The purpose of a liberal education

Well, it finally happened. I should have expected it. In fact, I did but the timing surprised me. Teaching a class called “Cultural Anthropology and Human Diversity” to roughly 800 students, I knew a moment would come when one, or some of them, would feel so uncomfortable that they’d complain about it. It didn’t happened when I introduced them to Marx and discussed social and economic inequalities. It didn’t happen when we talked about gender and sexuality. They didn’t even react too strongly when I forced them to face their own white privilege. No, the topic that put at least one of them over the edge was immigration. Apparently, pointing out that the political rhetoric of those who demand ever more deportations and the militarization of the border is fueled by nationalist and xenophobic sentiments rather than actual economic pressures was simply too much for at least one of my students who then felt the need to write a formal complaint about me. Fine.

The incident wouldn’t be worth lingering over if it hadn’t encouraged me to think about the purpose of what I do. In an age when both our students and our politicians want us, university faculty, to provide practical professional training, I continue to believe in the virtues of a liberal education that helps our students become independent thinkers, creative spirits, and engaged citizens. These are qualities that the humanities and social sciences can foster.

A colleague of mine directed me to this fantastic essay by historian Bill Cronon, one of our most illustrious colleagues on the UW campus. Rather than summarizing Prof. Cronon’s excellent points here, I invite you to read this short text for yourself. I hope that it will inspire you just like it inspired me to continue using our classrooms to encourage curiosity, tolerance, as well as personal and civic engagement.

4 thoughts on “The purpose of a liberal education

  1. Interesting.

    We students have been able to learn much about your values and political opinions in your class. Just make sure to realize that a “liberal education” may create opinions and beliefs other than your own. Independent thought is not cultivated through bias. Your success as an instructor is to teach us how to think for ourselves, not persuade us to agree with you.
    Is the ability to defend one’s own opinon still encouraged in the academic world?

    This was the sole disappointment of being your student.

    • Absolutely: I do encourage you to think for yourself. That also means that you have to be able to judge analyses on their own merits, not on whether or not you agree with them. If you would like to have a conversation about any of the topics covered in my class, I invite you to stop by my office and speak to me in person rather than troll my blog anonymously. I, for one, would welcome the opportunity to learn what material it was that I presented and you considered to be a matter of opinion. But this is not the right forum for this conversation. Have the courage of your own opinions and come talk to me in person.

      • Troll?

        This is moderated. If you wanted my comment gone, you could delete it. That being said, I appreciate the response.

        I’ll consider contacting you directly about my concerns after grades are final. No attack on your grading credibility, just my own concern.

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