American Liberal Arts Blog

Teaching the Liberal Arts in the American Context
What Constitutes an Educated Person?
By Gerson Moreno-Riano, July 31, 2008 in Uncategorized

In a recent comment to my post, Lee suggested that the question posed above serve as a possible topic of discussion prior to any discourse regarding general education requirements. The following, then, are some general thoughts through which to begin this discussion.

I like to think of education in light of Plato's Allegory of the Cave. It involves leadership (something well within the mission of the LASC) as well as leading students out of a certain place to another place. In the language of the Allegory, someone must lead others out of shadows and delusions toward truth and light.

An educated person thus involves a number of prerequisites: s/he must have been led by someone else. Ideally, s/he must have been led by a more advanced knower and hopefully, in the words of Leo Strauss, by a great mind or teacher. This also implies willing submission to the tutelage of one's teachers and intellectual leaders. Thus, an educated person must be teachable, humble, and open to instruction and persuasion. Perhaps I can reorganize these prerequisites as follows:

An educated person must contain the following:

  1. A persuasive leader (teacher/great mind)
  2. A teachable intellect and character
  3. A recognition that s/he must leave a particular place of being and journey toward a higher place of being (the assent of the soul)

I am arguing that an educated person must possess these three characteristics as a starting point. There are other things that can be added to this list. But, I argue, this are the beginning foundations.

Before I add to this, what suggestion do any readers of this blog have? Are these three foundations for education essential? Are there other things we should add to the foundations block?

Tags: Education

David Kidd on Aug 2, 2008 at 10:29 am

I think one can easily grant the first two requirements you mention -- (1) a teacher and (2) the capacity to learn -- but the third is more problematic. Isn't awakening the desire for knowledge, for transcendence, the end of education rather than it's beginning? Plato, at any rate, doesn't seem to take it for granted. Remember, the prisoner has to be dragged out of the cave.

Lee Trepanier on Aug 3, 2008 at 2:10 pm

I don't want to speak for Gerson, but it seems to be that the third characteristic he lists, i.e., the recognition to leave a certain place in order to go to somewhere else, could be reference either to a student's eros or Socratic aporia. If it is the former case, then I would agree with Gerson that this is a foundational requirement for a liberally-educated person. However, if the reference is to aporia, I would agree with David, with some slight modification. The recognition that what you had known rests upon opinion instead of knowledge and that, in the end, you really don't know anything is the first necessary step of education but not the end. The ultimate end of education is knowledge, even though Socrates claims that he never possessed any.

Phil Hamilton on Aug 5, 2008 at 9:54 pm

I agree with Gerson's list of 3 foundational traits of a truly educated person (although I agree with David that awakening the desire for knowledge is crucial). All three, I think, are absolutely essential if an individual is to be considered truly well-educated.

I know where I teach, the general education curriculum ideally seeks to engender these traits within students. However, one thing about core requirements generally at colleges is that the underlying reasons for them are rarely articulated to students in a clear, compelling, and accessible manner. Of course, many faculty members likely cannot clearly articulate what their institution's gen ed requirements are ideally supposed to accomplish. But I think it essential to be able to explain to students what an educated person is and how these traits will tangibly improve the quality of one's life.

At the institutions where you all teach, is there an ongoing dialogue among faculty and administrators about this very question -- what constitutes a truly educated person? Furthermore, how is your gen ed program explained to incoming students?

Lee Trepanier on Aug 6, 2008 at 1:34 pm

I used to organize a reading group of faculty across disciplines that met once a month to discuss this very issue: faculty members would rotate in the selection of the essays we had to read. It eventually fell apart, primarily due to a lack of interest, so I guess that answers your question about any chance of dialogue among faculty members.

Strangely, the administrators have incorporated a presentation on the purpose and need of genereal education to incoming freshmen (I volunteered but ultimatley was not invited to participate in this program). To be honest, I'm not very hopeful. My hunch is that the presentation will be an appeal to self-interest and utilitarianism, e.g., these are the skills you need to develop to become suceessful in the marketplace.

Besides Gerson's three characteristics, I would add the understanding that liberal education is the study of a discipline for its own sake and not for economic, political, or any reason outside of an innate curiosity of the subject. This may not be apparent to the student initially, but, hopefully over time, the student realizes that almost any subject could be studied liberally.

Phil Hamilton on Aug 6, 2008 at 9:51 pm

Where I teach there is a presentation to freshmen students on the general education program. I haven't participated in it, but the feedback I hear from students about it indicates that much of it is theoretical and goes over their heads.

In some ways, I disagree with Lee about not appealing to student's self-interest. It is a rare freshman indeed who pursues knowledge for its own sake. When a student comes into my office thinking about majoring in history, they often bemoan that they “love” the discipline, but they "don't know what they can do with it.” Thus I freely stress the practical skills they gain from a study of history. My reasons are two-fold: first, I think students really do gain certain “marketable” skills (writing, speaking, analytical skills); secondly, once students understand that they can gain such “practical” skills by studying history (or any discipline within the liberal arts), it basically gives them "permission" to pursue knowledge for its own sake.

Among our faculty, however, we don't really dialogue much about what constitutes a liberal education and/or a truly educated person. Too often, the press of daily responsibilities overwhelms our desire to think and discuss issues in a reflective way. Our provost, however, has recently mentioned the possibility of organizing and leading a reading group among the faculty to discuss these things. I certainly hope it happens.

Lee Trepanier on Aug 8, 2008 at 1:20 pm

I agree with Phil that an appeal to a student's self-interest is required and necessary for the initial phrases of liberal education; however, I believe that the ultimate end, or one of the ultimate ends, should be the study of a subject for its own sake. Initial appeals to self-interest, usually about marketable skills, is essential for those who teach in the humanities, because students have been socialized to see education in strictly utilitarian terms. Even those who may want to study the humanities for their own sake will be required to justify their pursuit in utilitarian terms to their parents, peers, and so on. The demands of the marketplace is certainly one of the biggest obstacle to liberal education, even for those who may secretly desire it.

Phil Hamilton on Aug 8, 2008 at 1:59 pm

I agree fully with Lee's last post. I especially find that parents, even those who spend enormous amounts of money sending their children to liberal arts colleges, see education largely in utilitarian terms. And what sometimes happens is that students wishing to switch their majors will sometimes come to me and ask how to overcome this obstacle (i.e., they want to switch from business admin to history, but they don't know how to break it to their parents). In essence, occasionally the student will have a much better understanding on the true purpose of education than the parent.

Lee Trepanier on Aug 10, 2008 at 3:09 pm

It is interesting to note that the desire to learn apart from utiltarian considerations seems to be innate to our human condition. Given a typical student's socialization from their parents and peers to the mass media and educational system, some students truly desire to learn for liberal reasons rather than utilitarian ones.

about the author

Gerson Moreno-Riano
Gerson Moreno-Riano

Gerson Moreno-Riano has been appointed as Dean of the School of Undergraduate Studies at Regent University.  He is also an associate professor of government at Regent.  He has been at Regent since 2006.

Moreno-Riano's latest publications include the co-authored The Prospect of Internet Democracy (Ashgate, 2009) and the edited volume The World of Marsilius of Padua (Brepols, 2007).  He is currently at work on two commissioned projects: 1) a companion to Marsilius of Padua and 2) organizational evil in the modern era.