipers weren’t working and asked my son to give him a hand.

“What would you do to fix this?” he asked.

“I’d get the manual out and see what it says,” my son responded.

“But there is no manual. What then?”

“Then I’d ask the guy at the repair shop.”

“But he’s not here, and we can’t get the car there. Do you think we can figure it out for ourselves?”

“But I don’t know anything”, my son answered.

“Ah, that’s the thing. Let’s see if that’s true.”

Uncle Ken then opened the hood and asked my son to see if he could find the fluid lines to the wipers and discover what powered the wipers to move in the first place. Could he figure out where the wiper fluid tank was, and could he tell whether there was any fluid in the tank? My son found the tank and it was full. He tested the line as best he could to determine that it wasn’t clogged. But there was another line leading to somewhere else.

“Can you see where the other line goes beneath the hood? Can you track that back to its origin?”

Long story short: after an hour of looking, testing, failing, trying again, failing again, and thinking out loud (“I wonder if this might work”), my son got fired up and excited. In the end, he discovered that the hose to the wipers was hooked up to the pressure valve of the spare tire, and lo and behold, the spare tire was flat. “You think the spare tire supplied the pressure to power the wiper?” my son asked.

“Well, let’s see.” With that, my son pumped up the spare tire. Back in the driver’s seat, he moved the controls on the dashboard, and the wipers worked. I’ll never forget the glow on my son’s face when he announced “I got it! The wipers are working!”

“You have now had an experience in liberal education,” I suggested to ears that were still deaf to the idea– ears that would be open to it a few years later. (This son did eventually find his way to St. John’s in our Masters program.)

I doubt that Volkswagens are built these days to provide such simple opportunities for basic learning by seeing and doing, but every challenge in life provides us with learning opportunities that can be just as liberating, without recourse to manuals, without seasoned experts, if we open ourselves to the possibility and apply ourselves to the search for an answer.

Why do I call this experience liberating? Because the learner (my son) had to make do without the manual or the expert. Liberated from the direction and expertise of others, he was reduced to rely on himself with only a little encouragement from his tutor uncle. He was led to find for himself the answer to the problem by a series of questions alone. The turning point was his willingness to continue the search for an answer only after acknowledging “But I don’t know anything.”

Understanding his ignorance was necessary for learning to begin because he had to be open to the possibility that he had something to learn, and that he was willing, even eager, to find the answer. He was open to an experience of truly “wondering” how he might find an answer. This wonder did not come from any knowledge that he had but from a desire to know, born not in understanding but in ignorance. This was a kind of “knowing ignorance”, an intelligent perplexity that came from embracing his ignorance and then discarding false notions and failed experiments as he went on. Our innocence or ignorance of the world about us may be the one certainty in life, and recognition of this is the pathway to learning. (Upperclassmen will recognize a striking resemblance of this path to freedom in Plato’s dialogues, particularly in the Meno, which freshmen will read together in their first semester.)

Another thing happened to our blossoming mechanic. He turned from boredom with a problem that was put to him, to perplexity over the difficulty of solving it with meager tools, to excited engagement because he wanted to discover the answer. He wanted to know the answer for its own sake, not just to fix the wipers. He wanted to “get it”!

Yet one more lesson! My son had begun to discover the interconnectedness of apparently unrelated apparatuses, and they helped him understand a little better how the car was assembled, even how it was conceived to operate in the first place. (Today, he is in his residency in osteopathic medicine, still working on body mechanics.)

This case is the barest expression of what we ought to wish to see in our students at our colleges. And it may be as good an example as any of the utilitarian or practical argument for a liberal education – the kind of education employers want to see in their new recruits: employees who have an independence of mind and openness to engage in problem-solving and solution-finding with others across traditional disciplines; young men and women who can make their way in a world of innovation and change; individuals who are liberated from boundaries rather than defined by them.

On the other hand, you have not come to St. John’s to become an auto mechanic. So what has this story got to do with our project at this College? Just this: the free mechanic is a subset of the free human being. We now ask ourselves not what it takes to be a free mechanic but what it takes to be a free human being.

A few minutes ago I made reference to a dialogue of Plato’s that freshmen will soon be reading: the Meno. In this dialogue, Socrates turns Meno’s opening question from whether and how virtue can be taught to what this thing is that Meno is talking about: “What is virtue?”–the kind of question you used to ask your parents or teachers when you were children but may have stopped asking when satisfied with the answer from a trusted authority figure–or stopped when you ceased to wonder at the world. It is these simple questions that Socrates asks as he tries to understand the nature of a thing, its being, its essence. And it is the answers his interlocutors give that founder upon further examination. They try one answer and are led to see the weakness of it, and so they try a second and a third time until they appear to be stumped and wish to go on and understand what they missed–or until they give up the argument in anger or frustration with Socrates. What appears to be an annoying mind-game to one is an awakening to another–to the inquiring student or reader who has now become disturbed by a contradiction exposed about an unexamined but deeply felt opinion. We then see that we must come to grips with Socrates and his questions for our own sake, for the sake of our own deeply held convictions. Will those convictions stand up to challenge? Do we really know who we are, understand what we believe, and comprehend what makes our lives worth living?

Do we understand what it means to be human in its many aspects? We are political, social, and solitary beings, all at the same time. We think, weigh evidence and judge. We reflect upon the world about us; we wish to understand it, sometimes in order to make our way in it fruitfully, and sometimes just simply in awe of the majesty of existence, the grandeur, beauty, and mystery of the universe. We have minds, hearts and souls. We love, act, and are moved. What moves us and why? We have skills we use to make a living and provide for loved ones. We are members of civic, social and religious communities and citizens of a great country. What are our duties and responsibilities toward these and others? How well do we understand our powers and limitations? How well do we comprehend the interconnectedness of things and our relationships with fellow beings that will make our lives richer–and richer for others too?

Before you fix upon a specialty for study or a vocation to pursue, why not first spend a little time getting to know yourselves and the world about you.

To help you go about asking these questions of yourselves, we at St. John’s College have constructed a Program of study that is designed to help you cultivate the art of reason and understanding and disciplines in analysis, argument and interpretation. We hope this Program will enrich your imagination and nurture freedom of thought; freedom from the tyrannies of unexamined opinions, current fashions and inherited prejudices; and freedom to make intelligent choices concerning the ends and means of both public and private life. We would pursue this freedom together with you through thoughtful conversation about great works from the Western tradition, shaped by a commitment to radical inquiry. We would nourish the capacity to wonder, which stimulates such questions. Our approach is guided by a love of wisdom that transcends the acquisition of information and even of knowledge narrowly conceived.

We want you to be well-versed in the textual tradition of reason that illuminates the chief features of modern life, including democracy, technology and the literary and musical traditions of the West. We want you to have basic literacy in three kinds of texts: verbal, mathematical and musical. We expect you to develop skill in logical, coherent and correct expression. And we want you to engage in a direct study of the natural world. Though often guided by texts, you will develop skills of observation, dissection, measurement, and experimentation. In asking this of you, we reject at a deep level the popular distinction between the humanities and the sciences. We want you to be able to weigh and judge the claims of science–rather than simply deferring to them as authoritative, or rejecting them as alien.

We want you to develop the intellectual virtues of courage in inquiry, caution in forming opinions, candor about your ignorance, open attentiveness to the words of your colleagues, industry in preparation, and meticulousness in verbal translation and mathematical demonstration. We want you to be prepared to face any occasion for new learning that comes your way. We also want you to develop a life-long commitment to pondering the question of how to live well. And finally, we want you to have the experience of living in a community of learning. We expect that the moral virtues we expect of you in your life on campus–consideration for your colleagues and decent and respectful dealings with others–will prove transferable to your lives as citizens of this or any country, transferable to your places of work and worship, to your lives as friends and neighbors and members of a family.

We expect a lot, and we imagine that you do too or you would not be here.

But beneath everything I have said about what we intend by this Program is our shared conviction that liberal learning is an activity fired by the desire to know, a desire to make one’s education one’s own. Another author on the Program, Michel de Montaigne, puts it this way in his essay “On the Education of Children”:

“Truth and reason are common to everyone, and no more belong to the man who first spoke them than to the man who says them later…The bees plunder the flowers here and there, but afterwards they make of them honey, which is all theirs; it is no longer thyme or marjoram. Even so with the pieces borrowed from others; he will transform and blend them to make a work that is all his own, to wit, his judgment. His education, work, and study aim only at forming this.”

If we are meant to be the bees that plunder flowers to make something that we can call our own, we had better be able to find the flowers that make this possible. At St. John’s, the flowers are not hard to recognize; they are the great works of literary, artistic, and musical imagination. Among them are mathematical, scientific, political, religious, poetic, and philosophical books that have survived the test of time because they are timeless. They form the foundation for the thoughts and discoveries that follow; they are often deeply beautiful; they speak to the great human questions that help us understand both the world about us and the world within us.

If we consider our learning materials as food for digestion, we surely want a banquet set before us, the opportunity to taste each morsel before deciding to accept or reject it, and the time to digest what we have taken in. To make it our own requires an environment in which our teachers exercise restraint in pressing their authority, like the mechanic in our opening story. Your St. John’s tutors will allow you the freedom to chew on your own questions and form tentative conclusions that you may later reflect upon and disgorge as ill-considered.

The reward for learning because you have a desire to know–simply for its own sake–is something I want to call ‘happiness’. This is not a fulfillment that comes to an end in the gratification of a desire, but an activity, an active engagement in an on-going project that best defines what it means to be human. Aristotle, in his Nichomachean Ethics, another book you will be reading, would define this happiness as “an activity in accordance with virtue.” And so, we find ourselves back to asking that Socratic question: “Just what is virtue?” And we wonder whether human virtue lies somehow coterminous with this strange path toward knowledge–that we first must recognize our ignorance, that it will be a great struggle to attain deep understanding, and that we can better pursue this search in the company of others with whom we can at least share those peaks of desire and excitement that accompany the search for truth–others like your classmates who share your desire to learn.

And occasionally, along the way, we hope that the mist will clear from the windows of your eyes and you will be able to shout out to your fellow searchers: “I got it! The wipers are working!”

Books mentioned in this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative BookstoreEdited version of the Convocation Address to the St. John’s College Class of 2016 given by Christopher B. Nelson, President of St. John’s College on August 22, 2012.

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1 reply to this post
  1. Mr. Nelson: Thank you for the impressive and wise reminder of what education ought to be, and what it ought to be for; I plan to print out your essay and share it with as many people as I can. The windshield-wiper story, and the practical and patient approach to learning that it exemplifies, reminds me of the book ZEN & THE ART OF MOTORCYCLE MAINTENANCE, a book which also sought to inculcate an understanding of real “liberal education”. In particular I appreciate your statement: “Before you fix upon a specialty for study or a vocation to pursue, why not first spend a little time getting to know yourselves and the world about you.” In all, your essay makes me wish I was forty-five years younger and about to embark on a course of study at St. John’s College!

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