Liberal Education

I Got It! The Wipers Are Working!

I have been reminiscing lately, probably a sign of my age, but I came to recall an episode in my earlier life before I returned to St. John's College as its president more than twenty years ago, when my second son announced: "Dad, I'm willing to talk with you about my college choices, but I'm not going to go to that school where my brother is (St. John's College), and I don't want a liberal education, whatever that is."

This son happened to have an interest in automobiles, his uncle happened to be an automobile mechanic, and we happened to have an old junker in the driveway, a 1960-something Volkswagen bug. Almost nothing worked in the car; it wouldn't go, and my wife and her brother were working to get the car to perform its principal purpose—going. My brother-in-law saw an opportunity to engage my uninterested son when he discovered that the windshield wipers weren't working and asked my son to give him a hand.

"What would you do to fix this?" he asked.

"I'd get the manual out and see what it says," my son responded.

"But there is no manual. What then?"

"Then I'd ask the guy at the repair shop."

"But he's not here, and we can't get the car there. Do you think we can figure it out for ourselves?

"But I don't know anything," my son answered.

"Ah, that's the thing. Let's see if that's true."

Uncle Ken then opened the hood and asked my son to see if he could find the fluid lines to the wipers and discover what powered the wipers to move in the first place. Could he figure out where the wiper fluid tank was, and could he tell whether there was any fluid in the tank? My son found the tank, and it was full. He tested the line as best he could to determine that it wasn't clogged. But there was another line leading to somewhere else.

"Can you see where the other line goes beneath the hood? Can you track that back to its origin?"

Long story short: after an hour of looking, testing, failing, trying again, failing again, and thinking out loud ("I wonder if this might work"), my son got fired up and excited. In the end, he discovered that the hose to the wipers was hooked up to the pressure valve of the spare tire, and lo and behold, the spare tire was flat. "You think the spare tire supplied the pressure to power the wiper?" my son asked.

"Well, let's see." With that, my son pumped up the spare tire. Back in the driver's seat, he moved the controls on the dashboard, and the wipers worked. I'll never forget the glow on my son's face when he announced, "I got it! The wipers are working!"

"You have now had an experience in liberal education," I suggested to ears that were still deaf to the idea—ears that would be open to it a few years later. (This son did eventually find his way to St. John's in our master's degree program.)


I doubt that Volkswagens are built these days to provide such simple opportunities for basic learning by seeing and doing, but every challenge in life provides us with learning opportunities that can be just as liberating, without recourse to manuals, without seasoned experts, if we open ourselves to the possibility and apply ourselves to the search for an answer.

Why do I call this experience liberating? Because the learner (my son) had to make do without the manual or the expert. Liberated from the direction and expertise of others, he was reduced to rely on himself with only a little encouragement from his tutor uncle. He was led to find for himself the answer to the problem by a series of questions alone. The turning point was his willingness to continue the search for an answer only after acknowledging, "But I don't know anything."

Understanding his ignorance was necessary for learning to begin because he had to be open to the possibility that he had something to learn, and that he was willing, even eager, to find the answer. He was open to an experience of truly "wondering" how he might find an answer. This wonder did not come from any knowledge that he had but from a desire to know, born not in understanding but in ignorance. This was a kind of "knowing ignorance," an intelligent perplexity that came from embracing his ignorance and then discarding false notions and failed experiments as he went on. Our innocence or ignorance of the world about us may be the one certainty in life, and recognition of this is the pathway to learning.

Another thing happened to this blossoming mechanic. He turned from boredom with a problem that was put to him, to perplexity over the difficulty of solving it with meager tools, to excited engagement because he wanted to discover the answer. He wanted to know the answer for its own sake, not just to fix the wipers. He wanted to "get it"!

Yet one more lesson! My son had begun to discover the interconnectedness of apparently unrelated apparatuses, and this helped him understand a little better how the car was assembled, even how it was conceived to operate in the first place. (Today, he is in his residency in osteopathic medicine, still working on body mechanics.)

This case is the barest expression of what we ought to wish to see in our students at our colleges. And it may be as good an example as any of the utilitarian or practical argument for a liberal education—the kind of education employers want to see in their new recruits: employees who have an independence of mind and openness to engage in problem solving and solution finding with others across traditional disciplines; young men and women who can make their way in a world of innovation and change; individuals who are liberated from boundaries rather than defined by them.

What has this story got to do with our project at the nation's liberal arts colleges? Just this: the free mechanic is a subset of the free human being. We now ask ourselves not what it takes to be a free mechanic, but what it takes to be a free human being.

Readers of Plato's dialogues will recognize the striking resemblance of my son's path to freedom and the path followed by many of Socrates' interlocutors. For example, in Plato's Meno, Socrates turns Meno's opening question from whether and how virtue can be taught to what this thing is that Meno is talking about: What is virtue? This is the kind of question we used to ask our parents or teachers when we were children but may have stopped asking when we became satisfied with the answer from a trusted authority figure—or stopped asking when we simply ceased to wonder at the world. It is these simple questions that Socrates asks as he tries to understand the nature of a thing, its being, its essence. And it is the answers his interlocutors give that founder upon further examination. They try one answer and are led to see the weakness of it, and so they try a second and a third time until they appear to be stumped and wish to go on and understand what they missed—or until they give up the argument in anger or frustration with Socrates. What appears to be an annoying mind game to one is an awakening to another—to the inquiring student or reader who has now become disturbed by a contradiction exposed about an unexamined but deeply held opinion. We then see that we must come to grips with Socrates and his questions for our own sake, for the sake of those convictions we hold dear. Will they stand up to challenge? Do we really know who we are, understand what we believe, and comprehend what makes our lives worth living?

How well does any human being—teacher or student—understand what it means to be human in its many aspects? We are political, social, and solitary beings, all at the same time. As human beings we think, weigh evidence, and judge. We reflect upon the world about us; we wish to understand it, sometimes in order to make our way in it fruitfully, and sometimes just simply in awe of the majesty of existence, the grandeur, beauty, and mystery of the universe. We have bodies, minds, hearts, and souls. We love, act, and are moved. What are we made of? What moves us and why? We have skills we use to make a living and provide for loved ones. We are members of civic, social, and religious communities and citizens of a great country. What are our duties and responsibilities toward these and others? How well do we understand our powers and limitations? How well do we comprehend the interconnectedness of things and our relationships with fellow beings so that we may make our lives richer—for ourselves and for others, too?

Before students fix upon a specialty for study or a vocation to pursue, they ought to be asked to spend a little time getting to know themselves and the world about them.


Liberal arts colleges have found many ways to help students do this. At St. John's College, we have constructed a program of study that is designed to help our students cultivate the arts of reason and understanding and abilities in analysis, argument, and interpretation. We hope this program will enrich their imagination and nurture freedom of thought; freedom from the tyrannies of unexamined opinions, current fashions, and inherited prejudices; and freedom to make intelligent choices concerning the ends and means of both public and private life. We pursue this freedom together with our students through thoughtful conversation about great works from the Western tradition, shaped by a commitment to radical inquiry. We nourish the capacity to wonder, which stimulates such questions. Our approach is guided by a love of wisdom that transcends the acquisition of information and even of knowledge narrowly conceived.

We want our students to be well versed in the textual tradition of reason that illuminates the chief features of modern life, including democracy, technology, and the literary and musical traditions of the West. We want them to have basic literacy in three kinds of texts: verbal, mathematical, and musical. We expect them to develop skill in logical, coherent, and correct expression. And we want them to engage in a direct study of the natural world. Though often guided by texts, they develop skills of observation, dissection, measurement, and experimentation. In asking this of them, we reject at a deep level the popular distinction between the humanities and the sciences. We want our students to be able to weigh and judge the claims of science—rather than simply deferring to them as authoritative, or rejecting them as alien.

We want our students to develop the intellectual virtues of courage in inquiry, caution in forming opinions, candor about their ignorance, open attentiveness to the words of their colleagues, industry in preparation, and meticulousness in verbal translation and mathematical demonstration. We want them to be prepared to face any occasion for new learning that comes their way. We also want them to develop a life-long commitment to pondering the question of how to live well. And finally, we want them to have the experience of living in a community of learning. We expect that the moral virtues we require of them in their life on campus—consideration for their colleagues and decent and respectful dealings with others—will prove transferable to their lives as citizens of this or any country, transferable to their places of work and worship, to their lives as friends and neighbors and members of families.

We expect a lot of our students, and we imagine that our students would not be here if they did not wish to be held to high expectations.

But beneath everything I have said about what we intend at St. John's is our shared conviction that learning is an activity fired by the desire to know, a desire to make one's education one's own. Michel de Montaigne, puts it this way in his essay "On the Education of Children": "Truth and reason are common to everyone, and no more belong to the man who first spoke them than to the man who says them later . . . The bees plunder the flowers here and there, but afterwards they make of them honey, which is all theirs; it is no longer thyme or marjoram. Even so with the pieces borrowed from others; he will transform and blend them to make a work that is all his own, to wit, his judgment. His education, work, and study aim only at forming this."

If students are meant to be the bees that plunder flowers to make something that they can call our own, there had better be flowers that make this possible. The flowers are not hard to recognize; they are the great works of literary, artistic, and musical imagination. Among them are mathematical, scientific, political, religious, poetic, and philosophical books that have survived the test of time because they are timeless. They form the foundation for the thoughts and discoveries that follow; they are often deeply beautiful; they speak to the great human questions that help us understand both the world about us and the world within us.

If learning materials are considered as food for digestion, students should have a banquet set before them, the opportunity to taste each morsel before deciding to accept or reject it, and the time to digest what they have taken in. To make it their own requires an environment in which their teachers exercise restraint in pressing their authority, like the mechanic in my opening story. They need to allow students the freedom to chew on their own questions and form tentative conclusions that they may later reflect upon and disgorge as ill considered.


The reward for learning attributable to a desire to know—simply for its own sake—is something I want to call "happiness." This is not a fulfillment that comes to an end in the gratification of a desire, but an activity, an active engagement in an ongoing project that best defines what it means to be human. Aristotle, in his Nicomachean Ethics, would define this happiness as "an activity in accordance with virtue." And so, we return to that Socratic question: Just what is virtue? We wonder whether human virtue lies somehow coterminous with this strange path toward knowledge—that we human beings first must recognize our ignorance, that it will be a great struggle to attain deep understanding, and that we can better pursue this search in the company of others, fellow students, with whom we can at least share those peaks of desire and excitement that accompany the search for truth.

And occasionally, along the way, we hope that the mist will clear from the windows of our eyes and we will be able to shout out to our fellow searchers: "I got it! The wipers are working!"

Christopher B. Nelson is president of St. John's College in Annapolis, Maryland.

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