In a time of economic uncertainty, liberal education holds out the promise of joy in learning, contentment in contemplating truth, and satisfaction in community. These things are available to all people, rich or poor.
Liberal education and the free society have always been intimately connected. A liberal education, an education which prepares one for freedom, gives rise to a society of individuals who must then exercise their freedom well. St. Augustine argued that freedom was truly freedom to live rightly; a liberal education is one which prepares an individual to exercise wisdom in a series of choices which effect not only himself but his society at large. Our American society is an outgrowth of a broader culture, one which springs from “a fairly uniform tradition of wonderful richness coming from Greece, Rome, and Judea. In our antecedents are the gifts of the Hebrews and later the Christians for a spiritual life and intensity which have resulted in our belief in the reality of the inner man.” Transferring an awareness of our culture and the roots of our specific society is a key task of liberal education.
Such an education becomes even more significant when set in the context of twenty-first century America. In an increasingly technologically linked age with a nearly universal franchise, the burden of freedom is both tenuous and precious. A democracy could always hand its liberties to a tyrant, either out of fear or through deception; these realities make the ability to recognize threats to the nature of the democracy vital for its continuing health. The present danger to the United States as a free society is more subtle; as an increasingly wealthy technological superpower, the temptation exists to embrace Marx’ identification of humanity as nothing but homo economicus.
A liberal education fends off such a theory, contending that a broad education both strengthens the human spirit and invites the student into a living tradition worth defending. Richard M. Weaver describes education as “not merely shaping the imparting of information to the mind but the shaping of the mind and of the personality… education is unavoidably a training for a way of life.” More recent liberal educators hope “that the result of all the effort we pour into teaching and learning would not only benefit the individuals we educate, but help our society toward a universally high quality of life.” Past and present leaders in liberal education present this approach as one preparing the student to join a culture, not merely be an economic producer and consumer. It asks the student to take up the mantle of his intellectual inheritance and bear the responsibility of freedom with pride.
Liberal education functions as the foundation for a free society, as well as defending the ideas, convictions, loves, and hatreds bringing about such a civilization. Defining liberal education is a difficult task; by its nature such an approach is more organic than its career-oriented counterpart. This kind of education has taken many names over the centuries: the Greeks called it paideia; the medieval and their lists referred to the artes liberales; in the twentieth century Mortimer Adler popularized the Socratic method of investigating the Great Books; its most recent expression lies in the growth of classical schools across the United States.
Collegiate liberal education has been revived in recent decades by institutions such as Hillsdale College, Grove City College, St. John’s College, and King’s College in New York City. Each of these schools focuses not on preparing students for a specific career track, but on developing the student’s human potential through immersion in the western tradition, with the goal of producing an articulate student who understands the foundations of freedom, values those men and women who have gone before him, and seeks to live out the tradition anew in his own life. Perhaps ironically, each of these colleges has found that such a preparation equips students to succeed in a variety of fields; the liberally educated individual is able to walk out his freedom well wherever life carries him.
It is this orientation towards freedom and responsibility without reference to a specific career which distinguishes liberal education. Educators in this vein draw from a variety of disciplines to help students comprehend the voices of the past and understand how such voices help make the world an intelligible place. While the benefits of a liberal education are nearly endless, contrasting it with an opposite approach may bring clarity. The tradition of a liberal education goes back to the ancient Greeks three millennia ago; the opposite, which this essay will call the research education model, began in the post-Enlightenment successes of the German research university.
In the nineteenth century, the German research university became the leader of higher education. Rather than the goal of education being broad, the research model proposes that the highest kind of education is specific and deep. Where the title Doctor of Philosophy originated as a capstone degree in the medieval university, indicating that the student had mastered the liberal arts and was now prepared to study philosophy (one of two candidates for a ruling discipline), the German university granted this title for the author of a Ph. D. dissertation on increasingly narrow subjects. Weaver explains this phenomenon, writing,
Not very long ago I heard a social scientist, who deplored this very tendency, speak of how shallow the training of a social scientist today can be. He does not study philosophy, so that he remains ignorant of the profounder value systems. He does not study languages, without which it is impossible to understand cultures from within. He does not study history, which gives the concrete story of all social development. Without philosophy, without languages, and without history he calls himself a social scientist.
Over the succeeding generations, this vision of specialized education trickled downward to the college and eventually the elementary and secondary education levels.
In American educational circles, this approach paired with the growing popularity of William James’ pragmatic philosophy. James used the criteria of practical benefit to determine if a task was worth doing or knowing; such a criteria puts the burden of proof on the teacher to provide tangible reasons the student should understand the Allegory of the Cave, or Aristotle’s theory of causation. John Dewey built upon James’ theory, arguing that students only needed to know that which would prepare them for a career path.
These two thinkers helped shift American education from a widespread acceptance of liberal education to embracing a market-driven vision of the research model. Schools of all levels should teach practical, marketable skills. For those going onward in the academy, the cherished skill in the post-WWII university became publishing rather than teaching. Research shifted from being one method of teaching students to understand concepts and take ownership of their education to being the method by which scholars construct knowledge. As the embrace of research methodology increased, the vision of liberal education became harder and harder to articulate. Today, Americans have embraced the idea that all capable students should earn a bachelor’s degree; when pressed for why, the typical response involves the promise of a career path.
The shift away from a common vision of liberal education has some costs attached. A liberal education equips students to recognize truth, embrace tradition, and fulfill human potential. Rejecting this methodology has weakened American society in each of these three domains.
In her classic essay “The Lost Tools of Learning,” Dorothy Sayers explains the success of propaganda in the early twentieth century as a failure of rhetorical education. The third art of the Trivium, rhetoric, equips students to understand the art of persuasion and practice it themselves. In so doing, the student becomes able to recognize when rhetoric is being exercised upon him. The study of rhetoric is but one example from a category of areas a liberal education examines in the quest for truth. The student is encouraged to seek truth wherever he may find it, and the teacher is there to help guide him along the path. The different disciplines the student studies—history, literature, mathematics, geometry, philosophy, theology, biology, physics—are each particular ways of studying universal truth.
Medieval philosophy envisioned truth as an object at the center of a table, with each discipline seated at a different seat. From the point of view of each discipline, a different facet of truth emerged. The more viewpoints a student can assemble, the greater his understanding of truth. In contrast, the research model propounds the value of ever-deeper knowledge of a single perspective as the route to uncover truth, if truth exists. David Eddings illustrates the liberal vision of education through a conversation between an educated father (Belgarath) and his daughter (Polgara). Polgara wants to know how she can know an author is telling the truth; Belgarath replies that she must read continually, and eventually she will develop a sense for when authors write garbage and when they write gold. It is this truth-sense which liberal education provides; it is only available to those who travel the winding path of broad studies, searching for continuity among the different disciplines.
One quality that distinguishes humanity from beasts is our sense of tradition and continuity. All humans are born into families, and into a tradition. A liberal education exposes students to all sides of this tradition and requires that they know it before doing their own unique work. The greatest minds of the twentieth century followed this pattern: Nietzsche framed his theory of civilizations in terms of Apollo and Dionysus; Freud reached for the myths which had endured for two millennia to explain his psychosexual theories; Marx illustrated his understanding of history by reaching for the medieval guilds and feudal structures; C.S. Lewis wrote drawing on a vast knowledge of Greek, Roman, and English literatures. Each of these men had enormous impact, and they were able to reach so far because they framed their own contributions in terms of the tradition which preceded them.
Without a firm understanding of what has gone before, the next generation becomes rootless, flailing in the winds of change for some amount of stability. The ongoing chaos in sexual matters on university campuses is a result of two generations’ determination that students should cut themselves free from all restraints or traditions in terms of how men relate to women. Without this tradition, people struggle for a vocabulary in which to discuss matters as elementary as consent, rape, and gender identity. While appeals to something as broad as the western tradition do not always provide clear or simple answers, such an appeal locates the conversation within a vocabulary in which humanity has always discussed such topics. Without this tradition, humanity abandons the wisdom inherited from our predecessors.
A liberal education centered on the western tradition remains unfocused on career success, which prepares students for a marketplace in which they may or may not achieve their goals. Hillsdale College Provost Dr. David Whalen began freshman orientation in 2007 with this declaration, “You have not come here for job training. You have come to let us mess with your minds!” While Dr. Whalen meant this to be a laugh line, he also communicated a significant point. A four-year education costing approximately $100,000 was not intended to help the incoming freshman get a job. Instead, the goal of a liberal education is a transformed perspective on the world recognizing truth, beauty, and goodness as the purposes of human society. At the end of that path, the student may find work, but ultimately the recipient of a liberal education should be prepared to weather the storms of life regardless of economic position.
In a time of economic uncertainty, liberal education holds out the promise of joy in learning, contentment in contemplating truth, and satisfaction in community. These things are available to all people, rich or poor. Many students have gone on from a liberal education to achieve great financial wealth, while others have not. All have equal capacity to achieve human happiness, because the liberally educated student understands that his human nature is spiritual, mental, and physical. Happiness requires the healthy sustenance of all three components, and a liberal education prepares the student to seek the fullest development of his humanity throughout a lifetime of learning. In contrast, the research model upholds the vision of either the solitary academic whose precise research is only comprehensible to a minute group of equally solitary academics, or the promise of immediate success in a lucrative career field. Both of these visions of human life are reductionistic: the academic vision focuses only on the life of the mind, and career promise focuses only on the physical component of life. Neither offers a satisfactory vision of human happiness.
The research model offers clear promises—wealth and prestige—yet is increasingly unable to fulfill those promises. The college freshman aspires to the business school, majoring in marketing. The history junior declares a desire to become a professional historian. Both finish their schooling to find a flooded and sometimes hostile job market where employment decisions are based not upon resumes, CV’s, or published papers but upon relationships. Depending upon the amount of specialization in the undergraduate degree, the pace of technology may render his degree obsolete before the student can repay his student loans. By promising fiscal success and academic respectability, the research model holds out a few opportunities to the masses, resulting in thousands of students who buy into a certain vision of human happiness to find only disappointment.
How then does liberal education relate to the free society? America of the twenty-first century is a land of great opportunity. It is still what it has always been: the country where men of virtue, adventure, and courage can achieve greatness. It offers an unparalleled amount of freedom to citizens, allowing them to direct society where the voters believe it should go. A liberal education does not promise success or guarantee happiness. Instead, it upholds the unique value of human nature, proposing that the route to understanding our world is through loving a certain tradition, a set of ideas, convictions, truths, and methodologies which have been handed down to us. Through entering the Great Conversation, all students can discover what it means to be human, how they have received their freedom, and obtain a vision of how they should use this responsibility of freedom. The education, Weaver argues, that
forms minds and wins converts to belief in truth is education in the arts and sciences which have brought our civilization into being, in the ideas and values which can be shown to give it unity, and in history, which is the actual story of our trials and triumphs. The deeper and more solid the individual’s education is in these, the more likely he is to conclude, when years have matured him a little, that self-directed living in a free and pluralistic society is the finest fruit of man’s political wisdom.
A liberal education serves as the foundation of a free society, and the method by which western civilization transfers a love of the higher things to the next generation, enabling them to carry this tradition onward one life at a time.
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1 Richard Weaver. “The Role of Education in Shaping our Society” in In Defense of Tradition: Collected Shorter Writings of Richard M. Weaver 1929-1963 (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000), 213.
2 Richard M. Weaver, Visions of Order: The Cultural Crisis of Our Time (Wilmington: ISI, 1995), 113.
3 Robert Littlejohn and Charles T. Evans, Wisdom and Eloquence: A Christian Paradigm for Classical Learning (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 2006), 17.
4 Julie A. Reuben. The Making of the Modern University: Intellectual Transformation and the Marginalization of Morality (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1996). Rueben provides an intellectual history account of the shift from the liberal arts colleges of the nineteenth century to the research university as a dominant paradigm by the early twentieth century.
5 Richard Weaver. “The Role of Education in Shaping our Society” in In Defense of Tradition: Collected Shorter Writings of Richard M. Weaver, 1929-1963 (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000), 219.
6 David and Leigh Eddings. Belgarath the Sorcerer (New York: Ballentine Books, 1995), 317.
7 Jessica Bennett. “Campus Sex…With a Syllabus” New York Times January 9, 2016. Acessed January 18, 2016. Also see Nathan Harden. “Sex and God at Yale: Porn, Political Correctness and a Good Education Gone Bad” (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2012).
8 Richard Weaver. “The Role of Education in Shaping our Society” in In Defense of Tradition: Collected Shorter Writings of Richard M. Weaver 1929-1963 (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000), 227.
Editor’s note: The featured image is a painted tabletop for Erasmus Stedelin depicting the seven liberal arts, as well as Ptolemy and the study of astronomy (1533) by Martin Schaffner (1478-1548), courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.