On the Goal of Liberal Education

David Foster

November 1, 2003

Almost everyone recognizes that there is a crisis in our way of preparing youth for life. Some think the problem is primarily a matter of technical competence; and there is no doubt that at almost every level our students know less, say, mathematics, than previous generations did, and a lot less than is needed to maintain an advanced industrial economy. Before and while we are scientists, technicians, or businessmen, however, we are citizens and human beings. Moreover, our current approach to technical education originated in certain changes that occurred first in our thinking about liberal education—that education which prepares us for our responsibilities as human beings. And in liberal education, the problem is not primarily falling standards, though, measured by the past, standards here too have fallen dramatically or even ceased to exist. The problem is more fundamental: we have grown uncertain about the very purpose of liberal education. We cannot solve our other educational problems until we recover for liberal education a substantive and attractive meaning.

In attempting to explain what liberal education is, it is convenient to begin with what it is not. It is not immediately useful. In my view, liberal education must focus on reading books—the so-called great books—but no one will hire you because you know Pascal’s Pensees, Shakespeare’s Othello, or Plato’s Symposium. Liberal education is not vocational or technical training. Training gives you technical knowledge and skills that are immediately relevant to the job market—for example, knowledge of legal precedents, software programming, jet engine maintenance, or surgical techniques. Liberal education doesn’t do that and doesn’t try to. It is much more concerned with life as a whole than with career prospects; it has more to do with character than with job skills.

This does not mean that liberal education is useless. On the contrary, anyone who has read Dorothy Sayers’s little essay, “The Lost Tools of Learning”, knows that it inculcates some very important skills. Businessmen frequently complain about how difficult it is to find people who can write clear English prose, who can critically analyze complex arguments, or who can compose and deliver an entertaining and persuasive speech. Such skills are in great demand in this information age, and they are all part of a liberal education. But important as they are, it would be a mistake to see the acquisition of these skills as the main purpose of such an education. Knowing Latin will in fact help you write better English sentences, but that reason alone is not enough to justify the tedious memory work required to master Latin verb forms. After all, there are good English teachers and grammars available: why not just use them? To learn Latin, we must have a purpose that goes beyond the language’s utility.

Although no employer will hire you because you know some particular book, what you learn from a whole program of reading and study might well be important. I am not now thinking of a particular body of knowledge, for example, of the world’s religions, or of the skills of analysis, writing, and speaking mentioned above. I am thinking of the habits you acquire, mostly without being aware of it, while learning these things. While following the argument of a long and difficult book, or while mastering a substantial body of knowledge, you are learning, through practice, some very complex intellectual and moral skills. At first this is almost always done with a guide and under the pressure of grades and deadlines, and perhaps without a clear idea of the ultimate goal. But more and more it comes to be based on your own initiative and under your own direction. Liberal education is a kind of discipline, two important goals of which are to learn how to learn and to come to love learning.

Over four years, the constant practice of that discipline changes one in ways that may become evident only much later. Some of these changes are highly valued by employers, especially in the professions. Who wouldn’t rather work with people who are actively curious about the world and who possess habits of self-mastery and initiative? So on this score too liberal education is useful. But once again, these things are accompaniments or consequences of liberal education; they are not its primary aim. Everything I have just said applies as much to a rigorous legal or medical education as to a liberal one.

What is it then that distinguishes liberal education from other kinds of education? Part of the answer has to do with the broader scope of a liberal education. Such an education does not aim merely to give us tools, vital as they are, or to make us specialists, but to give us a working familiarity with the ideas underlying and animating our society as a whole. A liberally educated person will therefore be as capable of reflecting on the principles of mathematics, physics, and biology as he or she is of discussing democracy, monotheism, or the differences between movies, painting, and sculpture. Such a person won’t be an expert at everything, but he or she will be able to understand what the experts say and, of great importance in a democracy, will be able to deduce and evaluate the implications of their proposals. A liberally educated person will have a general sense of how all the various spheres of life—religion, science, politics, the arts, etc.—are interrelated and ordered. And because our way of life here and now cannot be fully understood without some points of comparison and contrast, a liberal education will include some familiarity with at least one other way of life.

While a broad vision of life as a whole is an important part of liberal education, what I have said so far is still incomplete and too vague. A more precise account of the goal of liberal education is suggested in the word “liberal”, which is derived from a Latin word meaning free: liberal education is that education whose purpose it is to make us capable of living as free human beings. In one important sense of course our freedom does not depend on education at all, but on the institutions and practices based on the Constitution. But institutions are run by people, and everyone recognizes that full and genuine human freedom means more than “not being oppressed” or “doing whatever you want.” It is this higher view of freedom that is the aim of a liberal education.

One of the great American attempts to articulate the higher meaning of freedom is found in W.E.B. DuBois’s book, The Souls of Black Folk. In analyzing the problem of race relations in the post-reconstruction period, DuBois argues that the central problem is not vocational education for the sake of economic advancement, or even political and civil rights, but the training for life. As important as economic, political, and civil rights are, they ultimately beg the real issue. For even if everyone had good jobs, and even if we achieved real civic equality, we would still ask: What now? What use should I make of my opportunities and equality? Prosperity and equality are means or preconditions. They cannot answer the decisive question: What is the best way to live? It is the task of liberal education to explore this question, to give us the resources to think about it on our own, and to point in the direction of the answer. So long as one depends on others for these things, one is not genuinely free.

According to DuBois, then, one’s attempt to solve economic and other problems must be guided from the beginning by some view of ultimate purposes, which lends meaning to our other efforts. For him, that ultimate purpose has to do with culture, or the cultivation of the highest human strivings for truth, beauty, and goodness. His view of the education for life has many parts, but its most important one is reading. DuBois famously describes his own highest activity and its result:

I sit with Shakespeare and he winces not. Across the color line I move arm in arm with Balzac and Dumas, where smiling men and welcoming women glide in gilded halls. From out the caves of evening that swing between the strong limbed earth and the tracery of the stars, I summon Aristotle and Aurelius and what soul I will, and they come all graciously with no scorn nor condescension. So, wed with Truth, I dwell above the Veil.

Only in the great books, whose authors strove single-mindedly for truth, beauty, and goodness, was DuBois able to find a satisfying release from the spiritually debilitating effects of color prejudice. And he holds out the prospect that young men and women of different races who share a passion for the highest human strivings might find a solid common ground in the mutual study of these same books: the divisive effects of human diversity can be overcome only on the level of common intellectual striving. This is not all that DuBois thought was needed, not by a long shot, but without it he thought our other efforts must fail.

Although DuBois was addressing himself to the specific problem of race prejudice, his vision of education helps us see how liberal education in general is liberating. Just as reading the right books in the right spirit freed DuBois from the worst, that is, the spiritual consequences of race prejudice, so too a good liberal education can help release us from the powerful grip of our own prejudices, passions, and unexamined opinions. You might wonder how reading books could accomplish this. Well, in the first place, truly to grasp the thought of a good book requires a kind of total immersion in it; and that, in turn, is impossible without disengaging, at least temporarily, from the immediate concerns of one’s own life. There is no danger that these concerns will be forgotten; nor should they be. But there is very good reason occasionally to suspend our preoccupation with ourselves for a few hours. For even that small space allows us to perceive that our angers or sadnesses, our desires, loves, and fears need not be all consuming. The experience of distance from our own concerns that we get when we strive with all our might to follow a serious author’s thought shows us that we need not be helplessly buffeted about by our desires and passions. Our eyes are opened, often for the first time, to the possibility that those desires and passions can be subjected to critical examination and guided in better and more satisfying directions.

While the very best books draw us out of ourselves, they do so only to return us to ourselves. Almost all of them contain substantial reflections on the needs, desires, and passions that we ourselves have; only these reflections are much more profound and complete than our own are likely to be. Such books thus help us to understand the full significance of things about which we have only a glimmering. Don Quixote, for example, examines what it would mean to take love seriously as a principle of action for life as a whole; it is fascinating, even essential reading for anyone moved by love or wishing to understand its full meaning. In other words, the specific content of a good book is as important as its distancing effect. Its content draws us out of ourselves, and that distance in turn gives us the freedom to grapple seriously with the content.

Now several such books expose us to a much greater variety of human types and possible kinds of lives than we are ever likely to experience in person. And as I mentioned above, this broadening of awareness is one of the great aims of liberal education. Unfortunately, the best books disagree about the most important things. The Homeric heroes, Achilles and Odysseus, offer us a very different vision of human fulfillment than does Plato’s Socrates. Having been exposed to both, we are compelled to wonder whether a life of action is more or less satisfying than a life of philosophic investigation and insight, and on what grounds a sensible choice could be made. Again, there are books that call for a life of loving service to friends, country, or God; but others reject these alternatives as delusions, if noble ones, and argue forcefully that clear-sighted people always prefer their own security, wealth, and fame. Such examples could be multiplied, but these are enough to show that mere exposure to diversity is insufficient. Incompatible alternatives force us to choose, and they compel us to search for the best way to make that choice. Some knowledge of diversity is valuable in and of itself, but only a study of diversity that is motivated and guided by a search for the standards by which we can judge and ultimately rank the various alternatives truly deserves the name of liberal education.

Perhaps the most important implication of what I have said may be that somewhere near the heart of liberal education will be a searching critical examination of one’s own dearest principles, opinions, and moral beliefs. For Americans, this requires, among other things, considerable attention to equality. If we are really interested in genuine alternatives, we will not limit our reading only to books that confirm our belief in equality, though of course we will read and re-read and love those. But we will also read books that were not written in egalitarian times or to defend equality; and we will read them not as historical artifacts or as interesting errors, but as if they could be true. Such reading cannot but help us to explore the many consequences in our lives of our attachment equality as well as to help us see how deep that attachment really is.

Liberal education thus helps us to acquire self-knowledge, but this means that it is upsetting as well as liberating—upsetting because liberating. Honest self-examination is not easy, and fully to understand ourselves we must be bold enough to raise and pursue some radical questions. To return to our example, we must investigate the question whether equality is good. The goal is not hostility to equality (just as it is not indoctrination in it), but freedom. Only after we recognize and understand the habits of mind, the virtues and vices, the errors and blind-spots into which we are led by our love of equality can we really take charge of our lives. It then becomes possible to support our genuine strengths and avoid or correct for our characteristic errors. If there is any truth in the popular idea that all thinking is colored by interests, it must follow that a critical but friendly distance from equality will help us become more reasonable. Liberal education aims ultimately at making us more capable of living under the guidance of reason.

Although it is based on reading, then, liberal education is not just book learning. It is rather a kind of character formation. And while it does cultivate some important and marketable skills, these are not its primary goal. In trying to sum up what that goal is, it would be difficult to conclude with a more beautiful statement than this:

Liberal education, which consists in the constant intercourse with the greatest minds, is training in the highest form of modesty, not to say of humility. It is at the same time a training in boldness: it demands from us the complete break with the noise, the rush, the thoughtlessness, the cheapness of the Vanity Fair of the intellectuals as well as of their enemies. It demands from us the boldness implied in the resolve to regard… the average opinions as extreme opinions which are at least as likely to be wrong as the most strange or the least popular opinions. Liberal education is liberation from vulgarity. The Greeks had a beautiful word for “vulgarity”; they called it… lack of experience in things beautiful. Liberal education supplies us with experience in things beautiful.

David Foster is an associate professor of Political Science at Ashland University and an Adjunct Fellow of the Ashbrook Center.