A Liberal Education is a Self-Reflexive Education: Defining the Liberal Arts

Many terms are thrown around to define a liberal education. The most common one, I’ve found—at least within universities—is to contrast the “artes liberales” (the liberal arts, or those studies done for their own sake) with the “artes serviles” (‘servile’ arts, or those done out of necessity), as Rome passed the distinction down to us.

I don’t think that definition does much good, and in many cases it might be actively harmful. The single greatest contributor to the education that students receive and which faculty aim to impart is the way that our education is described and discussed; this, because when so many ends of an education are presented to us, we will gravitate towards those talked about most often. So when we define liberal education with reference to that liberal-servile dichotomy, we introduce all sorts of out-dated and anachronistic implications for education today—not least the idea that liberal arts students should not ‘taint’ themselves with ‘worldly’ or ‘servile’ concerns. This definition for the most part simply does not apply to liberal education in the twenty-first century.

The other common definition given is in some ways the opposite of the liberal-servile distinction, and it is to talk about some unique characteristics of liberal arts colleges: “small class sizes”, “residential colleges”, “learning how to think”, “breadth and depth”, and so on. In some ways this definition works, because it does conjure in our minds the idea of what makes a liberal arts college distinct to large research universities, for instance. But on the whole the definition is useless, because it gives students nothing to aim at in our education, and gives faculty nothing to impart: a liberal education is simply defined, here, by institutional structures. Even more than that, the definition is time-limited and in many cases geographically limited too—not all of these aspects are unique to a liberal education. They are by and large the distinct aspects of American liberal arts colleges from the mid twentieth century to the present day.

So where are we left? Is liberal education left forever in the realm of the undefinable, with every new book presenting a different definition? Besides, would clarity through a neat definition reduce what liberal education could mean to different students, somehow limiting us?

A Self-Reflexive Education

I’ve come to define a liberal education as a self-reflexive education. Self-reflexivity is, to my mind, the heart of a liberal education, its feature that is both timeless and common to all countries’ traditions and institutional structures (it shows, too, how a liberal education does not require an institution to be achieved). It is a definition that works not by negating other forms of education, as in the liberal-servile distinction, and nor does it refer to specificities of a liberal arts college in its definition. Here, liberal education is separated from the liberal arts and liberal arts colleges; and, most importantly, understanding liberal education as a self-reflexive education gives students and educators alike something to aim at—it gives us a bigger picture, a bird’s-eye view of ourselves even while we are in the midst of our education.

What does self-reflexivity really mean in relation to a liberal education? What makes a liberal education unique is that one has the freedom to critique and question one’s education even while in the middle of it. Instead of a unidirectional transfer of knowledge, liberal education always has a cycle embedded within, whereby students try to understand what we are learning from broader systems and structures, even if that means questioning and trying to understand the very system of education of which we are a part. It could mean something as small as discussing with a professor a given book or reading to understand its broader context (in which case one is self-reflexive about what else there is to learn and understand); or, at its broadest level, it might mean reading and writing intensely on education itself, seeking to understand what structures shape our education as a whole.

The latter aspect of the self-reflexivity of a liberal education can be seen clearly at almost all liberal arts colleges by the fact that the educational institution itself is one of the most frequent topics of conversation among students and faculty. In my experience, we students always want to see and understand clearly the institution of which we are a part, and then quite often to change it, which means we believe in the power to change the circumstances of our own education. This is the self-reflexivity in action: seeing education at its broadest level, and attempting to see one’s present situation within it—and then, quite often, setting out to alter that situation in order to improve what we’re learning and, ultimately, to improve ourselves.

For Example

Taking rigorous notes in a seminar or a lecture, going away later to study them and then remembering them during an exam is not a liberal education. Reflecting on why we have lectures, seminars and exams, how they help us to learn, and what other systems we might have is a liberal education.

Reading a book because a professor assigned it is not a liberal education. Asking why your professor assigned it, and what else they might have assigned instead, is.

Criticising your professor or your university for assigning a given book (perhaps one that reinforces old or dangerous stereotypes) is not a liberal education. Discussing openly in class the value and harms of reading and discussing such a book is.

Writing an essay that you don’t want to write for no other reason than that the syllabus says you need to is not a liberal education. Talking to your professor about what essay you do want to write, and why you should be allowed to write it, is fit for a liberal education.

Thinking your education ends when you graduate may indeed mean you have had an education, but it doesn’t mean you’ve had a liberal education. You’ve only had a liberal education when your high school and college years are seen as the foundations of a life of learning. (Yale’s famous report of 1828 put this: “The Object is not to finish (the student’s) education, but to lay the foundation and to advance as far in rearing the superstructure as the short period of (their) residence here will admit.”

A Metaphor for the Self-Reflexivity of Liberal Education

Las Meninas Liberal Education Self-Reflexive Education

In the first ever lecture I attended at Yale-NUS College (a lecture itself on the nature of a liberal education, during orientation week) my professor spoke about Velásquez’ painting Las Meninas. Typically of an education, four years on I now feel the description was largely lost on me at the time. But it must have done some good to still remain with me now. I remember Professor Rajeev Patke speaking about Modernity, and the rise of self-reflexivity in art and literature: the focus, in Velásquez seventeenth century, gradually moved away from faithful representation of the world as we see it and towards representation of subjective experience. In Las Meninas, Velásquez depicts himself standing before a large canvas which he is painting, but we cannot see what he is depicting; to the figure’s right is a mirror upon the wall, which reflects two figures (themselves outside the scene depicted). Las Meninas becomes an image of self-reflexivity: the painter stands both within and without the canvas he is painting; he gazes forward at his work as his hand creates it, but upon seeing himself reflected there is led to an inevitable and a perpetual reflection about the very nature of the activity he is engaged in. Much like an education—and especially like the process of a liberal education.

But why then should you pursue a liberal education?

The definition of a liberal education as a self-reflexive education should by now hopefully be clear, but the question remains: why should you pursue it?

You should pursue a liberal education because it provides you with, to use the Yale report’s term, the “superstructure” of lifelong learning. It furnishes you with the “discipline and furniture” of the mind, so that almost nothing throughout life is beyond your intellectual powers. It gives you the freedom to know you can come to know everything, most of all yourself.

You should pursue a liberal education because it allows you to understand not just any one thing, but rather what is common to all things. It gives you a bird’s eye view from which to see the world and any activity you’re engaged in.

Pragmatically, it changes your time at high school or university. When you have the mindset of seeking a liberal education, there are very few things you must do. Rather, you start to see how you can twist every assignment and every class to get exactly what you feel you need out of them.

Far from seeing your education as something to get through, when you pursue a liberal education you start to see your education as something enabling you to get to something else. Your four years at college or university are just the beginning of a life of being able to learn anything and everything you want to learn.

Should I mention grades? Well, only to say that it will likely do your grades no harm to be reflexive about your education and to go about it as an adventure. Professors surely prefer to teach students who are engaged and who know what they want to learn, students who write essays not because they have to write them but because there are ideas they want to test and to figure out.

Do you need to go to a liberal arts college to get a liberal education?

In short: no. I maintain that you can get a liberal education from within any institution, or even through self-learning alone. What matters is merely that you desire an education, and that you are self-reflective about the process of going about it, seeking always what you know you need to get out of it.

But, in saying that, I firmly believe going to a liberal arts college will make it much easier, and will offer aspects of an education that you simply cannot gain elsewhere. A professor who has helped me more than anyone else to understand the nature of a liberal education describes the experience of being at a liberal arts college by using Emile Durkheim’s term: “collective effervescence”. The experience of being in a “living and learning community” with hundreds of other students and professors all committed to exactly the same end is unlike anything else. You’ve all read the same key books, so can discuss with anyone, during any mealtime, any idea you happen to be thinking about. And, if you’re all equally self-reflexive about your education, a depth of insight is enabled. There’s an emotional and an intellectual seriousness which I believe comes from being a part of such a living and learning community.

Why the definition matters

Does the definition of a liberal education as a self-reflexive education merely restrict what an education could be? Might it hinder more than it helps, or might it miss too many facets of a liberal education to prove useful?

I believe the definition is valuable because it restores education to being about the individual. If a liberal education is a self-reflexive education then, by definition, only you can get yourself an education, and only I can get myself one. The definition allows us to escape whatever we might dislike about the institution of which we are a part, and to escape even many of the outdated strictures of national education systems which encourage mindless conformity more than anything else. It makes an education all about us, as individuals: and it pushes us to continually challenge ourselves, seeking always a deeper and a greater understanding of our own lives and the world around us. A self-reflexive education is, after all, one that encourages above all the Greek dictum to “know thyself”.

The definition does a number of other valuable things, such as:

  • Avoiding reductive dichotomies between a ‘worldly’ education for your career, and one for self-cultivation, for your inner life. If a liberal education is a self-reflexive education then what matters more than whether what you learn serves your career or your soul is whether you are reflective about what you’re wanting out of your education, and how there might be other ends to it.
  • It links us back in a long tradition to most of the key philosophers and theorists of education: to Plato, to Cicero, to Augustine, to Kongzi and Ibn Tufayl, to Newman and Mill, Humboldt and Dewey. Not all of these thinkers wrote about ‘liberal education’, but they did all deal with how we can understand the process of education, its ends, and how we can pursue it.
  • It gives us a means of determining the kinds of activities within an education that are appropriate to the kind of education called ‘liberal’. For instance, pure training in a skill or a book is not appropriate to a liberal education unless it reflects on the ends of learning that skill or reading that book. Merely rote-learning for an exam may have educational value, but unless we are reflexive about that process as part of our education, it doesn’t have value as a liberal education.

Implications of a self-reflexive education

Most of all, understanding a liberal education as a self-reflexive education allows us to ignore those aspects of our education done for tradition and institutional requirements alone, and to restore the focus to our own individual experience of an education. Nothing matters but this: that we get out of our education what we need. This applies both to students, and to educators.

Should institutions choose to adopt this understanding of liberal education I believe it would provide much-needed clarity on what ends, subjects, and activities are appropriate to such an education. It may also give, at a time when liberal education’s value is often questioned, a way of responding to critics by escaping dangerous dichotomies like the liberal-servile one.

But ultimately, understanding the self-reflexivity of a liberal education is about you and me, and our own place within an educational institution. Whatever the institution does or does not do then matters far less in the process of getting out of an education what we need from it.

Author: mmoorejones

New Zealander and Philosophy, Politics and Economics student at Yale-NUS College.