Liberal education: An introduction

A few months ago I received a set of books published by Encloypedia Britannica consisting of 10 volumes from 1959 called collectively The Great Ideas Program. The topics in the set run the gamut from philosophy to mathematics to imagination, literature, and theology.

I’m excited to eventually explore the depths of its ideas.

And I’m particularly excited about the first volume, An Introduction to the Great Books and to a Liberal Education. 

What is a liberal education? Well, Robert M. Hutchins does a wonderful job explaining it. His rebukes hold as true today as they did then.

A liberal education is not specialized education, not vocational, avocational, profession or preprofessional It is not an education that teaches a man how to do any specific thing.

I am tempted to say that it is the eduction that no American gets in an educational institution nowadays. We are all specialists now. Even early in high school we are told that we must begin to think how we are going to ear a living, and the prerequisites that are supposed to prepare us for that activity becomes more and more the ingredients of our educational diet.

What is missing is education to be human beings, education to make the most of our human powers, education for our responsibilities as members of a democratic society, education for freedom.

This is what liberal education is. It is the education that prepares us to be free men. You have to have this education if you are going to be happy; for happiness consists in making the most of yourself. You have to have this education if you are going to be a member of a community; for membership in the community implies the ability to communicate with others. You have to have this education if you are going to be an effective citizen of a democracy; for citizenship requires that you understand the world in which you live and that you do not leave your duties to be performed by others, living vicariously and vacuously on their virtue and intelligence. A free society is a society composed of free men. To be free you have to be educated in freedom. This means that you have to think; for the free man is one who thinks for himself. It means that you have to think, for example, about the aims of life and of organized society.

This is a beautiful description of the power of a good, general education. He goes on, describing the role of the specialists in society – a developing characteristic if Max Weber’s Bureaucracy is any indication. It was published just a generation earlier.

He writes, “The old definition of a specialist is a man who knows more and more about less and less and less is only too correct” and argues against the incomprehension of jargon, the special terminology employed by those in a particular field that often evolves to become nearly a language in itself as terms are coined and acronyms multiply.

The books that provide an introduction to a liberal education are some of the finest works ever created by the human mind. They were forgotten in the mid-20th century, and they are practically abolished today. Yet, they have made the world what it is, and it is impossible to understand the world without them.

Books for an Introduction to a Liberal Education

Plato: Apology, Crito, Republic

Sophocles: Oedipus the King and Antigone

Aristotle: Nicomachean Ethics, Politics

Plutarch: The Lives of the Noble Grecians and Romans

Old Testament: Book of Job

St. Augustine: The Confessions

Montaigne: The Essays

Shakespeare: Hamlet 

Locke: Concerning Civil Government 

Swift: Gulliver’s Travels

Gibbon: The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire

The Declaration of Independence, The Constitution of the United States, and The Federalist

Marx-Engels: Manifesto of the Communist Party



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