The end of liberal education is not the learning of settled truths, and the inculcation of useful habits for obtaining useful goods, but the perfection of the human as human, not, primarily, as worker, citizen, or even believer.

While people with backgrounds more religious and those with more secular mindsets may disagree about what gives life ultimate meaning, value, and purpose, they tend to agree about the nature of education—it is a means to an end. The end of education for the religious-minded person might be seen, depending on his or her particular religion, as, say, the salvation of one’s soul, the glorification of God, the attainment of holiness or enlightenment, that is, something distinctly transcendent or spiritual. For the secular-minded person, it might be career preparation, the material betterment of humanity, self-fulfillment, that is, something distinctly temporal and material. There is, of course, much overlap between these ends, for religiously minded people also care about the world, and worldly-minded people also care about values. Regardless, both extremes and those in between consider education as primarily a means to these all-important ends. For this reason, they tend to characterize the transmission of knowledge and skills as the right and only model for education, with right answers, whether spiritually or materially regarded, and the most useful skills, aimed at the good of the soul or the good of the world, the only proper curriculum.

In this view, questions and questioning are important, but only when they give rise to and are aimed at definite answers. And liberal-arts disciplines, such as logic and literature, are generally a good thing to learn, but only when directed to securing desirable spiritual or worldly goods. In this way, the priority of answers, especially the right answers, and useful skills, in a school’s curriculum and pedagogy tends to render other types of questioning and other, not-so-useful skills obsolete. Open-ended questioning, speculative contemplation, and philosophical enquiry, and those skills that are deemed “useless,” such as a capacity for wonder, an appreciation of the true, the good, and the beautiful, and a grasp of the world as a whole, are either a waste of time and money, or just mere means to obtaining “right” answers and useful skills.

A liberal arts education, however, aims at inculcating skills and habits of mind that are intrinsically good, meaning not just good for acquiring extrinsic goods, such as spiritual salvation or technological progress. Although our questions and inquiries can be oriented towards definitive knowledge and right answers, and both spiritual and worldly goods, in the classical model this is not the reason we question and enquire. We question and enquire, and we develop our ability to do this through disciplined practice in the Trivium and reading and discussing the Great Books. And we do this because it is, simply, good to do, for it makes us better human beings.

It is for this reason that the Socratic or dialectic method of teaching, in which questions and questioning, not answers and answering, are paramount, and where questions are not seen as mere means to “correct” answers, and answers are themselves relentlessly questioned, and where “useless” goods are pursued for their own sake, is the preferred one in classical liberal education. It is not that liberal education does not value settled knowledge and correct answers, and the lecture and instructional modes of teaching that best transmit these; it is just that it values more the capacity of the student to inquire, and to do so, eventually, on his own. So, it hesitates to preempt and stultify this capacity by delivering answers—even if they are true!—too quickly and authoritatively, for then they may become answers that are not truly answers, for they may not have proceeded from deeply felt and wonder-evoked questioning, the art of which only the Socratic method can properly model and transmit.

Now, all of us are “secular” or “worldly,” because we care deeply about the world, its flourishing, and our children’s success in it; and all of us are “religious,” for we care deeply about something that we consider of ultimate concern. So, all of us to some extent are skeptical about a classical education that doesn’t directly aim at these goods. For we want our children to obtain the secular and religious knowledge and skills we care so deeply about! A teacher who happens to be either religious or worldly-minded, or both, which pretty much encompasses us all, would naturally want to give students the gift of correct answers, whether spiritual or moral or scientific or political, and the boon of useful skills, whether salvific or economic, to her students.

If I am a Christian teacher, for example, and thus believe that the truths of the Bible are the most important ones of all, how could I not want to teach them above all to my students? Similarly, if I am a secular humanist, or atheist, or materialist, or agnostic, or just someone who wants the best life for my students, and I believe that my position and paradigm on certain issues related to my discipline is the one most reflective of reality, why wouldn’t I desire to teach my students to think as I do so? And in terms of skills, why wouldn’t I spend the limited time I have with my students teaching them the skills they need for a successful spiritual life, if I am of a religious bent, and a successful career and life in the world, if I am more secular-minded?

But when education is what it is supposed to be, not a mere means but an end in itself, the end of getting to know reality as it really is, as a whole and in its parts, in all its myriad facets and depthless wonders, learning to and how to love it and our fellow wonderers, those religious and worldly goods we rightly seek as human beings and want for our children can most effectively be obtained. And if true education—that is, not job training—is not primarily about correct answers or useful skills, regardless of how true or good these are, then the teacher’s job in a classical school is not to give students these answers and skills—at least not directly—but to provide the best environment, materials, and guidance so that students seek and find the truth, see and love the good, and cherish and create the beautiful—for and by themselves. Liberal arts teachers are primarily catalysts for the development of the student’s emotional, imaginative, intellectual, volitional, moral, and spiritual capacities, and although direct instruction in the settled conclusions and principles of history, literature, science, mathematics, grammar, rhetoric, logic, and philosophy, and inculcation of good moral habits and practical skills, are a necessary and vital part of liberal education, it is these that are means! But to what?

The end of liberal education is not the learning of settled truths, and the inculcation of useful habits for obtaining useful goods, but the perfection of the human as human, not, primarily, as worker, citizen, or even believer. And humans are perfected as humans, on the natural level, by the liberal arts, the arts of the mind and soul, which culminate in the art of dialectical inquiry. It, more than any other art, enables the student to become a life-long learner. For Socratic questioning is the art that perfects and directs wonder, leading it to wisdom, the attainment of which is the purpose of life, and hence education for life.

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The featured image is “Alcibiades being taught by Socrates” (1776) by François-André Vincent (1746–1816) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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