||Liberal Education, Fall 2003
MY VIEW: The Global "Liberation"
of Liberal Learning
By Nate Olson
"Whatever America hopes to bring to pass in this world
must first come to pass in the heart of America."—Dwight
D. Eisenhower, Inaugural Address, 1953
Liberal education is finding new resonance among young people
in our age of new, global challenges. My own serendipitous
tale is proof.
Imagine my anguish the afternoon of May 1, 2000. The national
deadline for all college-goers to commit to their chosen institutions
had arrived, and here I was still uncommitted! Who would have
guessed that my normal poise and preparedness would fly out
the window at such an important moment.
I was not totally in the dark, though. An appealing feature
that distinguished one of my choices—Centre College—was
its widely known dedication to liberal learning. At the time,
it was a distinction of brand only: I had frequently heard
that a liberal education was good, but I could not claim to
know in depth what liberal learning was or why it was as good
as advertised. Those were mere details, and the time to act
was now. So I picked up the phone and made Centre my home
for the next four years, not at all sure about what lay ahead.
That was then. Today, as I complete my junior year and as
I write from the central London flat where one of my college's
international programs has brought me, there is no question
that I made the right choice. My anguish has long since been
replaced by a deep appreciation for my institution and its
devoted group of educators. Needless to say, then, my understanding
of liberal education—its substance and its benefits—has
been transformed. And it is heartening to know that similar
transformations are occurring across the country, at all manner
of schools committed to liberal learning. There is good reason.
People of my age are increasingly coming to regard liberal
education as a uniquely valuable preparation for our times.
Why? We have a growing desire to situate ourselves in a world
that has shown that it cannot be ignored, and we are engaging
ourselves with big ideas that have big implications. And we
need help. Ideological extremism, widespread poverty, terrorism,
ethnic strife—the list goes on. Where is one to start?
It is often tough to recognize where perils end and opportunities
begin in the world that we are inheriting.
Liberal education's varied resources best enable us to begin
sorting through the complexity. We students are exposed to
more than the intellectual traditions that have ordered Western
thought. We acquire more than the skills that will give us
job security or that extra boost up the pay ladder. We are
also faced with pressing responsibilities that fall within
the overlapping circles of civil society, the workplace, political
association, religion, and nature. We learn how to separate
individual ambition from social obligation, and how to search
for a balance between the two in a continual process of moral
All this helps to locate us in the modern world's tangled
web, and it is an eye-opening experience indeed. "Like psychotherapy,
[liberal education] liberates by giving one perspective on
what has shaped his identity and that of his forebears," observes
Dr. Eric Mount, who taught me in a religion course and who
has greatly influenced my thinking on these issues.
Praise be to the psychotherapists of the world! This basic
function of liberal education—this "liberation" that
shows us where we fit in and how we get around—has a
new relevance today, when the rest of the world is at our
doorstep. It expands and enlightens our perspectives on community
in two crucial respects. First, we become acutely aware that,
on balance, our good fortune in America sets us far apart
from vast segments of the world's other societies. Our access
to quality education, avenues for economic mobility, and means
of political participation are not at all perfect, but they
normally offer opportunities for a more fulfilling life. Second—and
here is the heart of it all—we discover and celebrate
the values that unite the world's societies across time and
space, while honoring those things that make each of them
unique. In both respects, we feel an obligation to reach beyond
national borders in order to forge a broader identity.
Liberal education, in short, moves the thoughtful student
to make a commitment to the common good. Our studies in history,
literature, science, art, religion, and philosophy lead us
in an intellectual and ethical pursuit that is made practical
by its scope. The breadth of our academic experience, that
is, reveals the many ways that we can relate to our surroundings.
It fosters a sense of belonging by building connections with
others—even on a global level.
Could the ability to see these connections be any more timely?
Given our day's humanitarian crises and escalating ideological
and ethnic conflicts, America's young people have urgent work
to do as part of a global community, in service of a global
common good. From HIV/AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa to frictions
among world religions, our attention and resources are needed
now and will be needed in the future still more. Violence
and mistrust must give way to dialogue and reconciliation.
The disempowered must be given a voice, and the dispossessed
must see their dignity restored. These issues will not be
resolved anytime soon. They demand lifelong vigilance on our
part—a lifetime of informed judgments.
A global common good
This cautionary note, in turn, underscores the message that
all enthusiasts of liberal learning should be delivering to
those who do not yet share our convictions, but who do want
to make a positive difference: The work of promoting the global
common good is most fundamentally anchored not in action,
but in understanding of the wider world. How, after all, can
we presume to advance a global common good if we cannot identify
a global community? How, if we cannot see our connections
to others? Education is required, and liberal education holds
the most promise. Only with education that is both broad and
practical can we start to untangle how assumptions color our
views of other societies. Only then can we understand those
other societies' struggles and aspirations. And only then,
with this understanding, can we see the shape that our action
ought to take.
It begins with a reassessment of our value system. I consider
the guiding principles for responsible global action to be
captured well in the ancient Judaic concept of tzedakah, which
Rabbi Jonathan Sacks describes in his recent book The Dignity
of Difference (2003). We in America ordinarily think
of charity and justice as rather contradictory terms—charity
being an altruistic concern for others, justice being the
distribution of resources and prestige according to merit.
Tzedakah merges the two. So does a liberal education
applied to our globalizing world. Both tell us that the earth
is the common inheritance of all humankind, and that because
we are all trustees of that earth, we are all trustees of
one another. The language that I speak, the color of my skin,
or the beliefs that I hold might make me different from an
unemployed single mother in Beijing, but in the most fundamental
regard, we are equals. And if I am able in some small way,
I should reach out to her.
As citizens of a country with special power and prosperity,
we young people have special responsibilities to make these
gestures, to share our good fortunes. "Modernity is the move
from fate to choice," Rabbi Sacks explains, "and we can no
longer reasonably claim that the way things are is how they
were destined to be." Some among us, of course, are unreasonable,
and some do not yet see their place in a global community
animated by tzedakah. Those of us agreeing with Rabbi
Sacks can naturally expect continued opposition from these
groups. But it is upsetting to realize that the challenge
to building cross-cultural understanding in America is taking
root in some of the most unanticipated places. One example
will highlight our predicament.
Last summer I was browsing a large school supply store with
my parents. The shelves were sprinkled with crayons, nerf
balls, and other innocuous items that looked most suited for
elementary students. Searching for a map to hang in my room,
I was startled to pick up one carrying the title "Freedom's
Fight." It depicted the Mediterranean region eastward to South
Asia, and the Horn of Africa northward to the lower tip of
Russia. The Middle Eastern states were centered. Below it
all, in a red, white, and blue tableau, was an ominous quote
from a 2001 presidential address: "The hour is coming."
What kind of worldview was this map projecting? The clear
implication—much as I tried to persuade myself otherwise—was
that the United States would be justified in mounting military
campaigns in all of these lands that are inhabited by billions
of people. And that these billions of people, by virtue of
their birth, stood on the wrong side of "freedom's fight."
I hasten to reiterate that the map could easily be hanging
in a hundred third-grade classrooms right now.
This map typifies the insidious forces fighting cross-cultural
understanding and global community building. They are forces
of simplification, insulation, and ethnocentrism. Together
they form a bleak and antagonistic vision of the twenty-first
century's interdependent world, a vision that in these turbulent
times has gained many adherents. It must be resisted by proponents
of liberal learning's alternative vision emphasizing critical
analysis, tolerance, and reconciliation—a vision that
does not recoil when confronting change, but that invites
different societies to take part in a common dialogue under
an umbrella of collective responsibility. A vision that does
not pick winners and losers, but that illuminates mutual obligation
and thus places everyone on the same team. A vision that recognizes
a global common good.
Steps to be taken
I am convinced that the tension between these visions will
in large measure define America's rising generations. Liberal
education must meet the challenge. I respectfully suggest
that a series of straightforward steps—matched to an
institution's goals and capabilities—can help students
help themselves by sustaining and strengthening liberal education's
tradition of global engagement.
- Expand study-abroad options. We must allow our
young people to see and touch the world that they will be
called on to lead with others. Demand is high. The Institute
of International Education reports that the number of U.S.
students studying abroad increased by 55 percent over the
past five years. Institutions of liberal learning should
be at the forefront in nurturing this trend. I am proud
that Centre College is, sending over 70 percent of its students
abroad during undergraduate study.
- Add an international dimension to segments of campus
study. As AACU's Greater Expectations initiative proposed,
study-abroad experiences should be integrated with campus
courses and activities. Guest lectures and conferences with
international themes can effectively reinforce this step.
Also, faculty and administrators should ensure that the
perspectives of foreign students are appropriately incorporated
into campus life. The global dialogue can begin locally.
- Increase personal contact between student and educator.
There is no substitute for the message seen in an educator's
eyes. "To learn from people who are excited about teaching
is the greatest catalyst imaginable," says a friend and
Centre graduate. We students can only sense that excitement
first-hand. This personal contact also reminds the student
that he or she is part of a larger effort to mobilize the
American people for noble intellectual and moral causes.
- Give priority to service learning. Service learning
adds crucial context to the value system that students develop
through coursework and relationships on campus. Recent research
strongly indicates that its benefits are wide-ranging. A
rigorous 2000 UCLA study, "How Service Learning Affects
Students," found that "service participation show[ed] significant
positive effects on all eleven outcome measures," which
included "values," "leadership," and "plans to participate
in service after college." This can be an important tool
in molding global thinkers.
- Champion the "great virtues." As America fought
for its very survival in 1779, Abigail Adams shared a timeless
observation with her young son, John Quincy. "Great necessities,"
she wrote in reference to the founding generation's ordeal,
"call out great virtues." Cultivating these virtues of public
duty and national solidarity in students should be a deliberate
undertaking for centers of liberal education. An institutional
ethic of civic responsibility can encourage students to
become active stewards of the public sphere, whether as
a doctor, business leader, teacher, or software designer.
By maintaining the public sphere, we honor the sacrifice
of those who made possible our opportunity to do good in
the rest of the world. And we extend the same opportunity
to those who follow us.
Since that May afternoon three years ago, my outlook on liberal
learning has evolved from frantic ambivalence to genuine enthusiasm
and genuine gratitude. My own liberal education has done nothing
less than instill within me a lasting resolve, a true sense
of purpose. I now realize that the conflicts and humanitarian
needs surrounding us—and the narrow-mindedness that
they have been met with in some quarters—are not reasons
to get down. They are reasons to get to work. Building wider
circles of community is essential for those of us coming of
age in this era of interdependence. And in that common endeavor,
liberal education is an essential building block.
Nate Olson, a senior at Centre College (KY), is
founder of Voices of Young Americans for Global Engagement
(VOYAGE), online at www.voyageweb.org.
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