Liberal Learning

by Robbie McClintock

A draft from Spring 1984

Length: 1,400 words

We have arrived at a juncture, ladies and gentlemen, at which we have no other course than to invent, and to invent in every order of life. I could propose a task no more delightful. One must invent! Well, then, you the young, lads and lasses: Go to it!

José Ortega y Gasset, 1951


Safely pondered reports flow forth from safely selected commissions, with their pedagogical prescriptions based safely on an Alexandrian premise: our culture bequeaths us a completed past in the wisdom and beauty of which we should instruct the young.

Those bedazzled by imperial appearances may be tempted to proceed from this Alexandrian premise. In doing so, they mislead themselves and their followers: our culture bequeaths us, not a completed past, but a shattered heritage.

Meaning emerges through communication. Traditions of meaning remain stable only so long as systems of communication stay stable. With these we have been inventing, inventing, ever-so-rapidly inventing, the sum of which is the shattering of our heritage. What remains effectively educative among the broken pieces of our past?

We aim, in practice, to engage this question, to seek strategies for sifting, shaping, and remaking the heritage so that the still educative shards of it can work for an unfolding future. And in this effort to sift, shape, and remake the educative past, we shall hold to certain principles.

First among these, we will struggle to eschew wishful thinking, for it is the bane of wise action. To those seeking to nurse the remnants of a past, the wishful thinking that entices toward ineffectuality consists in denying the actualities of change. The conservative willfully hopes that if, steadfast, he pretends for the present that substantial changes are transient, mere appearances, fortuna will shift her favors and the tried and true traditions will recrudesce. Renovation of the educative heritage cannot be wistful in this way.

Our first principle, thus, will be to work actively with and through the changes that have jeopardized tradition, not to deny or bemoan them. Thus, in principle we seek to shape a developing future.

Futurists become futurists when they herald a potpourri of prospects for reasons of ideological self-assertion or as expressions of wish fulfillment. Such forecasts are indeed pernicious when put forward as compelling grounds for action. But one cannot, as a principle of action, simply eschew prognosis, for the systematic avoidance of prognosis in the course of action would make folly the sure result. Prognosis must not ground action, providing the reasons for embarking on it; prognosis must, however, thoroughly inform and guide action, providing that dialectic of expectation and event by which we become aware of incipient errors in time to adjust, to correct the course.

Our second principle, consequently, consists in accepting the distinction between facts and values. Values ground and motivate our efforts; facts guide and inform them. Values determine our interest in facts; facts determine our effects on values. Values attach preference to one domain of expectation relative to another; facts consist in observed discrepancies between expectations and results.

As a charted divergence between prospect and experience, a fact is integrally linked to a theory, for theory permits the postulation of expected results and thus generates facts in the light of experience: hence theory pertains to processes of guiding action, not grounding action, and theory thus should properly be held "value-free." Such distinctions we judge to be sound and we will thus proceed in a Weberian manner with a vocation at once political and scientific, the two not synthesized, but held together in tension by virtue of our base humanity.

Our base humanity is our third principle, and we celebrate it as "base" in the sense of a starting point, not a moral judgment. Humans are base, the base, and that base is one of original good, not original sin, for insofar as there is good it originates in and through humanity. If progressives, humanists, following Rousseau, have at bottom held that man is good, conservatives have, however unwittingly, held that chance is good, that fortuna redeems, providence will deliver men from their sufferings. The conservative has too smugly disparaged the optimism of progressives as if he were free of such taint. Having to choose between some faith in fortuna in one form or another or a faith in man as the source originating good, we choose the latter faith as the more prudent and realistic.

This stand on the side of a sovereign, historical humanity is not merely a stance, for it is laden with significant pedagogical consequences. If man originates, not good, but sin, and if the good of the world is the work, not of human self-creation, but of a redeeming providence external to human agency, then the work of education is to chastise and channel, to limit, discipline, and prevent the willful outbreak of humane error, to mold the plastic person according to the form that fortuna favors. If, in contrast, man is the base originator of good, then the task of education is to empower that potency, to help humanity make itself in its own image, not in the image of some external mo1d. The task of education is to intensify and expand human potentialities for these potentialities are the source of the good.

From such considerations we derive the special, strong meaning to the preposition for in the Laboratory for Liberal Learning. A laboratory of liberal learning would suggest that liberal learning was some contingent outcome that had to be fomented through an artful alchemy, that the laboratory was one engaged in the development of liberal learning. Liberal learning is not some finished product, to be designed and developed as an end-in-view, with people then to be sold on acquiring this new wonder of technical artifice. People do not need to be manipulated into learning liberally; they will come to it spontaneously. What they need are resources to help sustain and give effect to their spontaneous efforts. The Laboratory will work for liberal learning by developing means that will sustain and give effect to the spontaneous efforts that people will make to learn liberally in and through the most advanced communications environments of our time.

Learning, we recognize, does not exist by its own agency, for learning is a gerund the active agent of which is the human learner, and the adjectives that qualify learning—here "liberal"—refer to qualities of the active agent, the learner, and not merely to those of the activity. Learning, thus, can be called liberal because the humans who learn can be called liberal, and people can be described as liberal because they are free, autonomous. Liberal learning is learning that people engage in, not because it will make them free, but because they are free and, recognizing themselves as free, autonomous actors responsible to themselves, they engage in learning as expressions of their freedom aimed at fulfilling and perfecting that dimension of themselves.

People are not exclusively free, autonomous creatures, of course. From this limitation on the liberality of the learner, there results the limitation that liberal learning can never be the exclusive form of learning. We are all material creatures who must provide for our sustenance. Hence much of learning is vocational learning, again a term that describes the learner, not the matters learned, meaning that the learning is engaged in because the learner is aware that he or she must develop capacities to provide for self-maintenance in a world of constraint.

Freedom cannot be conceived coherently as a quality that requires the exclusion of constraint. We are free by virtue of our powers of self-determination; we are constrained by virtue of the limits, always different but always definite, that bound our possibilities for self-determination. Sometimes people learn in recognition of the constraints that bind them as a result of the imperatives of self-maintenance, and such learning is vocational. Sometimes people learn as an expression of their powers of self-determination, and such learning is liberal. People need not be motivated to learn in such manner, for it is learning to which they, by definition, motivate themselves. They do need, however, resources so that, when so motivated to so learn, their efforts will have full effect. The Laboratory for Liberal Learning aims to develop such resources.