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What Do We Mean by Liberal Education?

Source: Wilfred M. McClay via
Reprinted with permission.

“We shall not cease from exploration,” wrote T. S. Eliot in “Little Gidding,” “And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” Such is the task of a liberal education, rightly understood. It is a liberating exploration that results not in being permanently uprooted and alienated but in being more fully at home in the world that we already inhabit—and more fully able to enhance it, beautify it, ennoble it, and sustain it.

Image: Public Discourse

Our system of education is failing us in more ways that we can count. Paramount among those failures is our failure to attend effectively to the moral formation of our young people. None of the tasks of education is more important, and there is none at which we are failing more miserably.

Yes, it would be very nice if we could improve the measurable proficiency of our students in math and science and history and language arts. I’m all for that. But education is not just a matter of developing the intellect and furnishing the mind. Cultural literacy, too, is a valuable thing to cultivate, but not quite the heart of the matter. It is good to be culturally literate, but it is better if it occurs as a byproduct of a proper formation, not as an end in itself. To know of many things is not the same thing as having been shaped by them, taken them in, made them one’s own, and in some way also being made theirs—accepting their formative power and thereby being further equipped for the task of living well.

To do that, we have to think more than we do about shaping the heart, the character, the souls of our students. It is a daunting task. Yet we are already doing it anyway, whether or not we know it—which is to say that we are probably doing it very badly. If we take the task seriously, it becomes something that should occasionally make us tremble a little. We get immersed in the humdrum and quotidian routines of education and forget that we are being given the privilege of handling something precious, much as if we were priests handling the sacrament. We better start paying attention.

We used to do this so much better. Don’t get me wrong: I am not nostalgic for the old days of rote education. I am even willing to say some positive things about John Dewey, if you catch me in a generous mood. But what has been lost is far, far greater than what has been gained. If you remember the books in the past of American education—the Bay Psalm Book of colonial New England, the McGuffey Readers on which the citizenry of the new American democracy fed, the Columbian Reader that shaped the soul of the likes of Frederick Douglass—or if you think back to the relative healthiness of the regime of in loco parentis, you will see why there is ample reason to regret the loss we have sustained. Instead of being in loco parentis, our colleges have simplified matters, and simply become loco.

Where our general cultural decline is most alarmingly visible is in the steady erosion of any semblance of civility in wide swaths of our public and private lives. This is the platitude of platitudes these days, but honored everywhere in the breach, not the observance. Civility is for Thee, not for Me, because my passion is great, and a great passion needs no justification other than itself. I feel deeply, therefore I am right. If you disagree with me, you are causing me trauma, and must be silenced, as a matter of public health.

The state of our public life is a mess that we are not going to be able to clean up quickly or easily. But education is our bailiwick, and education should not be beyond the reach of reform. If we want to reform it, though, we have to ask ourselves some hard questions. How many of us who teach experience great difficulty now in facilitating class discussions, because the sensibilities of our students are too brittle, too anxious, too prone to personalize all differences, too lacking in the combination of confidence in one’s own rational powers and openness to the arguments of others that is the prerequisite for vigorous and meaningful discussion and debate? I think all of us run into this problem now, and the problem is not going away. Instead, it is in the process of being institutionalized. And what was once confined to the campus is seeping out into the more general culture.

Now, it might be logical at this point to launch into a diatribe against ill effects of social media. But we really can’t do much about that, not on the institutional level. What we have to concentrate on is representing an alternative. Because the stakes are high: we are in danger of losing our capacity for serious deliberation, and that is an ability that does not come naturally. We have to teach it; we have to cultivate it. That is what schools can do. But we are failing to do so. The graduates of our elite universities and colleges, who should be leading the way and setting a good example, are the worst equipped of all in this regard. A people that can’t engage in rational deliberation is not going to be capable of self-government. It is that simple.

We are in danger of losing our capacity for serious deliberation. The graduates of our elite universities and colleges, who should be leading the way and setting a good example, are the worst equipped of all in this regard.

So how can we turn this around? The alternative, I believe, is a familiar one: liberal education.

What Are the Liberal Arts?

If we are to make any kind of case for the liberal arts, we must first have a reasonably coherent notion of what the liberal arts are and what they are for. That means clearing away some persistent misconceptions.

First of all, the term “liberal arts” shouldn’t be understood as a synonym for “the humanities,” or for those “soft” disciplines that are offered as complements to the “hard” disciplines of science and mathematics. Teaching them is not just a matter of imparting certain analytical techniques and skills that are readily transferable to other areas of human endeavor, although they do impart those skills extremely well. Nor do the “liberal arts” refer to a specific content area or a particular body of knowledge, although their exercise may well involve the acquisition of such a body of knowledge. They are not reducible to a lengthy list of books that must be read, languages that must be mastered, or concepts with which one must be conversant, although all those things will contribute in indispensable ways to the pursuit of a liberal education.

Instead, the mark of a genuinely liberal education is that it aims at instilling a set of paradoxical qualities, which are often quite fiercely at odds with one another. Those qualities can be grouped under two broad rubrics: the capacity for inquiry, and the capacity for membership.

Let me illuminate by way of example.

A number of years ago, when I was still a fairly junior professor on the faculty at Tulane, I went to an academic conference in San Francisco whose subject was the purpose of the modern university. It was well-attended, and featured two outstanding plenary speakers, both of whom were received very warmly by their audiences.

The first was the historian C. Vann Woodward, who was receiving a luncheon award for his long and illustrious career, and particularly for his commitment to free speech and free investigation. In his remarks, Woodward put forward a bold and uncompromising view of the university’s appropriate work. “The university,” he declared, “is the place where the unthinkable can be thought, the unspeakable can be said, the inconceivable can be conceptualized, and the unfashionable can be entertained.” The university, and it alone, offered the world a place consecrated to the most precious and most imperiled aspect of human freedom: our freedom of thought, freedom of inquiry, and freedom of expression. Without strong institutional protections for such freedoms against the forces that always seemed to spring up against them, we would lose their benefits, including a culture that is bent upon seeking and finding the truth, without fear or favor. Visibly stirred by these words, the audience applauded loud and long, and I joined them.

Later in the day came an address by the political scientist James Q. Wilson, also speaking on the theme of the university’s purpose. In his speech, Wilson argued that the modern university was best understood as the chief conservator of the rich but fragile civilization of the Western world, the keeper of our chief intellectual, moral, and artistic treasures and our collective historical memory. That heritage had made us what, and who, we are; but our dynamic commercial and progressive culture was all too likely to toss that heritage aside, in the pell-mell pursuit of the next big thing. If the university did not take care to look after the older things, he asked, who else would? Without a strong institutional commitment to the conservation and propagation of that cultural inheritance, we would lose its benefits, including a vital connection to the best that has been thought and expressed in the human experience. For these words, too, the audience applauded loud and long. Again, I joined them enthusiastically, though by now experiencing a bit of puzzlement at them, and at myself.

Puzzlement, because it struck me that the audience—and I myself—seemed to be applauding, with equal enthusiasm, two entirely different and seemingly incompatible ideals of the university. Woodward seemed to be holding up the university as a place of constant unsettlement, even creative destruction, in which everything that is taken for truth today is open at every moment to being rethought, reframed, reconstituted, and even discarded; a place in which no dogma is safe and no complacency is tolerated; a place in which ideas and ideals can have validity only so long as they can stand up to the intense and uninhibited refining fire of today’s most impertinent questions and searing criticisms.

Wilson, on the other hand, was pushing for an ideal of the university that stood precisely against the arrogant and self-absorbed tendency of the modern world to appoint itself the plenipotentiary judge of all things, to deny and disparage the authority of all that has come before it, and in so doing, to ensure that those who come after it will accord it the same treatment, in the fullness of time. Wilson’s university was instead a place where the young would be educated to take up the fullness of their cultural inheritance, to become literate and conversant in its many features, and to fully appropriate all that it has to offer them. To be formed by it.

The mark of a genuinely liberal education is that it aims at instilling a set of paradoxical qualities, which are often quite fiercely at odds with one another: the capacity for inquiry, and the capacity for membership.

These are two very different-sounding ideas about the nature of higher education, yet we applauded them both with roughly equivalent fervor. Were we, the audience, being completely inconsistent? Or might there be a deeper logic linking them, one that neither speaker sought to illuminate, but that we need to take to heart in our own attempt to understand what the value of a liberal education ought to be in the present day?

Education for Freedom

I think there is, in fact, a deeper sense in which these two different accounts of the university are merely different aspects of the same vision: a vision of education as a preparation for freedom, in the fullest sense of the term—freedom understood not as mere license, nor as a life lived unfettered by constraints or coercions or traditions, nor as a life lived in the easy-going, conflict-free adjustment of one’s wants and expectations to the world as one finds it. Rather, this freedom is understood as rational self-government, a regimen of risks and rewards; a freedom grounded in a fruitful combination of membership and inquiry, of reverence and criticism; a freedom that releases us from the unquestioned tutelage of the past, but in a way that enables us to draw sustenance from the past rather than aiming at making us wantonly disdainful of it. Wilson’s university would bring to its charges the blessings of a more fully conscious and informed membership in the society of which they are already a part, while Woodward’s university would give them space for inquiry, the ability to engage in the acts of radical questioning and criticism, including civilizational self-criticism, that represent one of the chief means by which our society has been induced to improve itself. The best university, the one that teaches the liberal arts, is the one that does both of these things at the same time.

Hence, we were right to applaud both speakers at that convention, for we need both messages. Membership without inquiry is stale traditionalism; inquiry without membership is irresponsible kibitzing. The end in view is that of substituting informed loyalties for blind ones, conscious reasonableness and uncoerced love for fear, dependency, superstition, and reflex action. It is a freedom that comes of seeing all that one has formerly known in a larger arena, within a larger frame, as a part of a larger reality—to see it all in, as we say, a new light.

That image, of seeing all things freshly when they have been freshly illuminated by the emergence of greater sources of light, will make many of us think of one of the greatest and most imperishable parables of education: Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, in the seventh book of the Republic. You all know the story: a strange, even weird tale of people who have been compelled since birth to view images cast upon a wall as if they were the only real things in existence, and of the disturbing revelations that come to them when they are released from their bondage, and brought into the blinding light of day—brought to see things as they really are. The same parable has been related in various ways, from the veil of Maya in Hinduism and Buddhism, to the “evil demon” in Descartes’s Meditations who orders the world so as to deceive him, or the 1999 science-fiction movie The Matrix, in which most of humanity has been constrained to experience only a simulation of reality created by all-controlling, life-devouring computers. It even makes an appearance in The Wizard of Oz.

What all these narratives reinforce is a powerful, and sometimes haunting, apprehension that we may be living our lives under the spell of a complete illusion, whether imposed by others or conjured by ourselves. They warn that the process of freeing ourselves from that illusion is painful and unsettling, that it can involve a complete transformation of all that was familiar and a complete redescription of reality itself, in the name of the search for truth. They also show us that the stakes are very high. Those illuminati who return to the cave, Plato tells us, are likely to be killed by those who have never left it, who prefer not to have their illusions disturbed.

Of course, reality is rarely so dramatic and extreme as that. Plato’s great allegory, and the other versions of this theme, are not the whole story about education, which is just as often a tale of delight and discovery as one of pain. I fear that Plato’s allegory may mislead us by emphasizing only one part of the effort of liberal education: the process of disabusing and disillusioning, of weakening the hold of the present and the past on us for the sake of better apprehending the possibilities that beckon from beyond.

An argument I find more helpful and reliable comes from a small book by the late historian Jaroslav Pelikan, called The Vindication of Tradition. Drawing upon an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson, Pelikan offers up a distinction between “tradition” and “insight,” and then goes on to show how unsustainable that distinction actually is:

A “leap of progress” is not a standing broad jump, which begins at the line of where we are now; it is a running broad jump through where we have been to where we go next. The growth of insight—in science, in the arts, in philosophy and theology—has not come through progressively sloughing off more and more of tradition, as though insight would be purest and deepest when it has finally freed itself of the dead past. It simply has not worked that way in the history of the tradition, and it does not work that way now. By including the dead in the circle of discourse, we enrich the quality of the conversation. Of course we do not listen only to the dead, nor are we a tape recording of the tradition. … But we do acquire the insight for which Emerson was pleading when we learn to interact creatively with the tradition which he was denouncing.

In this view, the point of studying the tradition is not to absolve us of the need to think for ourselves or the responsibility to build things of our own. On the contrary, the tradition helps us to recognize the work we are meant to do. Our heritage is our task. It gives our world its defining contours, its horizons, and its specific possibilities. We cannot know or undertake our task without the benefit of our heritage. But it is by doing our task that we can come into the full possession of that heritage, thereby perpetuating the tradition as something living, rather than something moribund, and thereby making it possible for us to have a free and full relationship with that heritage—like that of children who have fully grown up and can at last see and embrace their forebears for the people they are, and who can come into fully adult possession of their inheritance.

So the Platonic allegory is not quite adequate to the task of description here. But then neither is Woodward’s description of the university as a relentless and unsparing critique, or Wilson’s of the university as an agency of reverent cultural transmission. What might fit Pelikan’s description best is the idea of education as a Bildungsroman or narrative journey—but only if one adds the qualification that it is a narrative journey culminating in a homecoming, the kind of story that we call an odyssey. “We shall not cease from exploration,” wrote T. S. Eliot famously in “Little Gidding,” “And the end of all our exploring / Will be to arrive where we started / And know the place for the first time.” Such is the task of a liberal education, rightly understood. It is a liberating exploration that results not in being made permanently uprooted and alienated but in being more fully at home in the world that we inhabit—and more fully able to enhance it, beautify it, ennoble it, and sustain it. It is an inquiry that draws upon, challenges, but ultimately affirms and strengthens, our sense of membership in that world. In fact, it is an inquiry whose pursuit is part and parcel of our membership, and which makes tradition and insight into partners, rather than foes. The wisest cosmopolitan is the one that also understands the truth in what Dorothy famously told us: there’s no place like home.

Liberal education is an inquiry that draws upon, challenges, but ultimately affirms and strengthens, our sense of membership in the world. It is an inquiry which makes tradition and insight into partners, rather than foes.

Moral Formation and Public Life

I think the contribution of liberal education to our public life ought to be clear enough from what I have said so far. Of course, I recognize that liberal education is seen by a great many people as a luxury we can no longer afford. I don’t mean to brush this criticism aside. But we need to think very hard about what the highest purpose of education really is. We live at what is arguably the most prosperous moment in the entire history of the human race. The standard of living that even the most common among us enjoys today would be the envy of kings and queens in ages past. Is it really believable to say, at precisely this moment, that the pursuit of the highest and best kind of education is something that much poorer peoples and times were right to seek, but that we can no longer afford? Can we hear how absurd this sounds?

The chief public benefit of liberal education is the formation of a particular kind of person, and thus a particular kind of citizen, who embodies the virtues of both inquiry and membership, and therefore is equipped for the truth-seeking, deliberation, and responsible action that a republican form of government requires. We are talking here about moral formation, in the fullest sense of the term. Such a person asks questions, and answers questions asked, responsibly and respectfully. Such a person has an ability to draw back from the flow of events and reflect upon them, consulting the voice of reason and the wise testimony of the past. Such a person has the cognitive and moral strength to see the world as it is, never mistaking a succession of images projected onto the walls of caves, or simulations of “public opinion” conjured on screens, for reality, no matter how large the images or how pervasive their presence. Such a person has the courage to think for himself.

Which is a way of acknowledging that Plato’s great allegorical image of liberation remains at the core of education, even if it does not constitute the whole of it. Before we can do anything truly magnificent and lasting, we too must be drawn out of our various caves. We must be liberated from the sirens of propaganda, or the enchantments of virtual experience, before we can accomplish anything worthwhile.

An unhealthy proportion of our experience, and particularly the experience of the young, has come to be mediated and directed and channeled and simulated by the artificial instrumentalities we use to apprehend the world, and by what others instruct our imaginations to believe that such a world might be. Such a tendency carries with it great dangers, both for our ability to think clearly and attentively, and our ability to use our imagination with vividness, intensity, and independence, not to mention its undercutting the patterns of restrained and civil public deliberation that a genuinely democratic society requires.

This tendency toward immersion in mediated experience inhibits the full flourishing both of our inner life and of our common life. In the years to come, it will be a greater and greater part of a genuine liberal education to counteract these less benign effects of our ghostly electronic cave, and restore us to ourselves—to restore our ability to hear and see and touch the earth for ourselves, to gaze at the night sky for ourselves, and to make contact with the exhilarating, wind-swept heights of our human freedom.

And it will give us, through intensive study of old books, the hard but delightful labor of serious conversation, which is an enduring participation in the work of human excellence, a drink from that reservoir of shared wisdom of which Herman Melville spoke when he wrote that “Genius, all over the world, stands hand in hand, and one shock of recognition runs the whole circle round.” That participation, that drink, that connective electricity—such joys and provocations initiate us into a profoundly public world, a shared world, a highest common denominator whose altitude allows us a glimpse of the reality that lies beyond all caves and matrices.

That is an education that forms us, frees us, and unites us, all at once. And it is possible, if we are willing to pursue it.

Headshot of Bill McClay

Wilfred McClay is the Victor Davis Hanson Chair of Classical History and Western Civilization, and Professor of History at Hillsdale College. He is the author of The Masterless: Self and Society in Modern America and Land of Hope: An Invitation to the Great American Story.

Originally appeared in  The Public Discourse, the journal of the Witherspoon Institute of Princeton NJ, and is reprinted with permission.

Header image: Elijah Hail via