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The Conception of a Liberal Education (1930)

A liberal education is commonly thought of as an education of a special kind, one which is opposed to anything of the nature of a commercial or technical training, and is not in any way controlled by utilitarian considerations. It is supposed to cultivate the graces of life, to which the professional man cannot attain. And thus, though not every gentleman may be cultured in the full sense of the term, culture is regarded as implying leisure and the gentlemanly outlook—as in the eighteenth century, when literature was written “by gentlemen for gentlemen.” The Universities of Oxford and Cambridge do something to foster this view, while representing themselves as occupying a central position in the world's culture.

As against such an outlook my contention is that culture is not a leisurely affair, but is something that a man must put into his work, and that liberality of thought is opposed to every sort of exclusiveness and


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thus to the very notion of the “gentleman,” or of social rank in general. But I also maintain that all education must be liberal, and that training of a “utilitarian” character, by being illiberal, is at the same time, uneducative.

The ordinary notions of utility and social service, propagated as they are by those who profit by them, will not stand critical examination. They presuppose certain fixed social ends to which a person's work is to be merely instrumental, which he is not free to criticise and, if he thinks fit, to reject. That is to say, they presuppose a servile status. This way of thinking is exemplified in the view that teachers, as “public servants,” have no right to make pronouncements on educational policy or on politics in general. (A correspondent of a Sydney newspaper recently described me as occupying a “subsidised position,” and as therefore not being entitled to hold political views differing from those of the persons who pay me.) In fact, that mythical entity, the public, is invoked to justify the subjection of teachers to the requirements of a commercial civilisation and their virtual disfranchisement, while any uneducated commercial magnate is free to uphold these requirements as “in the public interest.” It is, unfortunately, but slowly that teachers are learning to resist the forcing on them of such “public necessities and utilities.”

For a full appreciation, however, of the opposition between the educative and the utilitarian outlooks, it


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is necessary to consider the matter more broadly. The view I shall maintain is that a liberal education is one which enables us to live freely. It is a training, not for a particular job or service, but for a whole life. The opposition thus indicated between vocational training and liberal education is not a new one, but goes back to the very beginning of educational controversy. It receives its “classical” formulation in the conflicting theories of Socrates and the Sophists.

Socrates advocated training for a life and the general cultivation of mind and body, as against the Sophistic subservience to “public opinion” and consequent insistence on the development of those forms of skill which would be “useful to the community.” It was not that Socrates denied that different men should have different functions. But he considered that the special requirements of each type of work are learned in doing the work itself—as, for example, the technical side of the teacher's work is learned by teaching and in no other way. On the other hand, what can be imparted, and thus made the subject of a real education, is just “virtue,” i.e., general human excellence. And this is acquired, Socrates held, through teachers and taught leading a common life and engaging in common investigations, and thus education prepares the way for a common life in society at large.

Whether Socrates made too much of the distinction between skill and knowledge is a point that need


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not detain us here. He would doubtless have recognised that there can be investigations in technique. But his main point was that training in this or that speciality, unaccompanied by and, indeed, not dominated by a critical consideration of what is fundamental in human affairs, can only lead to confusion. The present condition of education, in which studies are arranged on no discoverable basis, well illustrates his view. And, whatever elements in his theory we may discard, we have at least to recognise that, if there is to be any unity in the system, and if education is to be for a whole life, it must be political.

A training for political activity, as contrasted with the political passivity which prevails in our society, may well be called a liberal education. Universal political activity is, of course, a “dangerous” social condition—dangerous, in particular, for established interests—but it is necessary if there is to be freedom in the community and real progress in education.

It may here be said that that education for gentlemen which has hitherto prevailed in the English public schools and universities, and has been taken as a standard for other systems, has the mark of liberality in that it is certainly a training for political activity. But the activity in question has been that of a governing class, and this very exclusiveness has prevented the system from giving a training for a whole life. The “lower orders” are set apart as mere performers of menial tasks which give them no share in human


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excellence—and the absence of co-education in the schools leads to the inclusion of women among the lower orders. The immediate effect of this is a narrowing of outlook and the promotion of superstition and credulity. The crudity of the public-school boy's, and even the university man's ideas about women and workmen is notorious. We have here, in fact, an illustration of the Socratic thesis that the tyrant or the oligarch, by placing restrictions on others, also puts restrictions on himself.

Further illustration of this is found in the educational content of the system. The prevailing ideas of politics, and also of science and literature, are limited by conservatism, i.e., by the desire to maintain the governing class in power. This has led to imperfect appreciation of the “classics,” the study of which is regarded as the chief glory of the system, the outstanding sign of its liberality. For example, Plato's Republic, which is still regarded in the University of Oxford as the foundation of political theory, is taken as supporting aristocracy against democracy; what it supports, however, is an aristocracy of philosophers, which the English governing class has certainly never been. In fact, the study of classical politics has been useful for apologetic purposes, but not as giving any guidance for the political practice, in India or elsewhere, of the “liberally educated” class.

Conservatism has been similarly operative in the


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estimation of classical literature and art. For the most part there has been a mere cultivation of “good taste,” in the sense of a knowledge of what is the right thing to admire, without any serious criticism of the recognised models—as Samuel Butler points out, with special reference to the famous Athenian tragedians, in The Way of All Flesh. And, in general, the student is told that a certain period in the history of Greece and similarly of Rome, is the “classical” period, but he does not learn what this description means. It may also be suggested that it is as a result of the affinity between the politics of Imperial Rome and of Imperial Britain that Roman civilisation has come to be overrated, and that, in particular, the all-round inferiority of Latin literature to Greek has not been recognised.

The crowning defect of the traditional “classical education” lies in the false antithesis between a classical and a scientific training. The Greeks were most notable precisely as the founders of science, and the study of their works, if properly undertaken, is an aid to the acquisition of a scientific outlook. It is only by distortion that this study can be made to subserve the development of “correct standards” in art and politics, while science is relegated to the merely technical level.

The main value, then, of classical study lies in its enabling us to understand the basis of modern civilisation, assisting us to treat politics and aesthetics in a


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scientific manner, and being a corrective of any illiberal neglect of or contempt for science. But it also promotes criticism of the cult of modernity, of the illiberal “science” of utilitarians and commercialists, and of the false claims of romantic evolutionists (of whom Wells may be regarded as typical). It is as providing a background which the “moderns” lack, and a basis for free inquiry to which the “traditionalists” have failed to attain, that the study of Greek civilisation is to be regarded as a necessary part of a sound education. And with this should go the study of Greek.

Classical studies are, however, only a part of that training for political activity which constitutes a liberal education. Its political character should be ensured from an early stage by the intensive study of history, and by the greatest possible development of self-government on the part of the pupils. These two aspects of education are, of course, connected, but the matter is most conveniently approached from the side of the course of study.

To maintain that the study of history is fundamental to a liberal education is not to deny that history can be taught illiberally. This is the case with all subjects, but that fact should not prevent us from considering how learning may be advanced. The main point is that the pupils should acquire a knowledge of real political forces, and should not have human history presented to them as a series of morally


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instructive tales. Illiberal conceptions of racial and national superiority are equally to be avoided. To make out that the British are superior to other nations, e.g., the Germans, is not to advance historical knowledge. It may be that the contributions of one nation to culture and political freedom are greater than those of another, but this is something which the pupil cannot possibly know; and to tell him so is merely to discourage inquiry and prevent the acquisition of political knowledge. Such comparisons, moreover, are commonly made on a basis not of inquiry but of prejudice.

The teaching of “civics” is likewise an illiberal evasion of the requirements of political education. Like the ordinary teaching of science, it is concerned with a technique, but leaves out the guiding spirit. The question is wrongly formulated, as that of learning “how to be a useful citizen” or what are the rights and duties of one's “station.” What is really important is that the pupil should study the nature of political movements—and in so doing he will incidentally prepare himself for taking part in them.

Putting the matter more broadly, what is required is that all the subjects studied should be brought into the closest possible connection, that classics, literature, history and science should be taught as parts of a single culture (and this, it may be noted, implies that the specialist “subject teacher” should, as far as possible, give place to the class teacher). Cut off from


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such a general outlook as can be developed in this way, “civics” leads nowhere; and, so far from encouraging critical alertness, it can only engender that inertia which invariably appears when the pupils' interests are untouched. It is a matter of common experience that mere practicality, and especially a moralistic instruction in duties, does not kindle but kills interest. It is a more intensive treatment of existing subjects, and not the addition of odds and ends to the curriculum, that will enliven education.

But any educational scheme is valueless except in conjunction with the recognition of the pupil as a responsible being, to whom the subjects of study really matter. There can be no training for freedom unless there is freedom in the training. This implies a general encouragement of thinking and initiative; it implies the development by the pupils of their own activities and organisations. Existing schemes of self-government in the schools in various parts of the world (notably in the U.S.S.R.) need not be referred to in detail here; but they are undoubtedly worthy of the attention of every educator.

Of equal importance is the fact that an education for free men must be an education by free men, not “servants;” by persons who are prepared to take the fullest political and educational responsibility, to stand forward as a body of educators and, in that capacity, to negotiate with other social groups. Until there is self-government of the teaching profession,


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there cannot be liberal education. In a civilisation dominated by commerce, the direction given by Departments will always be illiberal. And under any conditions it will be necessary for teachers to refuse to accept a position of inferiority and passively receive instructions.

The characterisation of liberal education as training for political activity has been taken to imply freedom, and thus a certain political activity on the part of both teachers and taught, in the educational process. The position may be clarified by the further characterisation of such an education as one which liberates the mind, frees it, that is to say, from superstition and prejudice. It may be questioned whether pupils at an early stage are subject to these restrictions on thought. But the fact is that children naturally develop their own superstitions. And they are constantly subjected to influences which hinder thinking. Such influences sometimes come under the guise of education, as when political training takes the form of drum-beating and flag-flapping.

This illustration is important as directing attention to the fact that a true education leads us to dispense with symbols and deal directly with things themselves. And, again, recognising no limit to inquiry, it can only be secular. It is opposed to all those hindrances to speculation which Bacon classes as “idols;” it permits of no raising of objects above scrutiny by


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the use of expressions such as “higher races” or “lofty ideals.” The critical rejection of such fetishes is indeed specially characteristic of the later stages of education. But early education can largely prevent their being formed, and the spirit of criticism should inform the whole educational process.

Education properly understood, then, is liberal; it implies the most thoroughgoing democracy, the rejection alike of privileged ideas and of privileged persons. Thus the outstanding example of illiberal theory in education is that which bases itself on inequality, under the plea of recognising the needs of the individual. The logical conclusion of this view is the establishment of different political levels, or the support of such political differences as are taken for granted in the English public schools.

Even if we could be satisfied with the methods, which have become fashionable in these days, of marking off grades of intelligence, we could not base educational practice on the findings arrived at. Education, it has been argued, can mean nothing other than the liberation of the mind and the development of social and political activity. So long, therefore, as we do not regard a pupil as uneducable, i.e., as having no capacity for freedom (and if we do, a totally different type of question arises), there is no justification for our giving him an inferior status. It need scarcely be added that the notion of a fixed


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degree of intelligence adhering to a person throughout his life is purely mythological.note

The question is not that of the existence of differences, but solely of their practical importance, and the practical danger of making fetishes of them. Such differences are to be found in any group whatever—among professors, among teachers, among members of a literary society. But this does not mean that the group will not conduct its affairs best under conditions of equality; the contrary is the case.

Education likewise is a social affair, and it is through the training of the group, both by the teacher and by one another, that it advances. Moreover, a thoroughly liberal system will awaken capacities in a quite extraordinary way, as may be seen by a consideration of educational experiments like those of Caldwell Cook in the Perse School. A liberal education is, in fact, a training in equality, which means not identity but co-operation; co-operation among the pupils, and between the pupils and teachers, based on an equal recognition of the work to be done. Since, then, educational development must be development in responsibility, those “practical” proposals which neglect this fact can only succeed,


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however “well-intentioned” they may be, in making bad worse. The only valuable criticism of existing conditions is that which goes to the root of the matter.

The defective character of existing educational systems in English-speaking countries is due to the fact that they are based on that classical training which was adapted to the needs of a privileged class. Greater or less modifications have been made, but no thorough reconstruction has been undertaken. Consequently, our education partakes of the exclusiveness of its model, and combines a large amount of the narrowly scholastic with a small amount of the narrowly practical.

Thus the position is, in the main, that pupils go as far as they can along the academic road (sometimes being pushed to a stage which is beyond the actual development of their powers), and then break off and enter upon a form of life for which they have had no real preparation. In a training for a common political life, on the other hand, there will be room for any number of variations—including the scholarly. Under liberal conditions there will be at once a heightening of scholarship, since scholars will have a sounder political outlook than they commonly now possess, and a broadening of it, since it will be brought into a whole life and thus have closer contact with the general interests of the pupils. And this will mean a raising as against the present lowering of standards.

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