The Vital Heart of Liberal Education

What is the value of liberal education?  The most insightful answer is found in the foremost theory of subjective value in the history of philosophy.  Aristotle’s observation that happiness is the only “self-sufficient” end, for all we do is for the sake of happiness, echoes in the writings of thinkers through the ages. As the core human aspiration, happiness is the primary subjective good of the good life as well as the good society.

Many defenders of the liberal arts stress social rather than personal value.  The social value of liberal education is in preparing students for the heightened cognitive demands of modern jobs for the sake of the national economy, for responsible and active citizenship for the sake of democracy, for enriching the national culture, for furthering the cause of truth and socially useful knowledge, and so forth. 

Without doubt, liberal education addresses vital needs of complex modern societies.  But giving priority to these needs over personal aspirations treats students more as means to social ends than as ends in themselves. This is not just morally dubious; it is dangerous.  Dedicating the education of young citizens to making them useful to the purposes of the state disregards their intrinsic value and thereby weakens the obligation of the state to respect human dignity.  It encourages the propensity of those entrusted with power to consider citizens as servants rather than the other way around.  And it is shortsighted.  The welfare of society consists of the welfare of the individuals that comprise it; the interests of society are better served by giving priority to the personal empowerment of citizens.  As Dewey says, “Only by being true to the full growth of all the individuals who make it up, can society by any chance be true to itself.” (1980, 5)

Most answers to the question of the personal value of liberal education may imply the end of happiness, but few make it explicit.  Perhaps the main reason for this is that the concept of happiness is deemed too ambiguous.  The meaning varies from person to person.  In my experience, most people tend to think of happiness in terms of what they think causes it rather than what it is.  Happiness is virtue, the contemplative life, success, money, a good marriage, health, living in a sunny locale, a promotion, retirement, a new kitchen floor, or, in the Beatles’ song, a warm gun.

Though some disagree, I think the common understanding that happiness is a feeling is the most useful. I hold to the affective theory of value, which differs from the emotive theory of value only in making a distinction between emotions that move us to seek preferable feelings and non-emotive feelings that we prefer to keep feeling.  According to this theory, the core subjective value of any experience is entailed in feeling. Remove feeling from an experience and you are left with a robotic awareness of sensory data and perhaps a sentient acknowledgement of cause and effect without a motive to seek experience, to care about what you are experiencing, or to establish a preference among experiences.  As Robert Solomon says, “Every value and everything meaningful—as well as everything vile, offensive, or painful—comes into life through the passions.” (1993, 71)

            The usual meaning of value is what we desire, appreciate, or find useful to our purposes. We usually do not speak of value in regard to what we loathe or do not care about. To value usually means to hold in positive regard. It is in this sense that feeling is the treasure we seek in experience; we seek preferable feelings. We are moved to gain a feeling preferable to what we are presently feeling, and experiencing the feeling at which we aim is the reward of attainment. The objects of our pursuits may be people, possessions, circumstances, expressions of love and esteem, truth, and all else that glitters in the eyes of our minds, but the experiential value of attaining these things lies in the feelings we hope they will evoke.  Feelings are both the motive force and target of all our striving.

            To speak of value without consequence to the human heart is to speak of value without consequence to human experience.  It is the heart that bestows experiential value, not the affect-barren reasoning of the mind. The subjective quality of our lives is the quality of our feelings.  Thus the ultimate value of everything we teach in schools is what it contributes to the aspirations of a human heart to experience what it yearns to feel.   

As commonly understood, the word happiness is used to describe either the most desirable feeling or the category of preferred feelings.  The most vitally meaningful answer to the question of the value of liberal education is what it contributes to each student’s experience of happiness in terms of what he or she prefers to feel. 

Contemporary defenders of the liberal arts tend to stress their personal value in terms of getting better jobs and making more money in the 21st century global economy.  Most likely this is due to the current market and political pressures squeezing these disciplines, especially the humanities.  I suspect, or perhaps just hope, most educators still believe they are more importantly the best preparation for life in general.  But making a compelling case for the non-economic value of liberal education is hindered by lack of clarity about what it contributes to the non-economic dimensions of life.    

The purpose of liberal education is variously described as helping students attain “a meaningful and satisfying life,” “human flourishing,” “insight into the meaning of life,” the “immortality of wisdom,” the “art of living a good life,” “self realization,” “self knowledge,” “joy in creative expression and knowledge,” understanding the “significance of what [one] does,” “consummatory appreciations,” the ability to “change the meaning of experience,” and “the possession of our powers.” “If a person’s life is to be sufficient and satisfying” Philip Phenix contends, “he needs above all to enjoy intrinsically worthwhile experiences and not only instrumental preparatory ones.” (1967)

What do these attainments contribute to the actual moment-to-moment experience of life?  Without reference to the summative end of happiness, the answer remains vague.  Let us therefore ask what a liberal education might contribute to students’ pursuit of happiness.  Here we must confront the realization that little we teach at any level of education is directly aimed at students’ hearts.  This is a failure of profound consequence.  Still, the liberal arts disciplines are comparatively amenable to serving the aims of the heart.  

The liberal arts, and the humanities in particular, explore the aesthetic dimension of experience. They can enhance what Alfred North Whitehead called “aesthetic apprehension.” Dewey said, “aesthetic formulation reveals and enhances the meaning of experience.” (2007, 166) Music, art, and literature are not the only subjects that open the door to aesthetic pleasures, of course. The appreciation of profound and clever ideas and formulations, the satisfactions of intellectual problem-solving, the wonder of new vistas of beauty, the fascination of the human drama, the grip of poignant moments, all the varied fruits of mind that sweeten our affective experiences and inform our pursuit of happiness are native to liberal arts subjects. 

The world in which we subjectively live is the world of which we are aware, and the liberal arts expand students’ awareness of the world and potentially deepen their understanding of themselves and others.  The advantages of greater awareness of the world seem obvious in common understandings of advantage.  It increases opportunities for “aesthetic apprehension” and conceptual appreciations, of course.  Beyond this, such awareness reasonably improves our ability to navigate the world to achieve what we desire.  It expands our awareness of choices and therefore our freedom.  It enhances our understanding of consequences, and therefore our discernment in choosing.  Awareness of the world can afford greater insight into what we are, what we seek, and what is worth seeking.  By extension, this enhances our understanding of others.  A liberal education offers insight into the human condition and, importantly, it encourages self-reflection, which may yield the riper fruits of the examined life.  

But greater external efficacy, freedom, and self-understanding are not direct causes of the feelings we seek.  They are no doubt conducive conditions, but are not sufficient causes.  Our feelings are responses to our judgments of outer and inner experiences.  Our judgments of experiences—the meaning we give them in terms of how we perceive they might affect our purposes—determine what we feel, not the raw data of our perceptions. The contribution of a liberal education to students’ ability to feel as they choose ultimately lies in what it contributes to their ability to determine the meaning they give their experiences. This is more important than the ability to determine their experiences—the usual focus in the pursuit of happiness.  This realization rather complicates the assessment of the personal value of liberal education.

The knowledge and understanding the liberal arts provide naturally influence the meaning students’ give their experiences to some extent.  Knowing and understanding history, literature, philosophy, physical and social sciences, music, art, etc., offers ample context and content for meaning.  What is usually missing, though, is the nurturing of awareness of the connection between the tenor of the meaning one bestows (positive or negative) and the tenor of his or her feelings.  Positive meaning yields positive feelings, and vice-versa. Combined with the realization that meaning is indeed subjectively chosen and bestowed rather than objectively mandated, this awareness is key to the ability to feel as one chooses.

 Our beliefs, lessons of experience, and immediate desires shape our judgments of experiences.  Education informs all of these, but for the most part only indirectly in a hit-or-miss fashion.  This need not be the case, though.  If we could orient the teaching of the liberal arts to a more conscious, integrative attempt to provide the cognitive wherewithal to enhance students’ ability to feel as they choose—a practical understanding of empowering their pursuit of happiness—we would greatly enhance the value of liberal education.

Students should be prepared with core insights into the human condition and with exercises in inner awareness.  They should arrive at a conceptual understanding of the importance of feelings through considering both philosophical insights and scientific evidence.  Students should experience the importance of feelings through conscious, nonjudgmental observation of feelings.  This is called inner mindfulness.  Learning and practicing mindfulness is fundamental to all else, for it heightens awareness of feelings, provides a basis for deciding preferences among them, and experientially demonstrates the connection between judgments and feelings. 

Experience is the best teacher, and mindfulness would afford students far greater awareness of the experiential lessons of the heart.  It would also make them more aware of the immediate affective fruits of learning these lessons, which would greatly strengthen the intrinsic motive to learn. 

The arts and practice of inner awareness are taught in some schools, but they are obviously missing from most core curricula.  At present, education is oriented almost exclusively toward external experience. Yet, the meaning of experience and the feelings that entail the value of experience are internally bestowed.  The value of all knowledge and skills is determined within.  Slighting inner awareness is a far more consequential failure of contemporary education than the failure of schools to adequately prepare students for jobs in the 21st century global economy.

Fortunately, internal experience is a natural dimension of interest and inquiry for liberal arts subjects.  They reveal not only the terrains of social conditions and relationships, but also the varied landscapes of hearts and minds.  But to make sense of any of this, these courses of study must also point to what human beings have in common.  Psychology obviously focuses on shared aspects of internal experience, but a student cannot truly understand history, literature, the social sciences, the arts, philosophy, etc., without understanding the universal dimensions of internal human experience.

Students must understand what moves people, what they feel, to make sense of any course of study that explores the dimensions of the human condition, experience, and aspiration—the natural purview of the liberal arts.  To reach such understanding, they must draw from the well of their own inner experiences.  How else would they know what anger, fear, love, and joy feel like to others?  This is among the many compelling reasons students should be taught the arts and skills of inner awareness.  This would make the study of any liberal discipline more meaningful and effective.

Armed with insight into the human condition and inner awareness, students would be better able to determine the subjective meaning of all they learn with the purpose of their hearts in mind.  What and how they are taught should also be adapted to this purpose.  The focus of history, for example, might become what insights can be gleaned from the story of the conditions and events of human striving for happiness.  Such insights should be the aim of studying literature, the sciences, the arts, and philosophy. 

If liberal education is to lead to meaningful freedom, it must broaden students’ awareness of choices, inform their discernment in choosing, and enhance their ability to realize what they choose to experience. The methods of philosophical inquiry are tailor-made for these attainments. 

Philosophical inquiry involves an attempt to answer an open-ended question rather than master a body of knowledge per se.  Such inquiry calls for exploring different answers to the question by examining assumptions, implications, evidence, and logic.  It allows for examining the affective implications of adopting a specific answer to the question at hand.  Questions of value are at the heart of all disciplines, and such questions are philosophical in nature.  All liberal disciplines are characterized by controversy and by contending perspectives on matters of knowledge, theory, scope, and value.  The analysis of alternative perspectives found in philosophical inquiry has a natural home in these courses of study.

All liberal disciplines are but different windows on the same core questions of the human condition, experience, aspiration, and the nature of reality that conditions these dimensions of life. The methods of philosophical inquiry—in particular the methods of “communal inquiry”—are therefore not just suited to the study of all disciplines; they should be a core pedagogical approach in each of them.  Not only is this approach a superior way to teach the vaunted job-related skills of liberal arts—critical thinking, written and oral communication, individual and group problem-solving, social awareness, creativity, thinking outside the box, persuasion, etc.—the focus on finding an answer to an overriding question is a more effective way to motivate learning.

  Ultimately, the relevance and value of every discipline is determined by what it contributes to students’ prospects for experiencing happiness as each sees it.  The question of happiness should therefore be the common focus of inquiry in all liberal disciplines.  The core value of liberal education should be the focus of core curricula.  Empowering the pursuit of happiness should be the foremost integrative principle of integrative education.  I am convinced that dedicating education to serve this purpose would rejuvenate the entire enterprise to the benefit of all concerned: students, educators, parents, and society at large. 

By making the case—and experientially demonstrating—that the liberal arts can build students’ ability to feel as they choose, thus empowering their pursuit of happiness, we would establish the supreme value of liberal education.  That which enhances the experiential quality of life in all its dimensions is far more meaningful and practical than merely enhancing students’ job and earning prospects. In the main theory of value through the ages, there is no more important outcome.  Once the overriding importance of this outcome is acknowledged, we can dedicate our efforts to making the liberal arts even more vital to the hearts of our students.        





Dewey, J. 1980. The School and Society. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press.


Solomon, R.C. 1993. The Passions: Emotions and the Meaning of Life. Indianapolis: Hacket Publishing.


Phenix, P.H. 1967. “Liberal learning and the Practice of Freedom,” retrieved May 26, 2009 from


Dewey, J. 2007. Democracy and Education. Teddington, Great Britain: The Echo Library.




About Tony Armstrong

Professor of political science at Wesley College, Dover, Delaware. Author of Educating Angels: Teaching for the Pursuit of Happiness
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