Who can benefit most from a liberal education? Mark Edmundson, a distinguished American literary theorist, asks this question in an opinion piece in The New York Times this week. When secondary school classes are introducing controversial liberal studies and universities such as Chinese University are making Western and Chinese classics mandatory study for undergraduates, that question is relevant in Hong Kong, too.
Edmundson's byline caught my eye because he wrote one of the best books on education I have read. It's called Teacher - The One who Made the Difference. Forget Robin Williams and all the sentimentalities and pseudo-intellectual cant in Dead Poets Society. In remembering the teacher in his high school senior year, Edmundson paints an authentic portrait of a great teacher. Imagine a real teacher standing before the group of teenage misfits in the movie The Breakfast Club and making them read Plato and Malcolm X, and debate on the topics what is beautiful, whether the Vietnam war was just, and if there is reality behind appearances.
'Free in himself, he tried to make us, his students, free as well ... which is to say, in the beginning, at least, he made us miserable,' Edmundson wrote of his teacher. The students realised, for the first time, that life involves deep questions with no ready answers as they learned to think for themselves.
It's Edmundson's contention in the Times piece that young people who get fired up by universal questions will benefit most from a liberal education, the ones who have 'a hungry heart', as he puts it, to figure out who they are and where they fit in the world. Why are educated people valuable? Because they make free society possible. Or, as Edmundson puts it in The Death of Sigmund Freud: 'The self-aware person is continually deconstructing various god replacements (authorities) and returning to a more sceptical and ironic middle ground. He is perpetually consulting his experience, sifting data, questing amid the knowledge of the past and the day-to-day life of the present. He'll not surrender to belief in nothing or to the belief in the great One.'
Free man and informed citizen.