What’s so “liberal” about liberal arts and sciences?
by Patrick Frierson
Garrett Fellow and associate professor of philosophy
Whitman College Baccalaureate
Saturday, May 19, 2012
Congratulations, graduates. You have all completed a course of study in the “Liberal” Arts and Sciences.
Hopefully this education has not been “liberal” in the way that Desdemona described Iago, that “profane and liberal counselor” she cautions her hearers “not to learn from” in Othello (one of the books with which you were introduced to this education). And despite what AM talk radio Desdemonas might warn you about, your education is also not “liberal” in the contemporary political sense. You may have learned about crises of global warming and world poverty and about limitations of free markets and conservative values, but you also learned about how small entrepreneurs and individual agents work to promote social goods and about how values of the political left have their own seedy history and conceptual incoherences. No, your liberal education is neither training towards being a corruptor of souls nor indoctrination into a political program.
“Liberal” comes from the Latin “liber” or free. Before you all laugh at the idea that your very expensive education has been free, this reference to “free” arts and sciences is a traditional designation for education that “liberates” the mind. In medieval Europe, the seven “liberal” arts – grammar, rhetoric, logic, arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy – were “free” from the specialized knowledge that came in students’ later study of medicine, law, or theology, and they were “free” in the sense of being liberating, freeing the mind from the passions and prejudices of youth and preparing students for responsible adult life.
Your education at Whitman College may not be a preparation for medicine, law, or theology (though for many of you it will be), and you may not have studied grammar, logic, or astronomy (though many of you did), but your liberal education is still designed to liberate you minds so that you can be the free and responsible adults that you should be. To better think through just what this means, I’d like to turn to a philosopher on whom I’ve done much of my scholarly research (who also happens to be one of the greatest theorists of liberation of all time): Immanuel Kant.
For understanding the sort of “liberation” that Whitman has given you, Kant offers two guiding concepts: “Enlightenment” and “autonomy.” Kant defines the former in “What is Enlightenment?” (another text you read in Core). For Kant, “Enlightenment is the human being’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity,” where “immaturity” is “the unwillingness to use one’s own understanding.” Kant offers, as examples of this immaturity, using “a book to serve as my understanding, a pastor to serve as my conscience, a doctor to decide upon a regimen for me, and so on . . . I need not think, if only I can pay: others will readily undertake the irksome work for me.” In place of turning to others to think for you, Kant challenges you to “Have the courage to use your own understanding.”
Many of you may have come to Whitman hoping to learn skills or facts or insights from excellent professors. Many of you have learned such skills, facts, and insights. But as a truly liberal education, this learning is subordinated to learning how to use your own understanding. As you cultivated knowledge and skills in the sciences, you were preparing – if a science major – to be able to devise, conduct, and analyze your own scientific research projects, or – if not a science major – to be able to intelligently assess for yourself the scientific data and theories that are an essential part of making informed decisions in a wide range of contemporary enterprises. As you read literature or philosophy, you not only gained insights into particular texts, but you learned how to read and how to think for yourself about what you are reading. And as you analyzed psychological and social process in various “social sciences,” you not only gained knowledge about how human beings work, but you learned how to see human life from more perspectives, how to avoid oversimplified explanations and analyze the complexity of human societies, how, that is, to think for yourself.
The second key Kantian concept for understanding your “liberation” is “autonomy.” Autonomy comes from the root words “auto” (or self) and “nomos” (rules, or laws), and it refers to the capacity for self-governance or self-legislation. You are graduating from college and moving into a world where you will have to make your own way. Autonomy is the capacity to impose your own laws on yourself. And autonomy is not easy. Kant emphasizes, for instance, that merely doing what one feels like is not autonomy. Our feelings, urges, and inclinations are largely driven by forces external to our wills. We are susceptible to peer pressures, advertiser’s manipulations, and even so-called “natural” inclinations that are the products of evolutionary forces that may no longer be for our own good. Governing yourself requires stepping back from these forces and reflecting on what you want to do with your life. And that skill requires that you understand how the world works, so that you can identify threats to self-governance, see what your actions’ implications are, and pursue goals using appropriate means. But autonomy also requires being able to reflect on one’s goals, to think carefully for yourself about what is really good, beautiful, and meaningful, what ultimate ends are worthy of pursuit. Whitman has equipped you to reflectively consider what ends are worth pursuing and to self-directedly pursue the skills needed to accomplish those ends.
In the rest of my remarks, I’ll focus on three particular “liberations” that your education has provided: from prejudice, provincialism, and passivity. Now one emphasis in Kant is that liberation has two sides. It’s important to recognize not only what you are free from (prejudice, provincialism, and passivity), but also what you are free for. I recall a conversation from my Core class a few years ago – a class in which some of you were present – in which we were discussing Paul’s Letter to the Romans, from the Christian New Testament. Many of those in the class found appealing Paul’s suggestion that “since all have sinned…they are justified by God’s grace as a gift,” that is, the idea that we can be freed from sin by the grace of God manifested in Jesus’s death and resurrection (Romans 2). But the conversation turned from what we were freed from – sin and its consequences – to what we would be freed for – which, it turns out, is a life of righteous obedience to God (Romans 6). The idea that we would be freed for a life of resisting passions for the sake of obedience to God was, it turns out, a little less appealing than the idea of being freed from sin. Like Paul’s claims in Romans, it turns out that the liberation facilitated by your “liberal” education is a freedom for. In the three examples I focus on, you are liberated from prejudice towards critical thinking, from provincialism towards cosmopolitan concern, and from passivity towards active engagement.
Enlightenment is freedom from prejudice and intellectual authorities that give ready-made answers to ready-made questions. But it is also freedom for creative and disciplined pursuit of truth. Especially in an age of spin and group-think, you will need to use your liberal education to free yourself for this creative and disciplined use of your intellects. Your liberation from prejudice is not a freedom to rest complacently in whatever beliefs happen to seem right to you at the moment. It’s a freedom for the serious and difficult work of Enlightenment. Don’t let yourself succumb to the temptation to merely accept prejudices – even those you’ve absorbed from Whitman. But also don’t let yourself succumb to the temptation to cleverly and cynically show what is wrong with prejudices without creatively working hard towards discovering what is true, good, and beautiful.
You’ve also been freed from provincialism. As you graduate from Whitman, you are no longer merely members of your family, nor even merely residents of your (former) home-town, nor even merely free citizens of the United States. And this is not merely because this graduating class includes citizens of more than 20 different countries. All of you have learned, while at Whitman, that the world cannot be confined to our little Walla Walla Valley, nor to our little nation. We are part of the world. And this freedom from focusing on our own narrow province of the world is a freedom for genuinely cosmopolitan concern, that is, for a concern for the world as a whole. Just as previous generations were freed from narrow focus on their own race or gender or social class for civil rights movements that extended rights and concerns to previously disenfranchised groups, so today your broader perspective requires that you consider the effects of your actions on the billions who are not citizens of your own nation. You are a generation who cares about the world. You have been freed from provincialism for cosmopolitan concern.
Finally, you have been freed – or, better, are being freed – from passivity into activity. As Elana eloquently pointed out in her remarks, you came to Whitman to learn, to absorb what this place had to give you. But in your classes, your professors have not let you remain passive. You’ve been forced to take charge of your education, culminating, for most of you, in senior projects where you made original contributions to your field of study. And outside of class, Whitman’s culture has encouraged you to be active as well, whether through starting or working in various clubs and student groups, through volunteer service in the community, through work on or off campus, through internships, or through any of a myriad of other forms of active engagement with the world. Now it is time to take this to the next level, to actively engage your world. And you have been equipped to do that, not as mere workers serving a grand project, but as enlightened and autonomous individuals. Of course, most of you will earn money working on others’ projects. “Liberal arts” no longer refer, as they did 100 years ago, to “areas of study worthy of or suitable for a person of noble birth or superior social status” (OED) who needn’t work to live. But you should also – whether as part of your paid work or on your “free” time – actively pursue ends and goals that you give yourself.
All that’s to say, and here I come to the very end of my remarks, that your Whitman education in the arts and science is liberal. You are liberated from prejudice to think for yourself, liberated from provincialism to cosmopolitan concern for the good of the world, and liberated from passively taking in your world to actively promoting what is good, true, and beautiful in it. Be enlightened. Be autonomous. Be liberal.