The principles of a liberal education are actually rather simple. Pupils will encounter the greatest minds of the past, and from this encounter they will gain the insights to seek after truth and goodness for themselves. Liberal education equips pupils to ask the most fundamental questions: ‘What is man?’, ‘What is the good life?’, ‘What is the good society?’
The principles are indeed simple, but in practice it is very difficult to offer or to a receive a liberal education in twenty-first century Britain. Why is that?
Firstly, we are cut off from the past by a mistaken idea of relevance. Teachers are reluctant to foist ancient material on pupils, thinking that they will reject it as unconnected to their lives. But this lack of connection is only at the most superficial level. Relevance properly understood transcends the immediate concerns of the present. The greatest thinkers are always relevant, because they address the most important human questions, the questions which are of deep relevance to every human being: questions about significance and purpose in the face of mortality, for example. Last time I read the newspaper, death had not yet been abolished, and we are still just as mortal as Socrates.
The second key barrier to a liberal education is relativism. If there is no truth about the human condition, then we cannot expect to benefit at the deepest level from reading serious books, so why put forth the effort?
E D Hirsch is right to point out that exposure to a generous sample of great writers is vital to build cultural literacy, and allow our pupils to gain admission to the civilised conversation of our society. He is right that the ability to read effectively depends upon a good store of core knowledge built up through familiarity with the great legends and myths which have shaped Western society. His arguments are compelling from the point of view of social justice, as they must be accepted if we are to offer equal chances to those from homes that lack cultural capital.
E D Hirsch is right, but his arguments will not be enough to revive liberal education. The principles of core knowledge are attractive partly because they neatly sidestep the philosophical questions. They put to one side the question of whether we will find truth in the great writers of the past, and offer a pragmatic reason for studying them regardless.
The philosophical neutrality of Hirsch’s arguments are both their strength and their weakness. It is certainly eminently sensible and rational to propose the study of core knowledge in order to improve cultural literacy and open up the life prospects for poorer pupils, but is it really exciting, in the way that the discovery of truth is exciting? True liberal education appeals to the eager desire for truth that is in every child. It is the eros of the mind, yearning for consummation. There is all the difference in the world between proposing to study something because it is useful, and proposing to study something because it is true.
The search for truth is what makes us take books seriously. Every time we open one, we might discover something that will change our life. Mere entertainment or practical utility are pale shadows in comparison to the thrill of discovering the truth, and the liberation it brings.
But in the current philosophical climate, a fundamentalist Christian’s education is more liberal than the pupil in the most effective of core knowledge schools. Our modern intellectuals sneer at Bible thumping Baptists, but in fact, the Bible believer has learned the principle that old books should be taken seriously, something that has long been forgotten in university humanities departments. A fundamentalist Christian grows up being exposed to a tradition of serious writing from the past, and reads that serious writing in order to discover truth and apply it to his life. Can our schools offer anything comparable in seriousness and depth? No: they are incapable of doing so, unless they reexamine their philosophical basis.