Liberal Education

The Global "Liberation" of Liberal Learning

"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 My anguish has long since been replaced by a deep appreciation for my institution and its devoted group of educators.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 reflection.

Liberal education

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

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