Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Why An American Education Is A Liberal Education

Res Publica

August 2017

by Joey Barretta

At first glance, a civic education in what it means to be a good citizen would seem to be limiting a person to an unconditional devotion to country without reflection and choice. However, in America, free thought and devotion to country are interconnected. A liberal education allows a person to arrive at his own conclusions about what is true. The term “liberal” comes from a Latin word meaning freedom. The liberally educated man can adapt more quickly in any role he will occupy because he has knowledge about a wide variety of things as he can speak and think freely. He will possess an independent mind which allows reason to be unrestrained by passions in the pursuit of the good. A civically educated person will best fulfill his role as a citizen in his country. The American experiment is different from those nations whose people are only linked by who they are related to and where they were born. In every other country, commonalities among individuals are rooted in myth and traditions, but here one does not have to be linked by these. A liberal education makes you question things further, which could lead one to dislike their government and way of life in other countries, but in America the more you know about the country, the more you appreciate it.

The aspect of independent thought fostered by liberal education is connected to a person’s role as a human being and citizen. A liberal education makes you want to question things rather than just accept what people say. Students who have received a liberal education seek the truth for themselves. In this pursuit of truth, they will seek to protect freedom and will be more active in protecting the welfare of their country, which was founded to maintain their rights and liberties. It will prevent the American regime, one believed to be good, from deviating from its cornerstone: the belief that man is capable of reasonable judgments and can govern himself. A liberal education ensures this conviction will be upheld.

Thomas Jefferson described the need for free thought through the free exercise of religion. He wrote that, “Almighty God hath created the mind free.” This man who wrote the Declaration of Independence believed that the mind naturally is free and questions things. He believed that religious freedoms “are of the natural rights of mankind, and that if any act shall be hereafter passed to repeal the present, or to narrow its operation, such act shall be an infringement of natural right.” One of the areas in which we want to pursue the truth is religion. We can question the very nature of our being. In other nations, the government would tell you what to believe. The state religion would be one that bolstered the political regime. In America, we can search for truth because it is based on the protection of natural rights rather than perpetuation of the power of the select few. We have freedom of speech and freedom of religion, which allow our free minds to express thoughts openly without fear of threat from the government even when we are critical of the actions of our leaders.

A civic education produces good citizens who will be useful to maintaining the state. A liberal education helps you be a freethinking individual. These do not have to be in opposition. The truly free-thinking person will ensure that government will never stifle the opportunity for others to also think freely. They will want to make the government better for the many rather than the few. The republican form of government employed by America is one founded on freedom. Its continued survival depends on people deliberating and compromising for the welfare of all. The liberally educated American will understand what makes America great because he will have the opportunity to do so. Rather than merely be a loyal subject, he can be a patriot who contributes to perpetuating the unique American character because he will have come to his own understanding of what makes America great. A liberal education will enable him to be the best citizen in a nation founded to protect natural rights, a nation founded on principles revealed through reason.

A liberal education enables men to be free from unreflective opinion and narrow prejudices. These men will go on to use that ability in their roles as human beings and citizens. They will encourage this kind of thought in their children and the people around them. Liberal thinkers will be more appreciative of the country that both allows and encourages free thought and will be civically educated because they will understand the greatness of the form of government that can only operate legitimately with their consent. Civic education presupposes that the government it is studying is superior without any basis in reason. Liberally educated Americans may learn to believe their government and country are the best, but not just because they were told so. They will have come to this conclusion through their own reason and will be able to recognize that the liberty which permits them to freely think is restrained in every other country. They will not say America is great because their family has lived here for generations, but rather because they think it is good. Those who understand the importance of freedom will seek to protect and perfect the freest regime ever established by man. The greatness of America is that it allows free thought and can do so without fear of retribution. A person can comprehend what America is and what it ought to be because it was founded on reflection and choice rather than accident and force. This is why an education in what it means to be American is a liberal education in itself.