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To learn liberally

We say little here about the liberal arts, a hackneyed topic among academics. We say little except to observe that people have associated the liberal arts historically with skills important in forming and expressing one's thinking autonomously in a community of peers. Those skills are important. But "a liberal arts education" is only one of many ways to acquire them, one that all-too-often does not succeed.

It's been an old problem. In seeking to express and realize our capacities for free, self-directed activity, we make fetishes of arts that we believe will help to form and manifest our autonomous possibilities. But will passive pupils, inert students be made free and autonomous by those luminous arts? Not likely. The autonomy of each person does not derive from the art; rather, the liberality of the art derives from the intentions with which the autonomous person pursues them. Without going into a long reflection about the liberality of liberal learning, let’s simply say that our personal efforts to express our own ideas and aspirations, to transcend our habitual routines, and to develop our chosen possibilities, spur our efforts to learn liberally.

Culture that is illiberal derives from activities that we do not undertake in an effort at self-transcendence, but rather with intentions that suit our static, routine, everyday needs and expectations. We should not stigmatize the distinction between liberal and illiberal pursuits as invidious one — everyone has banal needs and pleasures, and everyone has possibilities for self-transcendence. Each person must strike a balance between both forms of activity in their lives.

Are we striking a sound balance between liberal and illiberal pursuits in conducting our personal and public lives? That's an important question, here on A Place to Study, but one that we should leave open as each person settles and resettles it for themselves. In doing that, however, let's resist the urge to make it an either-or proposition. Between the imperatives of work and the lures of consumption, we easily feel we have no time to do anything but meet the expectations pressing in upon us. One side pushes forward as reality. Self-transcendence? That's unreal.

But is it? Actually? Is it actually so in the ways we act? Do we always go along to get along in the worlds of work and public life? Do we always fill our free time with reactive choices, likes and dislikes, taking cues from the world around us? Do we, actually? Do we never slow the pace? Do we never open a little space to stop and think, to ask questions about options and reasons and significance and value? If we do, if we break the chain between cause and effect, even a little, we're not facing an either-or choice and the question of balance between passive response and active aspiration stands open. As we fill it out and consider what the balance to strike between reactive response and self-transcendence can and should be, we start to learn with the intentions that lead us to learn liberally. That's what study is about.