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It’s college application season. From my window, I can see thoughtful families walking across the quad, following the tour guide—mothers filled with hope, dads with questions about costs, students thinking of potential majors or romantic possibilities, each looking for a sign that this is the place for him. Like those families, I wonder: What makes a college worth attending? 

Once the answer was simple: the promise of a free life. The liberal arts—stemming from the Latin root liber, which means “citizen” or “free person”—provided the moral and intellectual qualities necessary to live in a free, self-governing society. But as our culture’s understanding of what it means to be free has disintegrated, so too has our vision of the liberal arts.

Today, most justifications for studying the humanities begin by touting job stats and salaries for humanities majors or listing the essential skills that the humanities offer (critical thinking, communication, etc.). But to turn to these utilitarian justifications is to have already lost the battle. The humanities are not declining primarily because they can’t offer a reliable pathway to a successful job—many successful people who studied the humanities in college can testify to how well the liberal arts prepared them for their careers. The humanities are declining chiefly for another reason.

Our culture has lost touch with the idea of positive freedom. We talk merely about freedom from unwanted forces, especially from the interference of others in our lives—not freedom for anything. This truncated view ascribes only an economic value to education: What job will I get and how much will I make? On these terms, the current student debt crisis demands reconsideration of higher education altogether. If the career and paycheck prospects do not present a return on investment, what’s the point? This is a reductive view of education and an eviscerated concept of freedom.

The humanities are struggling because we, their practitioners, fixate not on freedom as citizenship but on freedom as individual liberation. Liberation is by definition negative freedom—freedom from, for example, the oppressive narratives of the tradition. When we view freedom in this way, liberal learning becomes the work of exorcizing the intellectual power of the privileged across time, often resulting in a kind of magical thinking that fails to recognize how many of our cherished concepts today, like freedom or justice, came from the tradition we are trying to be rid of. But without the tradition, the humanities slowly lose their power and appeal; the result is that we no longer study the liberal arts because we no longer understand or aspire to the true freedom they offer. 

The true aim of a college education is the development of a citizen: a free person. A free person is not merely freed from certain things, but is freed to and for certain things. This picture of education that came down to us from Greek, Roman, and Christian sources (with important contributions from Jewish and Islamic thought and culture) tells the story of freedom for a way of life—a way of life understood as the movement from slavery to freedom to service above oneself. The story consists of four interlocking notions of freedom: intellectual, political, economic, and spiritual. 

Intellectual freedom is not merely critical reasoning but truth-seeking. It represents the mind in its capacity for thought, fit to know and understand reality: a capacity divinely given in creation. Freedom for the truth has as much to do with mental sharpening as it does with the ordering of one’s inner affections. The skills of reading, discussing, and writing become gateways to manifesting our humanity as bearers of the divine image, bearers who by nature desire to know. 

Political freedom is not merely freedom from interference but freedom for just and humane dealings with other people. To live in a just world, one must be just oneself. You are only truly free when you are freed for and toward the good, but you are unfree when trapped by bad habits, tastes, and prejudices—just as you would be under the rule of a tyrant. The liberal arts of grammar, logic, and especially rhetoric are not only good job skills, but are essential to forming a political community; a fragile bond of rights and duties achieved not by blood, but by the truthful, beautiful, and persuasive use of speech.

Economic freedom is popularly understood as the individual pursuit of money, things, success, and achievement. Economic freedom ought to be seen, however, in the broad tapestry of the common good, where our individual talents meet the community’s needs and serve its collective ends. Here economy—a balance of gifts, needs, resources, and responsible caretaking—appears in the brighter light of the community’s whole interest.

The first three freedoms only make sense in light of the fourth freedom: spiritual freedom. This freedom, for Christians, is enshrined in the biblical stories of the Exodus and the Resurrection—the escape from enslavement to tyranny, evil, death, and sin into new life. This story tells of the deepest kind of freedom humans can hope for. Education, from this perspective, takes on the higher goal of forming imaginations that view their individual work not only as service to the common good but as the work of love: “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love” (Galatians 5:13). The movement from slavery to freedom is what makes college worth attending.  

I see the tour guide leading the family under a large tree, gesturing to a building in the distance. If I were the tour guide I’d tell them not to choose a college based on prestige, rankings, or amenities, but to choose an environment that prepares them for freedom—not to do what they want, but to do what they ought. It’s an open question whether colleges and universities will be able to continue to do this in our current climate. Our culture is demanding liberation, but do we know what it means to be free?

Joseph Clair is dean of the College of Christian Studies, Liberal Arts, and Honors at George Fox University. He is author of On Education, Formation, Citizenship, and the Lost Purpose of Learning.

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