There is a fundamental difficulty for many English speakers in understanding what is meant by the term ‘liberal education’, because the word ‘liberal’ has so many associations which actually run contrary to these educational principles.
In politics, liberalism is associated with the Enlightenment experiment begun by Hobbes and Locke, in which humanity was redefined as being governed by self-interest, with no possibility of a higher motive. All higher motives were dismissed as nothing more than the savage superstitions of primitive culture, from which modern man must liberate himself. The solution to social problems was to organise society so that citizens would be governed by enlightened self-interest: to cancel the old bonds of family, tribe or religion, and replace them with a contract which government and governed agreed was mutually profitable. A business contract replaced the former belief in sacred rights and duties to family and country. Hobbes was convinced this would be accepted by almost everyone on rational grounds because of the terror of life without law enforced from above, which would be nasty, brutish and short.
Hobbes and Locke thus abolished the quest begun three thousand years before by Odysseus: the search for the good life. They announced that no such thing existed. Humanity was to search instead for the life governed by rational principles based on the one indisputable good: self-preservation.
Rousseau added another twist to the abolition of the noble and the sacred in human society. He too believed that society was nothing more than a mutually convenient arrangement with the aim of self-preservation, but he also asserted that because this arrangement was artificial, it was in conflict with the deepest longings of the human heart, which desired to be free of such artifical constraints and return to a state of nature, in which the restraint of civilised behaviour was no longer required. He described society and nature as being in perpetual conflict, and instead of commending the victory of the artificial over the natural, as Hobbes and Locke had done, he lamented this triumph.
Thus liberal democracy: a political system founded on the abolition of the noble and the sacred for the sake of comfortable self-preservation, which is presumed to be the only end of human existence. The contract theory of government leaves no room for heroism, only pragmatism, which has been remarkably effective at providing comfort for our bodies, while starving our souls.
The aims of liberal education are quite different, and really in direct opposition to the aims of liberal democracy. Liberal education seeks to equip young people in their search for the good life, which is not the same as the search for the comfortable compromises offered by our modern culture. The search for the good life necessarily involves asking questions about what is truly good and evil. It posits that mankind has reason, by which he will discover the truth, and offers help in this quest in the form of the greatest thinkers of the ages who have trodden that path before us.
Liberal education sits very awkwardly within a culture dedicated to material comfort and moral compromise, and which teaches its young that above all, they must not make absolute truth statements, because this would be a form of bigoted discrimination against those who might hold different views. In other words, young people are indoctrinated to be indifferent to truth, and are therefore uninterested in the quest which liberal education offers them: the discovery of what is truly good, and the truly good life, through the study of the greatest thinkers. As Allan Bloom commented, ‘nobody believes that the old books do, or even could, contain the truth. So books have become, at best, “culture” i.e., boring’ (The Closing of the American Mind, p58).
Liberal education has been replaced, almost completely, with technical education, so that we have become a nation of technically sophisticated barbarians. Even what traces of liberal studies remain within the universities have been rendered innocuous by the invasion of the humanities by the social sciences, so that students are taught not to look for truth in the old writers, but to view them rather as historical documents of their times. Nothing sits above history; there is no abiding human condition. The connection to tradition which might have survived in the academy is thus neutralised. Any threat it might have presented to the relativist consensus has been extinguished, and the humanities have become an exercise in adopting political poses and contorting classic texts so that they accord with them, or else condemning the great authors of the past because they were nasty racist, sexist bigots. Instead of sitting at the feet of the ancients, we sit in judgement upon them, complacently confident of the superiority of our anti-morality.
This is the key to the success of progressivist theories of education. They have been accepted so widely not because they are effective at producing thoughtful and civilised young people, but because liberal democracy must above all be protected from the dangerous consequences of rational inquiry into the human condition. A generation of young people acquainted with traditional thought, and with reason sharpened by debating with the ancients, would be in danger of rejecting many of the most sacred principles of liberal politics. Above all, they would be in danger of seeking the truth, instead of resting in the tepid waters of indifference and complacency.