A Liberal Arts Education is Measured by What You Do With Your Free Time

I am reading the opening chapter of a book entitled, Liberal Arts for the Christian Life.  The editors completed this project in recognition of the work and contributions of Dr. Leland Ryken of Wheaton College.  As such, it is only proper that this edited work start with a chapter from Dr. Ryken.  The editors selected one of his well-known messages/essays entitled, “The Student’s Calling.”  Below are two quotes from that chapter that will be the focus of my reflection.

“May I add that such an education is possible only as you realize that all education is ultimately self-education. Education is learning, and someone else cannot learn for you.  The most perfect educational climate in the world will note make you an educated person. Moreover, an adequate education does not stop after one’s college years. To be generously educated is to have acquired the lifelong habit of self-education.”

“And what are the private roles of life for which an education should prepare you? They include being a good friend and colleague, and a good spouse or parent. And they include the most private world of all-the inner world of the mind and imagination. One of the best tests of whether people are liberally educated is what they do with their free time.”

In the first quote, Dr. Ryken points out what is, with a little reflection, self-evident.  One person cannot get educated for another.  Individual thought and action are both essential attributes of an education.  This simple truth is much of what drives my persistent promotion of self-directed learning as an important part of a well-rounded education. Dr. Ryken uses the phrase “self-education” and that is distinct from self-directed learning.  The phrase “self-directed learning” carries with it the notion of learner as an active agent in determining the curriculum, the method, the timing, and much more.  Advocates of a liberal arts undergraduate education (I am one of them) do not typically argue for self-direction throughout one’s undergraduate studies.  Instead, certain “paths” are selected by professors, providing an informed tour of great ideas. Yes, as pointed out by Dr. Ryken, the end goal is that the learner will, at some point, go on intellectual journeys without the aid of a tour guide, and without the prodding of another.

This leads us to wonder about what sort of learning experiences are most helpful in assisting one toward the capacity for self-education.  Out of this comes a long history of academic wars about what should constitute the general education part of a student’s undergraduate studies. Some argue that self-education is best learned by doing it with a little help on the side.  Others argue that it is best achieved with careful and calculated guidance from a faculty while providing at least a few opportunities for learners to take more personal direction for the study, often in the form of projects, essays, and research papers. I lean toward the camp that advocates for a smaller but significant core/common set of learning experiences surrounded by ample room for students choice.

I am intrigued by the potentially provocative statement that, “One of the best tests of whether people are liberally educated is what they do with their free time.”  Ryken was wise not to go into too much detail, providing a long list of explicit examples of what constitutes the leisure time of a liberally educated person.  Such a list would most likely smell of judgement and legalism, but we might be able to avoid those attributes while speculating more generally.  For example, perhaps he was thinking of the idea that a liberally educated person is likely to find respite in activities surrounding the exploration and creation of truth, beauty and goodness.  Such activities take on any number of contemporary or traditional possibilities while grounding them in a liberal arts approach to life and learning.

This quote about the use of one’s free time is also effective in pointing out that the purpose of a liberal arts education extends beyond preparation for a job.  If I work 50 hours a week and sleep between 7 and 9 hours a day, that still leaves me with more than 60 hours a week of life beyond sleep and work.  How does one choose to spend that time and how does one’s education (which never ends) impact the what and how of one’s free time? How does one’s formative educational experiences impact the use of free time?



Posted in blog, editorials, education, philosophy of education

About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.