The first day of our Liberal Arts Seminar I said Cardinal Newman’s philosophy of liberal learning boiled down to one thing: his concern that if all we have is a hammer everything will look like a nail.

To make this lesson memorably multimodal I passed around one of my own hammers from home. OK, it wasn’t really a hammer; it was a heavy rubber mallet. (Seemed less freaky for a first day of class.)

As a hardcore do-it-myselfer I get a lot of use from that mallet so I confess I had mixed feelings presenting it as a symbol of limited imagination. In truth, I have done some fairly creative problem-solving with that mallet.

Here’s the thing: if all you have is a hammer, you can potentially become extremely skilled with the hammer. You might hammer in the morning, hammer in the evening, building up your 10,000 hours with the hammer until you become the person people invite to help solve problems that seem to be solvable with hammers and until you yourself begin to experience more dimensions of the hammer–you might make music with it, play croquet with it, crack coconuts with it, invent new ways to build and maintain hammers, recognize hammer-like qualities in objects that are not hammers. Crookneck squash, for instance. Or certain kinds of fish.

What a liberal arts education attempts to do is equip you to master your hammer while immersing you in situations that demand unconventional uses of that hammer, perhaps calling into question the ethical or cultural implications of hammering and challenging you to wield and invent completely different sorts of tools.

Ultimately, your ability to hammer like no one else still matters, but you have the capacity and flexibility to transcend the hammer.

Like a lot of people in higher education–teachers and learners–I get tongue-tied attempting to succinctly explain what we’re doing when we say we’re doing liberal learning. I’m grateful to the AAC&U for helping us clarify what it all means and why it matters and what it looks like when students are achieving it.