The beginning of liberalism can be traced back to the Age of Enlightenment, a period brimming with political and religious persecution. A multitude of human experiences including the Protestant Reformation, the American, British, and French Revolutions, and the persecution of all non-Catholics in Europe culminated in the rise of liberal thought which sought to upend the status quo and the norms of the day:
- Hereditary privilege
- State Religion
- Absolute Monarchy
- Divine right of Kings
- Barriers to trade
- Royal monopolies
The Age of Enlightenment sought to undermine the authority of the oppressive two headed demon, the monarchy and the Catholic Church. It intended to shift the mode of thought from dogmatic and linear to one centred on the sovereignty of reason, liberty, progress, toleration, constitutional government, and the separation of church and state. Liberalism arose as a solution to the various social, economic, political, and religious problems that proliferated in Europe and the New World. Philosophers and academics began formulating a moral and political philosophy that generally called for limited government, individual and civil rights, representative democracy, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, free markets, and free trade.
This new age of creative thought sought to cultivate a free mind and soul willing to expand through knowledge and tolerate others. Philosophers such as John Locke, Voltaire, Jean Jacque Rosseau, Adam Smith, Spinoza, and Descartes all emphasized an education that produced a person who is open-minded, free from dogma, preconception, and ideology.
Liberal education can thus be defined as a system of education with the direct aim of
cultivating a free mind. The American philosopher and Professor of Law and Ethics at the University of Chicago Martha Nussbaum defines Liberal Education as “an education that is “liberal” in that is liberates the mind from the bondage of habit and custom, producing people who can function with sensitivity and alertness as citizens of the world.” Liberal education is the foundational teaching and learning philosophy that traces its beginnings to the great classical Western tradition in Greece and Rome. It aims to cultivate the mind with a broad education across a number of disciplines needed in order to participate in the affairs of the community.
The liberal-arts tradition started gaining traction widespread traction after the Renaissance and was split into two parts:
It taught the arts of observation, calculation, and measurement, how to apprehend the quantitative aspect of things. Nowadays, of course, we would add many more sciences, natural and social. Liberal education, including all the traditional arts as well as the newer sciences, is essential for the development of top-flight scientists. Without it, we can train only technicians, who cannot understand the basic principles behind the motions they perform. We can hardly expect such skilled automatons to make new discoveries of any importance.
It is a matter of historical fact that the great German scientists of the nineteenth century had a solid background in the liberal arts. They all went through a liberal education that embraced Greek, Latin, logic, philosophy, and history, in addition to mathematics, physics, and other sciences. Actually, this has been the educational preparation of European scientists down to the present time. Einstein, Bohr, Fermi, and other great modern scientists were developed not by technical schooling, but by liberal education.
The aim of liberal education, however, is not to produce scientists. It seeks to develop free human beings who know how to use their minds and are able to think for themselves. Its primary aim is not the development of professional competence, although a liberal education is indispensable for any intellectual profession. It produces citizens who can exercise their political liberty responsibly. It develops cultivated persons who can use their leisure fruitfully. It is an education for all free men, whether they intend to be scientists or not.
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