Written by: Justin Shelby

There is some considerable confusion about what liberal education is and what it is for. I want to clear some of that up.
First of all, where does the term “liberal” even come from? Most students I speak to either don’t know or assume it has something to do with freedom. When further pressed, they will say that a liberal education is one where they will learn to think and, importantly, where they can choose their own courses. They are partially correct, and coming out of Vietnamese education, where nearly all courses are mandatory, this desire for choice is understandable. But the “freedom” that liberal education refers to is not the freedom to choose and do what you like, but the opportunity to do and learn what is required to become useful as a free person, that is, not a slave.


More concisely, the opposite of the “freedom” (a condition in which you decide what you do and why) that liberal education refers to isn’t “compulsory”; it is the opposite of “slavery” (a condition where someone else has power over what you do and why).


This is weird to think about and requires a little bit of context to grasp. These ideas of “slave” and “free” come to us from Greco-Roman antiquity. Slavery in Greece was quite strange – I encourage you to spend some time reading the Wikipedia article on it. Here, suffice it to say that Greco-Roman slavery was not like the slavery commonly portrayed in the American South. Slaves were, indeed, owned, but they performed a variety of functions that were unthinkable to American slaves. For example, slaves were bankers, merchants, and tutors (this was especially true of Greek slaves at Rome, since as the Romans gradually acknowledged Greek cultural superiority, they used their Greek slaves to pass on the language to their children.) Now, I don’t want to sexy this up too much – a far greater number of slaves were used for less glamorous tasks: mining, agricultural work, gladiatorial schools, prostitution, rowing, etc.


The greater latitude (perhaps, the more complete and effective exploitation is a better characterization of it) given to slaves in this period is worth thinking about because it contrasts so sharply with the image of slavery normally promoted in the media: the black, uneducated, agricultural laborer. The idea of a white Southern plantation owner entrusting his children to a black slave so that they might be taught the language and culture of pre-modern Ghana is absurd. Considering this will also help us understand what is and what is not considered a part of “liberal” education and why. The reason that business, for example, is not generally considered a part of liberal education is because it was simple enough to be entrusted to slaves. The same is true of virtually all manual labor, even skilled manual labor. Electricians, accountants, plumbers, builders, animal trainers, mechanics, all of these jobs require an immense amount of skill. Our civilization couldn’t run without them. But if you were a member of an elite class whose city or tribe has conquered and enslaved everyone around for thousands of miles, would you do your own plumbing? Your own electrical work? Your own accounting? Almost certainly not. Educations in such disciplines, no matter how important or difficult, are “illiberal” for historical reasons. It’s almost always helpful to understand something by gaining a clear view of its opposite.
So, given our current definitions, of what should “liberal education” consist? There are two classes of things: the aesthetically pleasing and the administratively necessary. The best things in life take effort to enjoy. Monkeys can fuck and rub each other, but they can’t enjoy Homer or write amazing music. Intellectual pleasures are longer lasting than sensual pleasures, but harder to attain. Since you’ve got all these slaves around, it’s worth spending time learning to appreciate such things. What else will you do with all that spare time? Administratively, it is important to understand philosophy and history because knowledge of these helps you administer your civilization, to decide what must be done and how. This is what a “liberal” education does: it gives you the ability to enjoy the right things: music, literature, mathematics, visual art, and etc. At the same time, it is meant to equip us to do the work of civilization that is too important to leave to slaves: philosophy, scientific research, historical research, and their sequelae (like law and morality) are important enough to merit the attention of the masters. I’m simplifying and it’s all a bit more holistic than I’m making it out to be, but you get the idea.


What then are we required to know to be useful members of a “master” class? Certainly not “whatever the student wants.” The answer is: “a finite set of facts and concepts embodied in the work of a finite set of philosophers, mathematicians, and artists of various sorts.”  The contents of that finite set vary (though finitely), and reasonably so, but the ironic thing about liberal educations is that because of this focus on important and relevant ideas they actually leave you with relatively little freedom to choose your courses. What has been historically important for the development of a given society may not be easy to discover or know, but it most certainly isn’t “up to you”.  When you hear people talk about the “Western Canon” or “The Canon”, they are referring to one such set of ideas and authors. When people talk about the trivium and quadrivium, they are likewise talking about specific skills that were believed to be necessary components of a liberal education, whether the student liked it or not.


Places like Columbia and the University of Chicago have extensive core curricula which, while containing superficial variation, require every student to read more or less the same authors. Meanwhile, at St. John’s College, students have literally no freedom and all follow precisely the same curriculum. Conversely, places like Brown and Bryn Mawr– where there are few if any required courses – have either misunderstood what the “freedom” of liberal education refers to or sold out to the forces of the market. A rigid curriculum is much harder to sell effectively than a completely flexible one, and it takes no moral courage to defer to the wishes of your 18-year old customers while pretending that 18-year old children are somehow wise enough to decide for themselves what is best to study. Insofar as they brand themselves “liberal”, the educational stance of such colleges is disgraceful and the main task of students at these colleges, if they want the benefits of the education they think they’re going to get, is to construct a sufficiently rigid curriculum for themselves, this guiding role having been long since abandoned by the university administration.
The notion of a liberal education has evolved and will continue to evolve, though the basic idea remains the same. The size of our community has grown and so too has the amount of knowledge required for a citizen – now perhaps a citizen of the world rather than a citizen of Athens or Rome – to find his place and contribute effectively. It’s interesting to consider that, at least in the States, we require our medical doctors and lawyers to acquire a liberal education. This is in view of the fact that doctors and lawyers often make decisions of tremendous import for the whole of society. Although, it isn’t mandatory, we like our CEOs and entrepreneurs to have this kind of education as well, and for the same reason: a successful business person wields an enormous amount of power in the world and people who wield enormous amounts of power ought to understand the consequences of their actions. In order to understand the consequences of your actions, you have to have an understanding of history (how will my actions turn out), law (how will my actions regulate the future actions of my society), and beauty (will my actions make the world a more lovely or less lovely place). In order to interact productively with other influential people, you need to be able to convince them by speaking clearly, logically, and persuasively on topics where intelligent people will disagree. Compare the work that is done in the trades, where, for the most part, electricians don’t need to debate each other (much less their clients) on the proper way to wire a house. These are the skills that liberal education at its finest aims to impart to its recipients. Balancing the books, fixing the sink, training the dog, and paving the road – no matter how complicated or important these tasks may be – are best left to hired help (or, if you’re an elite Roman, to the slaves).


Some readers will object to this picture as elitist. It is absolutely elitist. That’s the whole point: because of how freedom and slavery operated in the ancient world, which is where we inherit the idea of liberal education from, this kind of education was limited to an elite. Part of what is so amazing about American higher education is that it, very idealistically, attempts to open this kind of elite education to everyone. Whether or not it has been successful is a different question. Indeed, part of the tragedy of higher education today is what happens to those who are given (really, who pay for) an elite education but lack the disposition, resources, culture or temperament to make use of it.


Finally, I want to be very clear about something. There is great dignity in the trades. There is nothing wrong with wanting to be an accountant or electrician. Just because the Greeks and Romans looked at certain occupations as fit for their slaves doesn’t mean that we have to think the same thing. It doesn’t follow that, just because we have inherited their society, we ought also to accept their values. Nonetheless, it is true that where you want and ought to position yourself in society is critical to determining what kind of education you should seek. I think that too many young people are seeking a liberal education today – more ought to be seeking vocational and/or technical educations. If someone who really wants to be a technician pays tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars to acquire a liberal education, they have made a terrible mistake. That money could have been spent acquiring more focused and relevant training. Liberal education isn’t for everyone.
To make things more complicated, liberal education also isn’t just for the rich or the well-connected. That was true in the past, but the openness of our current society makes it so that liberal education, provided its recipients have the right goals, desires, and temperament, is appropriate for people from all economic and social positions. What goals, desires, and temperaments make you a good candidate for liberal education will form the subject of a different essay.

Justin Shelby