What is Liberal Education?

DTLT is launching a series of events focused on exploring the Digital Liberal Arts. Save the date for our first event, a panel conversation about the Digital Liberal Arts and Sciences, taking place Wednesday 9/14 at 4:00pm in the Digital Auditorium. More information about the rest of the series is forthcoming. In the following post, our newest member Kris Shaffer explores some of the topics that underpin these discussions.


The University of Mary Washington, my new employer, is thinking broadly about the digital liberal arts. What are they? How can we be a leader in pursuing them? As I’ve been thinking about this personally, I’ve been drawn back to something more fundamental: the liberal arts, and liberal education more broadly. I want to grok that first, then explore what the digital can offer.

I went back to some foundational sources. Here’s John Henry Newman on The Idea of a University:

[The university] is a place of teaching universal knowledge. This implies that its object is, on the one hand, intellectual, not moral; and, on the other, that it is the diffusion and extension of knowledge rather than the advancement. If its object were scientific and philosophical discovery, I do not see why a University should have students; if religious training, I do not see how it can be the seat of literature and science (p. viii).

The “diffusion” but not the “advancement” of knowledge. The act of discovery is not the business of the student. That’s not the liberal education I know.

Paulo Freire has something quite different to say in Pedagogy of the Oppressed:

The more students work at storing the deposits entrusted to them, the less they develop the critical consciousness which would result from their intervention in the world as transformers of that world (p. 73).

“Critical consciousness.” Now that sounds more familiar. In his introduction to Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Richard Shaull summarizes the purpose of education as

“the practice of freedom,” the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world (p. 34).

That actually sounds a lot like the mission of the University of Mary Washington:

The University of Mary Washington is one of Virginia’s outstanding public liberal arts universities, providing a superior education that inspires and enables our students to make positive changes in the world. … We are a place where faculty, students, and staff share in the creation and fearless exploration of knowledge through freedom of inquiry, personal responsibility, and service.

I’m excited to be working at a university with a mission like this. That critical engagement, creative and transformative activity, and collaboration between students and faculty are important to our work. It edges up to Freire’s deconstruction of the student/teacher binary. And the emphasis on social responsibility invokes figures like bell hooks.

The idea of liberal education that we carry will have great impact for what digital liberal arts looks like. Digital technology brings something very different to the transmission of universal knowledge than to the empowerment for critical, transformative engagement with the world.

Unfortunately, most educational technology is designed around Newman’s idea of the university: the transmission of knowledge. In my work as an instructional technologist, I will focus on the vision of Freire, hooks, Shaull, and UMW: using technology in service of empowering students to transform the world, and using technology to deconstruct the student/teacher binary.

What does that look like? Well, that’s what we’re working on. Lots more to come… :)

Image Green Waves by Philippe Vieux-Jeanton – Licensed CC BY-NC-ND 2.0