Dialog/Learn liberally

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Learn liberally

Wherein V and R have a short dialogue on the imperative to learn liberally, commending it as the ancients did as learning in a manner worthy of a free person.

V 1 — Learn liberally?

R 2 — Yes, as a free, autonomous person, using your own judgment, making your own choices, thinking for yourself in the company of others.

V 3 — What company?

R 4 — What else but the company of others who also learn liberally, looking on their lives and lifeworld from within, speaking as they see fit? We learn liberally in a community of peers, all of whom learn liberally in interaction with one another.

V 5 — Where do I find such company?

R 6 — Don't look for it ready-made. The admissions office won't recruit it. You learn liberally by learning liberally, making choices, using your judgment, selecting a company of peers — "my exemplars who learn liberally" — and interacting with them autonomously, thinking for yourself, with them, in your unique lifeworld.

V 7 — How should I select and interact with these peers?

R 8 — That's what we try here to figure out, by(?) — that's right — by learning liberally, by working together to disclose our respective answers to these questions.

V 9 — Wait! Aren't we spinning in circles!

R 10 — Indeed, like a wheel. To move, it begins to turn, and keeps turning, round and round. Begin to turn. Think of that old cliché, "learn by doing." How can it start? Not with a lesson learned, but with an act, a doing. To learn by doing one must do, then one may learn. To start to learn liberally, one must learn liberally, act freely, make choices, use judgment, risk consequences, turn a wheel and set things in motion.

V 11 — How might I start?

R 12 — In many ways — the how is in the starting. Try picking for yourself an exemplar of learning liberally — someone who might, in your judgment, disclose what human autonomy, making choices, using judgment, thinking for oneself, entails. Make it several. Make them persons you can get close to and carry with you yet hold in mind with a certain disinterest, exemplars with a full, tangible work accessible to you, moving work — a film, painting, book, or activity with which you can commune throughout your effort to learn liberally. Ask yourself. Possess the question as yours to answer and you will have started to learn liberally.

V 13 — I'm not sure what you mean. I might pick some people, but I'm not sure each would count "as an exemplar of learning liberally."

R 14 — Ah! You miss the point. No one comes certified as an exemplar of learning liberally, but anyone you pick might or might not do so as you started to ask yourself whether and how they go about their learning. In your judgment, do they exemplify using their autonomous judgment in the process or do they rely passively on others with respect to the purpose and substance of their learning, their self-formation? You can start asserting your autonomy vis-à-vis another's example.

V 15 — OK. So I will try not to assume that others are exemplars, but rather to examine whether and why I will take someone as an exemplar of my liberal learning.

R 16 — Do you want a companion in your search for companions? Try Friedrich Nietzsche's Schopenhauer as Educator[1] and think liberally about what your choice might aim at, not to copy Nietzsche's choice, but to commune with you as you choose reflectively your own exemplars. Make the question your own — not "can I have an example?", but "is this the example I can and should use?" Remember the key: to learn liberally, begin. Begin. Begin.

V 17 — Well, should I just leap in? Will anyone or anything do?

As the Platonic daughter of Necessity said

Virtue is without master [a teacher]; each shall have more or less of her according as he honors or dishonors her. The responsibility is his who chooses.[2]

R 18 — Choosing must have a start, arbitrary and surprising, but completing your choice of exemplars won't be easy — different possibilities will beckon and many deserve consideration. And each of us has multiple sides and interests — your exemplar may prove to be several, and as the vicissitudes of life unfold, you can and should change them. Nor will hagiography help — exemplarity derives, not from idealized virtue, but from what the beholder extracts from telling examples, good, bad, and indifferent.

Rabelais' Gargantua
looks upon the Abbé of Thélème


In their Rule there was but this clause: Do what thou wilt, because ... persons who are free, well-born, well-bred, conversant in honest company, have by nature an instinct and spur, which always prompts them to virtuous actions and withdraws them from vice; and this they style honour."[3]

V 19 — OK. As I start to learn liberally, what can and should I do then?

R 20 — Use your judgment. Perhaps having made our choices, recognizing that we are the ones responsible for them, we can and should explain our choices to ourselves and others. Why do you find this person and her work exemplary in a quest to learn liberally? Can you help others consider their choices as possible exemplars for them in turn? What's accessible, difficult, especially valuable, engaging, obscure, inspiring, tricky, perhaps even dangerous in communing with them? By explaining your choices, you test their exemplarity for yourself and exercise the liberality of your own learning. As many of us do that, we can build up from our responses, not a canon, not a pantheon, but a growing, diverse sampler of potential companions, informing responsible choices that others may make in starting to learn liberally.

V 21 — Sounds good. I guess I'm ready to start.

R 22 — Then let's do it and start filling the digital commons with a rich sampling of Recent voices on liberal learning. It's a start — a start. We can and should volunteer other starts as well, ones that in the judgment of others suits them better — better to set them in motion to learn liberally.

  1. Friedrich Nietzsche, Schopenhauer as Educator, in Nietzsche, Untimely Meditations (Daniel Breazeale, ed., & R. J. Hollingdale, trans., New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997) pp. 125-194.
  2. Plato, Republic 617e (R. E. Allen, trans.)
  3. Illustrtation by Gustave Doré from François Rabelais (1494?-1553), Oeuvres de Rabelais (Texte collationné sur les éditions originales avec une vie de l'auteur, des notes et un glossaire par Louis Moland. Illustrations de Gustave Doré, 2 vols., Paris: Garnier Frères, 1873). Vol. 1 Plate between 166 & 167. Get from Gallica: https://gallica.bnf.fr/ark:/12148/bpt6k1044326s?rk=21459;2. Text, slightly revised from Rabelais: The Five Books and Minor Writings, w. F. Smith, trans., (2 vols., London: Scribners, 1893), Vol. 1, p. 191. Consult at Hathi Trust: https://babel.hathitrust.org/cgi/pt?id=mdp.39015014639929;view=1up;seq=7.