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  • What Good Is a Liberal Education?
  • Robert Paul Wolff (bio)

As my defense of liberal education will be somewhat unusual, drawing as it does on the insights of Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and Herbert Marcuse rather than on Cardinal Newman and John Dewey, it might be useful for me to begin with a reminder of some of the more familiar defenses of liberal education. After reviewing three rationales for undergraduate liberal education, I will turn to what I consider the real justification for the study of our cultural and intellectual tradition.

The first of the three defenses of liberal education is the oldest and perhaps the most traditional: liberal education as the appropriate education for a gentleman. (Not, please note, for a gentlewoman—that consisted of skill with the needle, a bit of music, and the elements of oeconomics, which is to say the management of a household.) A study of the classics, it was thought, would give men of high estate the proper finish, or patina, that would allow them to move gracefully in polite circles. A command of Greek and Latin, like a well-turned leg and a well-filled codpiece, was an evidence of good bloodlines. It was even suggested that familiarity with ancient tongues and literatures might deepen a young man’s understanding of human affairs, although that was, to be sure, more of a tutor’s hope than a realistic expectation.

The fundamental presupposition of this conception of liberal education [End Page 137] is, of course, that the young gentlemen who are to receive it have inherited their position in society. As gentlemen, not forced to work for a living but supported by the inherited wealth of their extended families, they are free to treat education as an intrinsic rather than an instrumental good. This construal of the intellectual and aesthetic life has exercised a great appeal to many of those who make their lives, and their livings, as scholars, writers, and teachers. Somewhat less obviously, it underlies the familiar disdain exhibited by the liberal arts faculties of modern colleges and universities for the faculties and students of the vocationally oriented branches of higher education—medicine, law, architecture, business, nursing, engineering, hotel administration, and the rest.

The traditional defense of liberal education as the appropriate finishing for a gentleman has a curious American variant, traceable to the exigencies of frontier life in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. As one can see in such classics of frontier literature as Owen Wister’s The Virginian, it is the woman who is idealized as the bearer of culture, not the man. In the myths and popular fiction of our recent past, the mother teaches the young boy to read, nags and pleads until her husband brings an upright piano out to the homestead, drags the family to church on Sunday, and maintains minimal standards of polite behavior—table manners, courtesy between the sexes—as a defense against the relentless encroachment of the wilderness. The spinster schoolteacher is, in this version of frontier life, the connecting link to a valuable cultural heritage, left back East but still remembered.

The second justification for liberal education is a more recent entrant into the debates about educational philosophy. I have in mind the familiar claim that liberal education is the gateway to integration into American society and economy, the engine of upward mobility in a competitive capitalist marketplace, the stepstool that will enable the smart, the ambitious, the hardworking to begin the climb up the pyramid to its favored upper reaches.

This theme is repeated endlessly in our popular literature, and not without a certain measure of truth. Indeed, my own family history perfectly exemplifies the story. My great-grandfather arrived at Ellis Island in 1880 as Abram Zarembovich. Forced to [End Page 138] change his name to Wolff by an unsympathetic immigration offi-cial, he settled on the Lower East Side of New York and raised my grandfather, who without formal education beyond some secondary schooling became a leader of the Socialist Party. His son, my father, seized the chance for a free college education, and continued on to do graduate work in biology before beginning his career as a teacher...


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