Liberal Education Lecture: How Can It Help Us?

Dr. John Schoeberlein, Project Director on Islam in Eurasia at Harvard University, gave a lecture at the Free University in Tbilisi on February 15th on the usefulness of a liberal education, specifically anthropology, for life, society, and the individual. He elaborated on his personal experiences as a former student and current professor of anthropology and presented some fascinating ideas on the importance of a liberal education.

“Everything is becoming more integrated. A larger toolbox is required,” Dr. Schoeberlein explained, referring to the promise of a liberal education to equip students with the critical abilities to think analytically, problem-solve, and understand larger aspects of culture and societal behavior. Additionally, he outlined fundamental characteristics and concepts that describe liberal education, such as an emphasis on general knowledge, rather than instruction on specific tasks. He also discussed the importance of the concept of choice for students to help formulate their own course of study and the notion that students must actively engage themselves and participate in class discussions. While he explained these notions, he made clear that he did not wish to impose this system on Georgians, but rather discuss it and make it available. As he stated, “…being a missionary is not what I want to be.”

He drew on some examples when describing how anthropology fits within the framework of a liberal education and imparts knowledge, which facilitates an understanding of certain phenomena. For example, he explained that corruption exists in various different contexts that cannot be explained aptly by current economic models; however, anthropology provides a useful approach to understand corruption by turning to the different and specific cultural contexts in which it exists and invoking ideas of authority, family relations, and honor. While a payment may be deemed an act of corruption by one culture, it may be accepted as social norms by another. In this way, an anthropological study draws on specific cases and allows one to understand social systems and elements of culture, which is an approach that is not only theoretical but also applicable.

Dr. Schoeberlein highlighted the applicability of anthropology with an example in which a factory manager needs to lead a team of employees with different cultural backgrounds. In this scenario, training in anthropological ideas could endow the manager with the skill to understand why each employee acts a certain way, how to motivate him or her, and what each one values.

These are just a few snippets of some of the ideas Dr. Schoeberlein presented. It would also be an interesting follow-up to try to evaluate what Georgians think about liberal education, in contrast to a vocation-based education system. We welcome your thoughts and comments on these topics!