Some years before I returned to my alma mater, St. John’s College, as president, one of my sons announced, “Dad, I will talk with you about my college choices, but I don’t want a liberal education, whatever that is.”
This son had an interest in automobiles; his uncle was an auto mechanic, and we had a 1960s-something Volkswagen Bug with windshield wipers that didn’t work. With his uncle’s encouragement, this son undertook the challenge of fixing the wipers despite his lack of experience with cars.
After an hour of looking, testing, failing, questioning from his uncle, trying again, failing again and starting over, my son got fired up and excited. He finally discovered that the wipers didn’t work because they were powered by the air pressure in the spare tire—a tire that had since gone flat. He inflated the spare and, lo and behold, the wipers were restored to working order. I’ll never forget his triumphant shout at this act of self-discovery: “I got it!”
“You have now had an experience in liberal education,” I suggested to ears that were still deaf to the idea.
Why do I call this experience liberating? Because my son had to make do without the manual or the expert. He was led to find for himself the answer by a series of questions alone.
This is the utilitarian argument for a liberal education—the kind of education that employers want to see in their new recruits: an independence of mind and openness to engage in problem-solving with others across traditional disciplines; young women and men who can make their way in a world of innovation and change; and individuals who are liberated from boundaries rather than defined by them.
So if that is what we are up to in our nation’s liberal-arts colleges, why don’t we just offer courses in auto mechanics? We might do a lot of good in this, but we have also recognized that the free mechanic is a subset of the free human being. We have asked of ourselves not just what it takes to be a free mechanic but what it takes to be a free human being.
Do we understand what it means to be human in its many aspects? We are political, social and inquisitive beings, all at the same time. We think, weigh evidence and judge. We reflect upon the world around us; we wish to understand it, sometimes in order to make our way in it fruitfully, and sometimes just simply in awe of the universe’s grandeur. We have bodies, minds, hearts and souls. We have skills to make a living and provide for loved ones. We are members of civic, social and religious communities, and we are citizens of a great country. What are our duties and responsibilities? How well do we understand our powers and our limitations?
These are the kinds of questions we ask at a liberal-arts college. At St. John’s College, we have constructed a program of study to help our students cultivate the arts of analysis, argument and interpretation through the study of many of the greatest texts known to humankind. These studies enrich the imagination and nurture freedom of thought; freedom from the tyrannies of unexamined opinions, current fashions and inherited prejudices; and freedom to make intelligent choices concerning the means and ends of both public and private life. Our approach is guided by a love of wisdom that transcends the acquisition of information and even of knowledge narrowly conceived.
We want our students to be prepared to face any occasion for new learning that comes their way—to be better readers, writers, speakers and thinkers. We also want them to develop a lifelong commitment to pondering the question of how to live well. And finally, we want them to have the experience of living in a community of learning. We expect that the virtues we require of them in their lives on campus—consideration for their colleagues, and decent and respectful dealings with others—will prove transferable to their lives as citizens of this or any country, to their places of work and worship, and to their lives as friends and neighbors and members of a family.
At St. John’s and other liberal-arts colleges, learning is an activity fired by the desire to know, a desire to make one’s education one’s own. The reward for learning because one has a desire to know—simply for its own sake—is something I want to call “happiness.” This is not a fulfillment that comes to an end in the gratification of a desire, but an active engagement in an ongoing project that best defines what it means to be human.
Christopher Nelson is president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, Md., from which he graduated in 1970.