The aim of liberal education is to help people become free. It tries to educate people who are free to search out knowledge on their own, people who are not dependent on others to tell them what they need to know, and ultimately, people who are the best judges of their own needs. It tries to help people master the abilities needed for self-directed learning.
As Scott Buchanan, the first dean of the New Program at St. John’s, once wrote:
Liberal education has as its end the free mind, and the free mind must be its own teacher. Intellectual freedom begins when one says with Socrates that he knows nothing, and then goes on to add: I know what it is that I don’t know. My question then is: Do you know what you don’t know and therefore what you should know? If your answer is affirmative and humble, then you are your own teacher, you are making your own assignment, and you will be your own best critic.
Buchanan recognized that the spur to learning rests in the recognition of one’s own ignorance.
Today’s critics of liberal education decry such sentiments as high-toned but empty rhetoric—tattered remnants of aristocratic paternalism. In our modern, capitalist world, they say, what every individual really needs some sort of specialty that can be bartered for the means of survival. And what society really needs is workers with precisely such specialties to provide the innovation that keeps the economic engine humming. Hawking antiquated notions like “intellectual freedom” and “cultivated understanding,” they say, is cruel and fraudulent educational malpractice given the realities of the twenty-first century.
On the contrary, no view of higher education could be more enervating or debilitating, both for the individual and for society, than this empty functionalism. Freedom of thought and cultivated understanding are absolutely crucial at all times, but especially so in our times. Modern democratic societies are predicated on the freedom of the individual. Citizens of modern democracies must think for themselves and make generally sound judgments if they are to participate in self-governance—and learning how to learn is without doubt the best way to improve thinking and judgment. Liberal democracies cannot survive without liberal education.
Moreover, capitalism—the economic engine of the modern world—cannot continue to flourish without liberal education. Why not? Because it needs, as its champions rightly understand, continual innovation for its survival. And liberal education—especially liberal education grounded in original sources—is a powerhouse of innovation, for two reasons. First, because the original sources comprise the historical record of the most successful innovations in human history; as such, they are models to be studied for what they can reveal to us about the process of making new discoveries and creating new beginnings. And second, because they demonstrate the crucial role of imagination in human affairs.
The development of imagination is probably the most important task of liberal education. Unimpeded thinking, sound judgment, and innovation all depend on having the imagination to see alternate ways of being, to envision worlds that we do not yet see before us, to reconsider what is there, and to conceive what could be there in its place.
Training the imagination proceeds through the study of metaphor, by which I mean all connections of any kind among different objects, both in the physical world and in thought. The study of metaphor rises above all distinctions among academic specialties, for the simple reason that any two things or ideas are related in some way, although it may take some ingenuity to find the points of similarity or difference. Repeated practice at developing this ingenuity results in a powerful imagination, one that reveals hidden connections, and even follows the threads of merely possible connections to find as yet undiscovered objects. And liberal education promotes this training of the imagination by investigating metaphors wherever they occur, in literature and the arts, in mathematics and science, in politics and history.
For all the undoubted progress made by modern academic disciplines, they nevertheless constrain the imagination. The specialized methodology of each discipline insulates it from others, swaddling it in the safety of its currently accepted paradigm. Each discipline has to decide what it considers a proper object, what counts as evidence, what forms of argumentation are acceptable, and so on. Imagination is not so constrained. Skilled in the study of metaphor, it can easily revise the notion of its object, quickly change course, and find new connections to speed it on its journey of discovery.
Of course, specialists too can make astounding journeys of discovery. But when they do so, it is because their imagination has been sparked by recognizing a new connection. When Darwin supposed that Nature might select traits in the manner of a livestock breeder, he sailed on the winds of imagination to a new country of thought, and transformed the science of heredity forever. Or when Crick and Watson imagined that chemical substances could function as elements in a code like those developed during the war.
Imagination, indeed, is the originator of disciplines, the innovator of specialties. It is only from the universe of all connections that a discipline can select its particular connections. That is to say, the special disciplines, each and every one, were established by the power of imagination surveying the universe of connections and choosing the particular connections that would apply in each specialty.
Imagination is the generator of all innovation, including the innovation so necessary to capitalism. And it is a particular concern of liberal education. So those who reject liberal education on the ground that specialized knowledge is the engine of innovation are cutting off their noses to spite their faces.
The aim of liberal education is to help people become free. It does this by trying to develop self-directed learners, and by trying to develop powerful imaginations that can navigate the infinite ocean of connections and sail beyond all horizons.
In the uncertain waters of what seems to be a post-prosperous world, we need liberal education more—not less—than ever.
This essay was originally published on St. John’s College (October 2015) and appears here with permission.