In Faculty Voices

“Liberal learning can lead to fruitful discourse”

By Dennis Patrick Slattery and Roger C. Barnes

Our current level of political discourse reveals a crisis in civility and an absence of imagination.

Acrimony, stereotyping, narrow mindedness, and a distortion of reality have put the nation on a narrow band width of conversation.  In short, we suffer from a moral wounding of our collective consciousness, whatever one’s political stands. 

We, the authors, have spent approximately 90 years in the classroom and have taught students from grades one through doctoral candidates.

We believe that the country and its system of higher education has lost sight of the value of “liberal learning.”

We choose the term liberal learning, which engages the student directly in learning, rather than the passive term liberal arts education, which is generally understood as something one “gets.”

It is the values inherent in liberal learning which makes it important. Disciplines like literature, sociology, philosophy, myth, politics, religion and history, among others, entail not only content, but perspective and attitude.

These disciplines help us to think creatively about social problems and how to solve them.  They force us to examine our history and our future.  They force us to go beyond the trite and the conventional.

It is the attitudes and sensitivities that liberal learning fosters which are valuable.  In our minds, these include the following:

  • An emphasis on imagination that, in conjunction with reasoned inquiry, allows for a fuller sensibility in one’s pursuit of knowledge and finally, of wisdom.
  • A way into self-discovery and an avenue for deepening self-awareness. Liberal learning allows for a fuller consciousness than does slavish addiction to ideology.
  • Recognizing one’s place in a historical continuum that reflects who we are as social, yet uniquely individual agents existing within a shared mythos.
  • Recognizing and cultivating how each discipline in liberal learning promotes its own form of imagining, contemplating, meditating and remembering.  All are valid ways of knowing that offer a richer and more fertile ground for understanding than the crushing demands of political tribalism.  Tribalism feeds on nothing more than its own fantasies.
  • One of the end results of liberal learning is the restoration and cultivation of authentic and respectful dialogue, especially between opposing points of view.   
  • It also entails the cultivation of compassion, empathy and respect through a deeper sense of self and a vision of a shared common good. It demands that fear no longer be the motivating or leading emotion in facing our many differences.
  • Rather than “follow the money,” liberal learning encourages each member of the community to “follow one’s meaning.”  We gain strength and self-awareness as a people when we are in conversation with one another and with those in different parts of the world.
  • Finally, the value of liberal learning is the restoration and furtherance of a truly democratic society.  Liberal learning forces us to face head-on what differentiates us, while at the same time promoting what we share in the core of our humanness. 

We live in an age of bureaucratization and specialization.  More information is literally at our fingertips than ever before. Yet, we have lost touch with our social and mythic history and our national story.  It is time for the ascendance of a liberal learning to reconnect ourselves and our political leaders with a deeper understanding of our history and our possibilities. 


Dr. Dennis Patrick Slattery is Emeritus Professor in Mythological Studies, at Pacifica Graduate Institute in Carpinteria, California.  Dr. Roger C. Barnes is  Professor of Sociology at the University of the Incarnate Word in San Antonio.

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