In his 2014 convocation speech, Christopher Nelson, president of St. John’s College in Annapolis, defines liberal education as an “education in the art of living well, free from the constraints enclosing us, free from the boundaries of our educational disciplines and specialties, free from the prejudices of our upbringing and popular opinion, free from the many caves that confine us all too comfortably.” He continues:
At St. John’s College, we offer such a liberal education—one that helps us understand ourselves and the world around us; one that helps us develop an adaptable mind, equally open to tradition and to progress; one that gives us practice in the art of inquiry, in asking the questions humans have been asking since we first began to speak. They are questions arising from the depths of wonder; questions revealing the depths of our ignorance about the world and about ourselves; questions demonstrating a startling truth: that our ignorance is the source of our greatest strength. For it is ignorance, not knowledge, that propels us forward. It generates the desire to know, which draws us expectantly into the unknown. This is what the world needs: a good understanding of how to develop and where to direct our desire to know.
If this assessment is true—and I believe it is—then the best conceivable education, the education at which college-bound students should aim and the one that is most useful to the world, comes from studying the greatest literary, scientific, philosophical, political, artistic, and musical works known to mankind, because their authors have the most to teach. Of all who have left records behind, they have understood most profoundly that we have much to learn, that the wonders of learning are exhilarating though its challenges are humbling.
Take Galileo, an author read in your junior year. He is supposed to have said, “Doubt is the father of invention.” Why did he think that doubt is generative while others consider it paralyzing or destructive? Because doubt is the source of understanding and innovation. It is what causes us to ask the next question, which in turn leads us to a new possibility. It threatens the comfortable sense of security that would keep us tied to what we thought we knew instead of asking: what does this new understanding cause us to ask that will allow us to reach beyond it?
Michael Faraday, another author from the junior year, argued that to acquire the habits to form good judgment, an individual must engage in a program of self-education that rejects the blind dependency on the dogma of others; he must examine himself and become his own sharpest critic. “This education has for its first and last step humility. It can commence only because of a conviction of deficiency.” (Observations on Mental Education)
Faraday’s is yet another call to “know thyself” better before advancing a judgment on anything else, a lesson all freshmen learn in their encounter with Socrates, the greatest skeptic of them all. Only when we understand that depth of our own ignorance, when we understand how little we know, are we ready to develop the lifelong habits that will best support learning. Only when we are free from conventional thinking, free to doubt what we have been taught about the world, can we imagine a whole new way to see the world and our place in it. This need to imagine a better world than the one we know is another reason why everything important in life is unknown.
You lucky freshmen are reading Homer, the poet who may best demonstrate this power of the imagination, the journey-making faculty and the source of human creative power. The imagination is the beginning and end of any search for meaning, the connection between the world we live in and the one we would shape for ourselves. I can think of no finer example of the exercise of imagination than in Homer’s Odyssey.
Constantine Cavafy captured the spirit of the Odyssey in his 1911 poem “Ithaka”
Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you are destined for.
But do not hurry the journey at all.
Better if lasts for years,
So you are old by the time you reach the island,
Wealthy with all you have gained on the way,
Not expecting Ithaka to make you rich.”
“Ithaka gave you the marvelous journey.
Without her you would not have set out.
We at the College imagine that your four-year journey through the Program will help you find your own Ithaca, the beginning and end of your search for meaning.