Why is a liberal arts education important— similar to the Great Books Program at St. John’s College?

Charles Lincon
13 min readMar 17, 2023

Chiasmus: “A liberal education doesn’t just prepare you for a job; it prepares you for life. Life, not just a job, is what a liberal education prepares you for.” — Chiasmus courtesy of ChatGPT

Summary of St. John’s College

St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland emphasizes a liberal education that focuses on the study of great books and ideas from diverse perspectives. The value of a liberal education at St. John’s College can be summarized as follows:

  1. Develops critical thinking skills: The curriculum at St. John’s College emphasizes rigorous analysis and discussion of great works from various fields such as literature, philosophy, science, and mathematics. This helps students develop critical thinking skills that are applicable in many areas of life.
  2. Encourages a love of learning: The study of great books and ideas from diverse perspectives can help students develop a love of learning that extends beyond their time at college.
  3. Fosters intellectual curiosity: The interdisciplinary approach of the St. John’s College curriculum encourages students to explore topics beyond their comfort zone, leading to intellectual curiosity and lifelong learning.
  4. Promotes a sense of community: The small class sizes and emphasis on discussion and collaboration help students build strong relationships with their peers and faculty, fostering a sense of community and mutual respect.
  5. Prepares students for a wide range of careers: A liberal education at St. John’s College prepares students for a wide range of careers by providing them with a broad base of knowledge and transferable skills such as critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving.

Overall, the value of a liberal education at St. John’s College is in its emphasis on developing critical thinking skills, fostering a love of learning, promoting intellectual curiosity, building a sense of community, and preparing students for a wide range of careers.

How do seminars on the classics help students learn at St. John’s College?

Seminars on the classics are an integral part of the education at St. John’s College, and they help students learn in several ways:

  1. Active engagement: In seminars, students actively engage with the material through close reading, discussion, and debate. This active engagement helps them develop a deeper understanding of the texts and ideas being studied.
  2. Intellectual curiosity: Seminars at St. John’s College are designed to encourage intellectual curiosity and critical thinking. Students are encouraged to ask questions, challenge assumptions, and explore different perspectives.
  3. Collaboration: Seminars are conducted in small groups, which fosters collaboration and community among students. Students learn to work together to analyze complex ideas and texts.
  4. Accountability: In seminars, students are expected to come prepared and ready to participate in discussions. This level of accountability helps students develop discipline and responsibility.
  5. Development of communication skills: Seminars provide students with opportunities to practice their communication skills by expressing their ideas, defending their positions, and engaging in respectful debate with their peers.
  6. Exposure to diverse perspectives: Through seminars, students are exposed to a wide range of perspectives and ideas from different time periods and cultures. This exposure helps them develop a more nuanced and comprehensive understanding of the world.

Overall, seminars on the classics help students learn at St. John’s College by promoting active engagement, intellectual curiosity, collaboration, accountability, the development of communication skills, and exposure to diverse perspectives. These skills and experiences are highly valuable for personal and professional growth, and they prepare students for success in a rapidly changing world.

What do you learn at St. John’s College regarding the classics?

St. John’s College has a curriculum that is focused on studying the classics, which include works of literature, philosophy, history, mathematics, and science. Students at St. John’s College learn about the classics in several ways:

  1. Close reading: Students read the classics closely, paying attention to language, structure, and meaning. They analyze and interpret texts in detail, developing a deeper understanding of the themes and ideas they present.
  2. Intellectual history: Students at St. John’s College study the intellectual history of Western civilization, from ancient Greece and Rome to the modern era. This provides them with a broad perspective on the development of ideas and how they have shaped our world.
  3. Interdisciplinary approach: The St. John’s College curriculum is interdisciplinary, with classes covering a range of fields such as literature, philosophy, mathematics, and science. This approach helps students see connections between different areas of study and develop a well-rounded education.
  4. Discussions: Students at St. John’s College participate in discussions about the classics, which provide them with opportunities to share their ideas, challenge assumptions, and engage in respectful debate with their peers.
  5. Seminars: Seminars at St. John’s College provide students with opportunities to discuss the classics in small groups, fostering collaboration and community among students. Seminars are conducted in a way that encourages active engagement, critical thinking, and intellectual curiosity.

Examples of classic works studied at St. John’s College include:

  • Homer’s “Iliad” and “Odyssey”
  • Plato’s “Republic”
  • Aristotle’s “Politics”
  • Shakespeare’s plays
  • Descartes’ “Meditations”
  • Newton’s “Principia Mathematica”
  • Darwin’s “On the Origin of Species”
  • Freud’s “The Interpretation of Dreams”

Overall, St. John’s College provides students with a deep and interdisciplinary education in the classics, which fosters critical thinking, intellectual curiosity, and a broad understanding of the intellectual history of Western civilization.

According to Mortimer Adler, why is it important to read the Great Books?

Mortimer Adler believed that reading the Great Books is essential for a comprehensive education, and he made several arguments to support his claim:

Argument 1:

Premise 1: The Great Books contain the most important ideas in Western civilization. Premise 2: A comprehensive education requires an understanding of the most important ideas in Western civilization. Conclusion: Therefore, reading the Great Books is essential for a comprehensive education.

Argument 2:

Premise 1: The Great Books provide a broad and interdisciplinary understanding of the world. Premise 2: A broad and interdisciplinary understanding of the world is essential for personal and professional growth. Conclusion: Therefore, reading the Great Books is essential for personal and professional growth.

Argument 3:

Premise 1: The Great Books are timeless and continue to be relevant today. Premise 2: Understanding the ideas and themes presented in the Great Books helps us understand contemporary issues and challenges. Conclusion: Therefore, reading the Great Books is essential for understanding contemporary issues and challenges.

Argument 4:

Premise 1: Reading the Great Books requires critical thinking and active engagement. Premise 2: Critical thinking and active engagement are valuable skills for personal and professional success. Conclusion: Therefore, reading the Great Books is essential for developing valuable skills for personal and professional success.

Overall, Adler argued that reading the Great Books is essential for a comprehensive education, personal and professional growth, understanding contemporary issues, and developing valuable skills.

Definition of a Great Book?

Mortimer Adler defined a Great Book as a work of literature, philosophy, or other disciplines that has a lasting and universal value. According to Adler, a Great Book is one that presents important ideas and themes that are relevant to human life and that have stood the test of time. He believed that Great Books should be read and studied as a way to gain a comprehensive understanding of the world and to develop critical thinking and analytical skills. Adler’s definition of a Great Book emphasizes its enduring value and its ability to provide insights into the human experience, regardless of the time and place in which it was written.

Premise 1: A Great Book presents important ideas and themes. Premise 2: The ideas and themes presented in a Great Book have stood the test of time. Conclusion: Therefore, a Great Book has a lasting and universal value.

Explanation: The argument suggests that a work can only be considered a Great Book if it satisfies two criteria: it presents important ideas and themes, and those ideas and themes have stood the test of time. The conclusion asserts that a Great Book has a lasting and universal value, implying that its relevance and significance transcend specific historical or cultural contexts. This definition emphasizes the enduring qualities of a Great Book, as opposed to works that may be popular or influential only temporarily.

How does a liberal education help if you come from a poor family?

Premise 1: A liberal education provides a broad and comprehensive understanding of the world.

Premise 2: A broad and comprehensive understanding of the world is essential for social and economic mobility.

Premise 3: Individuals from poor families often face limited opportunities for social and economic mobility.

Conclusion: Therefore, a liberal education can help individuals from poor families overcome social and economic barriers.

Explanation: The argument suggests that a liberal education can be a powerful tool for individuals from poor families to achieve social and economic mobility. The first premise asserts that a liberal education provides a broad and comprehensive understanding of the world, which can help individuals navigate complex social, economic, and political systems. The second premise states that a broad and comprehensive understanding of the world is essential for social and economic mobility, which is the ability to move up the social and economic ladder. The third premise acknowledges that individuals from poor families often face limited opportunities for social and economic mobility due to various factors such as lack of resources, limited access to quality education, and systemic inequalities. The conclusion follows that a liberal education can help individuals from poor families overcome these social and economic barriers by providing them with the knowledge, skills, and intellectual tools to succeed in various fields and pursuits.

Another argument for how a liberal education helps if you come from a poor family:

Premise 1: A liberal education fosters critical thinking and problem-solving skills.

Premise 2: Critical thinking and problem-solving skills are highly valued by employers and essential for career success.

Premise 3: Individuals from poor families often face limited job opportunities and low-paying jobs.

Conclusion: Therefore, a liberal education can help individuals from poor families improve their career prospects and economic outcomes.

Explanation: This argument suggests that a liberal education can help individuals from poor families improve their career prospects and economic outcomes by developing critical thinking and problem-solving skills. The first premise asserts that a liberal education fosters these skills through its emphasis on reading, writing, and discussion. The second premise states that critical thinking and problem-solving skills are highly valued by employers and essential for career success in many fields. The third premise acknowledges that individuals from poor families often face limited job opportunities and are more likely to work in low-paying jobs that do not require advanced skills or education. The conclusion follows that a liberal education can help individuals from poor families improve their career prospects and economic outcomes by equipping them with the skills and knowledge that are in high demand in the job market.

In theory, is a liberal education better than a technical education?

Premise 1: A liberal education provides a broad and comprehensive understanding of the world, including its cultural, historical, social, and political dimensions.

Premise 2: A technical education, while important for developing specific skills and knowledge in a particular field, is often narrow and specialized, focusing primarily on technical proficiency and practical applications.

Premise 3: The world is complex and interconnected, and many of its challenges and problems require a multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary approach that can only be achieved through a liberal education.

Premise 4: A liberal education cultivates critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and communication skills, which are essential for navigating complex issues and engaging in informed and meaningful dialogue with others.

Premise 5: A liberal education also fosters creativity, imagination, and a lifelong love of learning, which are essential for personal growth, intellectual development, and fulfillment.

Conclusion: Therefore, a liberal education is better than a technical education because it provides a comprehensive understanding of the world, cultivates essential skills and habits of mind, and fosters personal growth and intellectual fulfillment.

Explanation: This argument suggests that a liberal education is superior to a technical education in several ways. The first premise asserts that a liberal education provides a broad and comprehensive understanding of the world, encompassing its many dimensions and complexities. This understanding is essential for addressing the multifaceted challenges and problems facing society today, from environmental sustainability and social justice to global health and economic inequality. The second premise acknowledges the importance of technical education for developing specific skills and knowledge in a particular field, but notes that such education is often narrow and specialized, lacking the multidisciplinary and interdisciplinary perspective that a liberal education provides.

The third premise highlights the interconnectedness and interdependence of the world, and the need for a holistic approach that can only be achieved through a liberal education. The fourth premise emphasizes the critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and communication skills that a liberal education cultivates, which are essential for navigating complex issues and engaging in meaningful dialogue with others. These skills enable individuals to evaluate evidence, analyze arguments, and communicate effectively, all of which are valuable in many professions and settings.

Finally, the fifth premise notes that a liberal education fosters creativity, imagination, and a lifelong love of learning, which are essential for personal growth and intellectual fulfillment. A liberal education encourages individuals to explore their passions and interests, to pursue knowledge and understanding for its own sake, and to engage with the world in meaningful and purposeful ways.

Taken together, these premises support the conclusion that a liberal education is superior to a technical education because it provides a comprehensive understanding of the world, cultivates essential skills and habits of mind, and fosters personal growth and intellectual fulfillment.

Why is a liberal education important?

A liberal education is important because it provides individuals with a broad and comprehensive understanding of the world, cultivates essential skills and habits of mind, and fosters personal growth and intellectual fulfillment. These ideas are reflected in many of the Great Books, which have been studied and celebrated for centuries for their enduring value and wisdom.

One of the key benefits of a liberal education is its ability to foster critical thinking, analytical reasoning, and effective communication skills, which are essential for navigating complex issues and engaging in informed and meaningful dialogue with others. Aristotle, for example, emphasizes the importance of critical thinking in his works on logic and ethics. In his book “The Nicomachean Ethics,” Aristotle argues that the ability to reason and evaluate arguments is essential for moral and intellectual development. Similarly, Plato’s dialogues, such as “The Republic,” are full of examples of Socratic questioning and dialectic, which encourage critical thinking and challenge individuals to examine their assumptions and beliefs.

Another important aspect of a liberal education is its ability to cultivate a deep and broad understanding of the world, including its cultural, historical, social, and political dimensions. This is reflected in the works of many Great Books authors, such as Shakespeare, who explores the human condition and the complexities of society in his plays. In “Hamlet,” for instance, Shakespeare delves into issues of power, morality, and the nature of existence, offering profound insights into the human experience.

A liberal education also fosters creativity, imagination, and a love of learning, which are essential for personal growth and intellectual fulfillment. This is evident in the works of many Great Books authors, such as Homer, who celebrates the beauty and wonder of the natural world in his epic poems “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey.” These works inspire readers to explore their passions and interests, to pursue knowledge and understanding for its own sake, and to engage with the world in meaningful and purposeful ways.

In addition to these benefits, a liberal education also provides individuals with a sense of historical and cultural context, enabling them to appreciate and understand the accomplishments and contributions of past generations. This is evident in the works of Great Books authors such as Plato, who wrote during the height of Athenian culture and politics, and St. Augustine, who lived during the transition from the Roman Empire to the medieval period.

Overall, a liberal education is important because it provides individuals with a comprehensive understanding of the world, cultivates essential skills and habits of mind, and fosters personal growth and intellectual fulfillment. The Great Books offer a wealth of insights and wisdom on these topics, reflecting the enduring value and relevance of a liberal education for individuals and society as a whole.

Why is a liberal education important from Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s perspective?

Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a prominent philosopher of the 18th century, argued that a liberal arts education is important for individuals because it cultivates their natural abilities and allows them to develop into well-rounded individuals. Rousseau believed that education should not be limited to the acquisition of practical skills or vocational training, but rather it should focus on developing a person’s capacity for critical thinking, creativity, and moral reasoning.

According to Rousseau, a liberal arts education allows individuals to develop their natural talents and abilities, which are essential for achieving personal fulfillment and contributing to society. In his work “Emile, or On Education,” Rousseau emphasizes the importance of developing the whole person, including their physical, emotional, and intellectual dimensions. He argues that a liberal education should focus on cultivating a person’s natural talents and interests, rather than imposing predetermined goals or objectives.

Rousseau also believed that a liberal arts education is important for developing individuals’ moral and civic virtues. He argued that education should focus on cultivating individuals’ sense of empathy, compassion, and social responsibility, which are essential for creating a just and harmonious society. In his work “The Social Contract,” Rousseau emphasizes the importance of civic virtue and the role of education in fostering a sense of social responsibility and community.

Furthermore, Rousseau believed that a liberal arts education is important for promoting individual freedom and autonomy. He argued that education should not be used as a tool for social control or indoctrination, but rather it should be based on the principles of individual choice and self-determination. In his work “Emile,” Rousseau emphasizes the importance of allowing individuals to develop at their own pace and according to their own interests, rather than imposing external standards or expectations.

In conclusion, Rousseau’s perspective highlights the importance of a liberal arts education for developing individuals’ natural abilities, cultivating moral and civic virtues, and promoting individual freedom and autonomy. He believed that education should be a means of personal growth and development, rather than a means of social control or economic advancement. His ideas continue to be influential today, underscoring the enduring value and relevance of a liberal arts education for individuals and society as a whole.

Why is a liberal education important from John Locke’s perspective?

John Locke, an influential philosopher of the 17th century, believed that a liberal education is important because it fosters intellectual curiosity, critical thinking, and independent judgment. He argued that education should not be limited to the acquisition of practical skills or vocational training, but rather it should focus on developing individuals’ intellectual abilities and moral character.

Locke believed that a liberal education is important for cultivating individuals’ natural curiosity and love of learning. In his work “Some Thoughts Concerning Education,” Locke argues that education should be designed to encourage individuals to think for themselves, question authority, and seek out knowledge. He believed that a liberal education should be broad and comprehensive, covering a range of disciplines and subjects, rather than specialized or narrow.

Furthermore, Locke believed that a liberal education is essential for developing individuals’ critical thinking skills and independent judgment. He argued that education should teach individuals how to reason logically, weigh evidence, and make informed judgments. In his work “An Essay Concerning Human Understanding,” Locke emphasizes the importance of empirical observation and experimentation as a means of acquiring knowledge.

Finally, Locke believed that a liberal education is important for promoting individual freedom and autonomy. He argued that education should aim to develop individuals’ moral character and sense of responsibility, rather than simply instilling obedience or conformity. In his work “Two Treatises of Government,” Locke emphasizes the importance of individual liberty and the right to self-determination.

In conclusion, John Locke believed that a liberal education is important for fostering intellectual curiosity, critical thinking, and independent judgment. He believed that education should be broad and comprehensive, rather than specialized or narrow, and that it should promote individual freedom and autonomy. His ideas continue to be influential today, underscoring the enduring value and relevance of a liberal arts education.

Written by me — Charlie Lincoln — and ChatGPT

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Charles Lincon

Renaissance literature, Shakespeare, Hegelian dialectics, Attic Greek, masters University of Amsterdam.