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What exactly is a liberal education, and why is it important? Many see higher education as a gateway to a successful life, and, more particularly, to a successful career. A college education is an expensive undertaking, yet a typical college graduate brings home about 80 percent more earnings than she would have without her degree. With such high stakes, the tangible benefits are impossible to ignore. This vocational perspective is often placed in contrast with a liberal education that expands graduates' horizons, giving them a greater appreciation of their world and better skills at making prudent decisions. But to the frustration of social planners, the earnings premium that arises from the enormous investment in “human capital” that a college education entails isn't just a matter of teaching applicable skills in a business or an engineering program. College graduates are simply better than they would have been at solving problems, learning new skills, and coping with the challenges of the workplace precisely because many of them have a liberal education. 

The term “liberal education” defies categorization of the intellectual package tour variety: “two courses in a modern foreign language, a half dozen in literature, and another class in art history, with half a day at the end to take pictures and buy souvenirs” just doesn't capture what it's about. Liberal education means something more than the pursuit of knowledge. We might create a useful taxonomy that partitions learning into three categories: learning for the pleasure of learning; instrumental learning for gain; and learning for the sake of deepening one's character, which is what we really mean by liberal education. Of the three sorts of learning, the last is the only one that involves a reciprocal obligation to disseminate and to expand what is known. 

Turning first to the sort of knowledge that is pleasurable: We read because it entertains us. We maneuver mazes, memorize poems, learn the names of long-dead Roman emperors, and master the rules of roleplay games because it is fun. If the crossword puzzle ceases to amuse, we can simply walk away. This type of knowledge has its charm, but if we focus too much of our time and energy on it we become jaded and easily bored. While one might become addicted to detective novels (or to haiku), we owe them nothing. 

The second type of learning is instrumental and pertains to knowledge that is useful and the practical mastery of skills: how to design an electric generator, navigate a bureaucracy, write persuasive prose, sequence a strand of DNA. This form of learning makes us more successful in our endeavors. It is how we earn a living and exercise influence over others. Instrumental learning goes on all over the typical college campus, and it is the reason why donors write large checks to universities. There is nothing wrong with this type of learning, but it is, in the end, judged according to its usefulness. With the advent of calculators, many, including engineers, spend less time honing their skills at mental arithmetic. The obligations that come with this form of knowledge are fiduciary (one needs to pay off student loans) and moral (one owes it to one's family, to one's government that helped pay for the education, and to the benefactors who contributed scholarship money to put one's education to productive use). 

This brings us to the third variety of learning, the kind that sustains a liberal education. It often overlaps with practical and entertaining learning, but it demands more from us. Liberal education requires us to call upon our better nature. It requires discipline. We find certain kinds of comprehension important not because they entertain us, or because we can see any practical use in them, but because we simply need to know how something works, or why it matters, or what it tells us about how other things work. We build theories, discover facts, and challenge ideas because these are worthy activities in their own right. 

But this kind of learning comes with an obligation to knowledge itself. This starts by imbuing oneself with knowledge. What was known by somebody else has now become something understood by the learner. This comes with severe effort, a kind of learning that runs bone-deep, as opposed to doing just enough to get through the exams with a sufficient grade. If one's objective in life is to be entertained, then it’s probably best to skip college and start reading the works of Honoré de Balzac or Jane Austen. If one wants to become rich, one would do better to sacrifice one’s perfect GPA to free up time for an internship.

Getting a liberal education means allowing the love of learning to get under one’s skin. But after college, just increasing one's own knowledge won't be enough anymore. The liberally educated person is called to share what he has learned with others, and to expand what is known by humankind, not because it is entertaining, though sometimes it will be, or because it is practical, notwithstanding that it often will be, but because there are things that need to be understood for their own sake. If this reminds you more of chapters 8 and 9 of Aristotle's Ethics than of chapter 6, it is not an accident. A liberal education is a virtuous friendship with learning. 

The essay is based on remarks delivered at the October 2023 induction of new Phi Beta Kappa members at Princeton. 

John Londregan is professor of politics and international affairs at Princeton. 

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