“Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness” — this ringing phrase from the Declaration of Independence makes a fine statement about the ideals of General Education (or, as it is more classically called, liberal education) as we strive to articulate it at George Mason. Let’s take the three parts of Thomas Jefferson’s affirmation of humanity’s “unalienable rights” and see how they apply to the goals of a general, or liberal, education.
A liberal education prepares us for life’s unpredictable, fascinating journey. One sobering truth about formal learning is that no matter how many courses we take or degrees we earn, we can’t master every skill and possess every piece of knowledge that we need to succeed in a dynamic world. A liberal education proposes that the highest value of the college experience is the development of our ability to continue learning, adapting, creating, and responding to an ever-changing society and career environment. A liberal education is the most practical of all, because it never goes out of date; the habits of mind it fosters help us to stay current with our careers and the life of our times.
A liberal education takes its name from this part of Jefferson’s phrase; the root word for both the concept we so cherish and the education we practice is the Latin liber, meaning “free.” So this kind of education is meant to increase our freedom—of thought and action, from prejudice and ignorance. It is the foundation stone of citizenship as Jefferson and his contemporaries envisioned that notion, a liberty built on rights, responsibilities, and respect for differences. A liberally educated person feels free to seek knowledge and wisdom from across the whole spectrum of human experience—free to challenge the assumptions of the past (and also, after critical consideration, to accept them).
The liberal arts tradition provides its participants with tools for the pursuit of a happier, more engaged, more fulfilled life by putting ideals into action. The definition of happiness is personal; for some, an appreciation of “the best that has been thought and said”—or composed, constructed, painted, danced, or acted—is a necessary condition for happiness. For others, it might be an understanding of the wonder of the natural universe, the ever-changing ability of humans to create marvelous new inventions, or the complexities of the social fabric in an increasingly borderless world. For still others, it is a call to serve the community and the world in large and small ways, acting for the betterment of humanity. For most, it is some combination of the above. No matter the specifics: a liberal education offers the joy of discovery and the satisfaction of engagement with the largest questions of our time—and all time.
At Mason, we have created several ways to experience the excitement and gain the benefits of liberal education: the University General Education program; the New Century College Cornerstones; and, for a small group of outstanding students, the Honors College. Though their approaches are very different, as befits the creative spirit and diverse nature of our University, they are united in their commitment to the ideals of Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness.