The Purpose of a Liberal Education

When my son was seven years old, he could reel off all the stats anyone would ever need to know about Detroit Tigers baseball. Batting averages, RBIs, home runs, or stolen baseshe knew them all. Of course, his prodigious prowess for Tigers stats wasn’t in fulfillment of a homework assignment or from a promise that such knowledge was practically “useful.” I never had to tell him, “Now, go study about the Tigers!” He had an authentic devotion, desire, and enthusiasm for the subject. My son was, in essence, a student of Major League Baseball. He loved following the Tigers for its own sake. This very spirit is at the heart of liberal education, and it’s the key to answering the pivotal questions of life.

To understand what makes liberal education different from other sorts of education, we first need to appreciate that the (small “l”) liberal arts are called liberal because they are free from serving ends outside themselves. They are worth doing for their own sake. There are other arts, too, called “servile arts,” those arts not pursued for their own sake. Now, to be clear, to call an art “servile” should not be taken as an insult. Servile arts are necessary. We’d starve, suffer, and perish without them. One way to distinguish the servile from the liberal arts, then, is by noting their different aims.

C.S. Lewis distinguished them this way:

The purpose of liberal education is to produce the good man and the good citizen. The good man here means the man of good taste and good feeling, an interesting and interested man. Vocational training, [the servile arts], on the other hand, prepares the pupil not for leisure, but for work. It aims not at making a good man, but a good banker, a good electrician, a good scavenger, a good surgeon.

In the strictest sense, a liberal art is any organized body of knowledge worth knowing for its own sake, without concern for the application—or utility—of such knowledge. Liberal learning is thus liberated from the burden of answering this oft-heard question: “What is the practical use, application, or benefit of studying the subject?”

This can be confusing for students infected with what I call the virus of “relevantism.” Too many American college students arrive on campus demanding to know the relevance of each particular course, class, or assignment and what they can “do” with it while on the job. To be sure, these questions seem reasonable for those seeking only vocational training. But such a vocational focus reveals the unfortunate fact that “higher” education has descended from its once lofty study of ends to a mundane obsession with means.

Human life is too rich, however, to prepare for it in such a limited way. The most robust college education, however much it may include vocational training, is not limited to such training. Vocational training may produce clever workers able to earn lots of dollars, but the liberal education goes further, ordering the heart and mind thereby equipping the workers to spend those dollars wisely. A liberal arts student, therefore, asks, “What sort of person will I become by pursuing this education? How will this course shape my soul? How will my collegiate experience teach me to live well and wisely whether on or off the job? What will I learn about the ends that wise men should pursue in life?”

In “Metaphysics,” Aristotle writes: “All men by nature desire to know. An indication of this is the delight we take in our senses. For even apart from their usefulness, they are loved for themselves.” For instance, we can all agree being able to see is better than being blind. Eyesight is useful. But we also like just to sit and stare at the surf on the ocean beachfront, or at beautiful mountains, or at a sunset.  These are all lovely activities that aren’t especially useful. The point is that there is indisputably a delight to learning that has no consideration for the utility of the learning. This is not to suggest that students should never tend to the professional utility of their studies.  This is probably impossible, and not wise regardless.  But students who ignore those things that are liberal, that are worth pursuing for their own sakes, will miss out on so much that equips them to live honorable lives of wisdom and virtue. 

True liberal learning demands that students learn to set aside, even if only for a time, concern for a subject’s immediate practical relevance. Indeed, the Latin root from which we derive the word “student” refers to a disposition of eager devotion, desire, and enthusiasm for a subject. When one truly loves something for what it is, one doesn’t begin by asking what “usefulness” it provides.

The business of education is learning what to love and how to love it in the right way.

As it turns out, however, learning pursued for its own sake, without regard to practical utility, turns out to be mighty useful. But if it’s pursued with one’s eyes solely on the consequences and “usefulness” of the endeavor, the liberal arts will be rendered servile and the good consequences may not come. This is the paradox of liberal education: Pursue the learning without regard to the practical utility, and there will be many useful consequences, but pursued with the principal concern being the utility, the liberal education will be deficient.

Liberal learning creates cultivated, well-formed men and women; thoughtful people who possess a wealth of knowledge and who, in the light of this knowledge, can impartially judge matters of significance. Liberal education produces people capable of continuing to educate themselves—people endowed with the necessary intellectual frameworks, curiosity, and methods to pursue a life of learning and vocational success.

It may seem counterintuitive in our “pedal-to-the-metal” work culture, but when it comes to learning, the best attitude to cultivate is one of leisure. We get the word “school” from the Greek word scholé, which conveys notions of “free time,” “leisure” and “rest.” The classical Greek world, where the liberal arts were first conceived, understood leisure to be about the free time to spend leisurely on lectures and discussions of great ideas—scholé was about chasing truth and enjoying oneself in the pursuit.

My thirty-two years of teaching experience have taught me that most students of the liberal arts become less interested in acquiring the means to get what they want than in figuring out what in life is really worth wanting, what ends are ultimately worth pursuing. The business of education is learning what to love and how to love it in the right way. If done properly, this involves improving one’s heart and character—which involves an ordering of the soul. One must come to recognize that which is genuinely good, true, or beautiful, and one’s soul must learn how those things ought to be loved.

Students young and old must free themselves to enjoy learning for its own sake, not just for the sake of the earning power it bestows. Only when learning is pursued for its own sake will that learning do its most for the student. It will order the soul, discipline the mind, and equip one, not just for the workplace, but for the job of living, that is, for flourishing in all the capacities that await in life. A good liberal education provides the kind of preparation needed to live well—not just for success at the office, but more importantly, beyond it.

This text is based on an edited excerpt of the lecture entitled “Learning” given to Hillsdale College students—part of a four-part “Freshman Foundations” series on the purposes of a liberal arts education that all Hillsdale students must attend during their freshman year.