Liberal Education—Theory and Practice

Liberal Education—Theory and Practice  (1945) 
by Mortimer Adler

from University of Chicago Magazine (March 1945)

Despite considerable evidence to the contrary, I still cling to the notion that everyone understands what it means to be a liberally educated man or woman. The marks of a liberally educated person are not wealth or recognition, success in business or marriage, emotional stability, social poise or adaption to environment, good manners, or even a good moral character. Each of these things is worth having, not in itself or for itself, but for its contribution to the fullness of a happy life. But none is the direct result of liberal education, though we may hope that liberal education does not oppose the acquisition and possession of some, if not all, of them. The direct product of liberal education is a good mind, well disciplined in its processes of inquiring and judging, knowing and understanding, and well furnished with knowledge, well cultivated by ideas.

In any roomful of people, we would pick out the liberally educated man or woman as the one who manifests all the goods which belong to the intellect. These goods—the truth and various ways of getting at the truth—contribute to a happy life; they may even be indispensable, as is good moral character and some amount of wealth; but by themselves they do not make a man happy. A liberally educated man, lacking the goods which liberal education does not provide, can be more miserable than those who have these other goods without the benefit of liberal education. Liberal education is a perilous asset unless other and independent factors cooperate in the molding of a person. It is an asset, neverthelesss, both because of what it contributes—a good mind, which everyone would enjoy having—and because a good mind is useful, though never by itself sufficient, for the acquisition of all other goods.

Anyone who thus understands the point of liberal education should recognize three corollaries. (1) Since every normal being is born with an intelligence that can be disciplined and cultivated—with some degree of capacity for developing a good mind—everyone can be and should be given a liberal education to an extent that equals his capacity. (2) No one can be given a completed liberal education in school, college, or university, for unlike the body, the mind's capacity for growth does not terminate with youth; on the contrary, the mature mind is more educable than the immature; therefore, adult education must take up where the schools leave off and continue the process through all the years of adult life. (3) Schools and colleges may concern themselves with other goods than a good mind—in a defective society this may be necessary—but if they do, they do so at the expense of time and energy taken away from liberal education.

Now the chief difference between ourselves and our ancestors, considering even those who lived as late as the end of the nineteenth century, is not that their educational institutions succeeded in the work of liberal education while ours so plainly fail. The sad fact seems to be that at no time in European history—neither in classical antiquity nor at the height of the Middle Ages, neither in the Renaissance nor in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries—did schools and colleges, teachers and administrators, do a good job for most of the children submitted to their care; and until very recently adults were left to shift for themselves. In every generation a small number of persons managed to get liberally educated, even as today a few can, in spite of bad schools and teachers. Learning has always been hard; thinking always painful; and the flesh always weak, weak in the teacher as well as the student.

The chief difference between ourselves and our ancestors is that they, for the most part, talked sense about liberal education, whereas we for the most part—I mean our leading educators—do not. Since I have admitted that our ancestors did not succeed in practice despite their sound conceptions, does it matter, then, that our institutions are dominated by misconceptions and confused theories of what liberal education should be?

I think it does matter because I still have hope that the difficulties in practice can be overcome, that education can achieve a greater measure of success in fact than history has yet evidenced. To make this hope come true, we must think as soundly about liberal education as our ancestors, and beyond that we must remedy their deficiencies or rectify their errors in practice. But unless we start by setting ourselves straight on the level of theory, we shall certainly go backward rather than forward on the level of practice.

It seems to me that our ancestors were able to think more soundly about liberal education because (1) they were not democrats and hence wrongly failed to recognize that every human being deserves the maximum educational opportunity proportionate to his ability; (2) the consequences of an industrial economy did not make themselves fully felt until the middle of the nineteenth century; and (3) until that time, the wonders of technology had not created the religion of science, with the consequent exaggeration of the place of scientific studies in the curriculum.

The third of these factors was responsible for the elective system. The second generated vocationalism. The first led us to suppose that the liberal education which our ancestors advocated was essentially aristocratic in theory as well as in practice, and so prompted the false conclusion that there must be some other theory of liberal education more appropriate to a democratic society.

It is undoubtedly easier to think soundly about liberal education if you are preparing to give it only to the few who are favored in natural endowments or economic position. But democracy is right and we must solve the problem of giving to everyone the sort of college education that is most readily given to the favored few.

The industrial economy is here to say, for better or for worse, and we must somehow free the colleges from the burden of vocationalism by having other social agencies do whatever may be necessary to fit people into jobs. (What I am saying here about earning a living applies equally to all the other goods, such as emotional stability or moral character, which cannot be achieved by liberal education, and therefore should be taken care of by other social agencies; or if by colleges, at least outside the curriculum.)

Finally, scientific method, knowledge, and ideas deserve a proper place in the curriculum, together with, but not out of proportion to, poetry, philosophy, history, mathematics, theology, for all these differently exemplify the liberal arts; and though we now see that the traditional "classical" curriculum was too exclusively "humanistic" in a narrow sense of that term, the problem is obviously not solved by throwing away or corrupting what should have been amplified and thereby invigorated.

The practical suggestions I have to offer as therapy follow from the foregoing diagnosis of the illness of our colleges. We must so reform the curriculum, methods of teaching, and examinations, that we do not mistake the B.A. degree as signifying either a completed liberal education or adequate preparation for earning a living or living a happy life. It should signify only decent preparation for the continuing task of adult education.

A liberal curriculum should, therefore, include no vocational instruction; nor should it permit any subject-matter specialization. In a liberal college there should be no departmental divisions, no electives, no separate course in which grades are given for "covering" a specified amount of "ground," no textbooks or manuals which set forth what students must memorize to pass true-false examinations. The faculty should comprise teachers all of whom are responsible for understanding and administering the whole curriculum; lectures should be kept to a minimum and they should be of such generality that they can be given to the whole student body without distinction of year; the basic precept of pedagogy should be the direction of the mind by questions and the methods of answering them, not the stuffing of it with answers; oral examinations must be used to separate facile verbalizers and memorizers from those in whom genuine intellectual skills are beginning to develop and whose minds have become hospitable to ideas. No student should be dropped from college because he fails to measure up to an arbitrary standard determined by a percentage of mastery of a subject matter or skill; he should be kept in college as long as he manifests any development of his own capacities, and lack of such evidence should be interpreted as a failure on the part of the college, not the student.

These recommendations are, I know, either negative or formal. They do not positively or materially prescribe the course of study which should be in the curriculum of a liberal college. But if they were all followed, and if a faculty understood the purpose of liberal education, I would trust them to devise a curriculum worthy of the B.A. degree—aiming to do what little can be done in college toward the production of a good mind.

That would still leave us with four unsolved problems: how to overcome the weakness of the flesh on the part of both teachers and students; how to make what must be essentially the same college curriculum work for every level of intelligence and every diversity of talent; how to institute the sort of schooling which properly prepares all children to go to a liberal college; and how to organize and execute a program of continuing adult liberal education to carry ever further what the colleges begin—the motion toward that unreachable goal, the ideal of the good mind which would be attained by each individual only if we could exhaust his capacity for knowing the truth and how to get it.

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