The ultimate goal of liberal education is development of moral character through a disciplined approach of generalized study that enables students to think critically, to form arguments concisely, and to present those arguments with clarity. When this type of education is pursued, students learn how to learn, developing a natural curiosity that leads to a lifelong love of the process of learning. This natural sense of intellectual curiosity produces individuals interested in the world around them who wish to contribute to the betterment of society, constantly seeking ways to apply those skills in practical applications and to improve things instead of simply accepting the status quo.
As a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College whose program of study is based on the Great Books, I devoted four years of my life to this invaluable education. During those years of study, I was challenged to learn in ways different from the traditional methods to which I had been accustomed. Rote memorization was not necessary for any of the subject matter because classes were conducted in seminar format using dialogue (the Socratic Method) throughout the entire session. The Great Books were always front and center; any thought or insight one ventured to propose during class needed a citation to support it. Without that citation, one’s argument was deemed weak and without merit.
Although excited at the time by the opportunity to study the original works of the greatest minds of Western Civilization, graduation finally arrived and a new reality set in. I understood the why of many things but did not have the technical training for any specific job. It dawned on me that my liberal education was not immediately useful. I needed a more technical degree to find a way to earn a living and to make a life for myself.
When I discussed my course of study at Claremont Graduate University with the Dean of Mathematical Sciences the following semester, I realized that I was unable to compute mathematical problems in higher-level math classes as quickly as others were and was in well over my head. I had spent the past four years reading about math in theory, not solving hundreds of practical application problems during a timed test. I needed to close the gap between what I had learned and what I needed to know in order to survive this program.
It was my liberal education that gave me the courage to tell that Dean that although I had qualified to be a student in that program and was now discovering I did not have the prerequisites to be there, I needed to graduate. I had no intention of quitting. I wanted to prove to myself that I had not wasted my years at Thomas Aquinas College. I had honed my reading, writing, and critical thinking skills during those four years and had acquired habits that enabled me to put aside the fear of failure and focus on the possibilities of success.
Since my opportunity for a liberal arts education did not present itself until I was already in college, I can only imagine the impact on my life should I have experienced that type of learning and teaching from the beginning at the elementary level. So much of the experiences during our childhood and teenage years affect the way we later view ourselves and our world. Having said that, the opportunity for a liberal arts education – for teenagers especially – provides a solid foundation for developing sound principles by which to live. Typical teenage behavior includes a desire to develop one’s individuality and to experiment with independence, usually separating oneself little by little from one’s immediate family. Teenagers experience increasingly higher doses of peer pressure at this stage of life and sometimes choose the wrong paths for themselves without realizing the possible long-term and often irreversible negative effects of those choices.
Yet, in a true classical liberal education, one learns to think critically about all of the information presented. Liberal education trains its participants to make sound arguments, to use logic as the basis of forming opinions, and to understand the why of something and not simply the what. Using critical thinking methods for every decision becomes engrained in the studious individual and cannot help but become one’s nature. Learning to defend one’s intellectual views when discussing a particular reading from class against someone else’s increases confidence; similarly, learning to defend one’s social choices when discussing something from real life against someone else’s becomes easier. Liberal education helps individuals to stand out in a crowd; it does not matter what everyone else thinks because of the learned habit of being able to stand on one’s own convictions in the classroom. Thus, for teenagers especially, a liberal education provides essential critical thinking skills that assist them in addressing the unique challenges facing them.
I strongly believe the confidence that I can stand on my own and defend my personal decisions comes from the liberal education that I received. I have changed careers, chosen to earn graduate degrees more than once, and moved to another part of the country to try something new. I can handle the constant of change.
At times early in my career, I made employment choices based solely on survival. However, my career choices now are primarily about finding a way to make a long-lasting difference and enjoying what I do as well. While I have acquired the skills to work in many venues, my passion continues to be education – whether it is in a classroom or in the world. Even with my home-based business now, I am still educating individuals on other sources of creating income, of raising funds, and of changing their views of themselves by developing new skills and more confidence. I am still in a position to teach, and it excites me that I have discovered that about myself.
As I write this in a spirit of self-reflection, I have confidence that all of these life experiences are preparing me for whatever comes next in my life. I have always applied the same five-step logical process to my decision-making:
1. Seek all of the information.
2. Analyze the choices.
3. Weigh the advantages and disadvantages.
4. Examine the consequences of each decision.
5. Execute the decision without regret.
In the past, I have appealed on behalf of my patients to an insurance company, my staff to the Board of Directors, and my students to their better selves. I have tried to help my students see the better selves they can become by not allowing their previous failures in the classroom and in life to determine their future possibilities. Failure in the past does not have to mean failure in the future. However, someone must be willing to initiate a change; I have always been willing to help those I have encountered to do that. Ultimately, a liberal education is not just about reading books; it is about creating a life.