On the Abelard Liberal Arts Education, by Brian Blair

A Graduation Address by

Brian Blair

Head, Classics Department, The Abelard School

On this beautiful day, we are here to celebrate the achievements of a wonderful group of young men and women who have already achieved so much and who are facing exciting prospects for the future.

In their time at Abelard, what kind of education have these students received? A liberal education. And what’s that, exactly?

The idea of a liberal education is very old. In fact, we can trace it back to the Roman philosopher Seneca. In the writing and thinking of Seneca, we see an important shift in emphasis in the meaning of the Latin word liberalis. Literally, this word means “free”, and when applied to education it denotes the type of person who would receive a good education – the liberales, the “free”, i.e. “free-born”. To Seneca, however, an education should be “liberal” or “free” in the sense that it should free or liberate the student’s mind so that the student can take charge of his or her own thinking.

Seneca argues that only this sort of education will develop each person’s capability to be fully human, by which he means self-aware, self-governing, and capable of respecting the humanity of all human beings. “Soon we shall breathe our last,” he writes rather lugubriously. “In the meantime, while we live, while we are among human beings, let us cultivate our humanity.”

How do we do this, how do we “cultivate our humanity”? Three capacities are essential to the cultivation of these richer human connections, and they are all, I believe, built into the very structure of an Abelard School education.

First is the capacity for critical examination of oneself and one’s traditions – to live what Socrates referred to as “the examined life”.

Second, we need an ability to see ourselves, not simply as citizens of some local region or group, but also as human beings bound to all other human beings by ties of recognition and concern. To quote the Roman playwright Terence: “I am a human being. I consider nothing human alien to me.”

Third, we need what I would like to call the narrative imagination. This means the ability to think what it might be like to be in another person’s shoes, to be an intelligent reader (so to speak) of that person’s story, and to understand the emotions, wishes, and desires that person might have.

To quote Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s Nobel Peace Prize-winning pro-democracy activist, “Education is not simply about academic achievement. As spelled out in the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, it is about understanding, tolerance, and friendship, which form the basis of peace in our world.”

All the students you see before you today have taken part in such an education, and this is only the beginning of what will be, for all of them I’m sure, a lifelong process. Thank you.

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