What about liberal education then?

Taking up a passing comment by Gummo Trotsky on the apparent failure of liberal education, it is tempting to compose a small essay or meditation to explore some points of entry to this rather large issue.
Talk of failure (or of deferred success) raises the question, when do we think that liberal education was succeeding, and what was the measure of its success?
For the moment I will take literacy and numeracy for granted and speculate about what liberal education means on top of that.
Possibly what we have in mind is a situation where a handfull of students either inspired or encouraged by parents and teachers (1) become interested in ideas and learning, (2) pursue them to the point where they had a broad general knowledge, (3) pick up professional skills and qualifications as required, and (d) display both the capacity and the willingness to keep learning for the rest of their lives.

People might like to wonder if there was ever an education system that produced that result on a regular basis. It is apparent that some really educated people, at least in terms of a capacity for lifelong learning, emerged from the most unlikely circumstances while others who grew up with educational silver spoons in their mouths became boring pedants or anti-intellectuals.
The upside of this is that we probably don’t need to yearn for a lost age of liberal education, although I am definitely tempted to locate it round about the time that I was an undergraduate in the 1960s.
The downside is that it might just be a happy accident when the system works.
Beats me. Can someone else help?

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12 Responses to What about liberal education then?

  1. Rafe says:

    It is tough when you have to comment on your own posts, but if that is what it takes…
    Previously my contributions just killed individual threads, but now they seem to have momentarily killed the whole list.
    Sorry Ken, but do not be despondent, I have plenty more stuff to put up.
    Perhaps it is time for an industrial relations post or two.
    Or perhaps a reminded of the looming disaster in Zimbabwe. Interesting to see what happens when terrorists supplied with AK47s and Russian military advisers get into power with the blessing of the progressive forces of the western world.

  2. John Morhall says:

    I was an engineering undergraduate in the 60’s and am presently studying as an undergraduate again. Whereas there was an attitude to university learning in the 60’s which focussed on learning how to learn, rather than what to learn, I would imagine that given the access to a wide range of information that today’s undergraduates would have an even greater opportunity to explore knowledge for its own sake, rather than the needs of an intended vocation. There is however more structure in learning which tends to my mind to make courses less flexible and more intense. Whether life long learning is inherent in the nature or is a product of nurture I am buggeredifino. There were certainly less distractions to learning 40 years ago in my view. My kids seemed to have a continuing curiosity about a wide range of topics and have interests outside of their original academic bounds

    On the question of Zimbabwe, I fear that the distaster has loomed.

  3. Jason Soon says:

    jeez, what has happened in these digs? they’re deader than John Howard’s heart

  4. Nabakov says:

    I reckon it’s because of winter Jason. Ken and jen are huddled in their sherpa’s tent as the blizzards and hail lash Darwin, Nick’s fled for the sultry, laidback tropical environs of Nippon, etc, etc.

    But Rafe’s got a beard to keep him warm so he’s still active. After watching him stalking around the clubhouse, swinging his racket and trying to round up a game, I thought I’d get a rally going. But now I see there’s enough here for a couple of sets of doubles.

    Back OT. People have banging on about a decline in educational standards ever since the concept of formal education was invented. For example 2000 years ago, that privately educated revenueer Horace had a few swingeing things to sy about the decline of the Aacdemy.

    And yet somehow, we keep getting more and more prosperous by coming up with new ideas and putting them to work. Something must be going right, or least not very wrong.

    I think

    “People might like to wonder if there was ever an education system that produced that result on a regular basis.”


    “My kids seemed to have a continuing curiosity about a wide range of topics and have interests outside of their original academic bounds”

    sorta get to the heart of the matter in some ways that are pretty universal throughout history.

    I don’t know about youse guys, but what I learnt at school and uni was far more interesting and useful than what they were trying to teach me there.

    Yor serve.

  5. Nabakov says:

    Looking at my typos though, I’d certainly agree my educational standards have fallen since I used to get mid-90s in English tests back at the ole alma mater.

  6. jen says:

    just braggin’

    yesterday, jes, my 10 year old, learned her 5X tables. It took us to the cliffs and back (50 minute walk along the beach)to get the sing song going.

    today, just before she went to sleep she learned her 6X in lieu of a bedtime story.

    She was so happy she positively beamed off to sleep.

  7. chris fryer says:

    A date has now been selected for Melbourne Grogblogging #2. Saturday 27th August at Papa Gino’s on Lygon Street, Carlton. It will be starting at 7pm. Click here to find out more and RSVP in the comments. Hope to see you there.

  8. Steve Edney says:

    “Interesting to see what happens when terrorists supplied with AK47s and Russian military advisers get into power with the blessing of the progressive forces of the western world.”

    It is this sort of thing that kills threads. You write some good posts Rafe, particularly ones on science, but then in others there is frequent statements like that which make commenters think what’s the point? To argue the point is inevitably to get blamed for the crimes of Stalin.

  9. Rafe says:

    Thanks Steve.
    Out of office yesterday.
    Can we formulate a bipartisan position on a potential disaster which on some accounts could threaten the lives of millions?

  10. Steve Edney says:

    Doesn’t have to be Bi-partisan but maybe acknowledge some other things that went on in that sorry country that were not the fault of russians and western progressives.

    How about a failure by the white minority government to allow for a peaceful transistion to majority rule led to a violent oppostion, which came under the influence of Russian military advisors. Progressives in the west supported them on the mistaken belief that those struggling against a racist government would infact be better than the government they were to replace, and it was widely believed in the early years of Mugabe’s rule that this might be the case. Unfortunately it was not.

    Perhaps we should contrast with South Africa where the one time armed guerrilla leader turned into a peaceful and widely admired leader despite some failures. Could we have necessarily distiguished the difference before hand?

    Of course this is well off topic of a liberal education.

  11. Greg says:

    What is the failure of liberal education? That it’s preceived as “liberal”. Whenever I hear that phrase, my guard goes up, just like when I hear “mainstream media” or “liberal media”. These are phrases used to frame invalid arguments against broad-minded thinking. There is no liberal education, despite basketry courses or literature courses that use popular films or comic books, all of which are or can be valid cultural elements in a course of study. It’s a lot like “political correctness”, another scare tactic. Political correctness is the term applied when people take seriously the objections of others to being categorised in a particular fashion and attempt to offer relief. It can be abused, like anything else, especially when misunderstood, but it can also push the boundaries in a positive way, such as mandating curb-cuts in the sidewalks.

    The same people who claim liberal education is a failure are often the same people who claim that welfare and other social safety net programs are funded because of society’s failure in the area of personal responsibility, and who then pull their kids out of the schools because they’re afraid of what they’re learning and what they’re not learning, those ideological subjects that were common in a more dogmatic era.

    The failure of liberal education is that it isn’t teaching children the same as the parents were taught while exposing them to a broader array of ideas that run counter to what the parents believe.

    Personal responsiblity would fix that, if the parents could spare the time. They can’t, because they both work, and work late, in order to make ends meet and have the finer comforts, or as many as they can afford, and that’s the real failure of liberal education: it didn’t give us what we thought it would.

  12. jen says:


    Absolutely agree.

    There is a lot to be said for learning by rote and then learning to understand. Mathematical processes and patterns don’t emerge until the child has been exposed to what they look and sound like. same goes for language.

    Teaching them to understand before they know what it is they are to understand is destructive.

    Just SHOW them what they have to do! They can UNDERSTAND it later!

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