This week is a time of giving thanks, and one of the most treasured gifts for which many Americans are thankful is freedom.
In the West, freedom lies at the center of an inherited tradition that goes by the name “liberal,” from the Latin liber, meaning “free.” To sustain genuine freedom, we bear the responsibility of understanding the roots of this tradition and preserving it from error, perversion, and decay.
Today in Washington, D.C., the word liberal carries connotations of big government and left-leaning political ideology. The same is probably true across America and no doubt in Southern California, which is why it was pleasantly surprising to encounter the older meaning of liberal on a recent trip to Los Angeles.
That’s “liberal” as in liberal education. No, not the leftist politics of so many campuses today but education in the liberal arts—the classical disciplines that equip students with the “tools of learning” (including grammar, logic, rhetoric) and the love of truth. Liberal education prizes the classic texts of Western civilization as valuable guides to the accumulated wisdom of centuries. As its proponents often state, liberal education aims to produce not simply a good lawyer or accountant but a good person.
A visitor finds this time-honored approach to learning on display at two academic institutions in California: Thomas Aquinas College and the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. The results are impressive. At both schools, thoughtful, articulate students seem genuinely excited about learning. Compared to the stereotype of modern college students, these young people are immersed not in Beavis and Butt-Head but in Boethius; they invest their energies not in Angry Birds but Aristotle.
This kind of education is called “liberal” because it liberates students from inconsistent thinking, ignorance of right and wrong, and slavery to their own passions. What does such an education make students free for? To pursue any number of productive endeavors with deep appreciation and understanding, including, among other things, self-government. America’s Founders, many of whom were educated in the liberal tradition, insisted that only a people steeped in virtues such as reason and self-control could sustain a free democracy.
Sit in a class probing Aristotle’s view of money, and you’ll hear students carry on a lively but thoughtful discussion about why money as a means of exchange unleashes opportunity for economic growth. Liberal education sometimes draws the critique that it isn’t useful or practical; listening to these students, though, a visitor can’t help but think how different things might look in our society if most Americans possessed this degree of basic economic understanding.
In another class, students carefully dissect a page of Euclid’s mathematical work Elements. They labor to make sure they understand how every step in one of his geometric proofs is logically necessary for producing the conclusion. How likely is it that these young people would be taken in by the emotion-provoking sound bytes and ad hominem attacks that often pass for political discourse in America today?
We have much to be thankful for in America, including the freedom to speak and debate openly about the pressing issues of our day. But with that freedom comes the responsibility to pursue wisdom and understanding about the world in which we live, including the moral, spiritual, physical, political, and economic realities that shape human life.
In light of this, we ought to be thankful that good teachers and institutions are hard at work educating students in the liberal tradition. In years to come, these young people can help us to understand, appreciate, and defend true freedom.