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  • Liberal Education and Liberalism
  • Mark Blitz (bio)

To discuss liberal education intelligently we must begin by asking what it is. Otherwise we cannot say whether it is improving or declining, or even whether it is good. Socrates' lesson that we can clarify nothing about a matter until we consider what it is is at once commonsensical and troubling. It is just the kind of lesson that the liberal arts should be teaching.

The way to proceed is to explore what liberalism means, what education means and what they mean when we take them together. The first step is to look at the current substance and structure of education and liberalism and see what place today's liberal education has in freedom and education generally. I will in general follow this procedure and begin with this step.


Liberal education today often appears to be useless. It seems pointless when we compare it to job training or professional education. A good course in accounting enables one to obtain work. Business courses and business schools help one to earn a living. Training in computer techniques or automobile repair help others, Republican and Democrat, rich and poor, rural and urban alike. Medical school helps one be as proficient in dealing with the inside of a body as a mechanic learns to be while looking under the hood.

Sooner or later, however, we ask how we should spend the money we earn, where we should drive the car that now works, and how we should use our health. Liberal education is the part of education that treats ends and goals. Why wealth, health, and leisure are good is not something that that businessman, business professor, auto mechanic and physician know through their distinctive training.

The question of the proper ends and purposes of our actions, however, is less obviously the province of liberal education than it seems when we are considering only training and formal education in schools. What of parental and moral training and religious education? From both the everyday and intellectual standpoint of the Greek poets and philosophers who founded the liberal arts, these questions are questions of politics and political science. (Plato Statesman 304A ff.) They are answered implicitly and often explicitly by the laws that tell us what we must or may not do, by the ways of life that governments and their principles of justice organize, and by the judgment of statesmen. Liberal education does not occupy the field of purpose by itself: it either aids political education, counters it, or does both.


If liberal education helps us to understand the goals that guide other types of education it is not useless, but eminently beneficial. Yet, liberal education also appears to be frivolous or, if one likes, playful. It does not directly produce anything useful or especially marketable. Its being playful seems as much or more its heart than serious purposes that fancy arguments claim it serves. In fact, liberal education as education that helps guide our ends differs from moral or political education because it is more frivolous than they are. The leisure with which we pursue it contrasts with the serious and urgent tasks of political and domestic life.

It is more polite to say that liberal education is spiritual than to call it frivolous. To call it spiritual recalls that it competes with or supplements religious as well as political education - religious education itself competes with or supplements moral education. The competition derives from the fact that liberal education intends to employ reason to help us clarify and choose our purposes. It does not as such begin from faith or rest upon it. Because the liberally educated continue to attempt to know they also do not conclude with faith. They may of course enrich those beliefs whose place in moral and political education supplements but does not contradict what is reasonable.

What is fully spiritual about liberal education, however, what characterizes its leisured play and its stance above and beyond the serious and harried is that it begins in devotion to understanding for its own sake. This devotion may prove to be foolish for any and all, but precisely because it can be self correcting...


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pp. 45-48
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