On the Liberating Arts

Forest Hansen

What is the meaning and purpose of a liberal arts education? That’s a question always worth asking, and more than usually as higher education struggles to survive amid ideological turmoil and fiscal crisis. As we consider that question now, we can learn from the answers American professors already have given. NAS member Forest Hansen, professor emeritus of philosophy at Lake Forest College, gave a particularly fine solution in an address given to the graduating Lake Forest College Class of 1969 by the faculty member elected as “Great Teacher”; the address was later published in revised form in Liberal Education. NAS is pleased to reprint Professor Hansen’s address, which puts well a great deal of what NAS fights to preserve in American higher education.

A plea for thinking about what a liberal arts education is for.

As Mark Van Doren once said, even among the thousands of people who each year become masters of arts, “Only a handful ever know what they have been dubbed masters of. They are usually more than willing to be let pass as persons with no special equipment who hope to finish the intellectual journey in that comfort which comes from knowing that examinations are over.” If the college graduates are bachelors of arts, we who teach (and administer) might be called husbands and wives of the arts, as well as—like Socrates—midwives. Part of the present turmoil in education—and it is really a very ancient issue—is that we so seldom endeavor to become clear about these relationships. To become clear means to become clear about what the arts are, and then what the liberal arts are for. Once that is done, many disputes may remain. But it is my belief that when we become clear about the arts and about liberal education, we can better approach the details of hiring and firing black and white faculty, of what courses to include in our curriculum and which to require, of the efficacy of some grading system, and all the other details of education that are both important and peripheral.

What, precisely, are the arts that college graduates are supposed to be bachelors of? Richard Macksey, of Johns Hopkins University, once toted them up nicely: “One goes to school,” he said,

not so much for knowledge as for arts and habits, the means to knowledge; for the habit of sustained attention, for the arts of expression and discourse, for the art of assuming at a moment’s notice a new intellectual posture, for the art of entering quickly into another person’s thoughts, for the habit of submitting to censure or refutation, for the habit of indicating assent or dissent in graduated terms, for the habit of working out what is possible in a given time, and (as William Johnson Cory said) for mental courage and mental soberness.

These are the arts which we try to develop in our students, by attempting to exemplify them in our own activity and by requiring them in theirs. I think most faculty members are clear about this, however much we may falter. But we do not always make these arts clear to our students. There is nothing especially romantic about them, and our college and university catalogues and admissions brochures—while painting an idyllic picture of undergraduate activity—usually fail to note how difficult they are to acquire. Thus freshmen often come to us with a dream, a dream that blurs the fact that their college years are going to be—or ought to be—the most difficult ones of their lives.

It is easier to acquire the art of cooking, the art of engineering, the art of dentistry, the art of landscaping, the art of plumbing, the art of flying an airplane or even a rocket ship—any art that I can think of—than to acquire the arts of liberating oneself to learn. We require students to read books and articles, write papers, take examinations, do laboratory experiments, learn a foreign language, give oral reports, engage us in discussion and argument—all of those things involved in developing the arts that Macksey talks about. On the whole it is not pleasurable. If they do their job, it is hard and frustrating and leads to periods of great unhappiness. Happiness usually comes only when the job is done, and too often even then it is only “that comfort which comes from knowing that examinations are over”—for the time being.

What is the deeper happiness that we promise them, that justifies the glowing words in our public relations literature? What is all of this for, these arts that we want them to develop? If they knew that, and if we who teach them were clearer about that, the job would not be so onerous. It would, in fact, become the adventure that we claim it is. It would still be hard and even involve unhappiness, because for most of us thinking is always hard. But they could measure that difficulty, that pain, against the value of the end, and even gain some deep satisfaction in the processes necessary to achieve that end.

What is a liberal education for? I think an answer to that question can be articulated, and I would like to make a beginning toward that articulation. My thoughts are not highly original, but I needn’t blush about that. If I were to present a novel view of the nature of a liberal education, there would be good reason to suspect either me or all of the institutions that have been calling themselves colleges of liberal arts for hundreds of years.

In his book, The Idea of History, R. G. Collingwood deals with the question: What is history for?—what is its purpose? His answer is both simple and profound: history is for human self-knowledge. “It is generally thought to be of importance to man,” says Collingwood,

that he should know himself: where knowing himself means knowing not his merely personal peculiarities, the things that distinguish him from other men, but his nature as man. Knowing yourself means knowing, first, what it is to be a man; secondly, knowing what it is to be the kind of man you are; and thirdly, knowing what it is to be the man youare and nobody else is. Knowing yourself means knowing what you can do; and since nobody knows what he can do until he tries, the only clue to what man can do is what an has done. The value of history, then, is that it teaches us what man has done and thus what man is.

What Collingwood says is true, I deeply believe, not just of history but of a liberal education—and by a liberal education I mean a study not just of the humanities but of the social and natural sciences and mathematics. Students come to college, ideally, to learn about themselves, and we who are their teachers are, again ideally, engaged in that as a lifelong occupation. In this respect a liberal education is an eminently practical one, for what can be more practical than to learn about yourself?

Collingwood points out what seems to be a paradox but what is only an obvious truth when we come to think about it: we learn about ourselves more rapidly, more extensively, and more deeply by studying the accomplishments of others. We learn the discipline, the method, of achieving self-knowledge by learning the disciplines—the arts—of the humanities and the sciences. Introspection and reflection upon only our own experience do not carry us very far. There is a great fad these days among young people believing that they do. But this represents irresponsibility to one’s self. It means failing to gain self-knowledge through knowledge of humanity, through the experience of past, present, and fictitious individuals and groups; their successes and failures, their hopes and their lesser realities. Not to gain this knowledge means, I believe, not to break out of the limited world each of us grows up in; it means not to achieve the ability to think clearly over the range of possibilities that men have dreamed of and sometimes actualized; it means not to be able to judge clearly what is right and wrong nor to be able to effect other than haphazard changes for the improvement of ourselves and our world. Not to be liberally educated means, at bottom, not to know what it means to be a person, and thus to stack the odds against oneself in becoming one.

A liberal education is a liberating education, and the residential liberal arts college is specially set up to free a student to become a person. It assumes that by living away from his parents he can better question the idiosyncracies of his own upbringing and see them in perspective. By living with people from diverse backgrounds he is challenged to explore their values as well as his own. As much as possible he is freed from the utilitarian task of making money. He is even physically isolated from the so-called “real” world so that he is freed to some extent from the pressing social, economic and political problems of our time. How much of this freedom is necessary and good is a subject of current debate, and rightly so. But no one, I think, can persuasively argue that there should not be some degree of these negative freedoms, freedoms from other involvements. They are necessary so that young people can develop the positive freedom: freedom to explore what it is to be a man, through studying philosophy, history, literature, biology, physics, music, sociology, economics—all the disciplines a college offers. Through their study young men and women are liberated to choose, insofar as anyone can do so, what shall be their values, their concerns, their aims for themselves, their children, their community, our country, our world.

One’s particular profession or job may or may not seem related to those choices. Actually, one’s profession or job is probably not so important as how one chooses to be and become in that occupation. Teachers, lawyers, and doctors can be mere technicians as much as plumbers, electricians, and businessmen. And the latter are not restricted by their jobs from becoming persons who know themselves and a good deal of the world we live in. Being liberalized, being liberated, being freed, having the freedom to become oneself: this is the crucial difference in people and the standard by which to judge institutions and societies. A college of liberal arts is not the only way to achieve this, but in our society it is the only institutionalized, the only planned way. Uniquely central to our enterprise is the exploration of being and becoming a person through development of the arts of reading, writing, talking, and scientific exploration—in the classroom, the lab, the library, the study, the cafeteria, the lounge, the school newspaper, student government committees: wherever thinking goes on.

This all sounds very lofty. It is the dream, one might say, of the liberal arts college. But one might turn the label around. What I have been talking about is the reality (in Plato’s sense) of the liberal arts college: what a liberal arts college really is. Many of our colleges are struggling to become that, and insofar as we fall short we have unreal institutions.

As we think about this reality, this statement of the aims and arts of a liberal education, we all must recognize, in fact, how we have failed, individually and collectively, to actualize it. That nags at us. We feel incomplete. We feel that we haven’t done justice to ourselves and to others. What nags at us, I believe, is the sensed notion of the whole person within us that we might become, that we would like to become, that we know we could become. That nagging is our hope, for it means that something has, after all, been accomplished and that we know in what direction to move in order to accomplish more—even if we don’t know all the details.

Every good graduating class has taxed the faculty and encouraged the faculty to tax itself. Virtually every class, however, fails to tax us enough, both in the classroom and concerning policy matters. And this is because they fail to tax themselves enough, both in their studies and in their discussions about the institution. One reason for this failure, I think, is their lack of clarity about what their liberal arts education is for. But at this point the faculty stands under the heavier indictment. While much responsibility for learning the arts is inevitably the student’s alone, we who teach and administer should be clear about our purpose and present that purpose clearly to them. Almost every college faculty must confess, “That we have not done.”

Perhaps it is foolhardy to hope that busy scholars and teachers will devote the time to the task, and more foolhardy still that they will agree with the principles I have outlined. Insofar as we fail to become clear and to agree on principles, though, we will be fragmented institutions turning out fragmented bachelors of arts. It is my hope that college graduates, as alumni and as citizens, will join the succeeding generations of students in demanding that colleges and universities become more whole and in insuring that we be allowed to do so. Only then can we be confident that those who graduate will have the arts and be well on the way to be liberated when they leave with their degrees. Only then will the reality of the liberal arts college be extended into a larger reality, where peace, equality, and opportunity will enable all men to be free to become persons.

Address to the graduating class given by the faculty member elected as “Great Teacher” by the Lake Forest College Class of 1969.

Forest Hansen, “On the Liberating Arts,” Liberal Education 55 (1969), pp. 441-45.

Image: Junior Moran, Public Domain 

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