The Aim of Liberal Education

Andrew Chrucky

September 1, 2003

Since 1961, there is a tradition at the University of Chicago to give an annual address to the incoming undergraduates on the Aims of Education. Three of these are available on the internet -- the addresses of John Mearsheimer, a political scientist (1997); Robert Pippin, a philosopher (2000); and Andrew Abbott, a sociologist (2002). My judgment is that none of them understands what liberal education is ultimately about. They all emphasize the usefulness of a University of Chicago education in the market-place, and they all think of liberal education -- explicitly so by Mearsheimer -- as amoral. Putting together these two ideas of success and amorality, it is very hard to resist the thought that these professors are pushing and defending an education in sophistry (as understood by Plato).

Their common presupposition is that we live in a competitive environment and that the aim of education is to help us to become winners. They all go out of their way to assure the incoming freshmen with surveys of statistical studies showing that by the sheer fact that they have been accepted at the University of Chicago, most of them will do quite well financially, regardless of what they study. Abbott adds that their financial security will also be improved by a choice of profession. But he also assures them that there are many alternative courses of study to any profession; so, on the final analysis, he says, it really doesn't matter what they study. This conclusion makes sense if what employers are looking for are the most intelligent workers. Institutions like the University of Chicago act as filtering agents to select the cream of the intellectual crop.

Students -- as all these professors emphasize -- by participating in the educational process at the University of Chicago place themselves in an advantageous position in the market-place. Why? For three reasons. The first, as already noted, is that regardless of what they study, the statistics show that from the mere fact that they were accepted and graduated from the University of Chicago, they will be, for the most part, financially successful. The second is that they will gain a respectable knowledge of facts, theories, and techniques. The third reason is that because they will receive an unusually large amount of practice in argumentation, they will be able to win arguments and persuade people.

The benefit of argumentative skills is emphasized by Mearsheimer when he points out that such skills are useful to a lawyer, a doctor, a businessman, and others. By excluding from liberal education a moral perspective, and stressing the argumentative skills, Mearsheimer understands liberal education as a practice in verbal debate for the sake of winning. And skill at argumentation, as such, without a moral perspective is sophistry and Machiavellianism. The job of the lawyer, as of the sophist and Machiavelli, is to win. However, Mearsheimer, as I know from reading his critiques of U.S. foreign policy, is morally guided in what he advocates as a scholar. But when it comes to reflecting on the business of education he seems to be able and willing to ignore the moral perspective.

Their common thesis -- explicitly formulated by Mearsheimer -- is that liberal education is and should be amoral. This is presented by him both as a factual and as a normative thesis about liberal education at the University of Chicago. Abbott agrees with Mearsheimer about the factual thesis that liberal education aims at a development of cognitive skills, but expresses regret that moral and emotional education is left out. However all three identify liberal education strictly with the development of cognitive skills. If I understand Abbott correctly, he would want education, in a broad sense, to include cognitive, moral, and emotional education -- but seems to agree that liberal education, in a narrow sense, is an education in cognitive skills. Pippin, by contrast, seeks in education personal liberation, but is silent on social liberation, and thus, inadvertently, too advocates an amoral perspective.

I ask myself: How could education be amoral? It is amoral in studying facts, theories, and engineering. It is amoral to the extent that these things can be used for moral, immoral, and amoral purposes. For example, studying explosives is amoral, and knowing how to blow up a building is also amoral, but actually blowing up an occupied building, however, could be very immoral.

Education, according to the amoral perspective, is an education for a knowledge of facts and theories, on the one hand, and an education for dialectical and rhetorical techniques of persuasion, on the other hand. What purposes that knowledge will be used for is, from this perspective, an irrelevant secondary problem. It could be used by business, by government, or by some criminal group.

By contrast, I think that liberal education -- rightly understood -- encompasses cognitive, moral, and emotional education. And it is only if liberal education is misunderstood that one can exclude the moral and emotional components. So, if liberal education is to be identified with amoral cognitive skills -- as our three professors think it should -- what kind of a person emerges from this kind of education? My quick answer is: a sophist. A sophist is a person who is skilled at influencing audiences and winning arguments. He is, in other words, skilled in survival in a social context. Plato, by contrast, wanted to educate philosophers, who can be characterized as moral dialecticians, that is to say, people who have a training in dialectical (cognitive skills) and use them for advancing morality in an emotionally controlled manner. Liberal education is not about making explosives -- it is about such matters as agreeing as to when -- if ever -- explosives should be used and for what purposes.

Robinson Crusoe

To make my thesis clearer and plausible, I will use a heuristic social contract model. Imagine that I am Robinson Crusoe, shipwrecked and stranded on an island. My problem is to survive in this environment. I need water, food, clothing, and shelter. Suppose that I have access to the ship's library -- the Encyclopedia Britannica. What I need is scientific and engineering knowledge of what is edible, how it is to be obtained and prepared for eating; what material can be used for making clothes and shelter, and how to do these things. Let us call this scientific and technical knowledge. To make use of the encyclopedia, I, of course, have to understand the language or languages in which it is written, and I have to have some skill in reading. Now, I want to stress that having this skill in reading and using the encyclopedia will help me survive; but it does not constitute a liberal education. In fact, in this context I have no use for liberal education: my whole concern and preoccupation will be to improve my mode of living through a knowledge of science and technology -- which the encyclopedia will furnish to a degree.

A need for liberal education will kick-in only when another person appears on the island -- call him Friday. Friday, too, will be interested in survival. If he does not speak my language, he will have to learn my language or I his. Although language is a necessary condition for accessing the library, it is now also a necessary condition for communication. Why do I want to communicate with Friday? Well, for one, Friday and I may not know what to expect from each other. Can I trust Friday not to take my food, clothing, and shelter, or even my life? If I cannot communicate with Friday, do not trust him, and feel insecure with his presence -- especially if he performs violent acts against me, then I will either try to kill him or enslave (imprison) him. But suppose that I can communicate with him and am optimistic about his nature, how will we interact?  Let us further suppose that Friday can talk but cannot read. In that case, I will have access to the encyclopedia and he won't. Relative to one another, I will be an expert and he will be dependent on me. But it may be that Friday in his fashion already has a sufficient knowledge of how to manipulate nature for survival -- and can, in fact, survive without my expertise. In other words, as far as knowledge of survival skills are concerned, we are relative equals. In that case, minimally, we need to agree how to act towards each other. Such a minimal agreement -- essential to our peaceful survival -- will be a morality. We will agree to the following:

  1. Not to kill each other.
  2. Not to injure each other.
  3. Not to steal from each other.
  4. Not to lie to each other.
  5. To come to each other's aid when there is distress.
  6. To take from nature what is needed for our survival, and to take as much as we can store, as long as there is enough for both of us.
As to the use of land and water, we can agree to various alternatives. All the land and water is for common use, or we divide the island into two territories -- one is Friday's and the other mine; or perhaps we divide the island into three territories -- one Friday's, one mine, and one common. We can also come to some agreement concerning our labor. Suppose Friday is good at fishing and I at the construction of shelters, we could come to an agreement as how to exchange our services.

Liberal education, as I understand it, is needed for reaching agreements. And each of us has to control his emotions and behavior in accordance with our agreements. In fact, our dialogue for the sake of agreements will suffer if done in a highly emotional condition -- so we have to agree to discuss things in a cool and sober mood with no emotional distress. In fact, as we get more reflective and sophisticated about the conditions for effective discussions, we will realize what is required of each of us.

Suppose that Friday and I have divided the island in half, and we basically leave each other in peace, but because I have access to the encyclopedia I am able to construct various engines. I am harnessing water, air, generating methane for fuel -- and so on. Friday sees this and we get into a discussion about how I am able to do this. I tell him that I learn this from the encyclopedia. Friday asks me to teach him how to read and allow him access to the encyclopedia. What should I do? I can refuse to teach him, and I can refuse him access to the encyclopedia. In addition to this, suppose that Friday has a set of religious beliefs which cause him to abstain from eating some edible animals and plants. Is it to my interest to teach Friday how to read? To give him access to the encyclopedia? And to discuss with him his religion?

I suggest that I have a prudential and a moral obligation to give Friday a liberal education. This is an education in the use of language for discussing and reading, including a control of one's emotions -- so that Friday becomes my peer in the art of discussion. If Friday becomes my peer in discussions, we can then seek and advance in our discovery of "dialectical truths." These are the practices and beliefs which we will agree on relative to our hypotheses. Indeed, there is a vision of the ultimate human good which identifies it with rational discussion -- this is Socrates' vision. When Socrates envisions an after-life, he thinks of a place where he can carry on dialogues with famous and distinguished individuals. And when he is offered a life without discussion, he responds that the unexamined life is not worth living. By "unexamined" life, I take it, he meant a life in which there is no rational discussion. If I do not help Friday to get a liberal education, I will be depriving myself of rational discussion. I will be depriving myself of a good. Rational discussion for the sake of trying to reach agreement has, thus, both an instrumental and an intrinsic value.

I am now ready to formulate my idea of liberal education. Given a social context,

the aim of liberal education is to create persons who have the ability and the disposition to try to reach agreements on matters of fact, theory, and actions through rational discussions.
No Evasion from the Moral Perspective

The three professors claim that it is possible to have an amoral approach to education. I don't see how this is possible. If Mearsheimer, or any other professor, shows no concern for the structure of the curriculum, they are acting irresponsibly. On the other hand, if they have opinions about the curriculum but are silent because of political considerations, they are cowardly. And if they really have no opinions, then they are incompetent. In any case, they act immorally by posing as teachers. Although it is possible to deceive oneself and others about the role of the moral perspective in one's activities through ignorance; yet, on reflection, the moral perspective reasserts itself. All one need do is ask two questions. The first, why are Mearsheimer, Pippin and Abbott teachers? Well, obviously, they are paid to be teachers -- they are making a living. And, second, why do students come for an education? Primarily because it promises them a way of making a living. So, both teachers and students are engaging with each other for the sake of making a living.

Disappearance of the Frontier and Wage-Slavery

But why worry about making a living? Why not become self-sufficient by living off the land like the American Indians did? And why indeed weren't the Indians allowed to roam the prairies and hunt bison? Because the U.S. government would not allow it. All frontier land was slowly made into private property -- either the property of individuals or of the government. In short, the frontier vanished around 1890. It is as if Friday after landing on the island discovered that Robinson Crusoe claimed the whole island for himself. He would allow Friday to remain only as either his slave or his servant.

Given that a frontier is now non-existent, what alternatives are left for subsistence? The answer is: To be an employer or an employee. And for most people the route starts and ends with that of being an employee. So, relative to our political reality, education is seen as primarily for the sake of employment. But, a second problem presents itself: there are not enough jobs to go around, especially the well-paying kinds; so, there is a need for entering and winning in this competition for jobs. Hence, a need for educational credentials to improve one's prospects for employment. And since graduating from a prestigious college helps in the competition, there is also competition for getting into the best schools like the University of Chicago.

Colleges and universities are, in their own right, highly competitive places. There is, first, the problem of departmental survival; so it is to each departmental member's advantage to make sure his department thrives. Everyone is engaged in this competition not only to survive, but to survive as best he can.

Liberation of Liberal Education

Pippin, of the three speakers, is the only one who stresses the liberating nature of liberal education. But he focuses on a secondary form of liberation. He is like a Jew in Palestine after the Jewish War with Rome (66-70 A.D.). Since the Jews found it impossible to change the imperialism of Rome -- in fact any dissension was forbidden -- so instead they focused on a personal salvation from sin and the attainment of eternal salvation. Pippin, however, is not directly or explicitly suppressed from talking about the need to liberate ourselves from wage-slavery, but he does talk obliquely about some other forms of unfreedom. He talks about the need to liberate ourselves from inherited beliefs. I agree with him, but this is not enough of a liberation.

The liberation that ultimately matters is the specific liberation from this forced competition of teachers for academic positions and of students for future jobs, which is simply an instance of the general competition for survival in the capitalist environment. But Pippin is either oblivious to this greater slavery or he is purposefully silent about it. He is concerned with the freedom to choose from within competing views of what is the case. In other words, Pippin and the others, are after epistemic autonomy. For example, as a result of this autonomy, a student may give up the religion of his parents and embrace the spirit of science. By Pippin's lights, such a student has achieved a degree of liberation. Such a liberated student has learned a number of the dialectical moves in the philosophy of religion and can now hold his own.

Is this what liberal education has given the student? An ability to stand his ground in debates? According to Pippin this is liberation enough. According to me, this is only the beginning. Although liberal education can be seen as a sort of training in intellectual gladiatorial fights, the real fights, according to Pippin and Mearsheimer, are in the competitive world of making a living. And this, for them, is what liberal education prepares the students for.

A Stronger Sense of "Liberation" in Liberal Education

By my lights, liberal education aims to rid us of the inter-personal competition for survival. Let me make my point clearer. I am not saying that liberal education will free us from the labor of surviving. To do this we must contend with nature -- with the earth and the things on it, above it, and below it. And what we need for this struggle is all the knowledge that science and engineering provides us. This is the situation of Robinson Crusoe before the arrival of Friday. But in addition to non-human nature, there are also other humans to contend with, and they are bent on a strategy of monopoly in land. And this is the root cause of most wars.

And if we ourselves are not actually aiming at monopoly, others are; and we are then the victims of their striving. The way the game is played is this: Everyone needs land for food and shelter. Now if we can manage to get others to give us some of their gatherings and some of their labor, why then we won't need to work or worry about survival; in fact, we can then worry about opulence and magnificent living. So, how do we get other people to work for us? Well, we can bully them into it by enslaving them. Or, we take all the land (like Crusoe claiming the whole island), and anyone wishing to live on our land has to play by our rules -- which includes tribute and labor service. And, of course, the more land one has under his jurisdiction, the greater the tribute and labor. Most of human history is a history of warfare between greedy landlords over more and more land.

Consider the division of land in the United States. Given the inherited British property laws which did not change despite the so-called American Revolution, the result has been a genocide of the American Indians, the slavery of Africans, and the present system of wage-slavery. I say "wage-slavery" because one is forced into this competitive economic system. Who has forced us into it? Well, the government. It forced the Indians to settle in reservations, and it made practically everyone else become a wage laborer. And why so? Because the government represents the interests of the monopoly players, and they are the ones who have created and perpetuate this government.

The masses are sacrificial pieces in this monopoly game. But aren't we a democracy? Yes, but not a liberally educated democracy. Liberal education is needed to get people to agree on rational policy. Right now the masses are a cacophony of voices echoing the emotionally arousing and familiar. The masses are distracted -- consciously promoted by the news and entertainment media -- by sensational -- though in the larger context -- trivial topics. And even if the masses focused on the important issues, they don't know how to discuss matters so as to reach rational agreements. The important facts are that we have a population of approximately 300 million people, of which about 8 million are unemployed, and of which about 2 million are in prisons. How big of a population is sustainable or desirable? Why is there unemployment? Is there a correlation between unemployment and being in prison?

Given the present economic arrangements, it is to the advantage of employers to have an "educated" pool of potential employees. And the type of education that is needed is an education in literacy so to be able to follow orders and technical manuals. What is not wanted is political education; so, there is a prevalent myth that politics should be kept out of education. But the very opposite is what a liberal education should aim at. It should be an education in politics -- because the aims should be to liberate us from wage-slavery and the whole culture of competition.

What is missing from the present liberal education is the honing of the skills and the dispositions -- the desires -- for trying to reach agreements. Instead, the aim is, as for Pippin, diverted for achieving personal autonomy. And given autonomous individuals, there will be much disagreement, but not much of a desire to reach agreement. And all three professors seem to be content that disagreement flourishes at the University of Chicago. And none of them expresses any concern whatever for agreement. Why is this so? Because they are thinking of non-moral academic issues. Disagreement is ok for academic issues: these are issues that have no practical consequences, at least in any foreseeable or direct manner. But besides academic issues there are also -- to echo William James -- vital, forced and momentous decisions to be made. For example, to focus on the politics at the University of Chicago, the faculty council at the University of Chicago voted in 1998 to reduce the Common Core and expand the undergraduate student body. Did they arrive at this decision through rational discussion? Well, that depends on whether rational discussion aims at the expedient or the moral. The moral consideration would be whether the changes are detrimental or beneficial to the students. But, for all I know, that may not have even entered into any deliberation. The primary matter at stake here was probably the survival of the University of Chicago and each professor's survival within the university -- one's pay check. The faculty reasoned that if rigor was sacrificed there would be a larger pool of applicants, and a larger tuition-paying clientele. And the bottom line for professors is, after all, survival.

What about liberal education? Well, from reading the addresses of the various faculty, they all seem to be satisfied with the production of sophists, and diminishing the common core will have little effect on that. Since the faculty apparently don't really know what liberal education is about, or, if they do, they don't think it is politically expedient for them to proclaim it, a change here and a change there in the curriculum doesn't seem to make a great vital difference. But from a moral perspective -- which they either don't take or are afraid to take -- a liberal education should empower individuals to try to reach agreements, among others, on what is economically and politically advantageous to everyone.

On the so-called Liberal Curriculum

A college or a university is a collection of departments, and each department wants to survive and prosper. And this is done by having students take course offerings given by the departments -- either as mandatory courses or as electives. If you bring together the chairmen of these departments together to discuss a core curriculum, each will insist that an introductory course from his department should be mandatory. The result of this survival mentality, is the compromise of required course distributions: so many credits from the English department, so many credits from the natural science, from the social science, the humanities, and such. And this is offered as "liberal education." Do they discuss the nature of liberal education? I doubt it. And as long as educational policy resides in a faculty council, the outcome inevitably will be some kind of course distribution approach.

From my perspective the content of liberal education should be primarily moral problems, especially political problems. For example, in history, I think that the writings of Charles Beard, especially his Economic Interpretation of the U.S. Constitution is what is wanted. Of contemporary historians and commentators, I think that Howard Zinn and Noam Chomsky are addressing the important issues. They are important because they are looking at history and events from a moral perspective.

The content of a liberal education should be moral problems as provided by history, anthropology, sociology, economics, and politics. And these should be discussed along with a reflection on the nature of morality and the nature of discussions, i.e., through a study of rhetoric and logic. Since discussion takes place in language, an effort should be made to develop a facility with language.

What is a discussion?

As far as I know, the only examples of genuine discussions are the Platonic dialogues. These are dialogues (only two persons are discussing), and the minimum relation between them is this. One person makes a claim, and the other person responds by agreeing, disagreeing, asks for a clarification of a vagueness or ambiguity, or suspends judgment. Each and every claim gets this kind of a response. And as long as there is agreement, there is no discussion. A discussion ensues only when there is a point of disagreement. And the aim of the Socratic discussion is not to win, but to reach agreement.

What passes for a discussion in seminars or public discussions is more like a series of mini-lectures with or without arguments. One person says what he thinks, then another, and another. There is no effort to even find out whether the other person agrees or disagrees. A real discussion requires a response to every claim. For example, if a person presents an argument and the conclusion is not accepted, it must be because of some invalidity or unsoundness of the argument, or one or more of the premises are not accepted. But to know even this, one must already have some knowledge, skill, and trust in logic. And liberal education should provide this sophistication in logic.

Concluding Comments on Mearsheimer, Pippin, and Abbott

Mearsheimer: Although I think highly of Mearsheimer's analysis of international events because they are presented at least from an implicit moral perspective, his explicit identification of liberal education with an amoral training in cognitive skills strikes me as completely wrong. From my perspective, the essence of morality is to abide by agreements, and liberal education is an education in reaching rational agreements.

Pippin: Pippin stresses the role of liberation in liberal education. But the liberation he is seeking is a liberation from external and internal compulsions. He wants to create autonomous thinkers. So far so good. But two things are missing from his perspective. The first is the social nature of liberal education. It is not meant to induce private enlightenment, as his position implies, but public agreement. The second thing he misses is the enslaving condition of our social order. But he may not be conscious of the enslaving social order because he himself is the recipient of probably the largest grant ever awarded to a scholar.

Abbott: Abbott claims that there is no aim of liberal education because to be liberally educated is to experience the world from a richer perspective. If we distinguish an intrinsic good and an instrumental good, then like Socrates, Abbott finds an intrinsic good in, let us say, rational discussions. The very activity is its own reward, and Abbott seems to revel in this; so, he finds no further aim in liberal education. Now Plato was quite aware of the alluring nature of philosophy (and scholarship) when he presented the allegory of the cave. The cave represents the world of everyday life, and if the cave contains prisoners who are chained and forced to look at shadows, then for Plato -- though not for Abbott -- the role of the philosopher, or the liberally educated person, is to go back into the cave and to try to free them.