The Meaning of Liberal Education

By Robert A. Scott, President, Adelphi University



What is the purpose of college? I believe undergraduate education is and must be as much about character and citizenship as about careers and commerce. In this essay, I comment on the structure of general education and give emphasis to four key elements. These four include the “liberating” aspects of general education, including: (1) a focus on history, i.e., what came before; imagination, asking “what if?”; and compassion, understanding and appreciating another’s perspective; (2) the need for an emphasis on questions more than on answers; (3) the meaning of a global education; and (4) the connections of each of the above to extra-curricular experiences and engaged citizenship.

In addition to majoring in a subject, and in order to fulfill the purpose of a university education, undergraduate students must learn about and consider the natural world of air, water, and soil we meet upon birth; the world we make, including literature, history, business, architecture, and manufacturing; and the means by which we mediate between the world we meet and the world we make, including philosophy, ethics, religion, psychology, and stories of compassion. This is advanced education, a transformational experience of questions, not training focused on answers. This is the foundation of an education which liberates students from their provincial origins, no matter their background.

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