Liberal Education for Freedom

Matthew Rose

Fall 2017

This January, a week before rioting, vandalism, and tear gas overtook the campus of the University of California, Berkeley, its chancellor, Nicholas Dirks, sent a lengthy message to the university community. He explained why the visit of provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos could not be stopped, but ought not be welcomed, and in the process highlighted the "tension" between political rights and academic values. Dirks noted that the university, as a public institution, is prohibited from banning expression based on its content or viewpoint, no matter how hateful or hurtful. But, he continued, "we regard Yiannopoulos's act as at odds with the values of this campus."

The chancellor's letter was right as a matter of fact. There is a tension between education and political life. But what he could not see, or at least could not see his way to articulate, was that a university has the responsibility to challenge liberal values in ways that both advance its mission and benefit a liberal society. The letter made appeals to various freedoms, rights, and values, but did not define them or explain how they cohered. Indeed, Dirks could only lament the present "opposition" between them. And as the nation would learn, this opposition soon became a violent reality.

We have become accustomed to universities being places where people shout. How did this happen? Our best students are learning fundamental lessons about life that ought to terrify us: Debate is to be shunned; identities are beyond criticism; and freedom is found in self-expression. The situation is more than an unsettling early warning of a possible political future. It represents a stunning repudiation of an older educational ideal, which saw the university as a place for civil conversation, self-examination, and the freedom found in self-governance.

The name of that older tradition is, of course, liberal education, whose weakened place in our culture both reflects and influences how we think about the nature of liberalism itself. We are so used to dismissing the liberal arts that we have lazily forgotten how vital they are to our political life. But the case must be made, no matter how late the hour. Liberal education plays a unique role in a liberal society. Like biblical religion and the traditional family, it is committed to ideals that challenge and sometimes offend liberal notions of equality and inclusion. It calls human beings to a way of life that is open to all, but whose standards of achievement will be met by only a few. But the fact that it carries the name "liberal" education is a hint that its contribution is one of critical loyalty, rather than simple dissent. For if liberal education questions democratic values, it is only because it offers a more radical vision of human freedom.

Chancellor Dirks was right that higher education has an essential contribution to make to our civic health, inoculating us against our worst political vices. But it does not do so by protecting students from threatening or demeaning speech. It does so by teaching students about the highest human excellences and the achievements that testify to them, showing students how our most important conversations can be grounded in our shared humanity.

Understanding this purpose of liberal education will not slow the rise of illiberalism or reverse the decline of the humanities. Nor will it bring immediate peace to our restless campuses. But it can teach us a lesson, however difficult to implement, about the place of liberal education in a society that aspires to order its life through conversation rather than coercion. Unless we learn it, our best efforts at cultural renewal will be worse than futile — they will be corrupting.


Liberal education, in its root meaning, is education that befits a free person, and for this reason the liberal arts have been called the "arts of freedom." An education is therefore "liberal" if it cultivates our capacities for speculation, imagination, and persuasion. These are the "arts" of free persons, the intellectual habits required to become self-governing. Such powers are called "free" because they are developed only through special effort and instruction. Unlike other living beings, our maturation does not coincide with our biological development, but requires what classicist Jacob Klein called a "double ripening."

Liberal education aims at the cultivation of these human powers, whose full development results in a free person. Their ripening is not automatic, but is a difficult and even dangerous achievement. In the liberal-arts tradition, freedom must be won, quite literally, from the threat of enslavement. Enslavement to what? The word and its cognates are everywhere on campus, but liberal education does not aim to reveal our captivity to corporate ideology, racial supremacy, or the oppressive structures of capitalist society. Instead, it teaches that our deepest enslavement, and the greatest threat to our freedom, comes from a much more intimate house of bondage — ourselves.

At the origins of liberal education, we therefore find a critical distinction between liberal and "servile" arts, a distinction between two different kinds of learning. The opposite of a liberal education is not a scientific or "conservative" education, but a servile education. And what is that? While the idea is foundational to Western education, you will rarely hear it discussed today. Its roots are in the thought of Aristotle, who argued that an education is servile if it prepares a student for a life of slavery rather than free self-development. Here it is important to avoid a fatal misunderstanding. For Aristotle, a servile education is characterized by a student's intentions, not his vocation or family background. Fundamentally, it is directed toward goods of strictly instrumental value — material possessions, status, or physical well-being. Aristotle named these goods servile because pursuing them as ends cannot cultivate the highest human powers.

Aristotle's claim will not be found in a college brochure, but it has lost none of its power to provoke: An education ordered to profit, power, or pleasure is an education fit for a slave. Notice that slavery is not a matter of future occupation or present social class. A free person can work with his hands, and a slave can be a member of what Robert Hutchins called the "white collar proletariat." A slave is simply anyone who has not learned how to cultivate, intentionally and with care, his "free powers," and thus remains compelled by the pursuit of lower goods. A student is therefore not free if he has successfully learned only how to acquire material, bodily, or positional goods. A student is free only by learning how his soul might be ordered toward the true and the good.

Aristotle's argument has seemed elitist to those like John Dewey, who dismissed his views as rooted in class hierarchy. We are living in an age still haunted by Dewey, whose ideas proved enormously destructive of liberal education. The most influential philosopher of education in American history, he charged that liberal education had its basis in exploitative social arrangements that were repudiated by modern life. "[T]he traditional doctrine of liberal arts cannot be understood," he asserted, "except in connection with the social fact of division between free men and slaves and serfs."

Dewey's criticisms were hugely effective. They shaped the curricula of countless American universities. But they were massively flawed. He accused liberal education of being rooted in class ideology, and, put this way, it is easy to see how easily the older tradition could be democratically dispatched. But Aristotle did not think this, nor did St. Thomas Aquinas, who played a key role in transmitting liberal education into later Western culture. Aristotle and Aquinas both recognized that some virtues could be learned through human labor, and Aquinas thought a "mixed life," combining theoretical study and work, was superior to the purely contemplative life. But both agreed that a properly liberal education — as an education of the free powers of the soul — must cultivate a student's humanity through the intentional pursuit of wisdom and goodness.

Dewey and his followers misread liberal education because they did not grasp its understanding of human freedom. This is a teaching worth revisiting, since its dismissal, however thoughtless, informs academic life at almost every point. On this subject, Aristotle closely followed his teacher Plato, who argued for a necessary connection between freedom and self-knowledge. Plato's Gorgias is still the best and most dramatic depiction of the rewards and risks of liberal education. The dialogue, one of Plato's earliest, argues that the purpose of education is to promote the free expression of one's identity. Attaining this freedom, however, requires a student to meet a harrowing demand. He must submit to learning his true nature through reasoning, or else be condemned to a life of captivity. For Plato, only a student who truly understood himself — who learned his true rational nature, and hence could deliberate about and pursue his true good consciously — was protected against self-enslavement. The failure to do so, which results in a life lived in pursuit of pleasure or power, renders that life "worthless," Plato declared in the shocking last line of the dialogue.

The Christian tradition did not follow Plato this far. It could not hold any human life as worthless, nor could it agree that the highest human perfection was reserved for the liberally educated. But early Christian educators, and the founders of American higher education who read them, agreed with Plato and Aristotle on this: Freedom is a fraught achievement, and a student subject to the tyranny of his own ignorance, sin, and desires is in bondage. And this, as St. Augustine realized during his own studies, and as Isidore and Cassiodorus explained in the first treatises on the liberal arts, is slavery in its most abject form, since it precludes the very possibility of informed thought and action.

Liberal education promotes the freedom to think, speak, and act with knowledge, without which no person is free. It must therefore teach students that they live in potential bondage to their own illusions and appetites. And it must instruct them, often against their own inclinations, to become truly free through the disciplining of their intelligence. How does it do so? Not by reading books defending ordered liberty, but by studying free human creations.

The point will sound recondite but is in fact simple. Liberal education examines the greatest works of philosophy, history, art, and literature because they lend themselves to be studied in a special way — as enactments and depictions of the activity of human intelligence itself. This is a seemingly self-evident, though strangely often violated, pedagogical principle: Liberal education studies human artifacts — things made, intentionally and reflectively, by a human being engaged in the creative task of seeking the true, the good, and the beautiful.

Liberal education must therefore reject, inflexibly, every attempt to be understood in instrumental terms — be it economic, civic, or social. Liberal education benefits students in many pragmatic ways. But no matter how useful, these benefits can never be its intended final purpose without forfeiting its very nature. And this requirement is, we must candidly acknowledge, in tension with the student it aims to liberate. Human beings are made for freedom; they are made to seek, find, and communicate the truth about themselves and the world. But the needs of their natures are plainly more than this. "[M]ankind must first of all eat, drink, have shelter and clothing, before it can pursue politics, science, art, religion, etc.," Engels said at the graveside of Marx. One need not be a Marxist to see the half-truth in his remark, or its implications for liberal education.


Liberal education asks for something exceptionally demanding. It asks for purity of will, inviting students to undertake their studies for personal cultivation, not professional advancement. But today it has exchanged this goal for others, promoting political self-expression rather than virtuous self-governance. Chancellor Dirks maintained that education serves society by enlarging the boundaries of our tolerance and expanding the range of our sympathies. And are not such arts the mark of true liberality? They are not, and liberal education must place itself in healthy opposition to them.

Liberal education shares one goal with other forms of education: It prepares students for group membership. Whether a family, guild, or nation, every community shares a common language, history, and set of skills, and it is a primary purpose of education to initiate newcomers into them. In this respect, liberal education is no different from the vocational training to which it was classically contrasted. Both train students to take up a particular role in a larger way of life.

Liberal education also fosters a special social role, however, and does so in a unique way. Although it bears similarities with some non-Western traditions of learning, it is the traditional means by which Western culture has promoted membership in its intellectual community. Saying so now seems quaint or worse, but for much of our history it was thought self-evident. For Greeks, Romans, and Christians, the liberal arts were the path to admission into the higher intellectual life of Western civilization. To be received into it was to play a part in sustaining its traditions of self-examination and contemplative reflection.

Many conservative defenses of liberal education take their stand here, but mistakenly go no further. They argue that liberal education transmits our shared intellectual and artistic heritage — the modes of thought, imagination, and expression that our culture, through long experience and debate, has used to reflect upon the basic questions of human existence. There is much to commend in this view. As philosopher Sidney Hook argued, liberal education "provide[s] all students with the legacy of their culture...and with an understanding of the conflicting cultural traditions of the past that have shaped the present."

But if we consider how liberal education pursues its goals in a unique way, we can see the limits of this familiar conservative argument, as well as the ways in which liberal education ought to challenge illiberalism on both the right and the left. Liberal education does not promote membership in a group grounded in a shared history, race, or nationality. Rather, it envisions a different kind of community: one constituted by free rational inquiry. This is a "liberal" community in that it is not bound together by authority or custom, but by a commitment to civil conversation. It defends a cultural inheritance not simply because it is ours, but because it advances this conversation.

Conversation about what? Liberal education fosters a community that reflects, continually, on the purpose and meaning of human life. What is a human being? What is truth, and how can it be known and communicated? What is the proper relation between an individual and his community? What makes art or language beautiful? On such questions, the liberal arts sustain a community whose goal is a true understanding of its own humanity (and such questions are intelligible only on the assumption that there is a truth to be known). Its conversation includes both the living and the dead. A student enters it only by first listening to its greatest participants, who have framed the most important questions and offered the most compelling answers.

This community aspires to influence, as widely as possible, the world outside it. Liberal education promotes, in a word, a humane culture. Its social aspiration is to develop what the Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre calls an "educated public." An educated public is a literate public: It is animated by a general admiration for our highest cultural achievements and an ability to listen to the public conversation. It is also a rational public: Although it welcomes disagreement, it upholds standards of rationality and truth that allow for meaningful debate to exist at all.

Yet liberal education never fully shapes any society, and for obvious reasons: People are pressed by needs and distracted by concerns that liberal education cannot address. And even at its most influential moments in our history — say, for the students and readers of mid-century America — it has never reached more than a small number of people. Samuel Taylor Coleridge called them a "clerisy," and T. S. Eliot called them a "class." While their language is antiquated, their insight is not. Both saw liberal learning as the preserve of a minority serving a society that, though benefiting from this liberal minority's pursuits, rarely shared in them. In times of political repression, this class can even form what the Czech dissident Vaclav Benda called a "parallel polis," a community of free thought existing apart from broad political support.

Although it is more needed than ever, this social responsibility of liberal education is almost unintelligible today. The sobering reality is that liberal education prepares students for a social role that almost no longer exists, even at its privileged periphery. No respectable college administrator would publicly admit it, but their professional actions show they know it: There simply is no cultural role for which liberal education is the necessary preparation. Our society is not uneducated, nor is it lacking an intellectual elite. Rather, participation in our "educated public" no longer presumes or requires a liberal education, however demanding its other requirements, which are now largely technocratic. Today's public conversations revolve around the social sciences, brain science, evolutionary theory, and other ways of interpreting the human condition as grounded in reductive processes.

How and why this happened is difficult to explain, though plain to see. In the last century, liberal education has experienced a complete reversal in its social status. It changed from being the revered ground of our cultural consensus to a potent threat to it. Max Weber's lectures on education offer a powerful early account of the motivations behind this academic revolution. Weber was no enemy of high Western culture. He appreciated, deeply, the role it played in forming the unique character of Western rationality. But he alleged that because the humanities study questions of value — questions that admit of irreconcilably different answers — they foment divisive attitudes. They could incite "frenzy" in students, he charged, leading them to ask, "Which of the warring gods should we serve?"


Weber was wrong about liberal education. But his fears, if not his arguments, inform how our intellectual elite views its highest pursuits today. Liberal education's unembarrassed inquiries into human destiny and purpose are simply too serious, too potentially divisive, for a public consensus secured by technocratic avoidance of them. Liberal philosopher John Rawls argued that liberal societies must exclude "comprehensive doctrines" from public debate, since they invite deep disagreements. But liberal education is nothing if not the evaluation of rival doctrines of life, and the search for the most excellent among them. And here we begin to see the real "tension," as Chancellor Dirks put it, between liberal education and liberal societies.

Liberal education maintains, in the face of the most sacred liberal value, that not all ways of life are worthy of equal respect. It is avowedly inegalitarian in regarding the examined life as superior to the unexamined life. John Stuart Mill argued that liberal education "brings us nearer to the perfection of our nature," but the moral inertia of liberalism is to erode distinctions between the more and less perfect. As the Polish philosopher Ryszard Legutko recently observed, modern liberalism denies that "greatness [is] inscribed in the essence of humanity," seeking instead to lower aspirations it deems "too high, impractical, or unnecessary."

Liberal education is a counterforce to these egalitarian pressures. Where liberalism seeks to level human goals, liberal education seeks to raise them. It does so by exposing students not to the mediocre, the typical, or the average, but to works of human greatness that express and ennoble our common humanity. Progressives today are suspicious of appeals to human excellence, seeing them as expressions of ideology or personal taste. Liberal education counters by arguing that such positions are self-refuting. They are, after all, arguments — and to evaluate their truth or falsity, and to examine the visions of life they promote, is to engage in the practice of liberal education.

To enter this practice, however, a student must first die to himself. Liberal education thus places self-denial before self-expression. It holds out the possibility of freedom, but only on the condition of intellectual asceticism, asking students to renounce their passions in order to submit them to critical examination. Such freedom plainly is not that of expressive individualism — the illusory power to define a chosen reality that now motivates campus politics. Charles Taylor calls this "individualized identity," in which one seeks (per impossibile) an original way of being human. For the liberal-arts tradition, the Berkeley protestor whose sign read "I am who I say I am" is not announcing her freedom, but her self-enslavement.


Although widely neglected or simply forgotten, the purpose of liberal education is not an esoteric secret of our intellectual tradition. It is a central theme of its conversation about human excellence. When treated by the greatest minds of the tradition, it has inspired some of its most important lines of debate: St. Paul's reinterpretation of ancient paideia, St. Augustine's dispute with the Stoics, Rousseau's critique of Plato, Hobbes's assault on the Scholastics, Nietzsche's attack on Socrates, Strauss's contesting of Heidegger. Our tradition contains an ongoing conversation about the liberating nature of education.

Our forgetfulness of this conversation comes at a punitive price. It not only impairs our understanding of human learning, but, as recent events have demonstrated, it also renders us vulnerable to the most destructive political enthusiasms of the left and the right. For liberal education is not simply a family of leisurely academic disciplines; it cultivates a way of life — a way of reflecting, perceiving, and talking — that is essential to a society that orders its life through persuasion and not force. The protestors who assembled outside my office were not entirely wrong. We do not wish to be subject to the "warring gods"; we seek instead a form of life that participates in the inclusive comity of the universal. Yet this remains elusive — something we can approach in the life of liberal learning, but that can never be translated into a political program or slogan.

Liberal education is leaven for our illiberal souls. And this leaven is something desperately needed in a culture besieged by the exclusionary politics of identity, race, and gender. Liberal education is a common school where the virtues that undergird our different communities are practiced and nourished together. But if it is to be preserved, liberal education must pursue its goals with purer intentions and a firmer determination to offer the arts of freedom. It is failing at both. How did it lose its way? The answer, at an intellectual level, is perhaps this simple: Liberal education failed to place itself in loyal opposition, not to humanity as it truly is, but to humanity as we will almost always find it — threatened by the degradation of self-enslavement.

The January letter from Chancellor Dirks showed no awareness that a university could train students in the responsible practice of freedom, rather than simply protect them from the irresponsible abuse of it. But doing so is its special responsibility. To offer the education that befits a free person, however, liberal education must recover the sense of discipline born of wonder at humanity's greatest achievements. For liberal education, there is only the high, hard way of instilling order into disordered souls. For the ancients and Christians who first forged the seven liberal arts, this gave it an almost missionary aspect, a moral and even spiritual practice that could transform students inwardly. For a young St. Augustine, it could even inspire a conversion away from enslavement to lower goods and toward a universal good that could set his mind free.

Matthew Rose is director and senior fellow at the Berkeley Institute. 


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