Grazing - a personal blog from Steve Ehrmann

Steve Ehrmann is an author, speaker, and consultant.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

What is Liberal Learning? (No, really...)

This is the third in a series of posts about my own deepening understanding of liberal learning.   The first summarized a talk by Michael Roth on the values of liberal education and the second speculated about why it had taken me so long to learn to see the beauty in an equation

Eric Liu, author of A Chinaman’s Chance, opened a door for me in his recent keynote at AAC&U when he talked about a "virus" that's loose in the world. Liu described the virus as a passionate belief that there is only one correct, virtuous way to see and to act in the world. Folks with this virus believe that something is inferior or wrong about people with any other view. This virus can be a belief in the primacy of one's country of birth, one's skin color, religion, or ideology (for example, the passionate belief that the world can be totally understood and improved by paying attention only to market forces).

Liberal learning, asserted Liu, is the antidote to this virus. Liberally educated people:
  • Understand their worlds from varied and conflicting perspectives, as economics and as ecology, as a balance of power and also as the sum of its accidents and also as the result of individual decisions.
  • Realize that all their options are, to some extent, imperfect and subject to criticism and opposition. Nonetheless, they are intellectually and emotionally prepared to use evidence, to act, and to live with the consequences.
  • Can use evidence and reason to question accepted truth. I know from a variety of perspectives and from many sources of evidence that this way of seeing the world, and acting in the world, doesn't come quickly or easily. 

In fact, liberal learning is the toughest and most time-consuming part:
  1. of effective education for work,
  2. of education to be an effective citizen, and
  3. of education that enables you to transform yourself.

All three of those goals are important.

But my caution light goes on whenever I hear people who simply advocate higher education for work. Period. Without a liberating education, those employed graduates will only be able to do the job the way others do it. They won't have the ability to question accepted wisdom, to bring others around to their novel point of view, and to change what's done, or how it's done. And they won't be prepared to change jobs or careers (without going back to school for a different form of training).

That was Liu's point: training people for a specific job is not enough to assure a healthy democracy because effective citizens need to question their way past slogans and opinion leaders. It's not enough in a society that values innovation. It's not enough to help someone become (perhaps somewhat to their surprise) into a different person (I entered college at 18 with life-long desire to be an engineer and graduated as someone who looks a lot more like the me of today, not just in career aspirations but in perceptions and capability).

Liberal learning ought to be the toughest and most valuable feature of education for jobs and professions. It needs to be the toughest and most valuable part of learning to be an effective citizen. And it is certainly the toughest and most valuable part of a college education whose graduates habitually question their own comfortable beliefs and perceptions.

Perhaps the most important challenge to champions of higher education is to figure out more affordable ways of strengthening the heart of liberal learning.


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. Steve, I've written a few blog postings about general education over the past few years. One seems to hit at what you are saying. It looks at two 20th century innovators: Robert Maynard Hutchins and John Dewey. Here is a link:

  3. Steve, you make a good case for the impact of liberal education on readiness to engage with innovation. We would have an even stronger case if our own faculty champions for liberal education were in more obviously in the forefront in adopting innovations in our teaching and learning environment. Hard to convince students about this aspect of the value of liberal education if they don't perceive us as practicing what we preach...?