Recent voices on liberal learning

From Learn Liberally
Jump to navigation Jump to search

Recent voices on liberal learning

In recent usage, the concept of liberal learning has deadened into a a term for the putative outcomes of liberal arts programs in American colleges. It has a more powerful meaning, however, indicating learning that has authentic value for free, autonomous persons. It this sense, it is not tied to an educational institution or a formal curriculum, but depends on the existential character of the person who is learning.

From Michael Oakeshott, The Voice of Liberal Learning, pp. 30-1:
Liberal learning is a difficult engagement. It depends upon an understanding of itself which is always imperfect; even those who presided over its emergence hardly knew what they were doing. And it depends upon a self-confidence which is easily shaken and not least by continual self-examination. It is a somewhat unexpected invitation to disentangle oneself from the here and now of current happenings and engagements, to detach oneself from the urgencies of the local and the contemporary, to explore and enjoy a release from having to consider things in terms of their contingent features, beliefs in terms of their applications to contingent situations and persons in terms of their contingent usefulness; an invitation to be concerned not with the employment of what is familiar but with understanding what is not yet understood.[1]
From René Arcilla, For the Love of Perfection: Richard Rorty and Liberal Education, pp. 3-4:
Why does this conception of liberal education emphasize the activity of learning rather than teaching? The reason may lie in the example of Socrates, who, according to Plato in the Apology, disavowed that he was a teacher.

I have never set up as any man's teacher, but if anyone, young or old, is eager to hear me conversing and carrying out my private mission, I never grudge him the opportunity; nor do I charge a fee for talking to him, and refuse to talk without one. I am ready to answer questions for rich and poor alike, and I am equally ready if anyone prefers to listen to me and answer my questions. If any given one of these people becomes a good citizen or a bad one, I cannot fairly be held responsible, since I have never promised or imparted any teaching to anybody, and if anyone asserts that he has ever learned or heard from me privately anything which was not open to everyone else, you may be quite sure that he is not telling the truth (33a-b).[2]

In keeping with his famous polemic against the sophists, Socrates remarks here that if anyone learns something in the process of listening or replying to him, they do not do so in the context of some contract to be taught a specific lesson for a specific fee. What they learn -- or, as he would say, recollect -- is up to them; nobody can assume responsibility for this learning but the learner. Indeed, when he converses with others, he is not assuming the role of teacher, but learning with them as an equal, as someone who is motivated by and who proceeds from a scrupulous acknowledgment of his own ignorance. Socrates suggests, then, that the learning proper to a free person should not be bound by the expectation that it can be bought from a knowing superior.[3]
From Chris Higgins, The Good Life of Teaching: An Ethics of Professional Practice, p. 471:
To conceive of teacher education as a process of ongoing liberal learning about and for education, to organise teacher education around the virtue of practical wisdom, is to call for teachers who will think critically about the social fabric they have been enlisted to renew, teachers who will be able to respond perceptively and flexibly to new situations. And this ability to see the newness in new situations is not only crucial for teaching well but for living well. The education intellectual, the teacher of practical wisdom, pursues her craft as part of her quest to ‘suck out all of the marrow of life’ (Thoreau, 1986 [1854]). In her achieved and ongoing selfcultivation, she reminds her students what it means to be an educated person, some of the ways one may solve the dilemmas of self-hood, what it might be worth growing into.[4]


  1. Michael Oakeshott], The Voice of Liberal Learning, (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, Inc., [1989], 2001) p. 30-1.
  2. 4. Plato, The Collected Dialogues of Plato Including the Letters, ed. Edith Hamilton and Huntington Cairns (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1961), 18-19.
  3. René Arcilla, For the Love of Perfection: Richard Rorty and Liberal Education, (London: Rutledge, 1995) pp. 3-4
  4. Chris Higgins, The Good Life of Teaching: An Ethics of Professional Practice, in Journal of Philosophy of Education (vol. 44, no. 2/3, My/August 2010).