Why Liberal Education Matters — A Lecture in Beijing

This is cross-posted from Inside Higher Education.

Just before the semester began I traveled to Beijing to deliver a lecture entitled “Why Liberal Education Matters” at the Institute for Humanistic Studies at Peking University.

With my host, Prof. Tu Weiming
With my host, Prof. Tu Weiming

I didn’t quite know what to expect. It was intersession there, and I was told that there might be a dozen faculty and graduate students in attendance. Imagine my surprise when I entered a packed lecture hall. There were more than 200 faculty members and students present, despite the vacation.

In China there is increasing interest in liberal education, while here in the United States there is plenty of pressure on liberal learning from people who want our education system to have a more direct connection to the workplace. They seem to think that an education for “the whole person” is just too soft in this hypercompetitive technology-driven age. These folks want a more routinized, efficient and specialized education to train students for jobs. Yesterday’s jobs, I tend to think.

In the States, I spend a fair amount of time trying to show that this call for more efficient, specialized education is a self-defeating path to conformity and inflexibility – just the kinds of traits that will doom one to irrelevance in the contemporary culture and society. How would this message resonate in China, which has had an educational system that is even more test-driven and hyperspecialized? I decided to take a historical approach, showing how our modern notions of liberal learning emerge from currents of thought from Thomas Jefferson to Richard Rorty. Perhaps in the discussions after the talk I would learn about whether there were elements from Chinese traditions that would resonate with our history, and that would have lessons for our contemporary situation.

My translator, the excellent Liu Boyun was ready to leap in every few sentences, a daunting prospect given that I didn’t have a text to read but was going to “talk through” some key ideas in American intellectual history. I structured the talk using the concepts: Liberate, Animate, Cooperate, Instigate/Innovate. Of course, they don’t rhyme in Chinese…

With “Liberate,” I talked about Jefferson’s ideas about education that led to the founding the University of Virginia. Jefferson was a man of the Enlightenment, and he thought that education would liberate us from what Kant had called “self-imposed immaturity.” He was determined that students not have to choose their specific course of learning at the very start of their studies. You should discover what you are going to do through education – not sign up to be trained in a vocation before you know who you might be and what you might be able to accomplish. Sure, there would be mistakes, false roads taken. But, Jefferson wrote to Adams, “ours will be the follies of enthusiasm” and not of bigotry.

I pointed out, as you might expect, the enormous inconsistency in Jefferson’s thinking. He was a slaveholder who tied education to liberation. He was a determined racist who wrote of the importance of allowing young people to fail as they found their enthusiasms – obviously, only some people. Having good ideas about education doesn’t make one immune to scandalous hypocrisy.

With “Animate,” I turned to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s notion that education is setting souls aflame. Emerson saw routinized education as a form of corruption, and he urged his auditors to throw off the shackles of imitation that had become so prominent in colleges and universities. Colleges serve us, he wrote, when they aim not to drill students in rote learning but to help them tap into their creativity so that they can animate their world. I sensed a strong positive response to this from the audience, many of whom want to move away from the regime of test-taking that structures Chinese secondary education (and is increasingly prominent in the United States). But what did they think of another of Emerson’s notions I talked about, that of “aversive thinking,” the kind of thinking that cuts against the grain of authority?

With “Cooperate” I talked about three American thinkers associated with pragmatism: William James, Jane Addams and John Dewey. From James I emphasized the notion that “the whole function of thinking is but one step in the production of habits of action.” Liberal education isn’t about studying things that have no immediate use. It is about creating habits of action that grow out of a spirit of broad inquiry. I also talked about his notion of “overcoming blindness” by trying to put oneself in someone else’s shoes. Seeing the world from someone else’s perspective without leaping to judgment was fundamental for James.

That notion of overcoming blindness toward others was also key for Jane Addams, whose idea of “affectionate interpretation” I stressed under the “Cooperate” rubric. Addams allows us to see how “critical thinking” can be overrated in discussions of liberal education. We need to learn how to find what makes things work well and not just how to point out that they don’t live up to expectations. For Addams, compassion, memory and fidelity are central aspects of how understanding should function within a context of community. These notions clearly resonated with the audience, and a few colleagues pointed out that Addams’s thinking in this regard had strong affinities with aspects of Confucian traditions.

My last thinker within the “Cooperate” rubric was John Dewey, and I cited his notion that philosophy “recovers itself … when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of men.” This is what pragmatic liberal education should do, too: take on the great questions of our time with the methods cultivated by rigorous scholarship and inquiry.

For Dewey, no disciplines were intrinsically part of liberal education. The contextual and conceptual dimensions of robust inquiry made a subject (any subject) part of liberal learning. Furthermore, Dewey insisted that humanistic study would only thrive if it remained connected to “the interests and activities of society.” The university should not be a cloister; it should be a laboratory that creates habits of action through inquiry laced with compassion, memory and fidelity.

I brought my talk to a close under the rubric, “Instigate/Innovate.” I referred to my teacher Richard Rorty’s remarks on how liberal education at the university level should incite doubt and challenge the prevailing consensus. Rorty played the major role in recent decades in bringing American pragmatism back to the foreground of intellectual life, and he spoke of how higher education helped students practice an aversive thinking that challenged the status quo. That is key, I stressed, to the power of liberal education today: instigating doubt that will in turn spur innovation. We need not just new apps to play with, but new strategies for dealing with fundamental economic, ecological and social problems. Only by creatively challenging the prevailing consensus do we have a chance of addressing these threats to our future.

I was surprised by the enthusiasm with which these remarks were greeted. I’d imagined, so wrongly, that talk about challenging the prevailing consensus would have met with a chilly reception at Peking University. On the contrary, the professors and students in the audience were looking to their own traditions and to those of the West for modes of aversive thinking that would empower them to meet the massive challenges facing their society. In the conversations after the talk, they spoke of an evolving education system that would be less concerned with plugging people into existing niches, and more concerned with teaching the “whole person” in ways that would liberate students’ capacities for finding their own way while making a positive difference in the world. Free speech and free inquiry will be crucial for that evolution.

The ongoing conversations following my lecture at Peking University inspire me to think that thoughtful inquiry might enable us to overcome more of our blindness to one another and to the problems we share. Will pragmatic liberal education instigate skillful and compassionate strategies – here and abroad – for addressing our most pressing challenges? My brief visit to Beijing gave me confidence that it is more than just a “folly of enthusiasm” to think that it will.

7 thoughts on “Why Liberal Education Matters — A Lecture in Beijing”

  1. My husband and I are members of the faculty at St John’s College, the Great Books school (I am part time) and are presently teaching humanities and philosophy courses in Beijing at the high school affiliated with Peking University. It is a fascinating experience. The students are hesitant to speak and sometimes frustrated at the lack of answers, but some of them are excited. It’s an enormous pleasure to see them begin to explore their own ideas. I can’t speak grandly for China, but it turns out that there are people here who take to liberal learning with joy. It’s a human thing, you know.

  2. I am a student from The Modern and The Postmodern course on Coursera. I myself have completed my primary and secondary education in mainland China (not in Beijing or Shanghai, and actually the pressure of tests is much higher in other parts of China for high school students because of fierce competition), and now I have chosen to further my study in Hong Kong. Personally, I find your topic is very interesting and inspiring, and PKU is definitely a fitting place to give the speech, for it is not only one of the top university in China, but also a place famous for its innovative or even sometimes “rebellious” people who thinking for contemporary China.
    As I know, Education has long been a heated issue in China, the intellectuals always raise questions like: how to ensure the chance of attaining education’s fair for students all around the country (that’s why we always have to take tests in standard forms)? How to train their critical thinking abilities while they have to take tests having standard answers? How to educate the “whole person”? Should more philosophy (other than Marxism) be taught in high school? Many of those questions are related to liberal education and liberal learning. Hopefully your speech have given some insights.

  3. it was very interesting for me to read your text about his lecture in Pequim.I’m brazilian and I’m trying to learn English through texs of my interest .So today it was fortunate to read your text.

  4. Thank you, Professor Roth, for allowing your online students access to your fine lecture on liberal education. I am a graduate of Agnes Scott College, one of the few remaining “women only” colleges in the US, and proud of it! As such, I support wholeheartedly your belief in the high value of the liberal education, as does my alma mater. My experience has validated your thoughts on “aversive thinking”, doubt and inquiry, and “challenging the status quo”. While my efforts to act upon what I was taught have more than once placed me in modest jeopardy, I am satisfied that these efforts were unavoidable. It is indeed heartening to hear that you were well-received in China. Your example of speaking out in a possibly unwelcoming situation is much appreciated. Again, thank you.

  5. This article is so great. I value liberal education to the utmost degree, but don’t know that I ever thought about why, and I certainly was not aware of the history of it. So, I learned a lot from this piece. I posted it on my facebook wall, amd then someone posted this video in response. I know you weren’t necessarily speaking of student-centered learning, (though it seems Jefferson was a fan of the concept), however, I think it not only qualifies as liberal education, but epitomizes it. Anyway, I thought you would be interested to see this video on a program at a high school where students design and implement their own curriculum. It’s pretty amazing! And I think it speaks to many of the ideas you present here in your writing.


  6. I think it is a fallacy that science and technology education should exclude liberal arts. Today’s New York Times Science Section is completely devoted to the discovery of Higgs Boson or the “God Particle”, perhaps the greatest discovery of this century. One leading scientist studied sculpture. His interest in ceramics leads him to study particle physics and he became a leading researcher at the CERN Super Collider. Another, the leader of one of teams, took two years off from her graduate work to study piano. Then she came back, finished her graduate work in particle physics and led one of the teams of brilliant scientists at CERN. My won background is Mathematics and Computer Science. I also had a good dose of liberal education in High School and in under graduate studies and I have benefited enormously from it. But I do fear that today’s education is too narrowly focused on enabling the student in “getting a good job”. I hope that people like you, speaking loudly can make a difference in shaping education policies in this country and around the world. Thank you.

Comments are closed.