Education is our only political safety. Outside of this ark all is deluge. (Horace Mann)

A Liberal Education

Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, published in 1987, contained ideas that are equally - if not more -  relevant today.  (In this text he uses the term “liberal” in the traditional sense of the emergence of a belief in individual rights and freedoms, a free-market economy, and representative government - liber, free a free man - and not the modern political sense, which is universally used while etymologically abused.)

Composed during the Reagan years, it was timely. It was written in response to what was, in hindsight, a key and pivotal period in public education in this country - we didn’t know it then, but this was the last time educators could have taken control of our profession and responded to the general - and, to be fair, somewhat deserved - cultural criticisms of the time (The best-known educational critique of the 1980’s was A Nation at Risk, published in 1983). Teachers of the day, a mix of very labor-oriented urban educators and baby-boomer rural and suburban first-generation professionals, did not provide a good answer.  What we did was to sow the wind, and brother, did we reap the whirlwind.

A comment by Allan Bloom on education that should fuel reflection upon our profession is his taxonomy of students by type:

Most students will be content with what our present considers relevant; others will have a spirit of enthusiasm that subsides as family and ambition provide them with other objects of interest; a small number will spend their lives in an effort to be autonomous.

It is for these last, especially, that liberal education exists. They become the models for the use of the noblest human faculties and hence are benefactors to all of us, more for what they are than for what they do. Without their presence (and, one should add, without their being respectable), no society—no matter how rich or comfortable, no matter how technically adept or full of tender sentiments—can be called civilized.

The liberal education of which all of our former educational philosophy professors spoke is simple in concept, improbable in execution. Impossible, honestly, in a society with universal public education. Nonetheless, it remains the best educational model for our democratic and compulsory system.  We seek to activate the autonomous individual: independent, self-governing, and an ethical sense which is indifferent to the fickle fevers of the mob.

The old-fashioned view of what a liberal education was contained the very ideas of the University - exposure to a broad range of general knowledge and skills, which contained the arts and sciences, business and humanities,  and an expectation that a student would be able to write competently, have an understanding of mathematics, know their history and common culture and be able to function as a leader in the general society.  A serious college would graduate a student who was prepared for higher professional success or graduate school because he or she understood their world.  To steal Hirsch’s term, they were “Culturally Literate.” They were also socially mobile, a trait which seems less valued nowadays.

In Indiana, regardless of what the state wants (which are geographic pools of “career ready” and low-wage graduates) the broader culture benefits in powerful ways when people are exposed to a variety of ideas in a safe environment.  We must teach the state standards, of course our students must read and write and compute, and know something of our culture and government, but as we do that, let us recall, that…

“Practical utility, however, is not the ultimate purpose of a liberal arts education.

Its ultimate purpose is to help you learn to reflect in the widest and deepest sense, beyond the requirements of work and career: for the sake of citizenship, for the sake of living well with others, above all, for the sake of building a self that is strong and creative and free.”

A thesis completed by one of my favorite short essays, ever-

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

-Robert A. Heinlein

I do have Mr. Bloom’s book in my office if anyone would like to read it.


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