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A Liberal Education

arts and sciences honors program

The playwright George Bernard Shaw once said, "With more wit perhaps than truth, that a school is much like a prison, indeed worse since in a prison at least the inmates aren't forced to read books written by the warden and the guards." Well, you may have felt this way once or twice during the years you've spent in school, but a good education should have precisely the opposite effect. It should "free" a person, Aristotle thought, from the bondage of unexamined opinions, prejudices, and ignorance.

This freedom doesn't come without effort. We gain it by questioning and by reflecting on what we learn from our questioning. One of the most ancient and enduring questions is: What does it mean to live a just and happy life? Thinkers since Plato have tried their hands at answering it. The Honors Program at Boston College was established in 1958 on the premise that the way to educate talented students like you is to challenge you to think about such questions, to read the books that have formed the traditional framework for this kind of thinking, to develop the ability to criticize this framework, and to test the values it implies when measured against your own experience and convictions.

The American university in the late 20th century has become a supermarket of bewildering choices, reflecting the breakdown of agreement in our culture about what is worth knowing. In contrast, we in the Honors Program believe that there is no better foundation for an education than a solid grasp of the history of the debate—from Homer and the Hebrew Bible to our own century—about the perennial topics that have preoccupied men and women: the origin and destiny of our lives, human nature, the just society, the constitution of the physical world, how we understand our history. But learning the wisdom of the past is not enough. An education for a constantly changing world has to be a training in a special way of thinking: one that leads you to see connections across disciplines, to notice what the tradition has valued and what it has neglected, to challenge your own conclusions and commitments, and to prize what can be learned from people different from you. But even this style of thinking will remain incomplete, unless you use it to develop a vision of a worthwhile life for you and your neighbors and to imagine plausible ways of achieving it. This is the real goal of a liberal education in the Honors Program.