The Fruit of Liberal Education is the Capacity to Learn and Power

Charles William Eliot is quoted as saying that, “The fruit of liberal education is not learning, but the capacity and desire to learn, not knowledge, but power.” I don’t have the full context for the quote, which can be problematic, but we can still use this as a tool for reflecting on the role of education more broadly, and the liberal arts more specifically.

Eliot argued that what results from a good education is not (in modern language) simply meeting learning outcomes or evidence of mastery of a new body of knowledge. We are changed by a deep and substantive exploration of great ideas from the past and present. We benefit from participating in the long and grand conversation about persistent themes and questions of humanity. What is real? What is truth? What is the nature of humanity? What is good? What is right and wrong? What is beautiful? What can we learn from history? What is the purpose of life and how do people find meaning in life? What is the nature of death?

These are not just questions for a few elite groups of people? Whether we explore them in the great classics of the Western or Eastern world, almost everyone asks and seeks answers to these questions at some point in their lives. They represent individual and collective yearnings and musings as far back as we are able to track human history.

When a person develops a deepened and nuanced exploration of these questions, it not only offers knowledge. It also gives that person a sort of power. There are many working definitions of power, but many of them include an ability to influence the people and world around us. An automobile that has power is able to propel it forward, covering countless miles and taking people on adventures to distant locations. A device with power seems to come to life, making things possible for the user that are not without it. A mobile phone without power is just a paper weight.

Similarly, the liberal arts, at their best, help people to not only develop knowledge, but to develop a wisdom that prepares them to lead and influence themselves and others. How can exploring these philosophical questions empower people? Much of humanity is a conscious or unconscious search for answers about or struggle with the types of questions that I mentioned before. This is true across people from different walks of life: the scientist seeking to discover truth; the medical researcher seeking truths that bring about good for others; the artist or filmmakers who seeks to explore truth, beauty, and goodness; the athlete pursuing greatness or excellence; the solider fighting for what he or she deems noble and worthy of sacrifice; or the parent grappling with how to raise children well.

We spend our lives in ways that are shaped and fueled by the great questions of the past and present. When we take the time to learn from those who came before us, we find ourselves able to build upon those ideas, deviate from them, or to known when we are adding something new to the conversation. In doing so, we are joining in an age-old narrative about life, truth, goodness, and beauty.

The liberal arts are not just about knowledge. They are also about power. Frederick Douglas wrote, “Once you learn to read, you will be forever free.” This is not to discount real and institutional barriers to freedom, but just as reading gives one access to great ideas, a study and exploration of these great ideas gives one the capacity to think and communicate ideas that are solid, lasting, and impactful.

None of this is a defense of dry and disconnected learning environments that bemoan new models and innovations in education. I am certainly not claiming that we should force more people through a long list of prescribed core courses in high school and college.  I am simply posing a couple of questions. In this connected age of education, this era of unprecedented experimentation and innovation, what does it look like for us to create spaces where people can value and explore the great questions of the past and present amid many forms of education and learning throughout life? In doing so, how does this contribute to our thinking about power in education and society?