Liberal Education: Essential for Our Society

The tradition of the West is embodied in the Great Conversation that began in the dawn of history and that continues to the present day. Whatever the merits of other civilizations in other respects, no civilization is like that of the West in this respect. No other civilization can claim that its defining characteristic is a dialogue of this sort. . . . The spirit of Western civilization is the spirit of inquiry. Its dominant element is the Logos. Nothing is to remain undiscussed. Everybody is to speak his mind. No proposition is to be left unexamined. The exchange of ideas is held to be the path to the realization of the potentialities of the race.

Robert Maynard Hutchins (1899-1977) wrote these words to open volume 1 (The Great Conversation) of Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World, published in 1952. He was a philosopher, president (1929-1945) and chancellor (1945-1951) of the University of Chicago, and Chairman of the Board of Editors at Encyclopedia Britannica (1943-1974). Hutchins served as editor in chief for the Great Books series and for the companion Gateway to the Great Books series, published in 1963. His words should give us pause in our world today where we often fear inquiry and cower or find offense in disagreement. Indeed, we often seek to squelch others speaking ideas contrary to our own. We have lost the tradition of a liberal education.

Hutchins leads us to ask many questions. What is this “Great Conversation?” How can we participate in it? If it started at the dawn of history, what value is there in the early part of the conversation? Why should we care what some Greek philosopher, historian, or playwright wrote more than two millennia ago at the dawn of history? Do the ancients have something worthwhile to say to us? What about authors of the Middle Ages? What about a century ago, or even twenty years ago?

Roots of The Great Conversation

The Great Conversation has been going on for about three thousand years, beginning with the earliest of the Greek writers. Homer’s works, The Iliad and The Odyssey, and Hesiod’s works, The Work and the Days and Theogony, illustrate a certain world view familiar to the ancient Greeks, with a set of values and ideas about life.

With these works, we gain an insight into Greek religion and attitudes toward many topics we still wrestle with today. More importantly, we see how one group of people understood their world. We see how these people wrestled with the challenges of their day. If we are honest, we see the same sorts of struggles then that we have now. We can look at their responses to problems and how their attempts to address problems turned out. From this, we can gain insight into how to solve (or how to not solve) our own problems today.

The First Responses

Figures such as Thales, Anaximander, and others would challenge traditional concepts and seek natural explanations for events instead of religious ones. Their efforts would lead to the creation of philosophy and the beginnings of early science. Other writers, such as playwrights Sophocles and Aristophanes, would challenge moral principles in earlier work. They began the dialog. They began the conversation.

Plato would draw from their ideas. His writings responded to those earlier ideas, challenging some and affirming others. Plato is, in turn, both built upon and challenged by ideas from his pupil, Aristotle.

The conversation started with Homer, Hesiod, Thales, Sophocles, Aristophanes, Plato, Aristotle, and others. They discussed ideas on family, love, friendship, justice, the organization of society, the nature of Man and God, and so on. This conversation has continued to today. We continue to discuss the same topics with changing perspectives, challenging some of those who came before while affirming others.

The Great Conversation Continues

Is any of this relevant for today? Hutchins writes,

Many of the [major works of Western thought] were written when men held slaves. Many were written in a prescientific and preindustrial age. What can they have to say to us, free, democratic citizens of a scientific, industrial era?

This is a kind of sociological determinism, . . . [claiming] that intellectual activity . . . is always relative to a particular society, so that if the society changes in an important way, the activity becomes irrelevant. . . . If we seek to use in our own time the ideas of another, we shall deceive ourselves, because by definition these ideas have no application to any other time than that which produced them.

History and common sense explode sociological determinism. . . . There is something called man on this earth. He wrestles with his problems and tries to solve them. These problems change from epoch to epoch in certain respects; they remain the same in others. What is the good life? What is a good state? Is there a God? What is the nature and destiny of man? Through the ages great men have written down their discussion of these persistent questions.

Hutchins goes on to point out that “no age speaks with a single voice. No society so determines intellectual activity that there can be no major intellectual disagreements in it.” The body of Western thought that Hutchins writes about, the Great Conversation that has taken place over centuries, is filled with insights into mankind’s experience. It provides varying perspectives on what mankind has learned and how mankind should react to these experiences. Indeed, the entire conversation that makes up the West’s intellectual history concerns the very same topics, problems, and dilemmas that we face today.

A Liberal Education

By learning from our own intellectual heritage, we empower ourselves with the knowledge and perspective to meet the challenges of today. As a result, we give ourselves the intellectual background and framework in which to competently judge, evaluate, and consider ideas that are of concern today. This allows us to be better citizens and to better participate in public discourse. James Madison writes, “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance, and a people who mean to be their own governors, must arm themselves with the power knowledge gives.”

What we are describing is a liberal education. It is focused on building a better, more competent person, and a better citizen. It has little to do with getting a job or participating in a profession. Contemporary notions that schools exist to churn out workers instead of competent citizens have pushed liberal education to the side, much to the detriment of our society.

A Liberal Education for Everyone

Some people might see a liberal education as something for the privileged alone. Often, the poor were regarded as unfit for such an education, or were unable to afford to acquire it. In today’s age, however, much of the core Western canon is accessible at little or no cost.

Why do we focus on the Western canon? Because this is likely to be read by those who are either born in the West or have chosen to move to the West. Whether “Western” by birth or adoption, the Western canon is likely your heritage. For people not living in the West, their own cultural canon would be most important. It is important to first understand your own culture and heritage before trying to make comparisons to other cultures.

So, what is this “core Western canon?” Competing lists of the great works exist. The Harvard Classics series, published in 1909 and 1910, included 50 volumes. Encyclopedia Britannica’s Great Books of the Western World is their version of the list from 1952. In 1990, Encyclopedia Britannica released a second edition of the series, expanding from 54 to 60 volumes. Britannica added some works and removed others.

No doubt, an interested reader could find many other reading lists attempting to represent the major ideas and writers in the Western tradition. Both the Great Books of the Western World and the Harvard Classics include works in philosophy, science, history, and literature. Other lists exist with a more narrow focus.

While different lists exist, they overlap considerably. What is important is to seek the major works that have had significant influence. Not everything is worthy of consideration for a liberal education. Only those works that had enduring influence can be considered part of the cultural canon.

A Liberal Education for Everyone

People can choose to seek a liberal education on their own. We can find many of the great works online, through libraries, through e-books, or even by buying physical copies. Participation in the Great Conversation should not be the exclusive purview of an elite group. It is open to all who honestly and earnestly seek to contribute to it. Study or discussion groups with other people, particularly those disposed to hold opposing views, can help build understanding of what competing authors are trying to say.

The Loss of Civil Public Discourse

It is tragic that our society has largely turned its back on the ideal of the liberal education. Many people do not develop critical reasoning skills because they are never exposed to competent authors challenging each other. Instead, too many people adopt views with little or no understanding of why they hold them. As a result, they are unable to defend or even competently discuss what they believe.

Because there is a lack of self-reflection and examination of one’s own views, people often respond to people with opposing views with anger, condemnation, and assumptions of ill-will or stupidity. This is the root of much incivility in public discourse. We are too often not grounded in a common understanding of the ideas that are the essence of our Western cultural heritage. As a result, we often lack common ground or a common language for communication. Instead of productive conversation, we end up throwing around fundamentally uninformed ideas.

Rebuilding Liberal Education and Our Public Discourse

Restoring the ideal of a liberal education and seriously integrating that within secondary and postsecondary curricula would provide astounding improvements for our society. Creative instruction could introduce some of the ideas and writers even at the elementary level. Such an effort to revitalize liberal education up through secondary levels would require a broad selection of works from the Great Conversation. It would also mean confronting difficult ideas, not just easy or comfortable ones. It would be a fundamental rethinking of elementary and secondary curriculum.

We would dramatically improve critical thinking. Offense would be lessened, as people learn to productively deal with opposing viewpoints. Discourse would become more civil with greater understanding and a shared background on which to draw. We could begin to see our fellow citizens less as opponents to be vanquished or suppressed. Instead, we can view them as fellow seekers of a better life, despite our differences on what a good life brings. Within this framework, what unites us as part of humanity can overshadow what divides us.

What Can We Individually Do?

We, as a society, should spend a little less time trying to make a clever point in 140 characters or less. We should spend less time posting some clever quip or meme on social media denigrating someone with an opposing viewpoint. Instead, we should spend more time thinking far more deeply than 140 characters will allow. By making this change, we can close many of the rifts within our society. Vulgarity and contention within public discourse can be reduced.

As we pursue our own liberal education and use it to better participate in society, let us not ask, how can I make someone with an opposing viewpoint look stupid, but rather why would a person of good will hold a position different than mine? Let us ask questions like, what if I am wrong? Have other people made this argument before? What were the counterarguments? Where is the truth in what they say? How can you and I find common ground, or at least mutual understanding, in the face of differences of opinion?