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What Is Liberal Education Anyway?


(Printed on South China Morning Post, 6 June 2013)

The term studia humanitatis may be unfamiliar to most people. What about artes liberalis, the mediaeval name for liberal arts? At least it ‘looks’ familiar. It means the arts (i.e. learning) that were appropriate for a free man (in the classical Greek sense: a man who is not a slave). That is the opposite of artes mechanicae, a vocational training that prepared young men to become weavers, blacksmiths, nevigators, etc. At the time, the liberal arts were not aiming at gaining a livelihood but for further study of law, theology, and medicine.

If that is not modern enough, we may go to Webster’s Third. Under the heading of Liberal Arts, it says ‘of, belonging to, or befitting a man of free birth, also, of, belonging to, or befitting one that is a gentleman in social rank.’ If that did not suffice, try another entry: ‘the studies especially in a college or a university, that are presumed to provide chiefly general knowledge and to develop the general intellectual capacities…as opposed to professional, vocational or technical studies.’ That should give any common-sense person a general idea on what liberal arts education is and what it is not.

Perhaps the staunchest advocate for liberal education in America before the mid-20th century was Robert M. Hutchins, former president of the University of Chicago. The world got to know about the ‘Great Books Project’ under his leadership as well as that of Mortimer Adler, an editor of the Encyclopaedia Britannica. For Hutchins, liberal, from liberalis (from which the English word liberty is derived), means free; so liberal education is a ‘free education’, or ‘an education that can set you free.’ If the question is: Free from what? His reply is: Free from ignorance. So the most succinct statement of liberal education is: it is an education that sets you free from ignorance. How can we achieve that? We learn from the past experience and wisdom of the great minds of over 2,000 years in history. Hence the ‘Great Books’.

Why is liberal education not widely publicized, if it is such a good thing? Very little has been written about those institutions and their programmes, especially in this part of the world. Perhaps it is because they are small in size and number; perhaps their commitment to college (i.e. undergraduate) teaching is not in the main stream; perhaps research laboratories, prestigious professional and graduate schools, famous scholars are all at well-known universities; perhaps most of us only care for the big names: Harvard, Princeton, Berkeley, and know little if at all about Williams, Swarthmore, Pomona. Given our exposure or the lack thereof, and our faith in the marketability of ‘big-name graduates’, no wonder we do not know what we have missed.

So what is a liberal arts college like? In one stroke Hugh Hawkins, retired professor from Amherst—one of the best colleges in that category—describes thus, ‘a four-year institution of higher education, focusing its attention on candidates for the B. A. degree who are generally between the ages of eighteen and twenty-one, an institution resistant to highly specific vocational preparation and insisting on a considerable breadth of studies…[that hopes to develop] interests and capabilities that will enrich both the individual learner and future communities.’

From this brief introduction, we may gather a few common characteristics among liberal education institutions. They are small, residential, not located in urban area for the most part. They devote themselves primarily to the education of the undergraduates. They usually have a small student body; as a result, students get to know each other and faculty members inside as well as outside of the classroom. Because classes are small, and because instruction is mostly provided by professors themselves, and not by teaching assistants, frequent interaction between students, between students and teachers, is a normal state of affairs.

That environment, and the learning atmosphere it creates, can hardly be found in big universities with huge campuses.

If we understand what liberal arts education really is, and are honest with ourselves, then we have to say there is nothing like that in our higher education today. The fact that everybody uses the phrase 'liberal education' all the time does not mean we have it. All nations on earth claim they have a rule of law in their legal systems. Do they? Not only do we not have that kind of training, our universities have shown no sign of any aspiration towards that lofty goal. Lingnan was set up to be one. It did not make it. Ask her former vice chancellor, who has just retired.

With this, we may investigate further to see what is so unique about these institutions.

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