Let’s Save Liberal Education by Rethinking It

The ascendency of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) subject matter in American higher education has largely displaced the previous model, liberal education. But this displacement raises the question, what exactly is liberal education? Is it the humanities and social sciences? The Great Books tradition? Or is it something else entirely?

I would argue that liberal education is fundamentally a method of learning rather than mastery of specific content. In this sense, I reach back to the medieval tradition of the liberal arts which, in turn, was inspired by the Greeks and Romans. The classical thinkers believed in studying something because it was intrinsically valuable. For instance, Aristotle claimed that music, one of the liberal arts, was necessary and useful but this was not why one should study it. One studied such things because it made one free—as from the Latin, “liber”—a fully realized human being not bound by the constraints of necessity or utility.

This understanding of liberal education still remains with us, even as the specific content of liberal arts programs might differ one from another. But this was always the case in the tradition of liberal education. Perhaps the biggest curricular change in liberal education was the addition of theology during the medieval period (and its subtraction today). When one looks at the history of the liberal arts, what is remarkable is how few subjects were seen as necessary for a liberal education.

For example, medieval liberal education only had seven subjects: the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, music) and the trivium (grammar, logic, rhetoric), though these subjects were broader in content when compared to today. (“Grammar” covered not only what we now call grammar but also literature, poetry, and history.) Nevertheless, the addition and subtraction of subjects from the curriculum of a liberal education shows that its content is not its defining feature.

Consider the “Illiberal” Arts

Is it possible to study in a liberal fashion a subject that a Greek, Roman, or medieval thinker would believe to be illiberal? I’m not referring to the natural sciences or mathematics, or even engineering—after all, the Romans included architecture (which really is engineering) as part of their ars liberalis. What I mean is a subject that requires you to use your own hands (banausoi), the crafts and trades of vocational training, the performing arts, or the service professions.

According to the Greek, Roman, and medieval philosophers, these subjects were illiberal because one did them out of necessity or utility. For them, this was the dividing line between liberal and illiberal education.

My inclination is to think that these subjects could be studied liberally, for their own intrinsic worth. To be sure, doing so might be more difficult in practice as they tend to attract people who are motivated more by necessity or utility than by freedom or leisure. But if liberal education is fundamentally an approach to learning, then one should be able to study the crafts and trades of the banausoi in a liberal fashion. This seems to be what Matthew Crawford was describing in his influential book Shop Class As Soulcraft (2009), where he argued that manual labor should be reconceived as a type of activity to be valued for its own sake. For Crawford, what counts as liberal education depended more on how we approach the subject than on the subject itself.

Admittedly, this understanding of liberal education differs from Greek, Roman, and medieval thinkers who would exclude certain subjects from liberal education. But as knowledge continues to expand and is reorganized, the rigid classification of certain subjects as liberal and others as illiberal is a model that no longer meets the needs, demands, or challenges of our education today. If we want liberal education to be relevant now, what we need to do is rethink what liberal education is.

My suggestion—and it is only a suggestion—is that liberal education should be seen as a type of approach to learning, to study things for their own sake, and therefore any subject, even manual labor, could potentially be part of its curriculum. This is one way for liberal education to reenter the discussion of higher education without automatically appealing to a tradition that persuades no one except those who already believe in it. Under this understanding, it would not be specific content—whether the humanities, the natural sciences, or the Great Books—that makes a student’s education liberal but how that student, along with support from faculty and administrators, approaches those subjects.

Promoting a Certain Kind of Freedom

Why should we care about studying something for its own sake? The answer I would give—and here I am in agreement with the ancient and medieval philosophers—is that it makes us truly human: It allows us to reflect upon who we are and what our purpose in life is. By approaching learning in a liberal fashion, we free ourselves from the demands of necessity and utility and consequently can be connected to what authentically makes the human being. This freedom is not Promethean in nature, where we can be whatever we wish to be. Rather it provides a proper perspective on our place in the world, making us see that we are part of something larger than ourselves, whether it is a particular tradition, a specific community, or part of the divine. This contemplative approach to learning—and to life itself—allows us to reflect upon the fundamental, existential questions of who we are and why we are here.

It is important to note that, at least for the ancient and medieval thinkers, liberal education was necessary but not sufficient to make one a person of good character, much less a good citizen. Book-learning was not enough.

The virtues of the intellect were intertwined with the virtues of action: prudence (phronesis) and craftsmanship (techne). These virtues required one to actually practice them as practical and productive action. (By contrast, Aristotle’s other intellectual virtues—namely wisdom or sophia, scientific knowledge or episteme, and rational intuition or nous—do not require this.) To be prudent meant one had to act prudently—to do the right thing to the right person, at the right time, in the right manner, and for the right reason. Liberal education can make one free, and may even show why one should live, but it cannot show how one should live. Experience must complement liberal education to make us good people and good citizens.

Liberal education therefore is only the starting point for a student’s growth and development.  Those who advocate it should understand that liberal education itself is not the ultimate end. Liberal education is to prepare students to become mature people and serious citizens: it does not exist in splendid isolation apart from the state. In fact the paradox and value of liberal education lie in its addressing these concerns of the state by ignoring them. Students study subjects because of their intrinsic worth; but they will, at some point, need more than liberal education in order to become fully flourishing human beings.

Today, liberal education needs to rethink what it actually is and why it is relevant, if it wants to be taken seriously in our debates about higher education. Otherwise, it will be dismissed, if it has not been already, as a relic of the past, a museum piece that reminds us of another time and another set of values. Liberal education’s eventual fate might well be this—maybe it always existed more as an ideal than a lived reality—but those of us who believe there is more to life than consumption and production have a duty to explain why liberal education matters. It is a duty that is not only to ourselves but, more importantly, to our students, if we wish them to be good citizens and good people, and truly to be free.

Reader Discussion

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.

on December 13, 2018 at 11:18:48 am

You say on the one hand that the "liberal" in liberal education means a study of something for its own sake, and on the other that it is not the ultimate end, that it serves a life in pursuit of the good, which pursuit consists of actions informed by liberal study. I agree with the latter notion. However, as you also say, the content of a liberal education is, according to this standard, irrelevant. Meaning that Post-Queer Martian Decolonization Studies may count as liberal in 2018 if enough people believe that such nonsense is necessary for the good life.

But I don't think techne can be included within the concept of "liberal." I take liberal education to necessarily consist in study of culture: history, philosophy, art, literature, with a sufficient amount of math and basic sciences to enable one to more fully understand and appreciate the cultural topics. Pursuit of the good life is essentially a matter of making judgments about people and political institutions mostly, and techne is nothing to do with that. This is not to say techne is less worthy, only that it is not essential or even particularly useful to judgment (it is not necessary to be a skilled painter to be able to differentiate the beautiful from the not-beautiful in painting, e.g.).

This is one reason our politics today are so poisonous and violent, for the progressive Left is intent on nothing less than a wholesale public and private rejection of all Western liberal thought and judgment for the sole reason that it is Western. And what gives rise to despair is that the progressive Left in this attack is playing the role of Stephen Douglas, of whom Lincoln said "If a man will assert, and repeat, and reassert, that two and two make five, I know of no power on earth that can stop him."

read full comment
Image of QET
on December 13, 2018 at 11:28:05 am

What I left out of my last paragraph was this:

In the face of the progressive capture of judgment-enabling values, even many on the Right (or at least not fully committed progressives) have urged further and further retreat into techne, pronouncing technological development, and mathematical competency especially, to be the summa of human activity, in effect ceding the only true battlefield to the Left and dismissing with an almost Leftist contempt any defense of traditional, classical Western culture and values.

read full comment
Image of QET
on December 13, 2018 at 11:51:26 am

I think that the term "liberal arts' originally referred to the arts pursued by free men, distinguishing them from the crafts and such involving physical work performed by slaves. As a professor and sometime administrator in the liberal arts division of an institution that is dominated by the arts formerly performed by slaves, I believe that the distinction is worth preserving, even though I also believe that the modes of education in the two categories are and should be different even while in constant dialogue. In other words, the liberal and applied arts need each other, and neither wholesale merger nor isolation is good for them.

read full comment
Image of Alexander Gourlay
Alexander Gourlay
on December 13, 2018 at 13:52:58 pm

OK folks, I have a slightly different take on the essayists comments on "crafts". It may owe to the fact that I have lived in a number of the environs cited by the essayist. I have been in the academy, have been in the building / crafts trades and also in techne (industry).

Indeed, I would advance an even more radical proposition than does the essayist. I would preclude any young student from attending college until that person had first completed two years of work, preferably in the trades, military service, or in some other form of national service.

Yes, there is a value in "work" itself as it may tend to ground the unfounded, at times unbridled and unrealistic expectations of the young AND, dare I say, it may deflate the almost omnipresent inflated sense of self esteem that appears to be the sole endowment bequeathed by the American educational regime to our children.

But more than this, effective craftmanship has a tendency to temper / limit / vitiate grand and all encompassing theories, or in the present Progressive context, fantasies. A good craftsman KNOWS from experience that even the most thorough, well conceived blueprints will not assure the proper, effective and lasting *constructions* (read also in the philosophical / political sense here) as any observant craftsman observes that the elements change, the conditions are somewhat different than expected in the blueprint. Consequently, adaptations MUST be made in order to ensure that the *construction*, the artwork will survive and endure over many decades and varying conditions.
In essence that is the nature of craftmanship - plan, observation, adaptation and eventual modification.
This is as true for the carpenter, ironworker, architect, mechanical / electrical engineer as it is for the political philosopher, legal academic, etc.

Given nothing more than pedagogy, unchallenged assumptions and postulates WITHOUT observation and adaptation to actual ground conditions, can we expect that the product of such an instructional regime may then possess a mind subtle and supple enough to first anticipate defects in the "blueprints", aware enough to observe changing ground conditions, and vigorous enough to make sufficient and proper adaptations.

This is why I refer not to the "Drafters" of the constitution but rather the *Crafters* of COTUS; the former implies "construction" ex nihilo while the latter observes, adapts and shapes the contours such that it may be expected to anticipate ACTUAL fround conditions, e.g. Human fallibility / frailty.

Just another harebrained notion of mine, for whatever it is worth.
But, i do prefer the epistemology of the Craftsman to that of the unchallenged (and unchallenging) Ideologue.

read full comment
Image of gabe
on December 13, 2018 at 21:00:54 pm

Thoughtful article and comments. I especially appreciated the contrasting distinction of traditional liberal arts versus techne versus craftsmanship. I have not pondered that particular tripartite distinction, but my impression is that if Gabe's craftsmanship consideration is factored in QET's objection to techne as a part of liberal education would be ameliorated if not eliminated. My opinion is that all three warrant consideration as liberal education. But I think that is so not just for the worthy reason Professor Trapanier suggests, "because liberal education should be seen as a type of approach to learning, to study things for their own sake" but also because liberal education should be seen as an approach to LIVING and instruction in living according to the true and the beautiful and understanding (appreciating) that what is true and beautiful is good because it is willed by God.

In effect, it's all good and thus worthy of learning and living if it involves man, created in God's image, employing nature, mind, body, ability and aspiration in pursuit of truth and beauty, as God wills.

"God saw every thing that he had made, and, behold, it was very good."

read full comment
Image of Pukka Luftmensch
Pukka Luftmensch
on December 14, 2018 at 13:43:14 pm

Back in the day (1974-85), Boston University had a BA/BS program called "Project in Artisanry." It attracted metalworkers, potters, masons, sculptors and woodworkers. Maybe BU's experience would help inform the author's perspective.

My real beef is that the BA has been so debased that it is worthless. How someone can get a BA without at least one foreign language and calculus I and II is beyond me but the liberal arts colleges are cranking them out by the boat load every year.

What about all those BA/BSs in nursing, law enforcement, firefighting, management, counseling and all sorts of physical therapies?

Am I to believe the author thinks a BA in gender studies without either a language or calculus is a liberal arts degree but a BA/BS in nursing or firefighting, also with a language or calculus, is not?

read full comment
Image of EK
on December 14, 2018 at 15:20:35 pm


Don;t be upset. After all we now learn that Rep. Alexandria Occasionally Functioning Cortex was an Honors Graduate from Boston College in Economics.

Yep, and Einstein consulted me for my expert advice on General Relativity!

read full comment
Image of gabe
on December 14, 2018 at 22:18:58 pm

Thank you all for your insightful and thoughtful comments about my essay. They have given me much to think about. Although there are several threads of thought, I'll offer my thoughts only on one of them.

One of the things I failed to mention in my essay is my understanding of liberal education is anti-ideological. If one of the purposes of liberal education is to make students truly free - to think critically about who they are, their purpose in life, and what roles and responsibilities are required of them as human beings and citizens - then ideological indoctrination has no place in the classroom. Thus, I would be open to the possibility that a course like gender study permitted in the curriculum if it could be taught in a liberal fashion or I would object to a course like medieval history if it were taught ideologically.

Now granted it might be difficult for certain courses to be taught in a liberal education curriculum because their premises appear to be inherently ideological. And courses that seem innocuous can be taught ideologically. Content can always be corrupted by a teacher; therefore, what matter more is how we approach the content than the content itself.

By bringing the idea of liberal education back into the conversation about higher education, we might be able to de-politicized the university in terms of what kind of classes are offered and how they are taught. Not only would it make the curriculum more coherent but it would make better teachers and hopefully more thoughtful and serious students.

read full comment
Image of Lee Trepanier
Lee Trepanier
on December 17, 2018 at 17:12:05 pm

(Hangs head in shame).

The math I got, although calculus being a perishable skill, my calculus skill has perished after 30+ years of non-use. But the foreign language I don't got. It was always my academic Achilles' Heel. I attempted to study 3 different languages in 5-12, and just could not get past the most basic intro-level comprehension of any of them. Maybe had I done some sort of immersion program; yeah, that's the ticket. Over the years I have been able to learn enough so that in most English language books that toss out French or Greek or Latin phrases without giving a translation, I can essentially translate them, but that is Single A ball. Nevertheless, I am thankful my two children take after my wife, as all three are fluent in a foreign language.

I agree with your inclusion of a foreign language ability as a necessary component of a truly meaningful BA. Henceforth I will consider that I have a BA* only.

Some Christmas this is turning out to be.

read full comment
Image of QET

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.