AUTHOR: WILLIAM CRONON
TITLE: "Only Connect .
..": The Goals of a Liberal Education
SOURCE: The American Scholar 67 no4 73-80 Aut '98
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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.
Liberal education is built on these values: it aspires to nurture the growth of human talent in
the service of human freedom. So one very simple answer to my question is that liberally
educated people have been liberated by their education to explore and fulfill the promise of their
own highest talents. But what might an education for human freedom actually look like? There's
the rub. Our current culture wars, our struggles over educational standards are all ultimately
about the concrete embodiment of abstract values like "freedom" and "growth" in actual courses