A Sense of Scale: Why We Still Need Liberal Education

1 June 2017
A Sense of Scale: Why We Still Need Liberal Education - Featured image

As the left exerts more and more control over our education system, we need to stand up for traditional liberal education, writes Dr Kevin Donnelly.

In order to survive and prosper, cultures must ensure that there is some way of passing knowledge, skills, abilities, customs, rituals, and beliefs from generation to generation. To function independently and be effective members of a society or community, individuals need to be familiar with and able to contribute to the particular way of life that makes their culture unique.

While family is central to the process of enculturation, education, especially in the more formal sense, is also vital. In particular, and in the context of Western culture, two of the most influential and beneficial institutions are universities and schools. Professor Christopher J. Lucas describes enculturation as:

The sum total of ways by which a raw, unformed human organism is inducted or initiated into a society, introduced to its culture, and becomes an effectively functioning member of the social order.

Lucas continues that:

Culture is learned. From an anthropologist’s point of view, education basically means enculturation. The culture of a society must be internalised by each generation. Education, informal and formal, unconscious and conscious, is a means for the preservation of culture.

The English philosopher Michael Oakeshott suggests enculturation is important when he describes education as a process whereby the uninitiated become familiar with their inheritance and develop the knowledge, ability and skills ‘to recognize the varieties of human utterance and to participate in the conversation they compose’. This is a conversation, Oakeshott suggests, ‘begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of the centuries’.

Education can be practical and utilitarian and involve acquiring the knowledge and skills to survive in a physically demanding and hostile environment. The task of surviving in the inhospitable desert of central Australia requires different knowledge and skills to those required to live alongside a rich, fertile river like the Nile, where food and sustenance are plentiful.


Once physical needs and demands are met and cultures become settled, it is then possible to channel energy, resources and time into a less utilitarian view of education. As such, education can have a more philosophical and scientific bent where the purpose is to address, in a more formal and structured way, existential questions about the nature of knowledge, how we perceive the world and what is the best way to achieve happiness and fulfilment and to serve the common good. When discussing education it is also important to distinguish between what Lucas, drawing on the works of Karl Popper, describes as a closed and an open society. A closed society is characterised by ‘an almost irrational attitude towards mores, morals, and beliefs. Customs become more rigid than demonstrably necessary for the survival of the group.’

In a closed society conformity prevails and beliefs and customs are enforced without question. Individual thought gives way to group mentality, and innovation and change are punished as heresies that jeopardise the safety of the group. The purpose of education—rather than seeking wisdom and truth—is to enforce whatever particular ideology is needed to guarantee that those in control remain in power. The types of dictatorial and totalitarian regimes described in Fahrenheit 451, 1984 and Brave New World are examples of closed societies. In such societies, books are burned, demagogues rule, and individual rights and liberties are denied.

An open society, however, is described by Lucas as one which:

not only tolerates heresy of all kinds but positively encourages diversity in customs and beliefs. The culture balances individual rights against (or in cooperation with) group needs. It fosters opportunities to create, to explore, to push back the limits in every field.

The Western cultural tradition best illustrates what is meant by an open society. Education, with its emphasis on enculturation, is not moribund or concerned with preserving the status quo. The Western concept of science, for example, involves questioning once accepted truisms and orthodoxies in the search for what can be empirically proven. The search for truth is often an end in itself, regardless of whether it disrupts the status quo or challenges prevailing orthodoxies.


While all cultures incorporate some form of education, some approaches are more successful and desirable when compared to others. To take an extreme example, primitive cultures—where superstition and witchcraft are prevalent—pale in comparison to those cultures where education involves centres of learning that embody rationality, ethical behaviour, and a commitment to seeking wisdom and truth.

One of the defining characteristics of Western culture is its unique education system, which that can be traced back to Ancient Rome and Greece, and beyond to civilisations that arose along the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Influenced by Christianity and historical events like the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment (as well as the movements of modernity and postmodernity), education within the Western tradition has had a profound impact on the growth and development of Western Civilisation.

Iris Murdoch describes the Western view of education simply:

Education means this. All children should be taught, in as far as they are able to take it in, to distinguish getting things right from getting things wrong, to read and to value reading, to write their own language correctly (thinking is grammar). Education is the inculcation of a sense of scale.

Central to Western culture’s approach to education are the great centres of learning that have existed for hundreds of years. While the nature of the disciplines has changed over time, Latin and Ancient Greek are no longer required, and contemporary universities are quite unlike those of the Middle Ages.

Universities are central to our culture and vital to the continued growth and prosperity of Western Civilisation. It should not surprise that the top 20 universities in the 2015–16 Times Higher Education World University Rankings are in Western countries, principally the United States and the United Kingdom. As noted by John Henry Newman, the ideal university should promote a particular habit of mind, one that seeks wisdom and truth and is not immediately practical or utilitarian. The great centres or learning associated with Western civilisation, including the universities of Bologna, Paris, Salamanca, Padua, Glasgow, Oxford, and Cambridge, to name a few, ensured that the knowledge and wisdom central to Western Civilisation were nourished and preserved.

Of course, universities also have a more practical and utilitarian focus, and advances in medicine, science and technology have contributed in a significant way to human progress. Israel Scheffler argues that knowledge and critical thought, as well as being inherently worthwhile, have important practical applications. Indeed, an important aspect of education is to enable students ‘to bring knowledge to bear on life’s problems and, in so doing, to train students in the proper application of what they may know or come to know.’

The gradual growth of compulsory schooling is another unique characteristic of Western culture. And central to schooling is what Brian Crittenden, a former professor of education at La Trobe University, describes as ‘liberal humanism’. When discussing the school curriculum, Crittenden argues that a liberal-humanist approach to education, in the context of Western Civilisation, ‘has probably exercised the most pervasive theoretical influence’.


Crittenden describes liberal-humanist education as developing ‘the knowledge, skills, attitudes and ways of acting that are thought to be constituents of human excellence within a given culture and social order’. The reference to ‘human excellence’ recalls Matthew Arnold’s definition of culture involving the ‘best which has been thought and said’, which throws a ‘stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits’.

A liberal-humanist view of education has a number of defining characteristics. One such characteristic is that it encompasses a broad view of education that is not always practical or of immediate value or use. Education, in this sense, should not be confused with training where the object is to acquire specific skills associated with a certain profession or trade.

Learning to be a plumber or an electrician—while worthwhile and valuable for those concerned and for society in general—is not the same as studying philosophy, poetry or quantum theory. In many European countries, such as Finland, Italy and Germany, secondary school students at particular stages are divided into academic, vocational and trade streams on the basis that not all have the ability or the interest to undertake an academically focused university course.


A liberal-humanist approach to education also rests on the established disciplines and areas of knowledge that provide what Crittenden describes as a ‘broad introduction to those major aspects of literate culture in which human beings have most significantly expressed their intellectual, imaginative and emotional capacities’.

When detailing what he terms a liberal education, the English educationalist Paul H. Hirst identifies eight distinct forms of knowledge: mathematics, physical sciences, human sciences, history, religion, literature and the fine arts, and philosophy. Hirst also argues that these forms of knowledge are valuable in themselves and that they exist independently of ‘the predilections of pupils, the demands of society, or the whims of politicians’.

Crittenden, in justifying the importance of a liberal-humanist view of education, refers to the need for all citizens to be culturally literate. Cultural literacy is defined as ‘the knowledge that provides a framework for interpreting and relating to significant practices in the life of a society’. E. D. Hirsch, an American educationalist, maintains that education must deal with essential knowledge so that students become culturally literate. Hirsch describes cultural literacy as ‘the basic information needed to thrive in the modern world’. The daily news cycle offers many examples where it is assumed that the audience will understand what is being referred to when mention is made of past events, aphorisms and scientific, political and economic facts. Examples include: opened a Pandora’s box, his Achilles’ heel, met his Waterloo, turn the other cheek, a good Samaritan, global warming, parliamentary democracy and habeas corpus—to name a few.

A liberal education is also inherently moral in character. Much of literature, whether Aesop’s Fables, Greek tragedy, Shakespeare’s plays or the novels of David Malouf, deals with good and evil, what constitutes right behaviour, and the impact and ethical consequences of one’s actions and the actions of others. Studying historical events such as the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, the abolition of slavery or Pol Pot’s killing fields, again, teaches about what constitutes moral and immoral behaviour and what constitutes civilised values.

To use education to enforce what is politically correct, or to implement what is the most recent politically determined imperative, is to cheapen and debase that which should be free of interference.

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