Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Berkowitz on liberal education

The prolific Peter Berkowitz writes on liberal education, taking as his point of departure J.S. Mill’s Inaugural Address at St. Andrews. A snippet:

M ill’s nineteenth-century analysis of liberal education is relevant to the twenty-first-century university not for the specific curriculum he proposes but because of the larger principles he outlines and the greater goods he clarifies. His analysis suggests several lessons. First, a liberal education aims to liberate the mind by furnishing it with literary, historical, scientific, and philosophical knowledge and by cultivating its capacity to question and answer on its own. Second, a liberal education must, in significant measure, provide not a smorgasbord of offerings but a shared content, because knowledge is cumulative and ideas have a history. Third, a liberal education must adapt to local realities, providing the elementary instruction, the stepping stones to higher stages of understanding, where grade school and high school education fail to perform their jobs. Fourth, the aim of a liberal education is not to achieve mastery in any one subject but an understanding of what mastery entails in the several main fields of human learning and an appreciation of the interconnections among the fields. Fifth, liberal education is not an alternative to specialization, but rather a sound preparation for it. Sixth, a liberal education culminates in the study of ethics, politics, and religion, studies which naturally begin with the near and familiar, extend to include the faraway and foreign, and reach their peak in the exploration, simultaneously sympathetic and critical, of the history of great debates about justice, faith, and reason. Seventh, all of this will be for naught if teaching is guided by the partisan or dogmatic spirit, so professors must be cultivated who will bring to the classroom the spirit of free and informed inquiry.

The principal obstacle, says Berkowitz, is the professoriate. You don’t have to agree with everything he says to find engagement with the essay fruitful.

Discussions - 3 Comments

Thanks for some fresh Mill. This is another example of why this is the best blog regardless of partisan spirit.

It’s a very fine essay, with points and passages worth meditating.

I agree with Paul. This is a fine essay.


A thought about Cardinal Newman: I recently read some of his lectures on the university as I am preparing apiece on liberal education myself. It seems that Berkowitz critiques Newman for his specifically religious tones. But, I think Newman was saying that all knowledge is from, or of, God, whether we like it or not. He did have a religious view of things (he was planning on starting a college for Catholics after all and they had been barred from Oxford and Cambridge), but his was truly a catholic (small "c" on purpose) enterprise.


One more thing: Newman was reeacting, according to Svaglic, to the Evangelical influence that played down the intellect as being too corrupt to trust. Part of Newman’s project, then, was to make Reason respectable to the pious.

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