A Manifesto for Liberal Education


For at least three decades now I’ve talked about liberal education in public, but I can say in my own favor that I’ve done it—at least done it lately—with a somewhat bad conscience. That bad conscience comes in part from adding yet more to a magnitude, that of words about education, which is already large (though not great) beyond all reason. The other part of my slight sense of guilt comes from talking at the public and the students and the teachers, just when my point usually is that people shouldn’t talk at but to each other.

This time round, and I’ve resolved that it should be the last time (though I haven’t much faith in that resolve), I’ll therefore do it differently. I’ll still talk for a while, but I’ll leave off in time for an ample question period. And instead of expanding in consecutive arguments and rounded periods on this subject, which is so close to my heart that I could probably do that, I’ll be concise to the point of brusqueness and bold to the point of offense. So much the more important will it be that you get your chance to give your counter-opinions as you question my theses. For that is the way I want to proceed this time: to nail my nine theses concerning liberal education on the imaginary gates of this college and then to weather whatever small storm results. So let me begin forthwith and in accordance with my introduction by announcing the following first thesis.

Thesis One: Lectures are not a legitimate part of liberal education, at least not as a primary part. I conceive of liberal education as quite sharply distinct from vocational training. This distinction goes back to Aristotle, who speaks of liberal, that is to say, free learning as being done for its own sake and not as a means to an end. Now when students are being trained in some expertise in which it is important that they should receive the most effective methods and the established facts from those who are learned in them, that is, from the professors and authorities, then lectures may be the right mode of imparting that knowledge. It might be more efficient to excuse students from class and to hand them outright the paper or notes from which the professors are reading, but insofar as a certain amount of theater on their part helps students remember the material, a live delivery may be useful. But liberal education as I understand it does not have the purpose of shaping students to professional standards. Instead it is a slow self-development guided by teachers who are also and genuinely fellow learners. The subject matter of liberal education is not primarily jigged methods and established facts, but questions and inquiries of the sort for which there are no experts and in the face of which students and teachers are not so far apart—not because the teachers are not far more learned but because the matter is so very deep. One way to put my first thesis is that professors should give up professing and take up teaching. Liberal learning is by its nature conversational or, to use a fancier term, dialectical. In a dialectical education the student is not the passive recipient of knowledge but an active participant in a common search. So the class is a place of real, not pretended questions, and the conversation is not a disguised solicitation of fixed answers but a shared effort. And that means throwing to the winds such false professorial ambitions as “covering the material” or “making students see” a certain thing, and above all “teaching them the methods of research” in a subject—for methods are, as I said, jigged ways of figuring, and they are the last thing a student should learn about, perhaps even as late as graduate school.

Read the rest at The Imaginative Conservative.


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