Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Liberal Education

An interesting article about the aims of a liberal education and how we could benefit from more of it in our system.
The expression “liberal education” is quite important. Today, when we think “liberal education”, we think “Would you like fries with that?” But as the common root with the word liberty suggests, liberal education is an education that helps make us free. Only by first understanding not only the empirical scaffolding of our Universe–a.k.a. science–but also its conceptual scaffolding, a.k.a. the ideas, concepts and history which shape the world we live in, can we ever hope to be free, that is to say to be able to make informed, conscious decisions.
Similarly, the great men (and, sorry, they were mostly men) who bequeathed us this wonderful order understood that a regime of majority rule cannot long withstand the test of time without having a citizenship that takes seriously the notion of virtue. The virtues, to Aristotle and others, are not so much about being a goody-two-shoes, but rather about the lifelong effort to reach self-mastery through confronting our passions (today, perhaps, we would say: our addictions) and properly ordering our will towards that which is good. If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll see how growth in virtue is itself a form of liberal education.
Nobody stops to ask what education is for, because the answer is implicitly accepted by all: an education is for getting a job. It is, in other words, for being a cog in the giant machine of post-industrial capitalism. It is, in other words, for the opposite thing that our forefathers wanted for us. I do not use these words lightly, but it is against–in the sense that a headwind is against a ship–the very foundations of our liberty and our civilization.
 A couple of thoughts:
  • When I was in high school (twenty some years ago) I only read some classic works in a few elective classes.  We covered a bit of Plato in my Humanities class and I got some Swift in an English Lit class.  And some Shakespeare here and there.  We did cover the Declaration of Independence and Constitution in a class on government and I think that was a required course.  Otherwise, you could go through your whole school experience without exposure to the classics.
  • It's striking when reading works from the 19th century and older, just how much the educated reader was expected to know.  References to classic mythology, poetry and the ancients abound.  Now, if you want to include an ancient reference, you need a paragraph (at least) to explain it.  Set aside whether or not this is good or bad, it most certainly a change.
  • The idea that education should be for making a more rounded person and not as a job training program sounds almost . . .  heretical.   Think of the assumptions that we have now.  A large part of the grading system in my school was explicitly based on a) doing work and b) turning that work in on schedule.  Very little was based on essays and similar expressions of thoughtfulness.  There are few non-physical jobs that don't require a college degree.
  • I'm speaking of public schools.  I don't know how well private or parochial schools do on the classics.  It would surprise me if Catholic schools didn't cover some Augustine or Thomas Aquinas.  But I've been surprised before!
I've mentioned before that I'd put Mill's 'On Freedom' in the hands of every high-schooler if I could. Maybe some Rabelais as well...?


  1. I homeschool my daughter and have been attempting to give her a liberal education. Your thoughts are not only interesting but are very true. A great book that goes into depth about the history of modern schooling is: An Underground History of American Education by John Taylor Gatto. It is one of my top 20 favourite books and for non-fiction, probably in my top 5.

    Thanks for the recommendation of "On Freedom". I have a high-schooler now, so I'll start looking for a copy. I also think high schoolers should read Cicero's Defence Speeches. A more lucid, logical rhetorician I have not met yet!

    1. I'll keep an eye out for the Gatto book. It sounds very good. And yes, I messed up the name. It is 'On Liberty'. Whoops!

    2. No problem. "On Freedom" was so close to the correct name that I would have eventually figured it out!

  2. I assume you mean John Stuart Mill's "On Liberty".