What Do Free People Need? Thoughts on a Liberal Education

cropped-20190428_150006.jpgThe word “Liberal” in Liberal Studies is from the Latin “Liberalis” which has a similar root as “Liberty.” In the Ancient Greek and Roman world, a liberal education was reserved for free men – not slaves, not women. Such an education is concerned not only with broadening the mind, but also with strengthening one’s moral compass. For the things one chooses to do – those acts of courage and kindness that are not required – are proof of one’s freedom. The kind of education a free person needs to become an authentic, fully-formed person is an education beyond technical skills and professional training to encompass the experience of the whole person. In short, it is not just preparation for a job but preparation for a life well-lived.

This does not mean that the graduate of a liberal studies program or liberal arts college is not well-prepared for a career. Indeed, one of the markers of being free is having resources – i.e. money – to support oneself. Studies have shown that graduates with degrees in the liberal arts, including English, History, Philosophy, Languages, Music, Art, Theater, Film, and so on, do find employment and are eventually as well-paid as  their peersin business, engineering, marketing, computer science, and other initially more practical choices. A liberal arts degree is just the sort of degree many parents tell their children to avoid in favor of one that will prepare them for a real job; however, students who choose a liberal arts path often find themselves better prepared for the kind of creative approach to work and wealth that is increasingly called for in the twenty-first century.

So, the first thing a free person needs is financial independence. For most people, this will mean developing a skill or crafting a product for which other people will pay a fair compensation. This is not as straight-forward as it might seem. There are all sorts of structural problems in the way different kinds of work are valued and compensated. For example, nutritious food is a crucial commodity but farmers – and especially farm workers – are surely not paid according to the value of the food they produce: without food, most of us would suffer indeed! In history, one can look to the eighteenth century and earlier to find that physicians who theorized about health and disease were more highly regarded and much better compensated than surgeons who set bones and performed surgeries. A liberal education helps a person recognize and think through these kinds of economic peculiarities and the questions they raise.

Which leads me to my list of “Five Things Free People Need”: Informed Optimism, Persistence, Independence, Community, and Caring. I plan to write more about this list, but I’d like to turn attention here to the last term, “Caring.” It admittedly feels a bit fluffy and less serious than the rest, but I could not think of another term that was as satisfying for expressing the importance of being deeply involved in the world – involved with others with a sense that one can make a positive difference.

Historian William Cronon uses the verb “Connect” to say something similar. He writes that the value of a liberal education is that we are “ever more aware of the connections we have with other people and the rest of creation, and so they remind us of the obligations we have to use our knowledge and power responsibly. If I am right that all these qualities are finally about connecting, then we need to confront one further paradox about liberal education. In the act of making us free, it also binds us to the communities that gave us our freedom in the first place; it makes us responsible to those communities in ways that limit our freedom. In the end, it turns out that liberty is not about thinking or saying or doing whatever we want. It is about exercising our freedom in such a way as to make a difference in the world and make a difference for more than just ourselves.” In short, when one develops a deeper understanding of the world, one must also cultivate the ability to care about it.

Returning to my opening question, “What Do Free People Need?,” I think first one must value what it means to be free. A liberal education is one that raises the big questions in life; it is the kind of education that encourages students to consider deeply their own values, stories, and ways they are connected to others. It includes developing experiences, qualities, skills, and ideas that strengthen one’s personal and moral character. It means developing the kind of inner fortitude that makes a person free indeed.

© Dr. Tamara Caulkins, 2020.