The Conservative Purpose of a Liberal Education

By Russell Kirk

Our term “liberal education” is far older than the use of the word “liberal” as a term of politics. What we now call “liberal studies” go back to classical times, while political liberalism commences only in the first decade of the nineteenth century. By “liberal education” we mean an ordering and integrating of knowledge for the benefit of the free person—as contrasted with technical or professional schooling, now somewhat vaingloriously called “career education.”

Liberal education is conservative in this way: it defends order against disorder. In its practical effects, liberal education works for order in the soul and order in the republic. Liberal learning enables those who benefit from its discipline to achieve some degree of harmony within themselves. As John Henry Newman put it, in Discourse V of his Idea of a University, by a liberal intellectual discipline, “a habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom; of what… I have ventured to call the philosophical habit of mind.”

The primary purpose of a liberal education, then, is the cultivation of the person’s own intellect and imagination, for the person’s own sake. It ought not to be forgotten, in this mass-age when the state aspires to be all-in-all, that genuine education is something higher than an instrument of public policy. True education is meant to develop the individual human being, the person, rather than to serve the state. We tend to ignore the fact that schooling was not originated by the modern nation-state. Formal schooling actually commenced as an endeavor to acquaint the rising generation with religious knowledge: with awareness of the transcendent and with moral truths. Its purpose was not to indoctrinate a young person in civics, but rather to teach what it is to be a true human being, living within a moral order. The person has primacy in liberal education.

Yet, a system of liberal education has a social purpose, or at least a social result, as well. It helps to provide a society with a body of people who become leaders in many walks of life, on a large scale or a small. It was the expectation of the founders of the early American colleges that there would be graduated from those little institutions young men, soundly schooled in old intellectual disciplines, who would nurture in the New World the intellectual and moral patrimony received from the Old World. And for generation upon generation, the American liberal-arts colleges (peculiar to North America), and later the liberal arts schools and programs of American universities, did graduate young men and women who leavened the lump of the rough expanding nation, having acquired some degree of a philosophical habit of mind.

If all schools, colleges, and universities were abolished tomorrow, still most young people would find lucrative employment, and means would exist, or would be developed, for training them for their particular types of work. Instead, a highly beneficial result of liberal education, conservative again, is that it gives to society a body of young people, introduced in some degree to wisdom and virtue, who may become honest leaders in many walks of life.

Our educational apparatus has been rearing up not a class of liberally educated young people of humane outlook, but instead a series of degree-dignified elites, an alleged meritocracy of confined views and dubious intellectual and moral credentials, puffed up by that little learning, which is most truly described by that mordant Tory Alexander Pope as a dangerous thing.

The more people who are humanely educated, the better. But the more people we have who are half-educated or quarter-educated, the worse for them and for the republic. Really educated people, rather than forming presumptuous elites, will permeate society, leavening the lump through their professions, their teaching, their preaching, their participation in commerce and industry, and their public offices at every level of the commonwealth. And being educated, they will know that they do not know everything; that there exist objects in life besides power and money and sensual gratification; they will take long views; they will look forward to posterity and backward toward their ancestors. For them, education will not terminate on commencement day.

If we linger smug and apathetic in a bent world, leaving the works of reason and imagination to smolder, we all come to know servitude of mind and body. The alternative to a liberal education is a servile schooling. And when the floodwaters of the world are out, as they are today, it will not suffice to be borne along by the current, singing hallelujah to the river god.

Some years ago, President Nixon, in the course of an hour’s conversation, asked me, “What one book should I read?” He added that he had put that inquiry, more than once, to Daniel Patrick Moynihan and Henry Kissinger; but they had given him lists of a dozen books, and the President, under the pressures of his office, could find time for only one seminal book. What should it be?

“Read T.S. Eliot’s Notes towards the Definition of Culture,” I told Mr. Nixon. He wanted to know why.
“Because Eliot discusses the ultimate social questions,” I replied. “He deals with the relationships that should exist between men of power and the men of ideas. And he distinguishes better than anyone else between a ‘class’ of truly educated persons and an ‘elite’ of presumptuous specialists—remarking how dangerous the latter may become.”

President Nixon discovered not long later that the elite of his administration were deficient in that wisdom and that virtue so much needed in America. A liberally educated man learns from Plato and from Burke that in a statesman the highest virtue is prudence. The sort of high prudence required in great affairs of state has not frequently been encountered in Washington during the past several decades. One reason for this deficiency has been our American neglect of liberal education, as defined by John Henry Newman:

This process of training, by which the intellect, instead of being formed or sacrificed to some particular or accidental purpose, some specific trade or profession or study or science, is disciplined for its own sake, for the perception of its own object, and for its own highest culture, is called Liberal Education; and though there is no one in whom it is carried as far as is conceivable, yet there is scarcely any one but may gain an idea of what real training is, and at least look toward it, and make its true scope, not something else, his standard of excellence.

True liberal education, that standard of excellence, that conservator of civilization, is required not in Washington alone, but everywhere in our society. Most possessors of a liberal education never come to sit in the seats of the mighty. Yet they leaven the lump of the nation, in many stations and occupations; we never hear the names of most of them, but they do their conservative work quietly and well.

I do not know what we Americans might have become, had we not such men and women among us. I do not know what we will do if they vanish from our midst. Perhaps then we will be left to celebrate “a devil’s sabbath of whirling machinery,” supervised by specialists—an elite without moral imagination, and deficient in their understanding of order, justice, and freedom. And, after that, chaos.

Much needs to be conserved in these closing decades of the 20th century, when often it seems as if “Whirl is king, having overthrown Zeus.” One benefit of a liberal education is an understanding of what Aristphanes meant by that line—and of how Aristophanes and Socrates retain high significance for us. If you have studied Thucydides and Plutarch, you will apprehend much about our present time of troubles; and if you cannot order the state, at least a liberal education may teach you how to order your own soul in the 20th century after Christ, so like the 5th century before him.

Originally published in The Classical Teacher Spring 2007 edition

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