Liberal Learning and the Practice of Freedom

by Philip H. Phenix

Philip H. Phenix was educated at Princeton University, Union Theological Seminary, and Columbia University. He was formerly Dean of Carleton College, and was professor of Education at Teachers College, Columbia University.

This essay originally appeared in The Christian Scholar, a quarterly review, Spring, 1967, pp. 6 – 27.


Dr. Phenix examines the central role of a liberal arts education in creating and maintaining human freedom. Truth not only makes men free; it is also what free men make.

Perhaps the concept of freedom comes closer than any other single idea to summing up what the human enterprise is all about. Social progress can well be measured by the criterion of personal liberty, and the level of civilization may properly be rated according to the range and variety of choices people can make. The democratic ideal is fulfilled in proportion to the opportunity provided for voluntary association, communication, movement, and occupation. Croce appropriately called history "the story of liberty," thus intimating that freedom is the clue to the whole course of human existence. Similarly, the major contribution of the existentialist movement in philosophy, psychology, and theology has been to point out the fundamental role of decision-making in all human experience.

The perennial struggle for freedom takes different forms in different situations and epochs. There are also various ideas about what freedom means and how it is to be achieved. Every generation and every society has its characteristic ideals and problems of freedom. Modern Western civilization arose as men sought to throw off the restrictions of the feudal order and to expand their activities into the wider arenas opened up by commerce and exploration. Centuries later, the struggle for freedom still continues, as peoples who only a few years ago lived under colonial rule now struggle for political and economic independence and for a recognized place in the international community. In a world transformed by urbanization and industrialization, people still fight for greater liberty of movement and for a larger share in the material abundance of the earth. Even in our own country, proud of its long heritage as the cradle of liberty and the land of the free, the issue of freedom, whether in the field of civil rights or of economic opportunity, is still the most fundamental problem of our time.

In no domain is the search for freedom more evident than in higher education. The slogan of "freedom now" is not only the cry of civil rights demonstrators; it is also the watchword of a generation of college and university students seeking for meaning and motivation in their academic work. They are convinced that freedom is their birthright, and they accept the doctrine consistently preached by civic and academic leaders that education is the most important way to secure this patrinomy. Yet many of the most thoughtful and concerned among today’s students are not

convinced that higher education really does sustain and enlarge freedom. They often regard their studies as chores to be fulfilled in order to earn a degree, which is increasingly prerequisite for getting a good place in the professional, social, or business world. They see college life as fostering conformity and dependence rather than freedom, imagination, and creativity.

The issue of freedom is particularly acute with respect to liberal education, the ostensible function of which is to fulfill the ideal of liberty. A liberal education that is not liberating is manifestly a contradiction of terms. That is why students in liberal arts colleges are rightly concerned about the reality of the freedom their education is meant to exemplify and promote. It is therefore important to reflect on the relation of liberal learning to freedom, in order to be clear about what kind of liberation it entails and how its promise can most effectively be fulfilled.

In what follows I intend first briefly to identify four distinct senses in which liberal education is related to freedom, and then go on to elaborate the fourth of these relationships in some detail. The first three meanings of "liberal" in the academic sphere are all familiar and have frequently been treated in discussions of higher education. The fourth is seldom noticed, and yet in some ways is closer to the essence of liberal studies than the other three, and on that account is particularly worthy of emphasis.

Liberal Learning as a Privilege of Freedom

The standard classical meaning of liberal learning is that it is a privilege of freedom. Liberal studies are an occupation appropriate to free men, as contrasted with slaves. They are the prerogative of the gentleman, who is not obliged to spend his time in doing the bidding of others, but who can employ himself according to his own inclinations and in pursuit of his own chosen ends. Such privileges are possible only to those who are not driven by economic pressures to spend their time in making a living. Liberal learning requires leisure; it cannot thrive among people who are preoccupied with problems of subsistence.

The classical ideal of liberal learning arose in the context of a slave economy, and its association with class distinctions persists even today. We are in the habit of contrasting "liberal" with "vocational." Liberal studies are a luxury enjoyed by those who can afford to live the good life because they are not preoccupied with merely earning good wages. If a person needs specialized training for a profession, he goes on to graduate school after completing his liberal arts course. In principle, he thus has the best of both worlds: he can live the good life and also make a comfortable living. His vocational preeminence presumably entitles him to the income and the leisure to pursue the good life for which his liberal education is intended to prepare him.

This goal of liberal learning as a privilege of free men is fulfilled in America and in other advanced industrial societies in the sense that problems of subsistence

have largely been solved. We are affluent enough to devote substantial material and human resources to the cultivation of the arts and sciences without regard to their immediate practical utility. Liberal arts colleges continue to thrive even though the proportion of students served by them is steadily declining.

Nevertheless, in the case of the individual student the idea of liberal learning as a leisure pursuit is quite alien in the contemporary American scene. One cause is the democratic ethos. We are not a class-conscious people, and the notion of one kind of education for the gentleman of leisure and another for the worker is foreign to us. But more decisive is the fact that in American culture, shaped so much by the Puritan tradition, work is more honored than leisure. Correspondingly, education is mainly regarded as a means for occupational competence. Americans are success-oriented, and they value education as the prime road to vocational achievement.

The result of this pressure for upward mobility through education is that all learning, even in the liberal arts and sciences, has largely become vocational in its aim. The most prevalent argument currently offered on behalf of liberal education is that it best prepares the student for graduate or professional school, for executive leadership in business, or for being a wife or mother in a professional or executive family. The leaders in American culture are not like the tiny minority of landed aristocracy who were educated as gentlemen at Oxford or Cambridge so that they might enjoy their leisure and be ornaments of erudition. American managers and professionals hardly know the meaning of leisure. They carry large responsibilities, and they work long hours under heavy pressure. While most would deny that they are slaves, it would be hard to justify the claim that they are free men.

By the same token, the education that prepares people to be leaders in our society can hardly be called a free man’s privilege. Students in the best liberal arts colleges are certainly not practicing the enjoyment of leisure. They are as anxious and pressured as the parents who send them there and as they themselves will be in the years of adult responsibility that lie ahead. For many if not for most college students, studies are part and parcel of their work duty and are largely determined by their vocational aspirations. They compete with each other for position, grades, and honors, just as they expect to do in the business, professional, and social world into which they mean to graduate.

The trouble with this orientation to what is called liberal education is that the student misses the opportunity to engage in the most valuable of all human activities: the pursuit of understanding as an end in itself and not only as a means to ends beyond itself If a person’s life is to be sufficient and satisfying, he needs above all to enjoy intrinsically worth-while experiences and not only instrumental preparatory ones. Unless he develops the capacity for consummatory appreciations, he will go through life anxiously and futilely striving for something that he will never attain.

I believe that the contemporary student generation’s concern for freedom in higher education and their recognition of the slavishness of much of what goes by the name of liberal studies points toward the need to restore the lost element of leisure in the life of learning and to renew the conviction that understanding contains its own rewards. The liberal arts college ought to be a place where there is time for the exploration and assimilation of ideas. Even from the standpoint of utility, in the long run the leisurely pursuit of learning is likely to be more productive of practical results that the pell mell, high pressure accumulation of knowledge that now so largely prevails. In a modern democracy there is no place for a class of educated gentry who enjoy their studies at the expense of the ignorant toiling masses. Nevertheless, we do have the material and intellectual resources to provide educational opportunities not only to prepare every person for occupational competence but also to foster habits of exploration, creation, and reflection as intrinsically valuable human activities. Only learning of this kind can truly be called liberal, and only it can provide a context of ample justification, motives, and meaning for vocational pursuits.

Liberal Learning as a Right of Freedom

In the second place, liberal learning is related to freedom not only as privilege but also as a right. The liberation implicit in the activity of liberal learning is not merely the concomitant of economic and social conditions that allow a margin of leisure, whether to the few or the many. Rather is the freedom of the learner a basic right that it is the duty of the social order to acknowledge, celebrate, and defend. This is the right usually referred to as academic freedom. It is one of the fundamental marks of a free society. In such a society the allocation of time and resources for study is not only an opportunity for the enjoyment of intrinsic values. It is a right upon the exercise of which the health and progress of the people to a large degree depend.

But what is the content of this freedom that the society is obliged to protect? It is the opportunity to pursue studies without reference to the sanctions that normally govern behavior in the society. A free society is one in which provisions are made for transcending and criticizing the existing order. The institutions of higher learning are preeminently designed to serve this purpose. A society can be transformed intelligently only if it enables some people to search for better ways of life than currently prevail.

Schools, colleges, and universities clearly also perform conservative functions. They transmit knowledge, attitudes, and skills from one generation to the next, insuring continuity of cultural life. They serve the other institutions of society in manifold ways, in response to the emerging needs of the times. Consider, for example, the vast involvement of college and university personnel in government contract research, and to a lesser degree in consultative services to industry. Recall also the great influences on the character of research and teaching of the foundations, each with its distinctive pattern of interests and priorities.

The danger in any society -- and ours is no exception -- is that the use of higher learning to serve existing social patterns will take precedence over the critical and innovative functions. Because the institutions of education are dependent for support on the society in which they exist, it is natural that they will respond favorably to pressures to confirm and sustain the existing order and find good reasons to eject or suppress those who are too critical of it. Yet such subservience to social sanctions is contrary to the essential purpose of liberal learning. Inquiry is not free if it is controlled by extrinsic factors. In the academic arena study is free only when the inquirer proceeds entirely in response to the intrinsic demands of his investigation.

This is not to deny a place to studies designed to serve extrinsic interests. The academies of learning exist in large measure to meet the needs of the society that created and sustains them. The great state universities, particularly those that were established as agricultural and technical institutions, as well as the independent colleges and universities, are essential bulwarks of the social order. It is all the more imperative, then, that ample provision also be made for studies that are not subordinate to nonacademic interests, in order that the prevailing conditions of culture and society may not remain without challenge or alternatives. It is important that there be opportunities for the pursuit of the "pure" arts and sciences, without regard to their application to any present problem.

The freedom of liberal studies from subservience to current social demands does not entail that they be irrelevant and impractical. Many students and faculty members are impatient with an academicism the freedom of which is purchased at the price of sterility and uselessness. The liberty of a dream world, created for the entertainment of an intellectual elite, but without responsible relation to the actualities of life, is of no value to a serious and concerned person. Inquiry can be free without being irrelevant. In fact, its chief claim to relevance consists in the pertinence of its criticisms and the power of its vision of alternative real possibilities.

In our free democratic society the colleges of liberal arts and sciences ought to claim and make good their right to freedom of investigation. The full exercise of this right requires that trustees and administrators protect teachers and students against pressures from outside in favor of certain methods and conclusions of inquiry, and that support for teaching and research be kept as free as possible from exerting a controlling influence on academic pursuits. Above all, faculty members, no matter how competent and distinguished, need to guard against the ever present temptation to set themselves up as ultimate arbiters in their special fields, thus stifling any efforts by their students to become truly critical and original. The crucial test of academic freedom is not as much the celebrated A.A.U.P. or A.C.L.U. case as it is the daily practice of the professor in classroom

and office, and the issue there is the extent to which he really welcomes, awakens, and nurtures in his students the unfettered, critical, and imaginative exploration of alternative possibilities.

Liberal Learning as a Source of Freedom

Liberal learning is not only a privilege of free persons and a right within a free society. it is also, thirdly, a source of freedom. It is more than a gift to those who possess leisure and who live within a democratic order. It is one of the fountainheads from which spring the very possibilities of liberation from bondage to nature and from the tyrannies of the social order. Liberal learning is not simply a benefit available to persons made free by the conditions of their communal life. it is itself a creative ground of liberty.

The familiar summary of this concept of liberal learning is, "You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free." From this standpoint freedom is not an antecedent condition, but a consequence, of truthseeking. A person is not merely free to learn, but he is freed through learning. Liberal studies are liberating to the extent that they disclose the truth. The understanding of freedom was the core of Stoic philosophy. For the Stoic, the outward conditions of life -- freedom as privilege and as right -- were of minor importance compared with the inner liberty won by loyalty to the truth. External constraints cannot bind the person who lives in obedience to the natural order of things. Spinoza, too, by word and by his own heroic life taught the way of liberty through joyful acceptance of the truth. Within the Christian tradition, the truth that makes men free has been conceived in terms of personal commitment to Christ rather than of intellectual understanding. In the Buddhist tradition the liberating truth is not mainly a matter of rational assent but of practical understanding of the cause and cure of human suffering.

In addition to its classic and philosophical expressions, the idea of freedom through understanding runs as a leitmotif through the whole history of modern science and humanism. Science was born and has grown out of the conviction that faithful inquiry can release mankind from bondage to ignorance, superstition, and prejudice. By the application of intelligence, man can protect himself against the destructive ravages of nature and hardness her energies to do his bidding. Moreover, it is widely believed that personal and social disorders can be cured and human potentialities can be released through the careful study of man and society.

This confidence of modern man in the power of intelligence to free humanity from its ills and for the fulfillment of its purposes is reflected in the universal commitment to education. It is today largely an unquestioned assumption of people the world over that education is the main avenue to personal and social improvement. People believe that if only they knew more they would be able to solve their problems and attain success and happiness. This freedom through learning is a consequence of obedience to truth. Not everything is possible. For the fulfillment of life there are strict conditions, which it is the aim of study to disclose.

This primacy of concern for truth is what distinguishes liberal from illiberal learning. If one’s eye is mainly on the achievement of desires, he is less likely to attend to the realities that determine the possibility and means of attaining them. The freedom of the liberally educated person is not that of complete autonomy. Such a person does not simply do what passion or pleasure dictate; he is freed from slavery to his own impulses for the sake of richer possibilities of life. His existence is ennobled through submitting to the discipline of truth. Liberal studies thus exemplify the apparent paradox that one can become free only by submitting to a yoke. The paradox is only apparent because it depends on an ambiguity in the concept of freedom. Freedom, in the sense of unrestrained autonomy, is different from freedom in the sense of power for positive fulfillment. Realization of significant ends is possible only through the acceptance of certain constraints that reflect the inherent nature of things.

Unfortunately, devotion to the liberating truth can become an occasion for tyranny. History is filled with the record of people subjecting themselves and others to the truth that is supposed to make men free. Heretics have been shamed, exiled, or killed because they failed to submit to the discipline of truth as interpreted by the guardians of orthodoxy, whether religious, moral, aesthetic, or scientific. Education, including liberal education, for the most part has consisted in the transmission to the younger generation of what the older generation regards as the truth. Students know that their success largely depends on accepting what they are taught and obediently reproducing what their authoritative instructors have presented to them. They are obedient to the truth that makes them free from failure and free to graduate and get a good job or admission to one of the better graduate truth mills that in turn will free them to enter one of the truth purveying professions.

This ready corruptibility of the ideal of truth-serving and the recognition of many conflicting claims to truth has led to widespread skepticism about the concept of truth itself and distrust of those who affirm it. This negative attitude is especially prevalent in academic circles. Scholars honor tentativeness more than certainty, and skill in criticism and analysis more than confident assertion. The more they know the more conscious they are of the complexity of things and the need to limit, condition, and qualify any claims they make.

Thus truth tends either to be absolutized or to be relativized virtually out of existence. In either case freedom disappears. In the former, truth becomes a tool for securing submission and compliance. In the latter, any hope of rational guidance is abandoned and one is left to the vagaries of circumstances and of the autonomous will. Many students in the liberal arts suffer under this eclipse of truth. They either submit to the rule of scholarly authority or they become disillusioned about the possibility of any reliable knowledge and rebel against the absurdity of the whole academic entreprise. Some combine the two attitudes in a cynical conformity based on calculation of maximum personal advantage.

Liberal Learning as the Practice of Freedom

I am convinced that no task is more urgent for our time than the recognition of truth as the fountainhead of human freedom. But we require a fresh understanding of what truth is and how it is related to the liberty of the human agent. Such an inquiry leads directly to a fourth concept of liberal learning, as the practice of freedom. I want to show that we are not faced with the choice between skeptical autonomy and passive submission to an independently existing abstract order of truth, but that the progressive discovery of truth is a constructive achievement requiring the active participation of the creative personality.

The Nature of Cognition

This insight grows out of reflection on the nature of knowledge in the various academic disciplines. It is becoming increasingly clear that human cognition does not consist simply in the registering of data from the world outside. The human mind is not a blank page on which the record of encounters with reality is written nor, on the other hand, is our knowledge the result of purely internal processes of rational reflection. Long ago Immanuel Kant saw that neither of these theories of knowledge would suffice. He understood that knowledge is neither a collection of sense data nor a structure of innate ideas, but a consequence of the structuring by the mind of the data of sense.

Subsequent studies in the theory of knowledge have confirmed the main features of Kant’s revolutionary insight. It is widely acknowledged that the content of cognition depends both on the nature of the experienced world and on the mind of the knower. However, as Ernst Cassirer and other students of Kant have pointed out, he did not offer a sufficiently dynamic role to the mind in the structuring of knowledge. He did recognize the active function of the mind in moral conduct and in the arts, but in the domain of mathematics and the sciences, and even in ordinary language, his view of the forms of intuition and the "categories" of understanding as universal a priori structures was too rigid.

The liberating vision growing out of modern investigations of knowledge is that free construction is a major element in human cognition. It seems clear that the human mind does not possess innate patterns by which the materials of sense experience must be formed. Structures there must be, and the knowing mind must supply them, but they are creations of the free person. Human beings in an important sense make the world they know. "The world" is not simply a reality "out there" as it is formulated "in here." Knowing is a transactiion between the knower and the known into which the natures of both enter. The knower is a creative agent, whose decisions influence the outcome of inquiry. These decisions, however, are not purely arbitrary, for they are made in relation to realities that are also determined by factors other than the human knower.

Each domain of inquiry within the curriculum of liberal education has its own characteristic features with respect to the practice of freedom. Each offers a distinctive approach to the truth that is not a completed product to be absorbed by the submissive subject, but always and in different ways a task to be accomplished and a goal to be won. Knowing is a kind of doing, and the truth is a creative construction. Liberal learning, then, includes a variety of opportunities for the practice of freedom, and the well educated person is one who skillfully and zestfully exercises his formative powers in the pursuit of these various kinds of understanding.

I now propose to show more concretely just how liberal studies entail the practice of freedom, by examining briefly the nature of the knowing process in some of the main disciplines in the liberal arts and sciences.


Let us begin with language, perhaps the most fundamental of all studies because of the fact that speech is so clearly a distinguishing feature of human beings within the whole created order and because it is so essential to the effective conduct of all human affairs, including every aspect of education. Students are apt to think of language study as anything but an exercise of freedom. They are presented with rules of grammar to be learned and long vocabulary lists to be committed to memory. They understand the need for discipline and drill in order to develop habits of speech that will conform to correct usage. Thus, in language they see discipline, but no freedom.

Yet on reflection it becomes evident that language is a product of human construction. The forms of speech are not dictated by instinct nor written in the stars. They are the instruments that human beings have fashioned for purposes of communication. A growing child does not think of language in terms of freedom, because his parents and teachers regularly correct his errors and remind him of the "right" usages. If one lives in a human community, he is not at liberty to speak as he pleases, and the socialization process is designed to impress him with the importance of conforming to the rules.

Nevertheless, despite the appearance and the attitudes generated by years of speech indoctrination, the fact is that language is a human creation. It may not be too much to say that it is the primal creation of mankind. The insistence of the older generation that the oncoming generations speak correctly in itself bears witness to the createdness of language. For if it were a built-in mechanism, operating by natural necessity, there would be no need to insure its preservation and transmission. In reality, it is a cultural construct that must be recreated and sustained by each generation.

When one learns a language, he renews a set of agreements about how certain symbols shall be used for purposes of communication. He tacitly makes a decision to adopt specified conventions concerning the relation and ordering of significant sounds, for the sake of sharing common meanings. He thereby participates in the reconstruction of the world of ideas that is the unique and most precious property of the human species.

The student most readily becomes aware that language is a human artifact and not a natural phenomenon through the study of a foreign language. To learn another language is to play the game of communication by another set of rules. The interesting fact is that the cultures of man contain a great variety of language, all of which appear to serve quite well as a basis for communication. Thus, sound and meaning structures are not dictated by the nature of things, but are fashioned by people to serve their need for common understanding.

On the other hand, languages are not products of pure autonomous activity, since they must do justice to the realities of the world. While the categories of speech are not necessities dictated either by the structure of the mind or by the structure of objects, neither are they generated in independence from the given regularities of the created order. Despite the wide variations in tongues, there are functional correspondences from language to language that reflect certain universals of the human situation.

Language study in the liberal arts colleges should release the student from any sense of bondage to what he may have been taught to regard as the necessary laws of correct speech. He should rather be encouraged to approach this discipline as an opportunity to exercise his creative freedom, through electing to use symbolic forms for the effective sharing of common human understandings about a common world.


In some respects the discipline of mathematics offers an even more impressive opportunity for the practice of freedom. On first thought, no subject of study would seem a less likely candidate for the office as liberator of the human spirit. Mathematics is, after all, the science of making necessary inferences. Conclusions follow from premises by an inexorable logic from which there is no departure. Answers to problems in mathematics are either correct or incorrect; there is no room for individual differences in the conclusions reached. The student of mathematics is taught to be precise in his use of terms and rigorous in his arguments, avoiding the vagueness and ambiguity that play so large a part in ordinary speech, and shunning the intuitive leaps and tacit assumptions that figure so prominently in everyday reasoning. Given these strictures, it is little wonder that many students fret under the yoke of mathematical discipline and seek as far as possible to escape from what they consider the constraining and dehumanizing effects of mathematical study.

This view wholly obscures the more significant respects in which mathematics issues from the practice of freedom. It is now generally agreed that the forms of mathematics are not inherent in the structure of the mind, but are free constructions of the symbolizing imagination. The propositions of mathematics are a priori, in the sense that they do not depend on sense experience for their validation. If they have their source neither in the structure of the mind nor in sense experience, then where do they come from? They are products of the creative functioning of the mind. The thinker adopts an array of undefined terms as the starting point of his system. From these he constructs new terms by the process of definition, and he chooses a set of axioms that state the basic relations and rules of combination that are to hold among the symbolic elements. Having thus posited a basic system of symbols and their relations, he is ready to develop the logical consequence by actually carrying out in a logically consistent manner the operations indicated in the basic definitions.

The extraordinary developments of modern mathematics bear eloquent witness to the power of the free symbolizing imagination. The revolution in mathematical thinking has been as it were a Copernican revolution in reverse; there is no fixed order of objective truth within which man finds his place; man is the center of the mathematical universe and the creator of his symbolic firmament. The proof of this is the ever-growing multitude of mathematical systems -- algebras, geometries, and symbolic logics -- that mathematicians have successfully constructed. The elaboration of theorems by the process of deductive inference -- the part of mathematical inquiry that makes it appear as a discipline of necessity -- is in reality a means of making good the freedom inherent in the choice of the definitions and axioms in terms of which this elaboration is carried out. The study of mathematics becomes a liberating experience when the student comprehends this essential character of mathematics as a discipline of deliberate symbolic construction.

The Natural Sciences

In the case of the natural sciences -- physics, astronomy, chemistry, geology, biology, and the like -- it would appear that freedom is altogether excluded. For is not science concerned with the study of the invariant laws of nature, which are wholly beyond human determination? Is not the course of natural events entirely different from the drama of human history? Is it not the aim of scientific methods to eliminate all personal factors, so that a purely impersonal, factual description of natural phenomena may be obtained? Because these questions are so commonly answered in the affirmative, it is largely by courtesy that the natural sciences are included, if at all, within the scope of liberal studies; that designation is reserved chiefly for language and literature, the fine arts, history and philosophy.

Nonetheless, it is the case that the natural sciences, no less than language and mathematics, though in a somewhat different way, are free constructions of human agents. Natural science is not the same as the nonhuman nature of which it aims to give an account. The scientist is not merely nature’s amanuensis obediently reproducing the patterns in which the world’s events occur. Even in natural science "the world" is a human creation. Nonhuman nature plays a part in that creation, of course, but never a solo part. "The world" of natural science is not the world of nature, simpliciter. It is a particular formulation of certain selected aspects of human experience.

The progress of modern science is a consequence of the careful delimitation and specification of those aspects of the world of experienced things that are to be included within the scope of scientific cognition. Scientific inquiry is an exercise in high abstraction. Most appearances of natural objects are excluded from consideration in order that a few properties may be systematically investigated. The world of facts, laws, and theories that results from this process of inquiry is not the real world in its fullness, but an abstract world issuing from the creative scientific imagination.

The structure of the world of natural science is determined by the process of measurement. Certain standards are adopted as a means of assigning numerical value to observed events. In the physical sciences, meter sticks, clocks, and balances are the basic measuring instruments. The deliberate choice of these measures results in a world picture that discloses the length, time, and mass aspects of things. The phenomenal world of the physical scientist is constituted in part by the decision to organize sense experience in terms of these particular measurement operations.

The decision to employ the measurement procedures used in natural science is, of course, made for good reasons. It is neither accidental nor irresponsible. The choice grows out of the need to establish a stable and inclusive community of investigators who can in principle reach agreement on the results of their inquiries. Scientific knowledge is a product of the scientific community, which is not itself given in nature, but is a human invention. The laws of nature discovered by scientists are a consequence of applying certain canons of inquiry, adopted by the scientific community, for the purpose of creating a consistent and reliable organization of sense experience. The realization of purposes is the hallmark of freedom. The scientific community and the world picture generated by it did not have to come into being. Indeed, most cultures in human history have generated no such marvel as the modern scientific movement, and even in our own culture, scientifically oriented as it is supposed to be, most people accept the benefits of technology and use the vocabulary of science but do not in fact choose to abide by the disciplines that alone make scientific productivity possible.

Granted the purpose of establishing a community of inquiry that is in principle universal, through the adoption of reliable standards of measurement, it might seem that the scope of freedom in science would end, and that scientific inquiry beyond that basic decision would become a matter of technical routine. Such is not the case. There are no rules that provide sure guidance in the formulation of scientific principles, laws, and theories. Observation and experimentation do not consist in the registering of facts that present themselves ready-made to the investigator. Good scientific observation depends on wise planning of what to look for, since there is an infinite variety of aspects that can be studied. Similarly, experiments require careful prior instrumentation and design if they are to be productive of scientific understanding. Thus the "data" of science are not merely "given" by nature; they are also made by man. They are responses to questions that human investigators ask, and these questions are formulated by imaginative thinkers. By the power of constructive thought, the scientist creates hypothetical worlds which he then tests by means of observations and experiments.

The facts of science are not hard, cold, inert chunks of objective information lying about in the external world waiting to be discovered and accumulated by the industrious investigator. As the word itself suggests, a fact is something made. Scientific knowing is an accomplishment. It is not a result of merely responding to a ready-made world. It is itself an activity of world-making.

The constructive freedom of the scientist is, of course, not unconditional. The world picture of science is not a work of fiction. Nature gives answers to the questions inquirers ask. But the conditions of freedom are also the source of its fulfillment. The scientific community can create a meaningful, reliable, and universal edifice of knowledge that serves both the hunger for contemplative understanding and the need to control natural energies for human welfare.

The enterprise of natural sciences is one of the great triumphs of the free spirit of man. Far from eclipsing the humanistic element in culture, science is perhaps its most brilliant exemplification. On this account, science deserves a central place among the disciplines of liberal education, provided it is taught with due regard for its essentially constructive character.

The Social Sciences

As compared with the natural sciences, the social sciences present a new set of opportunities for the practice of freedom. Since they are concerned with human behavior, which can only be properly understood in terms of the unique capacity for choice, they inevitably involve the investigator in the problems of freedom. The world picture of the social scientist is a human construct in a double sense. First, it is a view that is in part determined by his choice of observation categories, measurement standards, and experimental design. In this sense his work is analogous to that of the natural scientist. He differs from the natural scientist in the fact that the realities he studies are themselves human constructs. Social systems, unlike stars, molecules, and animals, are man-made. Thus, socia1 science is a man-made system of knowledge about man-made social systems.

Particularly noteworthy is the fact that these two acts of human construction are not really separate, but are intimately interwoven. For, the makers of society to some degree use their knowledge of human behavior to guide their actions as social agents. This dependence on knowledge is increasingly characteristic of modern social planners. Most legislators, jurists, politicians, journalists, and businessmen today draw heavily on the social sciences for a better understanding of social structures, processes, and possibilities. As a consequence, the social scientist, whether or not he intends it, is implicated in the formation of social policy decisions. He cannot enjoy the luxury of speculative detachment from the issues that fact the human community, since the very nature of what he investigates is conditioned by his investigations

The science of economics provides a vivid illustration of this complex interplay of freedoms. Classical market economic theory conceived of economic laws as natural regularities similar to those of physics and astronomy. Human welfare was believed to be best served by not interfering with the harmonies of this given natural order and by using political power only to maintain free market conditions. By a curious semantic reversal, freedom in classical "liberal" economics meant the absence of deliberate human intervention in economic processes. Such economics had no place for freedom either in the formulation of economic ideas -- the liberal faith was a dogma as absolute as that of the most orthodox religion -- or in the control of economic affairs.

Strangely enough, the apparently diametrically opposed Marxist economics -- promulgated as a gospel of emancipation to the oppressed masses -- exhibits a similar twofold denial of freedom. Marxists hold both that their doctrine records the one objective natural truth and that human beings are subject to the ineluctable necessities of the material dialectic.

In contrast both to classical market economics and to Marxism, modern economics within the tradition of liberal learning recognizes the two freedoms that are proper to economic inquiry. The primary freedom consists in the fact that the economic system is a human creation and not a natural phenomenon. The production and distribution of goods and services are matters for deliberate social decision. The rise of "welfare economics," concerned with the formulation of economic policies that foster the well-being of society, and the wide application of these studies in the conduct of government and business, exemplify the exercise of this primary freedom. The secondary freedom in the study of economics consists in the deployment of a variety of models of man and society, in order to gain a wider range of perspectives on the complex events of economic life and to experiment in imagination with new and possibly better ways of directing economic planning. Modern economics is thus clearly a policy science, in which freedom is exercised not only in the creation of a conceptual edifice but also in the formulation of policies for the conduct of communal life.

This same dual freedom applies to all of the social sciences -- both in respect to the conceptual structures of political science, sociology, anthropology, and other behavioral disciplines, and to the deliberate social arrangements and processes studied. To be sure, the social scientist does not ordinarily act directly as a social policy maker. But the fact remains that the objects of his inquiry are consequences of policy decisions, and therefore, that his concerns are with acts of freedom rather than of necessity.

Accordingly, the social sciences may be expected to play an increasingly important role in liberal learning, as it becomes ever more evident that the conditions of human existence are not simply imposed by fate, nor the results of the interplay of blind, impersonal forces, but the consequences of deliberale human action. The human community need not suffer in resigned impotence from the pains of social disorder and inequity. Human beings are free and responsible agents; they play the major role in creating the social world in which they live. The study of the social sciences within the context of liberal learning is one of the major sources of insight for such responsible world-making.


The discipline of psychology presents an interesting case of the tension between freedom and necessity in the scientific enterprise. Some behavior~ istically oriented psychologists try to avoid the idea of freedom altogether, both by explaining psychic phenomena exclusively in physical and biological terms and by minimizing the role of theory construction in the process of psychological inquiry. Psychology conceived in this fashion can scarcely be called a liberal study, for it is based on methodological and ontological premises that automatically exclude the possibility of freedom. To be sure, the most rigorous behaviorism is quite admissible in liberal psychological inquiry, provided it is understood as a limited perspective deliberately chosen to make possible a certain consensus in observation statements. Such behavioral studies do not rule out in advance other perspectives that may yield greater insight into the distinctive qualities of human beings.

More humanistically oriented psychologists are convinced that the usual methods and categories of physics and biology do not suffice in psychology, at least at the human level. According to them, freedom is the quintessence of human personality. A human being is essentially a purposeful creative agent. He has the power of real origination. His unique being can never be captured within the abstractive categories that apply to objects. A person is a singular subject, who uses the materials of his inheritance and environment to construct the particular self that he is.

Even within the framework of humanistic psychology the processes of prediction, control, classification, and generalization associated with scientific inquiry are still applicable as statistical probabilities. Human behavior is not without order and intelligibility. But the humanistic psychologist is convinced that the conditioning factors in human behavior do not constitute the full explanation of it, and that the key agency is the free and responsible person as an originative, concretizing center.

From this standpoint, psychology becomes the basic science of freedom -- the empirical discipline most concerned with the liberty of man. Even more than in the social sciences, the student of psychology engages in a twofold practice of freedom. In the first place, he acts as a free agent, fulfilling his unique purposes as a creative self. This immediate conscious awareness of personal becoming is the primary source of data for psychological inquiry. In the second place, as a scientific inquirer he participates in the definition, elaboration, and application of conceptual systems and experimental methods designed to yield reliable and significant interpretations of the primary data. The various clinically and existentially oriented psychologies exemplify particularly well this double freedom, in emphasizing the centrality of freedom and responsibility as the core of personality and in exhibiting a high degree of adventuresomeness and imagination in the generation of theoretical schemes.

The Arts

I have argued that language, mathematics, and the natural sciences manifest a single degree of freedom in symbol- and world-construction (a second degree can be added if the applied sciences are included, involving decisions about the use of knowledge for practical purposes), and that the social sciences and psychology reveal a twofold creative activity, of cultural invention and personal becoming, together with the symbolic representation of these events. I turn now to the relation of the arts to the practice of freedom. On initial consideration it appears that the arts constitute a domain of pure freedom. The composer makes up a composition, the painter designs a canvas or the architect a building, the poet fashions a lyric, and the choreographer creates a dance or the playwright a drama. In each case, the artist is at liberty to present the results of his own constructive imagination. He is subject to no external compulsion, assuming that he works in a free society. This freedom is particularly evident in the modern arts, in which unrestrained experimentation with new forms, unshackled by preconceptions or traditional standards, is expected and encouraged.

One would expect, then, that the study of music, art, the dance, and literature would occupy a central place in the liberal arts curriculum. These studies would seem to be the most effective means for developing skill in the practice of freedom. The curious fact is that with the possible exception of literature, the arts occupy a secondary place in the college curriculum. Part of the reason is the relative impracticality of the arts: few people can expect to make an assured and ample living as musicians, painters, or poets. But there may be a further reason, which has to do with the nature of freedom in the arts. It is commonly supposed, often with some justification, that the artist ~ himself as free to put his materials together in any way he pleases, without reference to any criteria of relevance or standards of excellence. He simply expresses his own impulses, and is under no obligation to explain or justify his productions to anyone else. When the arts are regarded in this fashion, it is little wonder that they are given a peripheral place among the liberal studies.

Freedom in the arts becomes significantly human only when it transcends subjective self-expression. Anarchy and license are not the kind of liberty in which human life is fulfilled. The proper work of the artist is to create significant forms. To do this, he must enter upon a discipline as rigorous as that of any linguist, mathematician, or scientist. Like them, he enters into relations with an objective world, which he seeks to interpret by means of certain invented forms. The forms of the artist are unique perceptual wholes, differing in purpose and in logical structures from the general categories of language, mathematics, and the sciences. Nevertheless, they are modes of response of persons to experienced realities, and they must be judged on the basis of their success in disclosing the qualitative possibilities of human experience. Some works of art are virtually meaningless, in that they do not reveal any very significant relations within the perceptual field. Others are meaningful, in various degrees, by virtue of the intensity and quality of significant feeling they are able to evoke.

The freedom of the artist does not consist on! in the absence of restraints On his choice of aesthetic problems and of his methods of solving them, but even more in his power of constructing aesthetic objects that add to the values of life. The arts merit a central role in liberal studies insofar as they are conceived not as occasions for self-exhibition, studied opacity, and calculated freakishness, but as opportunities for the disciplined attainment of qualitative excellence in the form of singular perceptual constructions.

In the case of music and drama, and in some forms of the dance, the artist may be a performer rather than a composer, and in that event his freedom is less evident than that of the composer. Still, the good performer does not act as an automaton, but he personally appropriates the works he performs in order that he may recreate them as if they came fresh from a composer’s mind. The situation is essentially the same with listeners and observers in any of the arts, who constitute the great majority of students in these disciplines. They neither create nor perform compositions. Yet if they are to understand the arts significantly, they too must enter so fully into the works they study, by becoming familiar with the possibilities and limitations of the materials used and with the processes of transforming them, that they pass beyond passive receptivity to the practice of virtual recreation, through imaginative participation in the artist’s constructive activity. In this manner, the educated layman in the arts is able to enjoy vicariously the constructive liberty of the creating composer and, in certain arts, of the recreating performer.


The chief temptation of the student in the arts is to lose his birthright of freedom by dissipating his creative energies in expressive self-indugences. Quite the opposite situation prevails in the studuy of history, where the student if tempted to resign himself to the completed finality of the past. For many people recorded history is only an accumulation of information about events that cannot be altered. Studying about them seems to burden the already overtaxed memory and to imprison one in a bygone world over which he has no control.

While such a view has some semblance of truth, it is substantially at variance with the realities of historical investigation. As in the social sciences, the historian’s subject matter is deliberate human behavior. He aims to understand how people have used their freedom and to describe the worlds people have built for their habitation. In order to comprehend these past events, the inquirer must retroject himself imaginatively into the situations he wants to describe and hypothesize what is likely to have transpired in the deliberations of those who made the significant decisions. In such inquiries the past is no longer dead; it comes alive as the historical investigator attempts to reenact the events studied. Through this imaginative participation in the freedom of others, the student of history enjoys a vicarious liberation in his own being. He enlarges his horizons of sympathy and awareness in being drawn out of his circle of private preoccupation. He discovers that liberty is not mainly an individual possession, but rather a common human possibility that each may help the other to realize. The study of history gives one practice in this activity of sharing.

The historian is also free in another respect. Like the scientist, he constructs a picture of the world. His picture is different from that of the scientist, in that he is interested in unique events and not in general categories and theories. But in history as in science, the world does not present itself in finished form, ready for cognition. Knowing in history is an activity of creation, resulting in a convincing narrative about the past. While the narrative is not a work of fiction, since it must accord with available evidence, it requires a high degree of selectivity and a large measure of interpretation. History is not a plain recital of bare facts. It is an attempt to design an interesting, illuminating, and responsible account of the course of significant events in their mutual interrelations. Such an account is inevitably conditioned by the historian’s scale of values and by his fundamental convictions about human nature. He hopes that these conditioning factors in selection and interpretation will in the long run be validated and corrected by historical investigation, since as a responsible scholar he has no intention of making history to his own specifications. Nevertheless, given the usual fragmentariness of available evidence, the limitations of time and intelligence, and the complexity of human affairs, the historian must assume the responsibilities and accept the risks of history-making.

The study of history thus provides opportunities for the practice of freedom, by participating imaginatively in the decisions of persons who have acted in the past, thereby transcending the narrow confines of one’s own existence, and by engaging in the activity of constructing and reconstructing a picture of the past, in the search for an ever more adequate account of the human drama.


The case for freedom in the discipline of philosophy is equally strong. The plurality of philosophic systems bears witness to the variety of human initiatives that have gone into their making. Philosophers invent categories of interpretation by means of which they hope to make intelligible the many aspects of human experience. No one set of concepts does full justice to reality in its richness and complexity. Hence the tasks of conceptual criticism and reformulation in philosophy are unending. Philosophers have largely abandoned the expectation of discovering a single system of ideas that will contain the ultimate truth about nature, man, cognition, and values. Most philosophers do not regard their statements as providing a full and unambiguous description of the way things are. They see their task more modestly, as one of conceptual cartography, in which the boundaries, interrelationships, and topographical features of various experiential domains are charted. In this activity the philosopher employs his constructive imagination to form categories that relate and illuminate the symbolic constructs used by human creators in every sphere of cultural endeavor, including language and mathematics, the sciences, the arts, and history.

In fact, the philosopher is concerned with three freedoms: first, the elemental liberty of the human doer, which forms the basic data for all philosophic inquiry; second, the freedom of intellectual construction in the organized disciplines, upon which the philosopher also reflects; and third, the inventive activity of philosophical analysis, synthesis, and evaluation itself.



The study of religion presents a similar situation. The day of final authoritative dogmatic theologies has largely passed. Most people no longer believe in ready-made revelations delivered by God to man for unquestioning acceptance. They cannot adopt a faith that requires the surrender of human freedom to the demands of a supernatural sovereign. Yet so entrenched is the concept of religion as belief in authoritative, ready-made doctrines that when that notion is challenged the whole edifice of religion may be rejected, as in traditional naturalistic humanism or the more bizarre "radical theologies" currently in vogue.

Theologies, like philosophies, are creative interpretations of human experience.. In principle they are responsible interpretations, and not merely projections of personal preferences. Faith should not be a substitute for careful thought and patient inquiry, for in the long run nothing less than truth deserves man’s final allegiance. However, the truth apprehended by faith is not that of a static objective order to which the mind of man responds. It is a dynamic reality including man’s own being and becoming, and depending to some degree on his own responsible decisions. As Teilhard de Chardin sought to demonstrate, the fulfillment of the entire cosmic endeavor now requires the conscious free commitment of mankind to the task of creating a universal community of loving persons, in response to the divine purpose that has guided the evolutionary process up to now. One may or may not find such a cosmological theology convincing. The essential point is that any theological perspective must take account of the role of freedom in the shaping of human destiny.

Indeed, religious commitment is a person's ultimate act of freedom. By his faith he determines the meaning he will give to life as a whole, thus creating a framework of value and expectation (that is, of love and hope) in the spirit and power of which all particular acts of freedom are performed.

The study of religion should therefore be the culminating liberal discipline, carried out in continuous interaction with all other branches of liberal study. But note that it can serve such a consummatory liberating function only insofar as the study provides an occasion for the development of the student’s own ultimate commitment, which is to construct and practice a faith of his own. An important part of such development is to participate in the great historic faiths and in contemporary religious traditions other than one’s own. The aims of liberal learning are not achieved when the student simply accumulates ready-made academic information about the faiths of mankind.

Teaching in the Liberal Studies

Active personal appropriation is also the condition for the realization of freedom in every other discipline. Studies in language, mathematics, science, art, history, and philosophy are not made liberal merely by recognizing and calling attention to the creative factors in these disciplines and in the human activities with which they deal. Studies do not liberate when the student is constrained to absorb knowledge about the cultural and scholarly creations of others. He fuffihls his birthright of freedom only when he actually engages in works of cultural creation and of constructive scholarship, that is, when he makes his world rather than receiving it ready-made from the hands of others. Language is a liberal study only when the student actively enters into the making and renewing of speech covenants and into the construction of analytic categories for linguistic inquiry. Mathematics is a liberal study only when the student actively engages in the construction and deductive elaboration of postulate systems. Similarly for all the other disciplines. In short, the student is emancipated from academic servility only as he has the opportunity in a real though often rudimentary fashion to be a practicing linguist, mathematician, scientist, artist or art critic, historian, philosopher, and theologian.

In such liberal learning, the common image of the instructor as an authoritative source of knowledge to be acquired by the student must be abandoned. The instructor himself should be an inquirer and not a mere purveyor of information. He should exemplify in his own scholarly work the constructive dimensions of learning, and help his students to recognize these dimensions. Above all, he ought to encourage his students own creative efforts by providing them with opportunities for the active pursuit of understanding. The instructor must shun the temptation to impress his students with his scholarly prowess, in the guise of demonstrating how creative inquiry proceeds, when in reality he is purchasing self-gratification at the cost of their passivity and vassalage. Ideally, the teacher and student should participate in a joint venture in constructive inquiry, each at his proper level of skill and insight, but both through essentially the same enterprise of responsible creation.

In the foregoing analysis I have tried to show that each discipline offers opportunities for the practice of freedom and thereby contributes to the fulfillment of human beings as creative agents. The disciplines differ in the nature of their constructive elements. In every case the inquirer deliberately selects certain intelligible forms that define the perspectives of his particular discipline. In no case are these forms purely arbitrary, since they are designed to render experience in the real world intelligible and significant, though in different ways. The world of scholarship is wholly man-made but not without regard for the regularities and relationships in the created order.

The scholar’s practice of freedom is a continuing dialogue, involving besides himself other persons (especially within his discipline community) and nonhuman beings in the environing world that he seeks to understand. His participation in that dialogue is the measure of his responsibility to truth. Because he is himself a creative agent living in community with other such beings, truth not only makes men free; it is also what free men make. For, in disciplined inquiry responsible men construct a world in truth.

This practice of freedom is the crowning liberty of liberal learning. Learning is no privilege for free men if it only fills the hours of leisure and comprises no intrinsically valuable endeavor. It becomes a privilege by virtue of the opportunity it affords to engage in the uniquely human activity of world-making. Nor can academic freedom be urged as a right except on the basis of the inherent worth of the activity of inquiry and the incalculable dignity of the creative investigator. In like manner, learning is not a source of liberating truth if truth is conceived as a finished structure of reality to be passively registered by the mind of the learner. Persons are emancipated from illusion, prejudice, and irrational passion and given power for productive achievement only as they recognize and accept their role in the creation of their world and the truth that expresses it.

Colleges of liberal arts and sciences can and should be prime exemplars of all four of these freedoms in the modern world. They should be places where students may come to understand the joy of learning for its own sake. They should be communities where inquiry is untrammeled by any extrinsic pressures or special interests. They should be fountainheads of knowledge that remove the shackles of superstition and bias. But all of these liberties are consummated in the fundamental freedom of the scholar and the student who zestfully undertake the work of world-making through the disciplines comprising the academic curriculum.