The Righteous Mind and the Liberally Educated Mind
Dave Prentiss here. We are drawing to the close of our discussion about The Righteous Mind so I wanted to go back to the beginning of the book to remind us of where we started and see just where Haidt has taken us.
Haidt says that we all begin life with a “righteous mind” and that in order to understand what this means his book will take us “on a tour of human nature and history from the perspective of moral psychology.” By the end of this tour, Haidt hopes to have given us “a new way to think about two of the most important, vexing, and divisive topics in human life: politics and religion.”
Haidt’s stated intention for his book is a perfect example of what is called liberal education. At UMD, the idea of liberal education is at the foundation of what we want you to experience over the next four years. The origin of the word “liberal” in Latin is libertas, which means liberty or freedom. The idea of liberal education is therefore rooted in the belief that it is the kind of education that is necessary for a person who lives in freedom. We could say that liberal education is “freedom education” – the type of education one needs to exercise one’s personal and political freedom well.
What kind of education is that? Freedom in both the personal and political arenas requires making decisions for oneself, instead of other people making decisions for you. To make decisions about your personal life well, and to make good political decisions in your role as a citizen, activist, public official or political leader, you need to have knowledge about yourself, about others, and about what is good for human beings both individually and as a community. Therefore, you could say that the essence of liberal education is the study of human nature and what is good for human beings.
Of course, people disagree quite a bit about human nature and what is good for human beings. But this is exactly where the beauty and glory, not to mention the usefulness, of liberal education comes in. There is a tradition or type of liberal education that sees itself as engaging in a great dialogue or debate about what human nature is and what is good for human beings. The role of teachers in this version of liberal education is to introduce students relentlessly and rigorously to what thinkers, novelists, poets, scientists, and artists have said about such matters and to train students to use that knowledge to think logically and thoroughly for themselves about such things.
Since I teach political science, let me offer some evidence to consider about the role that liberal education can play in our political life. Alexander Hamilton stated that for political leaders “the most useful of all sciences [is] the science of human nature.“ James Madison wrote in Federalist No. 51, “What is government itself, but the greatest of all reflections on human nature?” After being re-elected in the raucous presidential campaign of 1864, Abraham Lincoln said “The strife of the election is but human nature practically applied to the facts of the case. What has occurred in this case, must ever recur in similar cases. Human nature will not change. In any future great national trial, compared with the men of this, we shall have as weak, and as strong; as silly and as wise; as bad and good. Let us, therefore, study the incidents of this, as philosophy to learn wisdom from, and none of them as wrongs to be revenged.”
In addition to being a powerful tool to help guide us through life, liberal education gives us experience in the beauty and wonder of being human and the world we live in. We owe Jonathan Haidt a debt of gratitude for sharing his insights on how we might choose to live our lives and helping us experience some of this beauty and wonder. He has introduced us to one of the many paths each of you will have the opportunity to explore over the next four years in a journey from having a righteous mind to a liberally educated mind.