The intellectual and ethical habits we need to transform higher education are the same as those we need to cultivate in our students if they are to thrive in the dynamic, interconnected world into which they will graduate.
To cultivate these intellectual and ethical habits in our students, however, we need to learn and embody them ourselves. Here again, I emphasize the central importance of a commitment to performative consistency that has shaped my scholarship and administrative life for years.
Performative consistency involves enacting the values for which we advocate.
I can’t believe what you say, because I see what you do.
To live up to this insistence on performative consistency requires intentional practice, humility, and vulnerability — characteristics not usually associated with the culture of higher education.
But this culture must change.
Our attempts to elevate and champion the central importance general education and the liberal arts must themselves be animated by intellectual and ethical habits that enable us to put our freedom into practice in ways that enrich the world.
Core Habits of the Arts of Liberty
To speak of the “arts of liberty” is to recognize that freedom is an activity that can be practiced well or badly.2 When practiced well, freedom expands, enriching the life of the community in which its members are empowered to live intentional, fulfilling lives. When practice poorly, freedom contracts, impoverishing our relationships with one another, and tearing the fabric of community.
In the presentation, I identify three core habits of the arts of liberty that enable us to practice freedom well.
- Attentive listening: the capacity to be present to another in ways that are attuned and responsive to their experience;
- Ethical imagination: the cultivated habit of imagining one’s way into the life of another in order to open new possibilities of a more just future;
- Critical discernment: the capacity to recognize the limits of our relationships with one another and to hold ourselves accountable to the values we hold most dear.
In her forthcoming book, Generous Thinking,3 Kathleen Fitzpatrick speaks about the need to cultivate a “listening presence” and “critical humility” in ways that resonate with and deepen the account of the core habits of the arts of liberty that might enable us to educate and become more ethically imaginative citizens.
Ethically Imaginative Citizenship
In her 2018 keynote address to the Association of American Colleges and Universities, Nancy Cantor enjoins us to re-imagine the future “with an eye toward cultivating empathetic citizenship.”4 She convincingly argues that we in higher education must create spaces for students and scholars to engage in democratic dialogue with a broader public so that we might shape the public good.
Empathy, however, is a necessary but insufficient condition for ethical imagination. Empathy involves the ability to share the feelings of another, but ethical imagination is a cultivated habit of character capable of imagining new possibilities for more just relationships based upon empathy, a “listening presence,” and “critical humility.”
These are the habits a new general education curriculum must embody, and they are the habits we ourselves must learn to put into intentional practice everyday in every encounter we have.