Magazine Reflections

What Does ‘Liberal Education’ Mean to You?

Thoughts on the transformative opportunities liberal learning offers students

Spring 2022

Humans continue to move into a more complex existence.

It is imperative that people are able to learn in a variety of different ways. This learning must include an infusion of critical thinking, which allows for making the best practical decisions in the face of ever-shifting complexities.

Liberal education leads to the best levels of higher thinking due to its requisite integration of learning across the curriculum, including cocurricular and experiential learning. It helps students to achieve relevant sets of outcomes that are so necessary for a balanced approach to their personal lives, their work, and their civic participation.

—Willie J. Johnson
Normandale Community College

Liberal education is at its core a way for learners to become their most complete selves.

Liberal education encompasses the many transformative opportunities for learners to engage with the wider world. It does not prescribe what to think but rather encourages learners to develop the habits of mind and willingness to engage with ideas from many disciplines and perspectives. Ultimately, the goal of liberal education is to help facilitate the learner’s discovery of wholeness, bringing together the mindsets, skill sets, and values needed for their flourishing as a human being and an agent of positive change in the world.

—Sarah Stanlick
Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Liberal education is like teaching learners how to swim instead of simply how to fish.

Yes, teaching someone to fish is better than giving them fish. But what happens when your boat sinks and you can’t swim? Like liberal education, which promotes integration across the curriculum and requires an integration of skills, swimming can be a mode of survival and movement, but it can also incorporate arts and gymnastics similar to how cocurricular activities can augment a liberal learning experience.

—Gbetonmasse B. Somasse
Worcester Polytechnic Institute

The key foundational signature of a liberal education is one that promotes, develops, and inspires an open-minded approach to defining, describing, and solving contemporary issues.

We begin with a foundation of established knowledge and expand from that core, utilizing approaches that are logical, creative, and unconstrained by preconceptions and bias. We are explorers of a landscape we wish to understand, and, when appropriate, make better. We have many fewer answers than we have questions. A liberal education is an open window for observing. It is also an open door for our students.

—Lou Roberts
Worcester Polytechnic Institute

For some, college is a means to an end.

They have a career goal, and college is just a vehicle for getting there, like a plane ticket to a specific destination. Liberal education, by contrast, is like a passport: it takes us to any destination. Unlike a plane ticket, it is infinitely renewable. It is also personalized, complete with our picture and stamps that remind us of all the stops on our educational journey. Like a passport, a liberal education is good for life, which is why we cherish it even after we have graduated.

—Louis E. Newman
Stanford University

The purpose of liberal education is to free us from ignorance.

—Terry O’Banion
Kansas State University