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A Liberal Education

by Robert Livingstone, Foreword by Michael Leppert

The following is an essay taken from the 1955 edition of the Great Books Primer, published by the Great Books Foundation. I found the Primer at a “Friends of the Library” sale for a quarter! As a homeschooling father, I am constantly striving to increase my knowledge and intellectual understanding. I feel I owe it to my son to make the attempt, even if I fail on occasion. Many homeschooling parents feel the same way and my question is: “Why shouldn’t everyone?”

I wanted to share this essay with you because without intending to, Mr. Livingstone cogently analyzes the negative condition -- and therefore, the beginnings of a solution -- to what I feel is a modern American tragedy: The comfortably-accepted idea that “average” people should be consumers, but not thinkers; breadwinners, but not philosophers; workers, but without the expectation of possessing a fully-functioning brain. When I was in high school, I did not understand why it was accepted that the blue-collar, factory-working fathers and the white-collar office-working people, could come home from work night after night, sit in front of the tube after dinner until sleep overcame them, and then stumble off to bed. They read only the newspaper -- never a book.

I recall comparing notes with my friends about their fathers (and mothers) relating to this phenomenon and only once did I encounter a father who actually read and thought. He was a barber and a sculptor. Years after high school, his son and I were band-mates, rooming together, and the son read me a sophisticated, polished letter from his dad describing his artistic frustration and some of his aspirations. It was shocking to me to hear someone from my father’s generation write in a style and about a topic I could closely relate to! It was the first clear, personal proof I had that that generation actually had “soul.”

The mind is a muscle; if it is not exercised regularly, it atrophies. Once it atrophies, no opinion issuing from it is validly based upon thought . . . it is only opinion-forming. The political views, social outlook, advice-giving – everything -- is negatively affected by this dysfunction of the mind. In a country like the U.S., which is designed to be ruled by an informed and brain-ful citizenry, such atrophy spells trouble and ultimately, doom. In high school I considered this condition to be a catastrophe to the future of America. Sure enough, I was right.

Thirty years later, this brain atrophy has grown, fed by television and Madison Avenue’s morphing of the citizenry into core-less, complete consumers. The average person now discusses nonsense from television or motion pictures as though it were real life, rather than recognizing it as the imaginings of screenwriters! More than ever, people define themselves by what they can buy. If Descartes wished to help such consumers to prove their existence, in order to communicate to them meaningfully, his explanation would have to be not “I think, therefore, I am” but “I buy, therefore I am.”

Not surprisingly, such brain atrophy has trickled down to produce the core-less university degree, conferred upon the core-less graduate. Where once a person attended college or university to enhance his humanity and quality of life, (if s/he weren’t intent upon learning a specific profession requiring such attendance) today, far too many people attain advanced degrees merely to acquire a commercial piece of paper, enabling them to make more money (to buy more stuff!). The center of such a person does not exist, for it has not been developed. He is an educated moron, who “knows” virtually nothing, but will go about pontificating upon his “education” at every opportunity, letting everyone within earshot know “how it is” about this, that and the other -- particularly about education. There were always such people, but I firmly believe that their numbers have swollen in the past 30 years – to dangerous proportions.

When I read Robert Livingstone’s essay in the Great Books Primer, I realized that he had stated this situation clearly and quickly. Knowledge should be the result of learning. Employment should be the result of schooling. Maybe all of us uncomfortable with the word “homeschooling” could alter it to “home-knowing”! I hope you enjoy Mr. Livingstone’s superior discussion and explanation. -- MJL

The Free Man’s Education
by Robert Livingstone (from A Great Books Primer, Copyright, © 1955 by Great Books Foundation, reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

What is a liberal education? Most people would probably reply, “Subjects like history, literature, languages, pure mathematics and science are a liberal education, but subjects like book-keeping, business administration, commercial French, accountancy, cooking and shorthand are not. They are technical or vocational, not liberal.”

So far as it goes, that answer would be true. But why are some subjects classed as liberal education and others not? In itself, liberal education is an odd phrase. What has the adjective “liberal” to do with education, and why should a “liberal” education be regarded as a good thing? To answer that question, we must go back to the country where the phrase “liberal education” was first used. The word “liberal,” “belonging to a free man,” comes from a world where slavery existed, and has survived into times when, in the literal sense, it has no meaning because there are no slaves. To understand it, we must imagine ourselves in the Greek world where the great distinction was between free men and slaves, and a liberal education was the education fitted to a free citizen.

That distinction may seem obsolete in a world where slavery has been abolished. But though slavery has gone, the ideal of a free man’s education is not antiquated. Here, as so often, the Greeks saw to the heart of the matter and put their fingers on an essential distinction. If we had understood and remembered this idea of a free man’s education, our views of education would have been less confused and we should have gone straighter to our goal. Of slaves the Greeks took little account. Their condition prevented them from being men in the full sense of the word. But they held that the free man, the real man, the complete man, must be something more than a mere breadwinner, and must have something besides the knowledge necessary to earn his living. He must have also the education which will give him the chance of developing the gifts and faculties of human nature and becoming a full human being. They saw clearly that men were breadwinners but also that they were, or ought to be, something more: That a man might be a doctor or a lawyer or a shopkeeper or an artisan or a clerk, but that he was also a man, and that education should recognize this and help each individual to become, so far as his capacities allowed, what a man ought to be. That was the meaning of a liberal education, and that is its aim – the making of men; and clearly it is different from a technical education which simply enables us to earn our bread, but does not make us complete human beings.

And what is a complete human being? Again I shall take the Greek answer to this question. Human beings have bodies, minds and characters. Each of these is capable of what the Greeks called “virtue” (arete) or what we might call “excellence.” The virtue or excellence of the body is health and fitness and strength, the firm and sensitive hand, the clear eye; the excellence of the mind is to know and to understand and to think, to have some idea of what the world is and of what man has done and has been and can be; the excellence of the character lies in the great virtues. This trinity of body, mind and character is man: Man’s aim, besides earning his living, is to make the most of all three, to have as good a mind, body and character as possible; and a liberal education, a free man’s education, is to help him to this; not because a sound body, mind and character help to success, or even because they help to happiness, but because they are good things in themselves, and because what is good is worth while, simply because it is good. So we get that clear and important distinction between technical education which aims at earning a living or making money or at some narrowly practical skill, and the free man’s education which aims at producing as perfect and complete a human being as may be.

This is not to despise technical education which is essential; everyone has to learn to make a living and to do his job, and he cannot do it without training: Technical or vocational education is as much wanted as liberal education. But they are not to be confused. They are both important, both necessary, but they are different. And yet to some extent they overlap. Take French. A man may study it in order to be able to order his meals in a French restaurant, or for business purposes; then it is technical education. He, as a man, is no better for being able to talk to a French waiter or to order goods in the French language. But he may study French to extend his knowledge of the thoughts and history and civilization of a great people; then it is liberal education. He, as a man, is more complete for that knowledge. Or take carpentering: Its study may be a means to a living or to making furniture or boats or other objects; then it is a technical education. But it may also give a clearer eye, a finer sense of touch, a more deft hand, and in so far, make a better human being; then carpentering is liberal education. Or take Greek: It may be studied in order to get access to the wisdom and beauty of Greek literature; then it is liberal education. Or its student may have no interest in these things, but simply be taking it in order to get credit in the School Certificate; then it is technical education – it is anything. In fact as Aristotle remarked, “in education it makes all the difference why a man does or learns anything; if he studies it for the sake of his own development or with a view to excellence it is liberal.”

This is the kind of education (without prejudice to others) which we want – that people should study “for the sake of their own development or with a view to excellence”, so that they may become human beings in the Greek meaning of the words, and not remain mere business men, mere chemists or physicists, mere clerks, mere artisans or laborers. If so, we have a clue to the maze of education, a guide to choosing dishes from the educational menu. Whatever else we select to meet our personal tastes or needs, the dinner must include the vitamins necessary to human health, so that we achieve that liberal education which makes men fully developed, within the range of their individual capacities, in body, character and mind.

I shall only attempt to deal with a certain aspect of the liberal education of the mind (not that in practice it can be cut off cleanly from the other two). Here we enter an enormous field – that vast complex of related and unrelated subjects which fills the lecture lists of all the universities and the shelves of the libraries of the world. This is the food which the intellect produces and on which in turn, it feeds. Yet this bewildering variety can be reduced under two heads – the study of the material universe, and the study of man as a sentient, thinking and spiritual being.

The first of these consists in the sciences which study and attempt to explain the material universe through Astronomy, Physics, Chemistry, Botany, Geology, Geography, and those which study man regarded as a physical phenomenon through Anatomy, biology, and the rest. Only scientists are competent to deal with the difficult problem of teaching these to the ordinary man. The elements of different sciences can be taught – thus biology and chemistry are taught in the high schools – but it is even more desirable to bring home to the student the meaning and importance of science in human life. That perhaps can best be done, historically by a description of the growth of science, and biographically by some account of great people of science, their personalities and their work.

This brings us to the second great branch of knowledge, of which it is a part and which is usually called Humanism. Its subject is Man – man, viewed in himself and his proper nature, viewed as literature views him, as a being with feelings and prejudices, virtues and vices, ruled by intellect, or perverted by passion, inspired by ideals, torn by desires, acting on plan and calculation or carried away by unreflecting emotion, sacrificing his life now for gold and now for an idea; an adulterer, a patriot, a glutton, a dreamer, Aegisthus, Oedipus, Hamlet, Macbeth, Faust – or man, viewed as a being governed by the laws of a universe outside him, viewed as philosophy views him, subject to limitations of time and space, of his own origin, nature and destiny, related to beings and forces outside him, adapting himself to those relations and modifying his action according to his conception of them, a creature with moral capacities or the descendant of an ape, determining his character and his future according to his wishes, or merely one wheel among many millions, blindly revolving in a great machine; or, thirdly, man viewed as a political and social being, as history views him, creating states and overthrowing them, making laws and refusing to be bound by them, opposing religion to politics, and freedom to law, binding art and politics, empire and freedom, public and private life into one harmonious whole, or crowning one to the exclusion of the rest, fighting, colonizing, making money and spending it, treating his neighbor as a fellow-being, or using him as a tool for the production of wealth, monarchist, parliamentarian, socialist, anarchist, Pericles or Augustus, Cromwell or Robespierre.

Before the student of literature, philosophy and history are displayed all the forces and ideas that have governed man, personal, religious or political; to see why he has rejected this and espoused that, why this failed and that was successful, what are liberty and religion, family affection and personal greed, and, in a word, to study man. As he reviews them and compares them with the present, he can see, as far as a man can see, what ideas have come down to his own day, and what new elements are combining with them, can forecast in some degree the future, and by virtue of his knowledge, guide the streaming forces and shape the molten mass, serve his country and use to the best advantage, his own powers. R.L.■