Mindful of a Liberal Education

Editor’s Note: Every once in a while someone sends you a piece to read, out-of-blue, that makes you wonder how have we forgotten this, or, how did we drift away from our foundation. We’ve come across such a piece that we like so much that we’re publishing it in it’s entirely.

Gordon E. Bondurant, Interim Head of School, The Webb School (Bell Buckle, TN) delivered an opening address titled, “The Importance of a Truly Liberal Education” in which he reminds us that the foundations of our work are to teach empathy and connections. We don’t know where our students might go or take their talents. But, we want them to go forth with the habits of connection, open minds, and civility.

It’s a good series of thoughts that we frequently lose as we become too tightly focused on events throughout the school year.

Robert F. Kennedy once said, “Few of us will have the greatness to bend history, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and the total of all of those acts will be the written history of this generation.”

Teachers enter their profession of teaching perhaps for a variety of reasons, but the primary reason for most of us, and the most frequently mentioned reason among those who teach in independent schools, is our desire to make a difference, as Kennedy said, “to change a small portion of events”; to make a difference in our school, in our culture, and especially in the lives of those young people who sit in our classes. What a noble calling we have! While few actions are more challenging than teaching our young, indeed, few are more personally satisfying.

I am a firm believer in a liberal education, if liberal truly means freeing of the mind of ignorance, intolerance, and thoughtlessness. As teachers, we study the brain and how different we really are as individuals, how our intellectual processing varies so much from person-to-person, and how our learning styles differ. As we learn about our differences, I am more convinced than ever of the importance of a truly liberal education, a freeing of the intellect to delve, to probe, to question, to analyze to synthesize, to create. And then, the truly liberally educated person learns that the intellect must be disciplined. Even the most creative among us must have the most disciplined minds.

Let me share with you a wonderful definition of the results of a truly liberal education and adapt it to The Webb School. John Henry Cardinal Newman, an Anglican priest and fellow at Oxford University in the 1800s said:

A liberal education gives a (Webb) student a clear, concise view of his or her opinions and judgments, a truth in developing them, an eloquence in expressing them and a force in urging them. It teaches the student to see things as they are, to go right to the point, to disentangle a skein of thought, to detect what is sophistical, and to disregard what is irrelevant…it shows the student how to accommodate himself or herself to others, how to bring before them his or her want, how to influence them, how to bear with them.

The liberally educated student is at home in any society, has common ground with any class, has the repose of mind which lives in itself while it lives in the world, and which has the resources for its happiness at home when it cannot go abroad.

Can there be a more beautiful description of the freeing power of a liberal education. We as teachers and administrators have a most sacred task, for we are influencing, in word and deed, humanity for all time!

Someone has said …To teach is to plant and to plant is never to know if that which is planted will ever bear fruit. Teaching takes courage, for only courage allows one to return each day to a classroom where rewards are difficult, if not impossible to quantify, and one cannot accurately quantify the results of what happens in the classroom until another generation has passed.

The distinctive thing about our profession is that it is all about making choices, choices that impact our students and ourselves for a lifetime. As Bart Giamatti, former President of Yale University and former Commission of Major League Baseball, wrote in one of his annual reports to the Yale Corporation:

A liberal education is at the heart of a civil society, and at the heart of a liberal education is the act of teaching. To speak directly of how a liberal education prepares a student for a civic role, we must begin with the teacher.

The teacher chooses how to structure choice. The teacher’s power and responsibility lie in choosing where everyone will begin and from that beginning, the end will be shaped. But no good teacher wants the contour of another’s mind to be blurred. Somehow the line between encouraging a design and imposing a specific stamp must be found and clarified. That is where the teacher first begins to choose.

As we inspire our students to make choices, we come to realize that we are teaching far more than subject matter. We are teaching humane habits and practices of civility. We are sharing our values, our faith, our self-knowledge, and ourselves.

At the end of each year, John Seel, author and educator, has suggested that we, as teachers, ask ourselves not, “What have my students learned?” But rather, “What have my students become?” And as we look at ourselves, we are compelled to ask likewise, “What have we become?”

Let us go forth together on this journey as educators with boundless enthusiasm, making wise choices and inspiring a love of learning that endures and impacts current and future generations.

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Gordon E. Bondurant

  • Vishakha

    In Pune, India, many educationalists like Dr. Arun Nigvekar have come together to form Seamless Education Academy, that is the first and only Creativersity in India. they have very recently launched a blog (www.seamlesseducationacademy.blogspot.com) as well. it seems here that they want to give a focus to the creative genius in their students in RJ, Sound Engineering, Gemmology, Animation and Broadcast Media. i think that initiatives like these are a ray of hope and really need to be commended.


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