Between Being Taught and Being Educated

We often hear ‘classical liberal education’, and most people imagine it to be a monolithic entity. However, historically this has not been the case and there has been a debate as to what liberal education entails and the variegated approaches to becoming liberally educated.

Studies have shown that students trained at liberal arts academies, although accounting for a fraction of college graduates, hold claim to an incommensurate amount of representation in positions of leadership in the public and private sphere.

Educating a student is endowing them with weapons to unleash their intellects, whereas teaching a student is feeding them information to employ. Understanding what liberal education entails can allow us to educate students, not just teach them.

While only making up three percent of American college graduates, they account for a larger amount of the nations presidents, wealthiest CEOs, Pulitzer Prize winners, Fulbright scholars and more.[1] These numbers themselves should cause people to reconsider the value of a liberal education.

Zaytuna College claims to be rooted in the classical liberal arts tradition and provide students with such a liberal education. However, the value of such an education can hardly be understood without a profound comprehension of what liberal education actually entails. It also makes it challenging to grasp the critical place of liberal education in contemporary Islamic imagination.

Educating a student is endowing them with weapons to unleash their intellects, whereas teaching a student is feeding them information to employ. Understanding what liberal education entails can allow us to educate students, not just teach them.

The aims of liberal education can be divided into five paradigms, which inform characteristic models of what such an education materializes into at an institutional level.[2] These paradigms serve as different strands of emphasis that come together to form what has classically been understood as a liberal education.

The first paradigm is the Skills of Learning approach. This approach has also been coined the “Tools of Learning” approach that Dorothy Sayers referenced in her 1947 essay where she argued that the lost tools of learning needed to be revived, which subsequently influenced many schools to join the educational movement to revive the trivium. The trivium, comprising of grammar, logic, and rhetoric, is the classical understanding of what the tools of learning are. This pedagogical approach emphasizes that the purpose of education should be to equip students with the skills needed to become independent and life-long learners. This paradigm, while initially de-emphasizing the learning of subjects, allows a student to develop the critical skills needed to approach subjects in a way to garner greater depth and breadth from the content. The learning of the trivium, the qualitative aspect of education, opens up the doors for the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy), the quantitative aspect. Perhaps the highest compliment paid to the trivium was by St. Augustine, a towering scholar of the Catholic tradition, who said that as a result of it he could read anything that was written, understand anything he heard said, and say anything he thought. His statement also serves as a summation of what this pedagogical approach is intended to realize.

The second paradigm is the Transmission of Culture approach. The best example of a concrete form of this approach can be found in the Great Books Program, championed by the likes of Robert Maynard Hutchins, Mark Van Doren and Mortimer Adler. Many schools, including St. Johns College, have adopted this Great Books Program. The proponents of this approach argue that liberal education is directed to familiarize the learner with the cultural tradition of a given society. The Great Books Program effectuates this goal by having a student study a canon of “great books” that are foundational to the Western heritage. The books that comprise of this canon are those that are relevant in all ages and universally applicable to the human condition. The curriculum comprises of these primary texts, which are studied with a teacher and discussed in the classroom in the form of a Socratic seminar. The fruits of this study lie in the learner becoming acquainted with the great ideas and influential postulations of the monumental thinkers in the history of a given society. Adherents to this approach tend to de-emphasize the study of textbooks, which serve as abridgments and digests of these great ideas, and access the primary sources themselves. A significant advantage of this is that the development of a students knowledge is concomitant with the historical development of the ideas themselves at the level in which they were originally expressed.

The third paradigm is the Self-Actualization approach. The basis of this approach is derived from the understanding that the aim of liberal education should be to to allow a student to realize their potential. The process of liberally educating is meant to arouse, develop, and maximize the competencies that are already latent within a particular individual. There are two positions as to the intended result of this self-actualization in the learner. The first is that the development of the student should optimize their distinctive abilities. The second is that the progression of the student should bring them to a common ideal that is inherent in all actualized human beings. Ultimately, both positions consummate in the realization of self, with the possibility of compromise between the two. With this end in mind, it is understood that liberal education is for the improvement and advancement of the individual. The most substantial takeaway from this is that self-betterment is not seen as a by-product in relation to other educational achievements, but the primary achievement in itself. Success is not necessarily measured by outward consequences, but inward culmination.

The fourth paradigm is the Understanding the World approach. While the previous approach prioritizes the self, this paradigm prioritizes knowledge of the world external to the self. This form of liberal education is probably what is most akin to pedagogies that are prevalent in contemporary society. It compartmentalizes knowledge into different subjects and disciplines, which are to be studied independently to gain an understanding of the world. These disciplines also provide various lenses by which the same thing can be analyzed. Therefore, while studying different subjects cover breadth of content, because the object of study can be invariable, there is a potentiality of integration between the subjects through the different lenses offering a multitude of perspectives. The aforementioned quadrivium falls squarely within this category, as it is comprised of the quantitative disciplines representative of further divisions in subjects. Given the vast corpus of human information and knowledge of the intricacies, complexities, and components of the world, this approach provides epistemological structures to approach this increasingly expanding corpus. The apparent implementation of the principles of this paradigm in a majority of educational models, whether designed to liberally educate or not, intimate the standing of this approach in relation to the others.

The fifth and final paradigm is the Engagement with the World approach. If education is intended to have a purpose, that purpose must not be in the realm of education itself. This is the framework by which this strain of liberal education operates. The function of education is to train a student to pursue meaningful engagement with the world and awaken the propensity to do so. This is a more utilitarian approach to education as it focuses on the potency of a student over the potential of a student, and the standard by which it is measured is the real world. This paradigm often strives to bridge the divide between the classroom setting and what lies beyond. It emphasizes extra-curricular activities as well as incorporates outside engagement into the curriculum. There is an added spotlight on the importance of student life and student services to the development of a student. These learning experiences come together to produce an individual who has the aptitude to work in improving and elevating the human condition, whether that is through the public or private sphere.

The mission statement of Zaytuna College states that: “Zaytuna College aims to educate and prepare morally committed professional, intellectual, and spiritual leaders who are grounded in the Islamic scholarly tradition and conversant with the cultural currents and critical ideas shaping modern society.” Liberal education is the vehicle by which this mission is advanced. Zaytuna College is an example of a school taking each of these strands of emphasis and synthesizing them to strive to produce a self-actualized student equipped with the skills of learning, rooted in the cultured intellectual heritage of both the Western and Islamic tradition, and acquainted with a firm understanding of the world, who can forge ahead with a meaningful engagement with the world.

Each of these paradigms is reinforced by components within the curriculum, and resources available to students at an institutional level. Classes in logic and rhetoric coupled with the grammar embedded in Arabic courses and Freshman Seminar early on in the curriculum equip a student with tools of life-long learning and the ability to move from elementary didactic learning to advanced dialectical learning. The extensive use of primary texts and instruction in classical and scholastic methodologies ground students in the living traditions of Islamic and Western civilization. The breadth of disciplines and subjects taught within a systematic structure informs the student of the grander scheme of things and their place therein. Training by teachers with extensive experience is supplemented with a Dean of Student Life and Experiential Learning and a Dean of Student Services who provide students with a platform to apply themselves in diverse communities and environments. Finally, within the religious context provided at Zaytuna, the ultimate success for a student is esteemed to be their rank in the eyes of God. This success is achieved by a perpetual process of self-reflection, self-assessment, and self-betterment culminating in self-actualization. As President Yusuf once emphatically inquired, “if you don’t know who you are, how will you know whose you are?”

I often find myself being asked, “What are you going to do once you graduate?” As I continue to become more conscious of the design of the curriculum at Zaytuna and the larger aims of liberal education, my appreciation of the value of liberal education deepens. Zaytuna College’s recent accreditation only serves to further legitimize the prudence of this design. Being liberally educated is an absolutely indispensable asset in the contemporary world. The question posed to me is fundamentally misinformed. The real question is, “What am I not going to do once I graduate?”

[1] “About Liberal Arts Colleges.” College News. January 1, 2010. Accessed February 2015.

[2] DeNicola, Daniel R. Learning to Flourish: A Philosophical Exploration of Liberal Education. New York: Continuum, 2012.

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2 comments on “Between Being Taught and Being Educated
  1. Jazakumullahu khairan Yusuf, I really appreciate your exploration of these methodologies. I was curious if the “Great Books” approach is an approach that is solidly set or one that institutions have tweaked or expanded upon in modern times. Do you have a link to a list? Also, is there such a selection of “Great Books” Zaytuna uses for its students, and if so would you mind sharing? thanks again!

  2. I enjoyed the article. I do think that classical liberal education will function as the unifying instrument for promoting creative dialogue and mutually respectful, irenic striving to know and understand the truth humbly and at all cost. This effort found to be found among all students of good will of Muslims of the rational Mu’tazili Islamic tradition and Catholics of the primitive classical liberal education tradition, will, by means of a natural classical liberal education disposition, consider reality as their liberal education curriculum and the humble, persistent pursuit of truth and the dialogue with the great minds and works of all cultures as the basic methodology for learning and communication. If this periodic sentence makes sense to you, please give me some feedback.

    Leo-Francis Daniels, C.O.
    Founder of the
    Pharr Oratory of St. Philip Neri School System
    International School System with campuses in
    Pharr, Texas, and Reynosa, Tampaulipas, Mexico

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