What does it mean to be a liberally educated person? It seems such a simple question,
especially given the frequency with which colleges and universities genuflect toward this well- worn phrase as the central icon of their institutional missions. Mantra-like, the words are endlessly repeated, starting in the glossy admissions brochures that high school students receive by the hundreds in their mailboxes and continuing right down to the last tired invocations they hear on commencement day. It would be surprising indeed if the phrase did not begin to sound at least a little empty after so much repetition, and surely undergraduates can be forgiven if they eventually regard liberal education as either a marketing ploy or a shibboleth. Yet many of us continue to place great stock in these words, believing them to describe one of the ultimate goods that a college or university should serve. So what exactly do we mean by liberal education, and why do we care so much about it?
In speaking of “liberal” education, we certainly do not mean an education that indoctrinates students in the values of political liberalism, at least not in the most obvious sense of the latter phrase. Rather, we use these words to describe an educational tradition that celebrates and nurtures human freedom. These days liberal and liberty have become words so mired in controversy, embraced and reviled as they have been by the far ends of the political spectrum, that we scarcely know how to use them without turning them into slogans—but they can hardly be separated from this educational tradition. Liberal derives from the Latin liberalis, meaning “of or relating to the liberal arts,” which in turn derives from the Latin word liber, meaning “free.” But the word actually has much deeper roots, being akin to the Old English word leodan, meaning “to grow,” and leod, meaning “people.” It is also related to the Greek word eleutheros, meaning “free,” and goes all the way back to the Sanskrit word rodhati, meaning “one climbs,” “one grows.” Freedom and growth: here, surely, are values that lie at the very core of what we mean when we speak of a liberal education.