Skip Ribbon Commands
Skip to main content

 Email  Share  Print

Learning for Learning’s Sake: The Foundation for a Liberal Education


Christopher B. Nelson


My purpose here is to remind us of something we already know: that learning is an activity fired by the desire to know, and that for it to flourish a deep love of learning must be cultivated. All of us, as individuals, have experienced the liberation of pursuing a question, reading a book, or undertaking an exploration for the sheer love of the activity itself. The greater the intensity of our desire, the deeper we are likely to pursue our learning. I am confident that all of us in higher education recognize that love of learning is a good, even if we are not convinced that the cultivation of this love ought to be the primary reason for our institutions’ existence. I hope to make the case that it ought to be.

All of us, as leaders of colleges and universities, have given quite a bit of attention to developing mission statements and writing plans to achieve those missions. Such statements set boundaries for our work because we neither can nor wish to be all things to all people. We educate for a calling, for citizenship, for service, for leadership, perhaps within a framework of a particular tradition. Boundaries like these are necessary for institutions, but by their very nature they limit the possible scope of students’ imaginations. On the one hand, we, as educators, need to lay out a plan for our institutions’ work; on the other hand, such a plan is inherently limiting to our students, just when we expect them to stretch beyond their own limits of background, prejudices, and opinions.
We should ask ourselves whether we are doing all we can to encourage a love of learning, or whether we have established institutional and disciplinary boundaries and goals at the expense of the liberation of the human soul in each of our students.
We need to prepare the young to make their way in a world where boundaries are vanishing—they must be self-sufficient in the midst of rapid change. We need to help them prepare to work with others who have a similar capacity to engage in problem—solving and solution-finding across traditional disciplines. In other words, we need to help our students become liberated from boundaries rather than defined by them. This is the kind of freedom that a liberal education makes possible.
The Art of Being Human
Liberal education helps students acquire this freedom by cultivating the art of reason and disciplines in analysis, argument, and interpretation. Liberal education focuses on studies of foundational topics and questions in the sciences and humanities. It gives constant attention to the discovery and articulation of unifying ideas, and serves to enrich imagination and nurture freedom of thought; it seeks to free the learner from the tyrannies of unexamined opinions, current fashions and inherited prejudices; it also endeavors to enable a learner to make intelligent choices concerning the ends and means of both public and private life.

These aims are carried out in different ways at different liberal arts colleges. But in all cases, freedom for our students is shaped by a commitment to inquiry, in which they learn to ask those coolly passionate questions that can help them bring to light their own ideas about the nature of things and the nature of thinking. This is fundamentally a philosophical activity that nourishes the capacity to wonder, which in turn stimulates questions; it is guided by a love of wisdom that transcends the acquisition of information—and even of knowledge narrowly conceived.
I would go a step further and say that a liberal education is not possible without a love of learning for its own sake. If this is so, I would suggest that our first duty as educators is to cultivate in our students a love of learning.

So what is required to cultivate this love of learning? And what makes it possible to be a liberally educated human being, skilled in the art of being human?

I find myself turning to Michel de Montaigne, whose essay “On the Education of Children” offers loads of good advice on the nature of learning:

“Let [the student] be asked for an account not merely of the words of his lesson, but of its sense and substance, and let him judge the profit he has made not by the testimony of his memory, but of his life. Let him be made to show what he has learned in a hundred aspects, and apply it to as many different subjects, to see if he has made it his own. It is a sign of rawness and indigestion to disgorge food just as we swallowed it. The stomach has not done its work if he has not changed the condition and form of what has been given it to cook.”
If we consider our learning materials as food for digestion, we surely want a banquet set before us, the time to digest what is there, and the opportunity to test each morsel before deciding to reject, accept, or incorporate it within us. To make it our own requires an environment in which our teachers exercise restraint in pressing their authority. The faculty needs to allow students the freedom to chew on their own questions and form tentative conclusions that they may later reject as ill-considered.
Living and Learning Well
We should want for our students’ not merely bookish competence, good as that can be, but experience in building an honest curiosity about the things they are studying, and practice in cultivating a habit of shared inquiry with others who are fellow lovers of wisdom, fellow seekers of truth for its own sake.

We want our students to develop intellectual virtues of courage in asking questions, caution in forming opinions, candor about their ignorance, open attentiveness to the words of their colleagues, industry in preparation, and meticulousness in expression. We want them to be prepared to face any occasion for new learning that comes their way. We also want them to develop a life-long commitment to pondering the question of how to live well.
The reward of learning simply for the sake of learning itself is a kind of fulfillment we call happiness. And this happiness is something we should want for all of the students attending our colleges and universities. It is the pursuit of this happiness that ought to lie at the heart of this nation’s public policy as so aptly proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence. And so it ought to be with us in our educational institutions that we make every endeavor to help our students cultivate a love of learning for its own sake. Even the by-products of this activity are worthy of our humanity: finding a vocation that will sustain us, and exercising the duties of citizenship to protect these freedoms in our democratic republic.

Christopher B. Nelson is president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland.