I know it’s a red flag word to rouse the ire of some people, but the word liberal does not necessarily designate a political point of view, although that’s the most often misunderstood meaning of the word. One can hear the disdain, even hostility, when the word liberal is heard over certain talk radio shows, as if liberals want to take away guns, freedom, morality, and your very life.
The modern usage of the word comes from the Latin, liber, which means free. A liberal is someone who believes in personal and societal freedom, just the opposite of what radio personalities mean when they hiss and scowl at liberals. The older meaning of the word is one I think makes more sense to me: liberal means generous. A liberal using this understanding is a generous person. A liberal society is a generous one, seeking to share struggles and resources, hoping that everyone rises to the top. It’s a philosophy that seeks to practice the golden rule and not just talk about it–not to divide people into camps or parties or classes or ethnic groups.
But the sense in which I find it important to use the word liberal is in educational circles when we talk about a liberal education. A liberal education educates the whole person, not just for a job, but for a life. The models for a liberal education are rooted in the Western tradition, from the schools of Plato and Aristotle in ancient Greece. There, a liberal arts education includes body, mind, and spirit. Students were expected to study the sciences and humanities, and to learn a trade. They were expected to have a broad and deep liberal arts learning both to equip students to enter the work force but just as important to be productive citizens in the polis or city. Remember the seeds of democracy were planted in early Greece where citizens were expected to be informed.
These days we seem to be downplaying the critical role of the liberal arts in education and it will cost us dearly in having less informed citizens who might also be parents. I would argue that the problem with some growing trends in higher education is that they are neither liberal nor educated. It is not enough to teach a trade for which one has a sure job unless one also provides the learner with skills for living. The old schools of liberal arts taught about the history of the city state, what it met to be a citizen, and how best to live.
The lack of a genuine liberal arts education for every citizen will end up hurting the republic in which they live and the families and neighborhoods they exist within. If you doubt this, just listen to talk radio shows or read most newspapers or watch television. The lack of civil discourse, of learning to listen to views different from your own with genuine respect, is deafening. And without real discourse, there will be continuing political skirmishes and national shouting matches, and gridlock and little positive change.