Philosophy, Ethics & Theology

From Plato to Liberal Arts ‘Education’

This article is in part an examination of the relationship between the notion of liberal education which underpins such education as that of Catholic Social Teaching (CST). Drawing upon how liberal education has goals of lifelong learning and encourages the desire for human happiness.

The preparation task is to watch and reflect on some videos on the famous ‘Plato’s allegory of the Cave’. For convenience read my article on this TedEd – Plato’s Allegory of the Cave – Alex Gendler. The question is what do you think Plato means by ‘education’, as Plato’s Allegory of the Cave is considered to be one of the earliest models of inspirations for the liberal arts education?

Firstly, a liberal arts education has many variations in its meaning, as it can refer to the study of literature, language, art and music history, philosophy, mathematics, history, psychology, and science. However, if a liberal arts education has a wide degree of possible disciplines, and interpretations ‘education’ could draw upon the education of the whole person as in the many different subjects. In order to be a well-rounded person that is worthy to be a free person, being free as in participating in civic life. The penultimate goal of a liberal-arts education is an independent learner, a person trained in the arts of learning who is thereby liberated from the necessity to depend on others to determine what is true and what is false.” (Herbener, 2002) With the aim toward providing students with a comprehensive education, that encourages a student’s personality and intellectual skills. To read more on a liberal arts education see this Mises Institute article here.

Core purposes necessary for a liberal education are the epistemic, eudemonic, and civic:

There has been, and remains, a “triad” of interrelated core purposes for liberal education: the epistemic (coming to know, discovery, and the advancing of knowledge and under-standing); the eudemonic (the fuller realization of the learner, the actualizing of the person’s potential—classically to achieve individual well-being and happiness); and the civic (the understanding that learning puts the learner in relation to what is other, to community and its diversity in the broadest sense, as well as the responsibility that comes from sustaining the community and the civic qualities that make both open inquiry and self-realization possible). (Harward, 2007)
While, the school focuses only on the epistemic, other institutions like family, church, or other experiences can provide the triad of the unique liberal education. Society should support in these institutions a condition of liberty required to encourage open inquiry, colleges and universities should support and contribute toward the body of knowledge, “to teach and discover, to serve as a positive and reinforcing context for the emotional and moral development of young adults, and to encourage greater responsibility for the common good.” (Harward, 2007) In order for students to achieve happiness and satisfaction of their developments through education and learning.
Leading on to Plato’s view of his illustration of a student emerging from the cave to show the different effects that education can have on humans. Plato’s idea of one escaping from the cave and looking back on the ignorance in views, means there should be a level of freedom of epistemic ideas as ‘education’ can be impacted, in such a case as “[tax-supported] universities are under the sway of the party in power.” (Mises in Herbener, 2002) Rational people will naturally seek the truth and knowledge, however only after a liberal education has taught them not to ignore this ability and has developed it in them, “the liberal-arts promotes a genuine division of intellectual labor, in which scholars pursue knowledge in their own areas, from facts and by methods relevant to their own subject matters, unified by a common worldview of God, man, and nature.” (Herbener, 2002) The role of universities or other formal education providers to focus on the development of the whole person, encourages this process. However, to make it distinct from any classroom taught subject it must combine classroom based learning and discussion with outside of classroom based teaching.
Where an education could be like Plato’s allegory of the cave what he thinks life is like, where the prisoners are forced to watch shadows on the wall for the majority of their lifetime. Only to emerge to a world very much different from what they had been brought up to believe. As such students themselves are expected to integrate and develop, otherwise divided by compartmentalization. Apart from such universities that try to break down these barriers, for instance the University of Notre Dame Australia and its core curriculum. If there were to be another significant improvement to the formal liberal education there must be an outside component not just bringing students together from different disciplines, but for students to seek out educational alternatives in their daily lives, as such to contribute and develop to a charity, business, or to educate others through projects. “The many students who today participate in volunteer programs may fail to take action to address the problems they seek temporarily to relieve.” (Harward, 2007) That is why liberal education must teach students to combine all of the three core principles: epistemic, eudemonic, and civic.
In order to employ their contributions to society in a way that both helps prepare students to address the desperate need for change both on a local level (soup kitchens) and on a wider scale (economic causes of poverty). “This work is complex and often difficult; however, faculty frequently find such experimentation to be among the most intellectually, emotionally, and morally satisfying dimensions of teaching—especially when they are supported culturally and institutionally.” (Harward, 2007) Whilst, concepts translate into practice the student can then advance their moral development and social action. That is, moral development being encouraged within Catholic Social Teaching engagement in the process of seeing, judging, and acting. Where “[…] action aims at the attainment of ends by the application of means, [requiring] a choice based on preference between potential ends to pursue and potential combinations of means to employ, […]” (Herbener, 2002). Education as a result must therefore be the pursuit of knowledge, self-realization, and justice.
An example of applied local and wider scale education:
Because it is good for man to live and flourish and personal property is necessary for any human action by which man can live and flourish, a person has a natural right to own his labor, natural resources that he homesteads, goods that he produces and to use his personal property in any non-aggressive way and to defend his property against aggression. (Herbener, 2002)
As one liberal education could not expect much from a student when it has failed to help them flourish beyond finishing a liberal education, whether or not one learns and becomes a great student of the liberal arts. Not all learning takes place in a classroom, a classroom only approach may not educate the whole person and leads to student disengagement, however it is both an individual responsibility of student’s attention and a teacher’s responsibility to engage students. “Students who experience engaged learning in contexts where they are expected to contribute, and where their contributions are valued, tell us of their greater satisfaction with their education, their personal choices, and their futures.” (Harward, 2007) Students should know to come to class prepared to discuss what they have learned in civic life surrounding a particular issue of discussion and then that issue can have its knowledge expanded by the group. To the extent one student becomes a teacher or even excels beyond the teachers capabilities and knowledge.
In this respect, we can develop a sense as to what education is. Education is the formation of human identity, of which we can take with us in preparation for citizenship. People are provided with opportunities and freedoms to learn from mistakes and successes. The freer one is, not just being free from the cave as the cave is a metaphor for being free from ignorance and freedom results from thinking. Everything we do is defined by intelligence and thinking. Where human action evolves around ethics, morals, and happiness. Note though education will differ throughout societies of which will expect different things. From here we can summarize that (i) Education is the formation of personal identity. (ii) Education is the formation of someone who exists in community. And (iii) Education is the formation of identity which is the basis for a person to pursue a fully lived flourishing human life.
We covered (i) and (ii) above, now (iii) shows that education is the formation of identity which is the basis for a person to pursue a fully lived flourishing human life. To be free from ignorance and to continue to develop as free in our daily life as Socrates told us an unexamined life is not a human life worth living and to expand upon this truth, advancing either epistemic, eudemonic, or civic principals as absolute from one another is not an education worthy to explain or develop human life. “The end of science is to know reality […] It is the [endeavour] to attain a mental grasp of the phenomena of the universe by a systematic arrangement of the whole body of available knowledge.” (Mises, 1949) Socrates also believed that philosophy (the love of wisdom) should be the most important pursuit in life. Are aim in life or in our role within society is about professing truth in our field (this is why professors have profess in their title), where everyone is a teacher. The premise of the lesson here is that (i) The more we learn the more self-aware we become. (ii) The more we learn the more we develop self-identity. (iii) Thinking can develop meaning in things. (iv) The more we learn the more aware we are of what’s right and wrong. And (v) The more we think the more we can form good judgement.

Reference List

Harward, D. W. (2007). Engaged learning and the core purposes of liberal education: Bringing theory to practice. Liberal Education, 93(1), 6-15.

Mises, M. 1949 (2010). Human Action, Scholar’s ed. United States: Yale University Press, Ludwig Von Mises Institute.

Herbener, M. J. (2002). The austrian school in the liberal arts. The Mises Institute. Retrieved [20/05/16] from <>.

Further Reading

Höffe, O. (2010). Aristotle’s “nicomachean ethics” (1st ed.). Boston, Leiden: Brill.

Newman, J. H. (1959). The idea of a university. Garden City, N. Y: Image Books.

Alisdair MacIntyre. (2009). God, Philosophy, and Universities.

Featured image supplied from Pixabay.

Copyright © 2016 Zoë-Marie Beesley

Creative Commons License Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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