Many modern observers view the university as little more than an instrument to achieve social and economic objectives, and to the extent that they are successful at corralling universities into these projects, they signal the end of liberal learning…

Widely acknowledged as one of the leading British political philosophers of the twentieth century, Michael Oakeshott (1901-1990) wrote on a range of subjects from the philosophy of history, through aesthetics and religion, to horse racing. From the late 1940s to the mid-1970s, he also wrote a series of provocative, elegant essays on education in general and university education in particular. These writings reflect themes central to Oakeshott’s philosophical vision and his understanding of what it is to be human. Borrowing a phrase from Paul Valéry, Oakeshott understood a liberal education to be un début dans la vie humaine. The engagement of liberal learning involves becoming aware of one’s intellectual and cultural inheritance not as a stock of information or knowledge to be absorbed and applied, but as living traditions of intellectual inquiry and understanding to which the learner is invited to contribute. Liberal learning is learning to speak with intelligence the great languages of human understanding—science, philosophy, history, and art—in order to gain greater self-knowledge as well as to participate in the ongoing “conversation of mankind.” 

Though his writings span a wide variety of subjects Oakeshott’s best-known work remains the collection Rationalism in Politics (1962).[1] This volume contains a series of essays, written from the late 1940s to the early 1960s, criticising what he termed Rationalism, the belief, deeply entrenched in the modern world, that human activities of various kinds are best conducted when guided by explicitly formulated principles, rules or ideals. Only when we place conduct on such foundations, so the argument runs, will we be successful practitioners. Rationalism for Oakeshott is a great mistake for a number of reasons, but primarily because it overstates, or gets out of proportion, the claims of reason. It fails to recognize that reason is embedded within traditions of one sort or another—intellectual traditions such as science and philosophy, as well as practical traditions. The abstract principles in which the Rationalist places his faith, and which he often thinks of in terms of timeless, universal principles or self-evident truths, are simply the abridgment of already existing experience.

Tradition is closely connected to another theme that runs through Oakeshott’s thought, namely, the idea of historical identity or character. We find this idea in some of his early writings on religion in the 1920s and 1930s, to his late work on the character of the modern state.[2] I will start with some discussion of this, not only because it provides a means of connecting Oakeshott’s writings on education with his broader philosophical and historical work, but because it also sheds light on the relationship between the Christian view of history and the liberal arts.

Michael Oakeshott

As a young scholar at Cambridge in the 1920s and 30s, Oakeshott was engaged in some of the theological debates then taking place. He was, for instance, a member of a group called the “D” society, a theological discussion forum of a modernist persuasion. He also participated in a meeting of the Modern Churchman’s Union in 1928, devoted to the topic Christianity and History. This theme was one of the pressing theological topics of the day, treated by leading theologians and historians such as Adolf von Harnack, Ernst Troelstch, and Albert Schweitzer (the Germans led the way). These figures were concerned with questions concerning the implications for Christian faith in light of what was generally perceived to be the historical revolution that had, by the 1920s, been underway for a good half-century.

Oakeshott’s address to the conference (published in the journal The Modern Churchman, 1928) was titled “The Importance of the Historical Element in Christianity.”[3] What he was concerned with here was not questions such as: Are the scriptures historically reliable? Or, who was the historical Jesus? Or, did the resurrection really happen? Rather, it was with the historical identity of Christianity. Does it have an essence and, if so, what is it? Whereas liberal theologians like Harnack thought that they could distill the essence of Christianity from its various outward forms, Oakeshott argued that there is no unchanging core or essence to Christianity to be found, say, in the experience of the early Church, or in a core set of beliefs or doctrines. Rather, Christianity is a tradition and as such, it is in a constant state of renewal and change. It has no changeless essence but it has an identity shaped by its history. “Identity,” he says,

so far from excluding differences, is meaningless in their absence, just as difference or change depend on something whose identity is not destroyed by that change.… On this view of identity… the characteristic of being Christian may properly be claimed by any doctrine, idea or practice which, no matter whence it came, has been or can be drawn into the general body of the Christian tradition without altogether disturbing its unity or breaking down its consistency.[4]

It follows, he suggests, that “we can change much without ceasing to be Christians”[5] and we should “give up speaking of the ‘essence of Christianity’ if that means merely ‘the most important part of Christianity.’ Whatever Christianity is, it is not its ‘essence’ unless that be taken to mean the whole of it.”[6]

This understanding of historical identity is close to the way he would describe tradition in his 1951 essay, “Political Education.” Here he writes that a tradition of behavior

is a tricky thing to get to know…. It is neither fixed nor finished; it has no changeless centre to which understanding can anchor itself; there is no sovereign purpose to be perceived or invariable direction to be detected; there is no model to be copied, idea to be realized, or rule to be followed. Some parts of it may change more slowly than others, but none is immune from change. Everything is temporary. Nevertheless, though a tradition of behaviour is flimsy and elusive, it is not without identity…. And since a tradition of behaviour is not susceptible of the distinction between essence and accident, knowledge of it is unavoidably knowledge of its detail.[7]

At about this time he is also turning his attention to writing about education and, not surprisingly they reflect some of these themes. In one of his early essays on university education,[8] Oakeshott suggests that on this topic our thinking goes astray when we ask the wrong sort of questions, such as what is the ”mission” or ”function” of the university? This is to frame the discussion in an instrumentalist or mechanistic way. It is another version of the rationalist mistake; namely, to suppose that we must have some clearly defined or pre-meditated end in view in order to engage in any activity. “A University,” he writes, “is not a machine for achieving a particular purpose or producing a particular result; it is a manner of human activity.” While universities might not be very good at articulating what their “function” or their “mission” is, they know something “much more important—namely, how to go about the business of being a university. This knowledge is not a gift of nature; it is a knowledge of a tradition, it has to be acquired, it is always mixed up with error and ignorance, and it may even be lost. But, it is only by exploring this sort of knowledge… that we can hope to discover what may be called the ‘idea’ of a university.”[9]

While there is an obvious link between Oakeshott’s understanding of tradition/historical identity and his writings on education I want to make the case below that in his educational writings he nevertheless departs from his understanding of tradition in important ways.

Oakeshott’s account of tradition and, indeed, what it is to be conservative, is famously skeptical. In his essay “On Being Conservative” (1956), for instance, he rejects the idea that conservatism is based on a set of core beliefs, whether a belief in original sin, or natural law, or Anglicanism. Conservatism is better understood as a disposition rather than a set of beliefs. It is “to prefer the familiar to the unknown, to prefer the tried to the untried, fact to mystery, the actual to the possible, the limited to the unbounded, the sufficient to the superabundant, the convenient to the perfect, present laughter to utopian bliss.”[10] And, as mentioned above, in Oakeshott’s understanding everything in a tradition is open to change and modification; there is no distinction between essence and accident. But in his writings on education, he wants to defend some idea of a core or essence of university education. I think the difference here is that in these essays he writes, as he puts it, “as a believer, not (in this matter) as a critical skeptic.”[11]

So what is that core or essence? Though universities have changed considerably over the centuries, he thinks they have something specific to give that goes right back to the ancient Greeks, and it’s bound up with the origins of the word “school”. For the Greeks “school” (σχολή) meant “leisure” or “free time,” a space and time set apart from the world of labour or work. It was originally associated with the activities of free men, that is non-slaves or those who were not burdened with the anxieties and responsibilities of work. These activities—of intellectual contemplation and explanation as well as poetry and art—were understood as ends in themselves, disconnected from the realm of material needs. Here Oakeshott invokes a distinction, probably inspired by the great Dutch historian Johan Huizinga, between work and play.[12] In his work Homo Ludens: A Study of the Play Element in Culture (1949) Huizinga suggested that one of the defining elements of human life and the creation of culture is the capacity to engage in a range of activities that are valuable for their own sake. Like Huizinga, Oakeshott thinks that unless we add the idea of Homo Ludens (man the player) to Homo Sapiens, Homo Laborans, and Homo Faber, we will have an incomplete and impoverished understanding of the human being.[13]

Human learning in general undoubtedly involves acquiring those practical skills and capacities that enable us to make a living or meet social needs, but such learning is to be distinguished from liberal learning itself, that which is “liberated from the concerns of practical doing, studies concerned with all the activities which belong to ‘play’ rather than ‘work.’”[14] This distinction does not imply indolence or idleness. On the contrary, learning to engage in these activities and to speak with intelligence the various languages of human understanding requires sustained effort. Indeed, in another of his essays, he suggests that we need to go beyond the idea of play because “whereas playful occupations are broken off whenever they cease to provide immediate satisfaction, learning [by study] is a task to be persevered with….”[15] It requires the development of certain habits, disciplines, and virtues that take time to develop—concentration, attention, and intellectual honesty for instance. Nevertheless, what links play and liberal learning is the idea that there are certain activities that do not need to be justified in extrinsic terms.

So what are these activities and how do they relate to each other? Here is where we bring in one of Oakeshott’s most famous metaphors, namely conversation. This is an idea he uses quite extensively,[16] and it is central to his understanding of university education. “The pursuit of learning is not a race in which competitors jockey for the best place, it is not even an argument or a symposium; it is a conversation. And the peculiar virtue of a university (as a place of many studies) is to exhibit it in this character, each study appearing as a voice whose tone is neither tyrannous nor plangent, but humble and conversable.”[17]

Human life, Oakeshott thinks, is composed of various forms of understanding which he refers to in his early work as modes and in some of his middle and later essays as voices or languages in conversation. Experience and Its Modes (1933)[18] was a late work of the British Idealist school of thought which sought to provide an account of the different modes of human understanding. The ones he dealt with specifically were history, science, and practice (later adding poetry/aesthetics). Philosophy, in this work, is not understood as a mode of experience, since a mode is identified there as form of knowledge that rests on a set of unquestioned presuppositions (about the nature of understanding and the relation between the mind and its objects). Philosophy is not a mode because it is the only form of understanding that does not rest on presuppositions; it is what he terms the concrete whole of experience or experience without presupposition or arrest. He seems to relax this formulation in his later writings, and indeed the terms change from modes of experience to languages or voices in conversation, but what remains consistent is the idea that there are distinct forms of understanding—history, science, art, philosophy, and practice.

At different times there has been a tendency to confuse one or more of the modes or voices with the others. For instance, in the nineteenth and into the twentieth century some philosophers of history sought to make history a scientific discipline armed with ideas such as “causality” and “process” from which, so it was argued, “laws” of historical change could be inferred. But the main source of the mischief comes from the practical voice or mode. When any one voice dominates the conversation, then “barbarism may be observed to have supervened”[19] and, in recent times, the practical voice has come to dominate by seeking to transform all the others into its own idiom.[20]

The voice of practice is the problematic one and, strictly speaking, liberal learning begins where the voice of practice ends. It also has a different character than the other non-practical modes of understanding. A distinction Oakeshott makes between languages and texts (or literature) is important here. University education is principally concerned with the former. That is, at university (though it might begin earlier) we learn to master the different explanatory languages of understanding. This is generally done through the study of texts, but the reason we read the texts is not for the purpose of gleaning information that we can put into practice, but because they are reflections of the different languages we are seeking to master. So texts should not be treated as storehouses of information or knowledge but as examples of forms of understanding. Some texts are better candidates than others in this regard. The reason a student of philosophy would read Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, or a student of literature read Milton’s Paradise Lost, rather than some of their (or our) lesser contemporaries, is because these are examples of great philosophical and poetic minds at work. (The historian qua historian, having a different end in view would, of course, read these works differently).

In relation to the ongoing “great books” debates, Oakeshott would not deny that some texts—which we label classics—are more worthy of our attention than others. Indeed, he suggests that “it is almost impossible to learn to read from contemporary writing.”[21] But the texts we choose will depend on the purposes we have for reading them, and the scholarly tradition(s) within which we are working. The books do not have an ineffable, objective or permanent quality independent of the categories and criteria of judgment belonging to ongoing, and ultimately contingent, traditions of intellectual inquiry.[22] But the key point is that in becoming acquainted with the forms of thinking—philosophical and poetic—contained in these works, we learn to think philosophically or poetically, or to put it in other terms, we learn to speak the languages of philosophy or poetry. It might be that we find a creed, a doctrine, or a piece of practical advice in these works, but if that’s what we go looking for, then we will miss most of what it is that these works have to offer.

There are, of course, traditional areas of university study that are professionally oriented, such as medicine, law, and theology, but these find a place in the university, not because of their vocational associations, but because they belong to distinct branches of scholarship.[23] Even if such studies have a practical or professional component, because they are concerned with traditions of intellectual inquiry that are continually being revised, they cannot be reduced to forms of technical training.

So what a university should be doing, if it is to be true to its character, is to protect and promote these multiple voices, and to resist the ever-present temptation to justify its activities in the language of utility. Though the university’s activities will invariably be affected by its relationship to the world outside, this engagement “must be carried out in a manner that does not entail a loss of identity.”[24]

The threats to liberal education come in many forms, and sometimes they have a superficial allure and stem from seemingly worthy motivations; the desire to be “relevant” or “up to date,” for instance, or the pursuit of funding sources that often follow from admitting programmes of dubious scholarly value. Universities have tended to succumb to these worldly temptations: “When, like Ulysses, we should have stopped our ears with wax and bound ourselves to the mast of our own identity, we have been beguiled, not only by words but by inducements.” But the main threat to liberal learning, Oakeshott suggests, comes from the belief in what he terms “socialization”—the idea that learning is principally concerned with equipping students with the skills and capacities enabling them to fulfill a role in the “social system” or promote a prescribed social purpose. This enterprise “not only strikes at the heart of liberal learning, it portends the abolition of man.”[25]

The phrase “the abolition of man” recalls the book of the same name by C.S. Lewis, which was, itself, concerned with education.[26] There are some connections here worth mentioning. Lewis was, in this work, partly concerned with refuting the idea that through the advancement of science humans have greater control over both the natural world and their own destiny. On the contrary, the project of taming nature through scientific mastery involves direction by a class of conditioners, planners and psychologists seeking to shape the future of the race—“the man-moulders of the new age will be armed the powers of an omnicompetent state and an irresistible scientific technique: we shall get at last a race of conditioners who really can cut out all posterity in what shape they please.”[27] If successfully implemented, this will lead not to freedom but the abolition of man as such: “Man’s conquest of Nature turns out, in the moment of its consummation, to be Nature’s conquest of Man.”[28] Liberal education is invariably traduced in this endeavour, since it challenges the idea that all learning must contribute to the social purpose. Lewis notes that the origins of the scientific control of the natural world in the early modern period coincided with the flourishing of magic, and both science and magic were driven (in large part) by the desire for mastery over nature. In this respect, Marlow’s Faustus has much in common with Francis Bacon, who spurned the idea of learning for its own sake, since it involves using “as a mistress for pleasure what ought to be a spouse for fruit.” Though Bacon rejected magic in the name of science, this was because magic was not effective, “but his goal is that of the magician.”[29]

Likewise, Oakeshott suggests that Bacon is one of the chief sources of the idea that liberal learning should be replaced with the pursuit of instrumental knowledge; an idea of knowledge as concerned with “things” rather than “words,” which would, in turn, lead to “the empire of man of things.” On this understanding knowledge about ourselves “is not a moral understanding of the ‘dignity’ of man, but knowledge of psychophysical processes.”[30]

The political expression of Bacon’s scientific vision was The New Atlantisa state established on scientific principles and geared towards the exploitation of the earth and the satisfaction of man’s material desires. It’s an early example of what Oakeshott terms an enterprise state—the image of the state as a grand collective undertaking seeking to realize an extrinsic end. The enterprise state can come in various forms—religious, economic or scientific—but Bacon’s vision of the technological utopia, as articulated in The New Atlantis, remains one of the most enduring. It gave rise to the understanding of a state as a “civitas cupiditatis: a corporate, productive enterprise, centred on the exploitation of the material and human resources of an estate, and managed by a government whose office it was to direct research, to suppress distracting engagements and to make instrumental rules for the conduct of the enterprise.”[31]

Like Lewis, Oakeshott understood the power of myth to convey deep truths. But while Lewis linked Bacon’s hopes to the Faust legend, Oakeshott prefers the story of the Tower of Babel as best encapsulating the modern rationalist mindset, pursuing perfection “as the crow flies.” The Tower of Babel is the title of two of his essays—1948 and 1983[32]—and in the later essay, Oakeshott retells the story for modern times. It concerns the transformation of the morality, religion, and education of the city of Babel through the pursuit of a grand collective engagement: the attempt, under the direction of the flattering ruler Nimrod, to build a tower to the skies in order to lay siege to the heavenly goods that would satisfy the Babelians limitless material desires. Unlike the biblical story which involved God’s intervention to confuse the tower builders by proliferating their languages, in Oakeshott’s version the project comes to grief through the forces unleashed by the engagement itself: “From one point of view this tale of Babel is that of the nemesis of greed.”[33] But it is also the story of a people who, in pursuit of a single objective, can only recognise one legitimate language, and only one topic of conversation. In other words, it is the story of the reduction of a conversation to a monologue:

Where there was only one subject of talk, imagination and language became impoverished. Newspapers degenerated before they were replaced by thrice-daily official bulletins on the progress of the Tower…. All conduct was recognized only in its relation to the enterprise. The words ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ ‘justice’ and ‘injustice’ acquired restricted meanings appropriate to the circumstances: to each was affixed the adjective ‘social.’[34]

Any remnant of education that the city had inherited was an early casualty of the enterprise:

The children of Babel had never enjoyed very much in the way of schooling; life began early and it was concerned with the satisfaction of wants which called for little learning. Its university was a tribute to the culture of earlier times (Babel had not begun in barbarity)…. But under the inspiration of the new ‘social purpose’ all this quickly revealed itself to the planners as the makings of an ‘educational system’ designed to impart (as a famous report put it) ‘the skills and versatilities called for by the current engagement of the people of Babel.’ A new A level subject called Tower Technology (TT for short) was introduced, a degree in Tower Studies was added to the curriculum of the university, and the School of Art was converted into a School of Industrial Design. But these were no more than early adventures in a transformation that was to leave nothing unchanged.[35]

In the three decades since this essay was written, universities have become more deeply enmeshed in the social and economic projects currently on offer. One version of this involves the substantial expansion of university participation to include those of “lower socio-economic status” (the poor), on the grounds that university graduates earn more money than those without university degrees, and this measure provides a seemingly simple means of income redistribution.[36] The other project, relentlessly boosted by political and business leaders, is the dreary vision that dominates our times—of economic growth and endlessly expanding levels of “getting and spending”. Both versions view the university as little more than an instrument to achieve social and economic objectives, and to the extent that they are successful at corralling universities into these projects, they signal the end of liberal learning. For Oakeshott the conversational engagement at the heart of university education is a great achievement of our civilization. Yet it could be that it will die in the way that R.G. Collingwood suggested that civilizations die: “not with waving of flags or the noise of machine guns in the streets, but in the dark, in a stillness, when no one is aware of it. It never gets into the papers. Long afterwards a few people, looking back, begin to see that it has happened.”[37]

Republished with gracious permission from ConnorCourt Publishing (CC Quarterly, 2012). The Imaginative Conservative applies the principle of appreciation to the discussion of culture and politics—we approach dialogue with magnanimity rather than with mere civility. Will you help us remain a refreshing oasis in the increasingly contentious arena of modern discourse? Please consider donating now.


[1] Republished in an expanded edition: Liberty Press, Indianapolis, 1991. Edited by T. Fuller. All references are to this edition.

[2] Republished in Oakeshott, Religion, Politics and the Moral Life. Edited by T. Fuller. Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1993.

[3] Reprinted in Religion Politics and the Moral Life.

[4] Religion, Politics, and the Moral Life, p.67.

[5] Religion, Politics, and the Moral Life, p.70.

[6] Review of G.G. Atkins, The Making of the Christian Mind, in Journal of Theological Studies, 31 (1930), pp. 203-8, at pp.208.

[7] Rationalism in Politics, pp.61-2.

[8] ‘The Idea of a University’, 1950. Reprinted in The Voice of Liberal Learning. Yale University Press, New Haven and London, 1989. Edited by T. Fuller.

[9] The Voice of Liberal Learning, pp.106-7.

[10] Rationalism in Politics, p.408. It is worth noting that Irving Kristol who was then editor of the journal Encounter rejected this article for publication, claiming that it was too secular and sceptical. In the 1950s, Kristol was in the process of founding the neoconservative movement and Oakeshott’s non-ideological brand of conservatism seemingly had little to offer. See Kristol, Neoconservatism: The Autobiography of an Idea. The Free Press, New York, 1995, p.375. For a discussion of the reception of Oakeshott by American conservatives generally see Kenneth B. McIntyre, ‘One Hand Clapping: The Reception of Oakeshott’s Work by American Conservatives’, in The Meanings of Michael Oakeshott’s Conservatism. Imprint Academic, Exeter, 2010. Edited by C. Abel.

[11] ‘The Character of a University Education’, in Oakeshott, What is History? And Other Writings. Edited by L. O’Sullivan. Imprint Academic, Exeter, 2004. p.373.

[12] ‘Work and Play’ (c.1960), in What is History?

[13] What is History? pp. 309-10.

[14] What is History?, p.314.

[15] Voice of Liberal Learning, p.69.

[16] Most famously in his essay ‘The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind’ (1959) reprinted in Rationalism in Politics.

[17] Voice of Liberal Learning, p.109.

[18] Cambridge University Press

[19] Rationalism in Politics, p.492.

[20] Scientism has, however, made a recent resurgence in the movement known as ‘New Atheism’. Here only the voice of science (of a peculiarly narrow kind) is recognised as legitimate.

[21] The Voice of Liberal Learning, p.70.

[22] There is a significant difference here between Oakeshott and, if not Leo Strauss himself, at least some of his followers such as Allan Bloom. cf. Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. Simon & Schuster, New York, 1987.

[23] The Voice of Liberal Learning, p.112, 146.

[24] The Voice of Liberal Learning, p.130.

[25] The Voice of Liberal Learning, pp.19-20.

[26] The Abolition of Man or reflections on education with special reference to the teaching of English in the upper forms of school. William Collins Sons & Co., Glasgow, 1978 [1943].

[27] Abolition of Man, p.37.

[28] Abolition of Man, p. 41.

[29] Abolition of Man, p.46.

[30] Voice of Liberal Learning, p.78.

[31] On Human Conduct, p.290.

[32] The first essay was republished in Rationalism in Politics and the second appeared in On History and other essays. Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1983.

[33] On History, p.191.

[34] On History, p.199.

[35] On History, pp.198-9.

[36] This was one of the major recommendations (since implemented) of a report into Australian Higher Education in 2008.

[37] The Principles of Art. Oxford University Press, New York, 1958 [1938], pp. 103-4.

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