Gerald R. Ford Leadership Forum

The Liberal Arts: True Power

by Gleaves Whitney, Executive Director, Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation

Today I write of President Ford and the liberal arts. 

The liberal arts are transformative. For that reason alone, they have remained at the heart of Western education for some 2,500 years. Even in a world that lionizes technology and the business acumen needed to monetize it, some college catalogs still urge students to explore the liberal arts—the liberating arts—for they can make a person intellectually brighter and morally better. It’s an audacious but not entirely unwarranted assertion. 

At their core, the liberal arts always begin with a relationship. A student and teacher find each other and speak heart to heart—cor ad cor loquitur, as the medieval cathedral schools put it. Sometimes the relationship is with a living teacher. Other times it is with a historically significant author. Most of the time it’s the play among all three—student, teacher, author. Wonderful things happen when they journey together. Ultimately they are exploring ideas that help them understand what it means to be a human in a community, a citizen in a polity, and a worker in an economy.

The liberal arts exercise each part of the mind—imagination, memory, reason, and will—to communicate with every other part of the mind to the benefit of the whole. Thus, literature expands our capacity to imagine and empathize. History equips us to put the present in perspective. Philosophy trains our minds in right reason. Politics orders our life in community. Theology directs our will to good ends. (Before you gasp at the mention of theology, recall that our elite institutions—Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Chicago, and many others—were established to provide a religious education and train ministers.)

The purpose of each of these disciplines is to help students grow into their potential, serve their community, lead an enterprise, and contribute to the “happiness of humankind.”

To students who are drawn to the liberal arts—especially to the forever books at the core of a great education—the experience is seductive, a kind of falling in love. Our awakened love of learning feeds our yearning for the higher rather than the lower things. So a liberal arts education is more than a four-year course of study. The teachers, the conversations, and the books launch a lifelong quest to satisfy our deep hunger to be brighter and better.

I write of the liberal arts because one of the more striking moments in my 2005 conversations with President Ford occurred when he shared a regret. At the age of 92, he looked back on his formal education and wished he had spent more time at Michigan and Yale taking courses in the liberal arts. To be sure, he appreciated that he had gotten first-class instruction in economics and the law. But in retrospect, he wished he had learned more history and become better practiced in the art of rhetoric while in Ann Arbor and New Haven.  

When asked why history and rhetoric, he said they would have enriched his work in Washington, DC. The former would have given him a better understanding of our world, the latter a greater capacity to share the values that guided his life.

I then asked the President to consider the enormous power he had wielded over the decades he held federal offices. Would more exposure to the liberal arts have made a difference? The former commander-in-chief rephrased the question: “The armed forces have the power to change our world in an instant, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. The armed mind also has the power to change our world, more slowly over many generations, and usually, one hopes, for the better.”

Not bad for a man who wished he had studied more rhetoric.

Discussion Questions:

  1. What teachers of history, literature, philosophy, politics, or theology have made a difference in your life?
  2. To what extent does a liberal arts education prepare young people for the rigorous demands of democratic self-government?
  3. We all know that knowledge can be misused. It can also have unintended consequences that raise ethical dilemmas. When President Ford implied that knowledge does not always change the world for the better, what do you think he meant?

Image courtesy of the Gerald R. Ford Library. Photograph by David Hume Kennerly


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2 thoughts on “The Liberal Arts: True Power”

  1. Your work is a reinforcer that liberal arts leads to enabled critical thinking and decision making making…thanks Gleaves…v/r

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