What is a liberal education? This question gets kicked around a lot, but no one ever seems to pick it up for a close look and a clear answer. I’d like to do something about that, on the theory that a mistaken or even wrong-headed set of specifics will get people thinking about details.
The first thing to do is to stop talking about the liberal arts. This term refers, precisely, to an ancient and no longer useful division of the fields of learning into seven categories, which you can go look up elsewhere, and, while you’re at it, make a game of trying to remember which ones fit into the trivium (from which our trivial derives) and which into the quadrivium. Knock yourself out.
The second thing is to remember what I’ve been saying about the true meaning of liberal: self-governing. The point of a liberal education is to teach a pair of skills: self-government in the individual sense (how to take care of yourself — with an accent on taking care of your mind, which is not just sitting there like a potted plant while you work out at the gym), and cooperation with others in self-governing organizations (the idea being that every organization ought to run itself well enough to be allowed to run itself without much outside interference).
There are two possible approaches to the problem of self-government. The first way, popular, but, in my view, useless, is to envision what self-government ought to look like. Imagining perfection, how do we get there? I have less than no time for this.
The alternative is to look at other, earlier attempts at self-government. Seeing imperfection, what went right? And how did it all come to an end? Everything does come to an end (visionary perfectionists hate this about life and deny it with every blink of the eye), but in its own way. These partial successes and ultimate failures would be dispiriting, if they were not also interesting to the point of fascination — as they are when they are described by a gifted and comprehensible historian.
Gifted and comprehensible? Surely the first term includes the latter? Sadly, it does not. C V Wedgwood was a gifted historian, but you would not expect primary school students to comprehend her. She wrote for adults, not for students or scholars, but for people who had seen something of life. Having just re-read one of her studies of Charles I, a book that I pushed myself through in college, I’m inclined to say that Wedgwood can’t be fully comprehended by anyone who hasn’t got some experience holding down a job and raising a family. So, what I mean by “comprehensible” is really nothing but what you probably already feel about history generally, because you were forced to read books that were beyond your grasp at the time. History is awfully boring when you’re not ready for it.
We haven’t got time for the What is History? question, and, besides, there’s no need to poke into it. History, like self-government, has two closely-related aspects. It is a collection of biographies and group portraits, of stories about people. This is how history is generally presented. It is also, however, a framework for relating all those stories. Alexander the Great flourished (briefly) about a thousand years before Charlemagne (a long campaigner). In between the two, something called Christianity emerged from obscurity to mantle the entire Western World in an ecclesiastical edifice that provided, among many other things, an authoritative focus, the one voice of the one God — the pope — capable of anointing Charlemagne’s enterprise with a manifest blessing, a boon unknown to Alexander, who, without it, remained a mere opportunist. We may snicker at the pretensions of papal anointments, but we derive from them our sense (nowhere stronger than in some parts of the United States) that God is behind our nations, that they are not “merely” political setups. It is the framework side of history that shows us how to fit two eminently biographiable characters into one human history.
My examples have come from a branch of history — political history — that, for most people, is simply (and sadly) history. The bookshops will remind browsers of another kind of history, very popular with grown men, military history. But I regard political and military history as belonging alike to the history of government. The history of government is one of the three kinds of history that form the foundation of my idea of liberal education.
The other two kinds are the history of science and the history of literature. I hope that you see what I’m up to with the history of science. I’m taking all the science and maths courses and gutting them for what’s needed to make the history of science comprehensible to people who will never ever be scientists. I don’t care if students know how to add fractions, unless it’s important for the understanding of a development in the history of science. What the liberally educated student needs to learn about is the painstaking, against-the-odds growth of a particular view of the natural world that has unleashed, in the past century, an astonishing and terrifying amplification of human power. I would also prescribe studying the history of the scientific humanities, sociology, economics, and psychology, that, because they concern human beings, cannot actually follow the scientific worldview.
(The study of science as it is currently practiced, in laboratories and elsewhere, does not belong to liberal education. It is a high-end vocational program. I envision limiting it to apt students, at urban institutions and on summer campuses. It has long been my argument that New York’s prestigious private schools ought to give up competing on the bunsen-burner front and pool or spin off their resources in one always up-to-date academy.)
What has the history of literature got to do with self-government? Simply this: it is from literature and its history that we learn how people have seen themselves, how they have appraised their virtues and vices, since they began writing things down. You could call it the history of psychology, if that were helpful in explaining that human self-consciousness has changed just as much as human government and human understanding of the world. We’re told that Homer’s heroes regarded the lungs as they center of consciousness and the mind. (They literally had no idea what brains were for.) It’s not hard too see, then, why those heroes encountered the world through their feelings, with gripping intimacy. Our apparently more correct view privileges the eyes, which sit right in front of the brain and feed it news updates all day long. To encounter the world through your eyes rather than your feelings is to do so more comprehensively but also more remotely. The history of literature tells of the ever-growing distance that we have stretched between our minds and the world. We see it better, and we can control it more effectively. But we also feel displaced. Many of us yearn to recapture the (blind) passions of Hector and Achilles, and throw ourselves into video games and battle re-enactments. Only connect, advised Forster. Easier, so much easier, said than done.
How to deliver this liberal education to growing children and young adults is a conundrum I reserve for another time. I do see the three histories as the backbone of the entire scholastic undertaking, beginning in first grade and running through college. Beyond that, I probably won’t have very much to say about it, because the stuff worth knowing about it will come from experience and experiment. I try not to envision.