Mini-Essay: What is Liberal Education?

One cannot be a modern “educationalist” without a pithy defence of what education is and what (or who) it is for. Definitions for the purpose of education are to be heard everywhere, and are often loaded with personal or political bias. Someone new to the topic – told at every turn that education is one of the most important features of modern life – can be forgiven if he is left scratching his head, or if he is attracted by the meretricious glow of trendy definitions (or manifestos, as they increasingly seem to be called) currently doing the rounds.I have found it helpful to look backwards at how education has been defined in the past. It is a great comfort to do so, for although details and methods are debated, the central purpose of education seems to have been universally understood since it was begun in Athens in the 5th Century BC. The phrase “liberal education” – and this site – takes its inspiration from this old common understanding of what education is for. That this definition should be supplanted by something fit for the 21st Century is a case that has been repeatedly made; I would ask which developments have made the definition below no longer fit for purpose.The essay to read is Anthony O’Hear’s Introduction in his The School of Freedom, from which this brief, and personal, summary draws its inspiration.Firstly, how is Liberal Education liberal? In two principal ways:1. Its purpose and scope is broad.


The goal of liberal education is…to produce educated persons. Qualifications may be more or less required depending on the historical circumstances, but the chief measure of a liberal education is a frank look at the end product: is this person educated, or is he not? How do we test this? Principally, by how much he knows. This is where that glorious – but much too debated – phrase from Matthew Arnold comes in: that children should be fed a diet of “the best that has been thought and said.” The point is that the knowledge selected for the child to be taught should not be dictated by how useful it will be for a particular job, but for its own inherent quality. This means: the best novels; the most ground-breaking scientific breakthroughs; the great events in history. I disagree with a few points of Martin Stephen’s essay The Strange Death of Liberal Education, but he does use this attractive phrase. A liberal education, because it is concerned with more than training for a particular job “has time to gather flowers by the wayside.”

2. Its ambition is to liberate.

The more specific an education, the more trapped are its graduates. The payoff for the rigours of a liberal education is intellectual liberation. A diet of “the best that has been thought and said”, if taught in the right way, equips children with the mental armoury needed to be truly autonomous, protected in adult life from the temptations of sophistic hucksters or commercialist knaves. It was an education designed, in the words of the 15th Century writer Vergerio, to be “worthy of a free man.”

I shall leave to a future essay the central paradox of liberal education. To my mind, it is the reason that its name is so often taken in vain. Briefly, it is this: in order to achieve liberal education’s highly ambitious ends, teachers and parents have to use means, especially in the early years, which will feel illiberal. Memorisation; grammar tables; rote learning; high standards rigorously upheld. As Anthony O’Hear very eloquently puts it, “personal freedom requires an internal locus of control.” Supporters of liberal education have a low estimation of a child’s ability to reason. As Aristotle says in his Ethics, “no one would choose to live with the intellect of a child throughout his life.” Again, this is put very well from Professor O’Hear: “it is the responsibility of parents to exercise judgment on behalf of their growing children, and the most generous choice is to train the child’s own reason in anticipation of his or her necessary freedom in majority.” It is in these coercive areas – a recommended canon of knowledge, rigorously taught – that the Liberal Education tradition runs counter to some of the orthodoxies of modern permissive parenting. The payoff is worth it though. Anthony O’Hear again: “by aiming at such uniformity schools produce all the diversity of freedom…No pedagogy has ever shown more faith in its charges; no generation has ceded so much power to their successors.”

Liberal education is defined in essence above. It has two interesting lesser priorities, which I shall touch on very briefly here. The first is that it has an aesthetic element to it. Martin Stephen says that “A liberal education seeks to inculcate an awareness not just of why a thing works, but that it can be beautiful in its working”, and Professor O’Hear agrees: the ideal product has “…an educated sensibility in matters of value and the aesthetic.” The last point is that it includes quiet political ambitions too. Students who have been truly liberally educated want to engage with the world politically. “Reason,” as O’Hear says, “will call its pupils to action.” I shall be discussing the non-intellectual character elements of liberal education in another essay.

As a last point, it is worth answering the question of who, as opposed to what, liberal education is for. After its coercive elements, the next biggest problem for liberal education in this century is the whiff of elitism that accompanies it. Of course, it was precisely this elitism that made it attractive in the past. In more ambitious ages, people of all backgrounds thronged to the great books and ideas precisely because they basked in glory. This should be the rejoinder in the present age: when previous generations from all backgrounds took such succour from liberal education, why is it modern young people from poor backgrounds who are denied it? It is, after all, the unprivileged who have more use for intellectual autonomy than the privileged. The book to read on the topic is Jonathan Rose’s The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes. In it, he charts the reading habits of the British working class over hundreds of years. The book teems with fascinating portraits: Catherine Cookson’s biography is famous; my favourite are those of the Midland weavers who had copies of Great Books propped up on their frames as they worked. As O’Hear points out, the initial aims of Liberal Education were to extend aristocratic Athenian culture to all Athenian citizens; this ambition needs to be urgently re-stated.

Published by willorrewing

I run Keystone Tutors, and a summer nature + creativity camp called The Imaginarium.

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