Professor Anthony O’Hear

Honorary Director of the Royal Institute of Philosophy.

Professor of Philosophy at the University of Buckingham and Head of the Department of Education.

Three Questions

I wrote most of this article in 2010, in the USA, as it happens, and this explains some of the references, in particular the discussion of home schooling and fundamentalist Christian Schools in the final section (though I think that some of this may well be of interest to British readers). But, despite the article being written in rural Ohio, my own experience is largely in England, where I have from time to time been involved in formulating governmental educational policy, experience which I do draw on in the article.

My educational concerns do have a timeless dimension, as will emerge. However I am also interested in the way these ideas might be implemented in a particular historical moment, a moment which, as we will see, is not propitious for their implementation, either in Britain or in the USA. So my argument here is not wholly or primarily a conceptual one; it may be that under some political dispensations what I am calling liberal education could thrive – but not, I am arguing for both practical and ideological reasons, under the type of political dispensation we have currently in the West. In the concluding pages of this essay, I will also look at a recent approach to education which might at first sight look similar to what I am proposing, but which turns out to be something of a delusion.

One theme which underlies quite of lot of the subsequent discussion is sometimes put in the following terms. In considering education, for whom is the process conducted, for the state or for the family of the pupil? More crudely, who do children belong to, to the state, that is the collective, or to their parents? To anticipate my conclusion, liberal education envisages a situation in which both these options will come to seem ill-formed. Children, even as children, belong to no entity or group of people; liberal education educates for freedom from any such notion of ownership. There is, though, a second and different question: would liberal education and its aims be best served by an education run, controlled and/or regulated by the state, or by a system in which parents have the ultimate responsibility? And if, at the start of the twenty-first century, I say the second, I should not be taken to imply that I would favour all the ways in which parents might chose to discharge that responsibility. Indeed, as will become apparent, I most certainly do not. It is, though, another (and a third) question as to how far parents should be regulated or restricted by the state in exercising choice over the schooling of their children so as to prevent them from imposing on  their children an education which I or others might disapprove of. During the course of this essay, I will attempt to deal with all three of these questions.

In order to clarify my purpose and strategy, it may be helpful at the outset to point out the logic and direction of the argument. My main concern is with liberal education, and with how its promotion might best be served in current circumstances in Western democracies. So my advocacy of a radical deregulation of education is offered in the first instance as an answer to what I see as a problem arising from the concept of a liberal education. However, as will become apparent, I also think there are independent reasons of principle for the deregulation of education, and in the second stage of the argument I touch on them. I also look at a number of objections to deregulation, which take us beyond anything specifically to do with liberal education. And, just to clarify (or complicate) things a bit more, I should point out from at the outset that it is not part of my argument that a deregulated system of education will expose all children to the sort of liberal education which I find desirable. It will not; but I suggest that a deregulated system is the best chance that liberal education has in to-day’s world, and probably for the greatest number of pupils.


Education for Freedom: the Child

Liberal education, as I am understanding it, is an education for freedom. ‘Liberal’ in the phrase ‘liberal education’ derives from the Latin ‘liber’ = free (rather than ‘liber’ = child, which would be tautologous, or ‘liber’ = book, which will certainly be involved in any course of liberal education, but only as a part of the whole thing). An education stressing or aiming at freedom can, however, be seen in rather different and incompatible ways. At one extreme, at what we might call the progressive end, there would be the    typical ‘free’ school, of which A.S. Neill’s Summerhill would be a famous example, or in the USA the type of thing advocated by John Holt in his book How Children Fail. (1) Summerhill was, and to an extent still is, a school in which children do not attend lessons if they do not feel like it; they study the things they want as and when they themselves feel ready for it; and, with teachers and other members of the school community, they collectively decide on the rules to be imposed in the school. In Neill’s own words (on the School’s website), at Summerhill ‘we had to renounce all discipline, all direction, all suggestion, all moral training, all religious instruction. We have been called brave, but it did not require courage. All it required was what we had – a complete belief in the child as a good, not an evil, being.’ Notably absent from this type of free school will be any form of external discipline, either in the conduct of lessons and the structuring of curricula, or, more generally, in the ethos or conduct of the school as an institution. The underlying thought here is that there is something de-humanising in imposing external curricula and controls even on young children. According to Holt, ‘nobody starts off stupid’, yet schools are no more than places in which pupils are coerced according to external social goals, with the result that in them ‘children learn to be stupid’. (2)

By contrast in the type of liberal education I am interested in here discipline and externally imposed curricula will play a major role. There is an understanding that children – pupils – are not when young fully human, and only become human in the full sense by being initiated into various practices and forms of knowledge and experience in which one’s humanity achieves its full embodiment and articulation. I have put this bluntly and starkly, because I think it needs stating clearly and emphatically, in these post-Rousseauan and possibly post-Freudian days when childhood is seen, sentimentally, as a paradise from which we adults have been excluded by the forces of civilization: ‘Les seules vrais paradis sont les paradis perdus’ – true enough, but I don’t think that Proust (from whom I am quoting here) would have foregone his Ruskinian initiation into culture and its mysteries for a permanent holiday in his aunt’s house, and if we are taking the lost paradise to be, Platonically, that from which we descended before we were born, then childhood is actually the start of our descent into the Cave. For Plato, of course, human existence is an uphill struggle to rise above our humanity, in which we attempt to control the two horses we set bestride, one that would fly up and one that would drag us down, a metaphor which might seem to be a more accurate representation of our life in general and of childhood in particular than seeing childhood simply as a time of innocence.

Actually claiming that the child is not fully human is not as extreme as it might at first sight seem. It is simply recognizing the fact of what biologists call neoteny, that when we are born we are very immature and unformed, in comparison to most other species, and remain immature for a long time. When we are young, our instincts on their own will not take us very far. The great distinction between humans and other animals is the way in which, in all cultures, human beings pass on to their young by education and training, formal and informal, immense tracts of what they need to know and do in order to survive and flourish in both natural and social worlds. During the Enlightenment many thinkers – and not just Rousseau – were fascinated by the prospect of l’enfant sauvage, the child who had not had a human upbringing, and who was raised in nature, among the beasts. As is well known from the film of Francois Truffaut, when such a child was actually found in the Auvergne (the wild boy of Aveyron), sadly, tragically, even despite all the efforts of the well-meaning doctor who fostered him, he never succeeded in becoming (dare I say?) fully human, and actually ended up as an exhibit in Paris. But, whether or not, acculturation is possible for children or young people after a certain age, what l’enfant sauvage graphically illustrates is the significance and extent of learning and acculturation in human life.

Marx was wrong when he famously spoke of humans having no nature, but only history, because part of our nature is precisely to live our lives in the polis where we will flourish in and through what we learn and are taught – and this (Aristotelian) view is quite compatible with thinking that there are eternal truths about what does and does not contribute to human flourishing. But because flourishing involves acculturation, in a human society, with its traditions and history, education, formal and informal, becomes critical.

The proponent of liberal education takes a view of childhood which has its roots in the thought of the classical Greek philosophies of Plato and Aristotle. Pace Holt, who thinks that ‘children are by nature
not only kind and loving but serious and purposeful’, (3) for the philosophers of classical antiquity the child is unhabituated in desirable traits either of character or of intellect, and so is in no position to exercise the type of freedom accorded to children in A.S.Neill’s school or advocated by Holt. It is not that children are evil or malignant (though some might have evil and malignant tendencies and original sin weighs on us all), so much as that they are unformed. And this lack of formation goes all through, intellectual, physical, moral and in terms of character. So, famously, the ancient Greeks emphasized the need in education for gymnastic (the training of the body), music (the training of sensibility throough music and the other arts), while Aristotle stressed the way in which a virtuous character can emerge only from an habituation in virtuous acts, which will, if things go well, lead to a love of virtue itself.

As far as the intellect goes, what the young need above all is initiation into disciplines and traditions in which reason is exercised. None of these things is instinctive; hence the need for discipline and training. I will leave it to those who have had experience of young children to judge between the Greeks and the likes of Holt and Neill. Here I will restrict myself to the comment that even if Holt is right in thinking that schools actually produce the sort of malice and stupidity we see in pupils in many secondary schools these days, what this would show is that the good qualities he discerns in very young children are not strongly embedded, and need careful nurturing, just as the Greeks thought and Christians think.  A similar point could be made about Rousseau, who also puts the blame for our evil inclinations on the social world, and to whom many of our current sentimental notions of childhood can be traced, but who in Emile requires an astonishingly artificial set up in order that Emile’s natural goodness should develop naturally. (It is perhaps worth underlining here that Rousseau’s idea of childhood, as being a stage in which children should develop naturally and in interaction between the natural world and their childhood inclinations, is the source not only of much current thinking about primary and early years education, but also of a powerful strand of opposition to the type of education I am here advocating.)


True Enlargement of Mind

From the perspective of the liberal educator (as represented by, say, Cardinal Newman and of Matthew Arnold in the nineteenth century), in an education which truly frees the mind, a, if not the, key element will be initiation into the best that has been thought and known (or said); (4) as a result of such an initiation will develop that ‘true enlargement of mind which is the power of viewing many things at once as one whole, of understanding their respective values, and determining their mutual dependence’, as Newman has it. (5) Here teaching and discipline are essential because the ‘best’ in whatever field is not going to be picked up randomly. Much of it will be hard and different from anything the pupil will be familiar with or will pick up in his or her ordinary life. It will require a grounding of knowledge and vocabulary and reference beyond what the pupil will meet in everyday life.

The subject matter of liberal education will include science and mathematics, treated in a serious way, as inquiries for their own sakes, examining the fundamental nature of reality from both a physical and from an abstract mathematical point of view. This enterprise will remind us of both of  Aristotle’s view that part of wisdom is the  pure desire to know the causes of things and also of the Pythagorean-Platonic sense of number as a realm of its own, adamantine in its certainty and proof, arguably penetrating to the essence of the world. But over and above science and maths, liberal education will involve an encounter with our cultural roots. Like Odysseus in Book XI of The Odyssey, we will, in a sense, enter Hades to converse with the dead and to discover who we and they are. Like Odysseus, each one of us has to ‘sail after knowledge’, or else we will be in a state ‘knowing less than drugged beasts’, in thrall to the clamour, mindlessness and superficiality of the present when we have nothing with which to compare or judge it.

Liberal education, then, involves an orderly and disciplined initiation into the best that has been thought and known in various dimensions, as well as an education in sensibility and in habits of virtue. In this process the learner will be introduced to various traditions and canons of thought, sensibility and behavior (the best that has been thought and known) as streams of experience and conversations through the ages, which of necessity have a longevity and an authority far more extensive and commanding than anything which could be produced by any groups or individuals making things anew to-day. In that sense we will, all of us, be dwarves sitting on the shoulders of giants, as John of Salisbury put it in the twelfth century. Of course we know more than those earlier in the conversation, as T.S.Eliot observed, and a key part of what we know is precisely those who have gone before us, and their achievements. The thought, though, is that this initiation, disciplined as it is, is actually the precondition of true intellectual and moral freedom. Without this grounding there will always be an element of the barbarian at a loss in a temple whose meaning he does not understand, or of the untrained would-be artist cut off from subtlety and depth of expression by his incompetence in the medium.

Much modern education is predicated on just such models. For example, ‘creativity’ without training is valued, pupils are expected to express a reaction to poems whose context is deliberately hidden from them, and they are envisaged as working out for themselves a type of social contract for their school just in the way Rousseau envisaged the noble savage moving the state of nature into a state of social organization. All this underlines the difference between the conception of freedom at work in liberal education and that envisaged in the progressive free school. To put it broadly and bluntly, the liberal educator sees freedom in terms of the ability of the learner to participate in and add to the conversations of mankind, in Michael Oakeshott’s phrase, whereas the freedom envisaged by the progressive is that championed by Francis Bacon right at the start of the modern era in the early seventeenth century, the freedom of the man who dives into the River Lethe, erasing from his soul the memory of all knowledge, all art, all poetry, to re-emerge on the opposite shore, naked and glorious like the first man.

It might seem a cheap shot to point out that in expressing his vision so beautifully Bacon is relying on classical and biblical imagery, but it would not be a cheap shot to point out that Bacon was the advocate of a new science, based solely on observation and experiment, which was supposed to look at the world anew and without preconception or influence from past authorities. For Bacon was a polemicist who referred to the knowledge of the middle ages and of the renaissance as consisting of idols, and who excoriated the intellectual influence of Aristotle. Bacon’s own contributions to the actual new science of his day were less than nugatory, and he misunderstood the mathematical and theoretical nature of the new science he was supposedly advocating, which was actually very far from addressing nature without preconceptions.  Nevertheless none of this has prevented the Baconian ideal of science, and his re-writing of its history (in effect wiping out the contribution of the medieval to empirical knowledge) from exercising a dominance in the popular (and even not so popular) mind ever since.

Nor should we overlook the way in which the Baconian conception of science is a thoroughly utilitarian one, in contrast to the view of Aristotle, in which knowledge of causes is a species of wisdom, good in and for itself, an aspect of mental and moral liberation. For Bacon the true and only point of science is to improve man’s estate, and the liberation is one afforded (if at all) by technique and technology.  It is not, then, surprising that Bacon should have been an opponent of liberal education, to the extent that he opposed the foundation of Charterhouse because its curriculum was to be based on the Greek and Roman classics. As things have turned out, Bacon can be seen to be one of the first of many who have opposed liberal education on grounds of economic and scientific utility, including John Locke, Newman’s bete noire in this respect. We stand here at the point of one of the big divides in educational thought, that between the followers of Aristotle and Cicero, the liberal educators, who see a virtue in knowledge for its own sake and the rational life as an end in itself, and the utilitarians, Bacon, Locke and their followers, who see education and indeed knowledge itself primarily as means to ulterior practical ends, with reason the slave of the passions, rather than their master.  (To avoid confusion, I should underline here that the greatest of the so-called utilitarian philosophers, John Stuart Mill, was actually a doughty defender of the ideals of liberal education ; but then the happiness he defended in Utilitarianism was the philosophic happiness, or perhaps unhappiness, of a Socrates, as opposed to the cruder pleasures envisaged in the philosophies of his father and Jeremy Bentham.)

A further element is added to the utilitarianism of Bacon and Locke by John Dewey. According to Dewey’s pragmatist philosophy the key notions for any human activity are problem solving and growth. Dewey had an in-built hostility to the past, because, in his denial that there were any eternal or permanent verities, the legacy of the past was that of yesterday’s solutions to yesterday’s problems. Explicitly linking his thought to Darwin’s theory of evolution – the ‘greatest dissolvent in contemporary thought of old questions’  (6) – Dewey wanted everything, including philosophy and education to address ‘the intelligent administration of existent conditions’, without being tied to what he saw as the absolutism and authoritarianism of the idea that the essences of things could be or had been discovered. Moreover, in contrast to the Aristotelian notion that different modes of enquiry were appropriate for different areas of life, Dewey insisted that the methods of the physical sciences, of observation and, above all, experiment, were suitable for all our endeavours.  In the continuous flow of life in which we are all swimming, we must always be ready for new problems and ready – through our education – to experiment with new solutions.

For all Dewey’s occasional nod towards great minds of the past, there is in his educational thinking and, even more, in that of his followers, a relentless focus on the modern and the demands (or what they take to be the demands) of the present, which cannot but be suspicious of any Arnoldian lingering over the best that has been thought and known. For Dewey, not only should education be directed at practical ends – to-day’s practical ends and to-day’s problems – approached in a technologico-scientific spirit, but it will be collectivized. As is clear from his Chicago school experiments of the 1890s, Dewey saw education in highly politicized terms, in which the community as a whole will participate in solving its problems. The school would be part of the local democratic community, and its activities would focus on projects which grew out of the concerns and interests of the people in the locality. At the same time the classroom itself would be run as a democracy in miniature, with the teacher no ‘external boss or dictator’, but a moderator or co-ordinator of the activities of the group (facilitator in to-day’s jargon); to this fundamentally democratic enterprise all pupils would be encouraged to contribute their own individual slants on whatever topic was being investigated. And to hammer home his message that education was to be a socialized activity, as early as 1889 Dewey said this: ‘What the best and wisest parent wants for his own child, that must the community want for all its children.’ (7)



Education and ‘The Community’

This is a temptingly tantalizing vision. Suppose that I or you or Matthew Arnold were this best and wisest parent, and had the power to enforce our vision. Actually Matthew Arnold, convinced statist and Germanophil  that he was, might, for the best of reasons, have applauded. An education focusing on the best that had been thought and known, lavished on the whole community…  At least two members of the new British government have expressed to me just such a vision as their political ideal, and they think they might be able to implement it. But what, I say to them, if Dewey rather than they were the ‘best and wisest parent’ and had the power? Something very different would emerge, indeed, did emerge under the New Labour government of 1997-2010. This is a child-centered, and in the traditional sense largely content-free and citizenship based curriculum, which seems to want to address every perceived social problem, from obesity through smoking, alcohol and drug misuse to paedophilia, ‘homophobia’, global warming, inequality and racism – anything and everything that was part of that government’s agenda of social engineering. All this was encapsulated in the breathtakingly banal strap-line ‘every child matters’, which was the keystone of all their policies, and in the equally breathtaking presumption, enunciated by one recent Secretary of State for Children, Families and Schools (as the Department for Education was then re-branded) that the outcome would be to make Britain the best place in the world to bring up children. Anything and everything, then, was to go into schooling, apart from concentrated attention to the best that had been thought and known, which had been sneeringly caricatured by one professor of education of the time as ‘the curriculum of the dead’.

Well, let us take the sneer as a compliment. Why not the curriculum of the dead, if it involves the Odyssean conversation with our great forbears? These forbears may indeed have articulated eternal truths about man and the universe, and they will certainly have looked at things in ways which enable us to put current trends and fashions into some sort of perspective. But, in the recent history of education in England it was not to be, even when Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative government first and misguidedly introduced a National Curriculum in 1989; nor will it be under a new government, that like at least some of Mrs Thatcher’s supporters, actually wants a curriculum of the dead. The most basic reason is that you cannot by central government edict force some 400,000 state-certified teachers to do something. In my view, as we will see, this would be the wrong way to go about things anyway. But the problem is only compounded when what you are trying to enforce is something which significant numbers of them of them are opposed to, and if not opposed to, then certainly untrained for and, in many cases, probably ignorant of too. Even the government of 1997-2010, which they and their trade unions were rather more keen on than Mrs Thatcher’s in the end struggled to get them to carry out a couple of simple basic tests of reading and mathematics.

But even if the teachers were more malleable than they are, there would still be the normal bureaucratic inertia to overcome in attempting so radical an ideological change, to say nothing of the downright opposition there would be within the educational establishment to it, reared as its leaders are on fundamentally opposing views of education. This establishment – government officials, local administrators, teacher trainers, university departments of education, inspectors, teacher unions and so-called subject associations –   would undoubtedly prove massively obstructive in the endless stages of consultation and pre- implementation discussion which nowadays seem inevitably to accompany any major governmental policy change in education, as indeed they did over the 1989 curriculum and its first revision in 1993-4 (in which I took part as a government appointed board member of the quango charged with writing and administering that curriculum). It was only when this establishment started getting what they wanted under the Labour government of 1997 that a semblance of educational sweetness and light descended, and what they wanted had nothing to do with anything Matthew Arnold might have regarded as ideal. Considering this history, all of which is well within living memory, I am at a loss to know why members of the new government think that the key to educational reform still lies in central government diktat.

However, aside from what might look like local and historic conditions peculiar to Britain, there is a more fundamental reason for thinking that liberal education is going to sit uneasily within a state system. It derives from the tension which is inevitably going to exist between the notion of freedom implicit in liberal education and the aims a state will have in a system of education it is running. We have already seen Dewey speaking of something ‘the community’ must want for all its children. As if Dewey’s invocation of the will of ‘the best and wisest parent’ in connexion with some community wide imposition weren’t ominous enough, he goes on to say that ‘any other ideal for our schools is narrow and unlovely; acted upon it destroys our democracy’.  So, according to Dewey, democracy will be destroyed unless the community has a single system of education, predicated on the will of the best and wisest parent.

Let us suppose what actually seems most unlikely, that the parent nominated ‘best and wisest’ is Matthew Arnold and not John Dewey, and the ‘community’ initiated an Arnoldian curriculum, how stable would this be? For who is going to regulate and control this community-wide system? The only agency capable of ensuring that all children received the same education is the state. But once the state started running education on behalf of ‘the community’, the temptation for it to interfere in order to promote its own and different interests would prove irresistible. These interests would doubtless include such things as nation building, social cohesion, economic viability, technological utility, a healthy population and, more controversially, social justice.  Not all these things are necessarily undesirable and several might be produced as by-products of an education conducted in a liberal spirit, but if they became the focus or goal of education, they would distort its character.


The Interests of the State

There is no need here to go into great detail as to the ways in which ends such as the ones just mentioned have become prominent in state run systems of education. Nor is this a new phenomenon. As long ago as 1796, Benjamin Rush, one of the signatories of the American Constitution, said this: ‘Each youth does not belong to himself, but is public property and a warrior in the cause of liberty.’  (8) Paradoxical as it may be to think of someone being public property in the cause of liberty, in the century following Rush’s statement public education, as far as it existed,  was designed not only to prepare populations for work, whether manual or mental (in most industrialized countries), but also to promote such causes as Evangelical Christianity against Catholicism (USA), nation building in general (Prussia and Germany), the values of the secular state (France) and the production of a cadre of young people fit and apt for military service and running an over-extended empire (Britain in the late 19th century, under the Conservatives, and opposed by the churches for what they saw as glorification of war), to take but four typical examples. In the twentieth century, in addition to some or all of these there has been a stress in many places on education as an agent of social mobility, and latterly of equality.

In each case the policy in question would be defended by claiming that education is a social concern. As such it should reflect social needs and values, and moreover as a state education will necessarily be paid for out of the public purse, the state has a very direct interest in what it does and what it is for. (The fact that the public purse is involved here only because the state has taken money from individual parents who would otherwise have been able to educate their children themselves is generally overlooked at this point in the argument.) Further, as societies have become more democratic, and democracy itself more populist, there is also a move to make education more egalitarian, shunning elitism (as it would be called) and those elements of the curriculum which cannot be shared by all, a theme characteristically prominent in the writings of Dewey and his followers, for whom what is now known as inclusiveness or inclusion is to be the very touchstone of a healthily democratic system of education.


‘A Despotism Over the Mind’

The liberal educator need not deny that education is in some sense a social concern, nor that society as a whole has an interest and even a paternalistic duty in seeing that its members are educated. Both Newman and Arnold, in their different ways, saw an educated population as a good in itself, something that would leaven and civilize the society it made up, and so did Mill. But as Mill saw with compelling clarity, saying that is one thing; saying (as is almost taken as axiomatic these days) that therefore the state should take charge of education is quite another. In Chapter V of On Liberty , Mill warned that ‘a general state education is a mere contrivance for moulding people to be exactly like one another’, and that ‘in proportion as it is efficient and successful, it establishes a despotism over the mind, leading to one over the body’. (9) One may, of course, have doubts about the efficiency of the enterprise, but looking at the materials of the English National Curriculum as it was under New Labour, there can be no doubt about an intention of just the kind Mill feared: an overwhelming and overweening drive within it to produce a certain set of attitudes on topics such as multi-culturalism, environmentalism, citizenship, social justice, and even the European Union (amazingly, according to the Single European Act of 1986 we in Britain are now bound by law to bring out the(pro) European dimension of every topic in the curriculum).

As is well known, Mill objected to any attempt centrally to impose a single view on any topic because of his belief that it was only in an atmosphere of intellectual freedom that the truth would out, a sense very much in accord with the general spirit of liberal education which would be fatally compromised were some form of intellectual or political correctness imposed from outside. And he goes on to make the pertinent point that if there were sufficient numbers of teachers within a state sector of education to run that system, there is no sound reason for their not being able and willing to teach in a de-regulated system, providing education were compulsory and there was state aid for those unable to pay for education themselves. (On this last point, he does, though, go on to make some sharp and currently unfashionable comments about parents who bring children into the world without the means to provide for them; unfashionable this thought may be, but it is all of a piece with Mill’s fundamental premise that the education of children is first and foremost the prerogative and duty of parents as opposed to the state, both as a matter of individual and intellectual freedom, but also as an index of individual responsibility.) We could add here to Mill’s observations that even if, as is currently the case, there are not enough properly educated teachers in the state sector, the best way of remedying this deficiency would be the normal market one of supply and demand – and also of opening up teaching to well-qualified would-be teachers who are currently prevented from teaching in state schools by the monopolistic system of state accreditation of teachers.

Over and above what Mill argues, we need to add that the ends of liberal education – knowledge for its own sake, the inculcation of moral and intellectual freedom, participation in the conversation of mankind (including the dead) – are not ends which sit easily with what any modern state is likely to decide are its priorities, if only because these are ends which are separate from those to which states characteristically devote themselves and independent of them. This is because they can be realized only in the intellectual and spiritual formation of individuals qua individuals, individuals who are assumed to have their own formation and individual goals, which may or may not coincide with those of the population as a whole at any given time. Indeed, to be blunt, in the age of the mass media they are almost certain not so to coincide. So can a state in to-day’s world, not just tolerate such a form of education, but actually be its provider and guardian?

We have so far been treating the question of the influence of the state and its bureaucracies as if they were in a sense neutral phenomena, simply administering  policies laid down by rulers and politicians in a disinterested way. In practice, though, we know both from experience and from the findings of public choice theory that bureaucracies are never disinterested players. They always have their own interests to pursue, their own empires to build up, their own influence and power to expand. While this need not be sinister in itself, no bureaucracy is likely to favour an activity whose aims and rationale are essentially in tension with a managerial, bureaucratic approach and also essentially to place its adherents at at least one mental remove from the state. The aims of liberal education certainly are, in that they involve values which are unquantifiable, and which will seem to the managerial mind to be unaccountable, and aims which may well be critical of the forms of economic utility and social leveling beloved of the politician and the bureaucrat. No one in to-day’s world should be surprised to learn what underpinned the English National Curriculum under the government of 1997-2010. In its statement of the values we were told that education is ‘a route to equality of opportunity for all, a healthy and just democracy, a productive economy and sustainable development… valuing diversity in our society and the environment in which we live’.  Given that any genuine equality of opportunity will necessarily involve a continuous discounting of unequal outcomes at any stage (a direction the British  government is already moving in with regard to university admissions, where pupils from poorly achieving schools are to have their grades artificially enhanced), and given that the politics of diversity amount in practice to a refusal to admit differences of quality between, say, the art of the ghetto and that of Bach and Rembrandt, as well as a repudiation of the idea of culture as one inclusive conversation, these are anything but neutral requirements.

Though the liberal educator may hope from his work for a social leavening and other desirable social ends (though not, one hopes, the delusory and ultimately totalitarian ‘equality of opportunity’), it is a leavening which will occur, if at all, through the care and nurture of the soul of the individual (Plato) and by the cultivation of the best that has been thought and known, and of those who are the best. This aristocracy of talent need not and should not imply a regime of social barriers; but the alternative is the situation dreaded by both Plato and Matthew Arnold in which those with most talent track down to the level of the lowest tastes, keeping those from educationally under-privileged backgrounds firmly in their place by flattering them into believing that there is nothing better to aspire to than their own uneducated tastes (rather how the mass media work in to-day’s world, in fact).

Nor should we forget that the modern world and the politics of the modern state above all are aspects of what Plato called the great beast. The great beast is the public world which can be pulled in any direction by the force of public opinion, without regard to truth or justice. In a populist democracy public opinion is easily manipulated by propaganda and the mass media. Political leaders are demagogues, and they in turn are in thrall to all sorts of other interests and powers. Political parties exist, but as mass movements, concerned only with growing and furthering their own power. All this is highly corrosive of the type of serene individualism the liberal educator endeavours to foster, and so we should not be surprised if the modern state hardly wants to cherish institutions of liberal education.



A Transcendent Dimension

But over and above all this, there is yet another aspect to liberal education which would make its promotion problematic for the modern state. As will be evident from a glance at its history, (10) there are among its devotees and forbears, both Christian and pre-Christian, a striking number of thinkers who are explicitly committed to a belief in the supernatural destiny of mankind, from Plato, Aristotle and Cicero through to Ruskin, Newman, Tawney, T.S.Eliot, C.S.Lewis and Dorothy L Sayers in more modern times.  From the point of view of these thinkers, the formation involved in a programme of liberal education is part of the way we would respond to our nature as having a destiny not confined to this world.

At the very least, liberal education leaves open the possibility that human beings have a calling which is open, and not confined to any ulterior ends, economic, political, social or, as Newman stressed, even moral. Our intellectual and aesthetic sensibilities are treated as ends in themselves, worthwhile in themselves. A full analysis of these faculties may well see them as having a transcendent aspect, not just worthwhile in themselves, which they are, but as crucial aspects of our spiritual nature. Aristotle and Newman would have analysed our intellectual faculties in these terms. In Newman’s case, as we see from The Idea of a University, 1873, Discourse V, what liberal education aims at is that ‘illuminative reason and true philosophy’ which is ‘the power of viewing many things at once as one whole, of referring them severally to their true place in the universal system, of understanding their respective values, and determining their mutual dependence.’ But if this power is not to be a mere intellectual fastidiousness, which is often found among the highly educated and can be little more than a form of snobbery, it will need a context against which to make these judgements. Secular reason has proved incapable of overcoming the fissiparous nature of intellectual disciplines, and the ‘unity of the sciences’, much trumpeted in the 1920s and 1930s, remains as elusive as ever it was, as in the modern university does any uncontentious way of relating the sciences to other aspects of human nature. Newman’s conclusion is that universalizing and synthesising aspirations of intellectual endeavour which he is seeking  makes sense only against the background of a unifying and legitimating divinely upheld  order. (11)

Plato and Ruskin, and a host of neo-Platonists saw beauty and our perception of it as a bridge to the divine. Clearly a significant element of liberal education will be what the Greeks called music, things to do with the muses, perhaps, so not just music in the strict sense, but also literature and the other arts and humanities. One could argue, as did Simone Weil, that all art of the first order is essentially religious, and not just because of the obvious, but often overlooked fact, that so much of the greatest art is an articulation of religious feelings. But even in art which is not on the surface religious, both creators and listeners sense that in much of it there is a reaching out to something beyond us, or perhaps more accurately, a reaching down of the divine to us, that in great art there is often a sense, hard to express but definitely there, that in it the veil which separates life on earth from its ultimate source is for a time drawn aside.

Whether either of those aspects of the mind and feelings with which liberal education deals are actually rooted in the spiritual or not – and there are plenty of people who would see themselves as defenders of liberal education who would stringently deny any such thing – still in liberal education we are treating of things of intrinsic value and independent from all other concerns;  by virtue of these facts the devotees of liberal education, whether teachers or students, are going to put the more quantifiable and basic concerns of the community to one side, at least for a time. Even if liberal education does not presuppose a transcendent context, in its pursuit of the best that has been thought and known, it will be fairly naturally pre-disposed to  the idea that there are truths about man and nature which are timeless, which transcend time and fashion; whereas, as we have seen with Dewey, the whole drift of modern politics is towards a progressive pragmatism, the idea that there is no ultimate truth, but that each generation has to work out for itself its own solutions to its own problems, leaving behind what it would see as a dead past, offering only old solutions to yesterday’s problems. Add to that the point that liberal education aims at the nurturing of mentally free individuals, independent of and not beholden to the great beast in its collective manifestations, and the inevitable conclusion is that it would be very unwise to rely on the modern state for a system of liberal education or for any defence of those bits of liberal education which have managed to survive within its systems of education and training.

Indeed, far from expecting the state to defend liberal education, we should expect hostility, overt or covert, in so far as the state will inevitably have a collectivist agenda in its educational agenda: citizenship and social equality for the leftists (who are dominant in the field), nationalism for the conservatives, basic skills for economic productivity for the marketeers and wealth creators, or maybe a combination of all three in to-day’s typical social democracy. In a certain sense some or all of these purposes might be served by a course of liberal education, but only as by-products of a system with quite other ends in view.

Well-meaning liberals (in the political sense), some of whom have visions of Arnoldian forms of education, continue to profess surprise and dismay at the fact that state initiatives, such as ‘Every child matters’ in Britain and ‘No child left behind’ in the USA, routinely fail and routinely push education in more utilitarian directions, notwithstanding, as these critics would have it, the often huge amounts of state money that goes into these programmes. Actually it is precisely because of the ‘investment’ that the pressure to ratchet up testable outcomes becomes ever more Imperative from a bureaucratic and political standpoint, and it is precisely because education is conceived in terms of a national investment that managerial approaches are well-nigh irresistible in these times when accountability is a guiding principle politically. Furthermore, the first interest of the managerial state, whether ostensibly socialist or conservative, is always going to be to produce a body of compliant ‘citizens’, economically capable and motivated, and ready to play their role in the ‘big society’ (or whatever term is used by politicians to describe their ideal of each individual making their individual contributions to the collective goals), all of which is at cross purposes with the aims and spirit of a liberal education.

So, it is no surprise to find (as in Britain) that state introduced programmes in schools in ‘citizenship’ and ‘critical thinking’ look to the dispassionate observer as little more than attempts to reinforce the prevailing consensus on such matters as global justice, the environment, sexual morality and racism. It would be an interesting test of a class in critical thinking to see just how far a pupil got who suggested that, let us say, the ideas of Ayn Rand be given a dispassionate consideration in the class, or that it was about time that it was about time that intellectuals started giving war a chance. Actually I don’t think that either of these things would be a particularly good idea pedagogically, because I follow Aristotle in believing that more experience and maturity than the average 16 year old has is needed to make sensible judgements on matters such as individual liberty vis-à-vis the state or on war and peace; but it is just these sorts of judgement which are the staple of ‘citizenship’ and ‘critical thinking’, my point here being only that the critical part of critical thinking will characteristically be more honoured in the breach than in the observance. If a teacher were seriously interested in considering war and peace, then he or she might start by looking at Thucidydes’ Melian Dialogue, while Sophocles’ Antigone would be a good place to start a consideration of the relation between the individual and the state. At least then the pupils will engage with perspectives which are not those of to-day’s politicians and columnists (the staple fare of citizenship and critical thinking classes), and they will begin to engage with perspectives which might help them to see the partiality and limitations of our own. Unfortunately, any such study is highly unlikely.




‘The Strange Death of Liberal Education’

It is not necessary here to spell out in any detail the extent to which education in the Western democracies has moved from any serious engagement with the material or concerns of liberal education; suffice it here to point out that in Britain, along with continual erosion of content in such subjects as English, History and the Sciences, in 2003 in the GCSE examination taken by all 16 year olds 0.2% were in Latin and less that 0.1% in ancient Greek. In 2006 in the whole country 183 took ancient Greek in the pre-university 18 year old exam and 927 Latin. That year 6,186 papers in total were taken in any form of classical study, compared to 30,964 in Media Studies and 21,834 in Sports Studies.

It was against this background that Dr Martin Stephen, High Master of St Paul’s School in London, where liberal education and the classics are still very much alive, was driven to entitling his introduction to The School of Freedom ‘The Strange Death of Liberal Education’. (12) St Paul’s had been founded in 1512 by John Colet, Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral and a notable Renaissance humanist and friend of Erasmus and Thomas More. Colet charged the school with teaching 153 boys ‘of all naciuons and countries indifferently… in good literature both Laten and Greke, and good autors such as have the verrye Romayne eloquence joined with wisdom, specially Chisten autors…’; still in 2013 St Paul’s holds true to Colet’s spirit. But, perhaps that is what is strange, rather than liberal education’s death elsewhere, given that, as Stephen says that ‘like lacrosse liberal education is a game with no boundaries, but the urge of all but the most enlightened governments to slap border controls on at every opportunity condemns the two to a long-standing war’, adding that many of our politicians would not know what a liberal education was, never mind having the will to bring it back into our national culture. What, then, is to be done, if we are in favour of liberal education?

It is a striking fact that in Britain at least the spirit of liberal education, where it is alive, is predominantly based in the independent sector of schooling (accounting in Britain for about 7% of the total number of pupils). At one level this might seem strange. Will not many parents who are prepared to pay for their children’s education, over and above what they have already paid in taxes for the state system, often have other ideas about the purpose of education? In the case of many of those who send their children to the expensive so-called public schools, it might be what Stephen calls ‘social laundering’ – preparing them to live in the upper echelons of society and providing these children of the social elite with a social cordon sanitaire keeping them apart from the masses. Others who send their children to private schools will want a pragmatically useful education for them, focusing on marketable skills, and still others will be looking for a tightly controlled upbringing for their children within a narrow religious environment. All these motives are undoubtedly present among parents who send their children to independent schools, and none is particularly conducive to the generosity of spirit and openness of mind which characterizes the liberal ideal.

On the other hand, there are parents who positively want their children liberally educated, and there are others who like what they see of its ethos when they visit a place such as St Paul’s, even if they know little of John Colet or of his ideals. The problem for liberal education in the current situation is that within the state sector there are few examples of such schools for parents to send their children to, which is hardly surprising given the drift of state-run education. Where oases of liberal education do exist within the state sector, in schools such as the London Oratory (where, alongside the Blairs and a number of other Labour grandees, many of the parents are poor Phillipinos and working class Irish) and in the 160 or so grammar schools remaining within the sector (where many of the parents are newly arrived Asians), they are extremely popular and heavily over-subscribed. (Grammar schools were – and are – schools catering to the academic elite, and, for historical reasons tend to something like the form of liberal education we are here advocating.) The ineluctable conclusion is that if there were more schools offering both the curriculum and the disciplinary and work ethos of liberal education they would be popular, as the state grammar schools were when they existed in large numbers until the 1960s, at which time in England liberal education experienced something of a late flowering, rather to the consternation of the independent schools at that time, who saw themselves losing their academic superiority – and many of their pupils, who could get as good an education within the state sector for nothing.

This is not, by the way, a plea for a return to the old system where there was strict demarcation between grammar schools and the rest, based on a rather brutal and inflexible selection process for  pupils at the age of 11, which, despite or perhaps because of the benefits of the system for those who went to the grammars engendered considerable bitterness and acrimony among the rest. At least, that is how the collective memory of these things would have it; though a strong case for an alternative perspective has been made by the left-wing sociologist Frank Musgrove in his book School and the Social Order (13), in which he argues that the best way of preserving the class and educational privileges of the independent schools in Britain was precisely to remove the possibility of grammar school education from the 25% of the middle and working class children who went to them before the system was largely dismantled. But, as I say, I am not arguing for a return to the old bi-partite system, but rather for a far more varied system in which schools should be free from state control so they could offer the type of education they believed in and which parents wanted, and that parents should be able to chose according to their own wishes and what they perceived as the needs of their children. In such an environment, it is reasonable to expect that schools based on the values of liberal education would be set up, and that they would be reasonably able to hold their own the market-place.



An Unregulated System: Parental Choice

This is not the place to discuss the mechanics of an unregulated system in any detail, though some form of voucher system has occasionally received support from the political left as well as from the political right. Parents would receive in the form of vouchers what they paid in taxes for the education of their children with various top-ups in the case of poor parents and handicapped children. Such a system could be a godsend to the poor – for it is poor parents in poor areas who are most trapped in the monolithic and unresponsive state system, in which they have no option but to send their children to the poorly performing and undisciplined state schools which constitute their community schools. In the few places where vouchers have been tried in the USA, they have been popular with inner city parents, though rather less popular with the middle classes outside the inner cities who are not given vouchers and who do not have access to the sort of choice afforded by vouchers, who see their taxes going to fund to others advantages they themselves do not have. (It should, though, be noted that currently in Britain, though, this whole discussion remains somewhat academic. As recently as June 30th 2010, a proposal from the Independent Association of Preparatory Schools (IAPS) for a means-tested voucher scheme (what they called a Personal Education Grant) was firmly rebuffed by the government which declared that it had no intention to introduce anything of the sort.)

In a system of education not run or controlled by the state, even if supported by state taxes in the form of vouchers, should the state have a regulatory role? Here, along with its artificial restriction to areas of high deprivation, is the Achilles heel of the voucher system, for the state will find it very hard not to place restrictions on the use to which vouchers can be put. Many who could see some virtue in a voucher based system would fear the consequences of an unregulated system. Schools they did not like may well appear within it. It is tempting to think that some form of central regulation could guard against the worst excesses, and so the freedom state gives in doling out vouchers, it then takes away through regulation.

Those defending liberal education should steel themselves against the temptation to go down the road of protection through state regulation – even for the best of reasons. Not only would centralised state regulation simply be the device by which the state re-invented its own system, which would not favour the liberal approach for all the reasons we have already examined, but those very reasons furnish strong grounds for thinking that the state should be as little involved in education as possible. If we want to avoid all the evils of state interference in education, we have to go down the road mapped so clearly by Mill. If the state is to have a role at all, it should be the minimal paternalism envisaged in On Liberty. There Mill argues that for both individual and social reasons the state has a duty to protect children who cannot protect themselves, so it should see that all children are given an education. So it could and perhaps should ensure that all parents have the means to pay for their children’s education and, more fundamentally, that parents do not so neglect the children they have brought into the world so as to give them no education at all. But these interventions should not go beyond a minimal supervision guarding against only the most blatant and obvious forms of child abuse and neglect, and seen very much in that light, again not as a pretext for imposing on parents and schools the plethora of regulations, petty and not so petty, which state authorities typically insist on to-day.

Indeed, apart from ensuring that all children are being educated, the state should not go much beyond requiring that any schools which exist stay within the law (that is, they do not advocate or foster law-breaking, for example, and they satisfy basic safety requirements). There could also, quite reasonably, be a requirement that in the interests of transparency schools, being public enterprises, publish certain basic information about their curriculum, their staffing, their school rules and their performance in public examinations.

Whether it would be possible within a voucher system for the state to manage to confine its role in the way just suggested is, of course, an empirical matter. Economists and public choice theorists who are highly sensitive to the self-aggrandising tendencies of state bureaucracies point out that vouchers are just too much of a Trojan horse, because they require both that the sate takes the money away from tax payers in the first place, and then dishes it out again (as well as deciding on the amount). Both the collection and the distribution of the money will be costly, quite apart from any less neutral accompanying intervention. Maybe tax-credits, where people are simply allowed to set school fees against tax, would be a more efficient and more genuinely liberal way. Or maybe, most radical of all, education should simply be left entirely to the private decisions of private individuals. In such a world, no doubt charities would provide education for the very poor, but also, as the work of James Tooley in India, Africa and China has demonstrated – small schools would spring up even in the poorest areas from the private initiative of groups of parents and educational entrepreneurs (who, in those third world settings, often provide a better level of education than the competing state schools).

In advocating in whatever form the de-regulation of education, the defender of liberal education will have to take on board the fact that there will undoubtedly be schools he or she disapproves of. Here his position will be liberal in a wider sense. We can all think of examples of schools which might crop up in a de-regulated system, schools for Scientologists or creationists or Islamists and the rest, which doubtless some will object to strongly. On this general point, I will just say two things.

First, freedom in whatever sphere will always involve outcomes some disapprove of, but this does not mean that those making those choices do not have the right to make them. This is what freedom means, and in the case of schooling there is the further point that (many) parents are tax-payers, from whom the state actually takes the money in order to impose on them and their children the model of schooling it and its bureaucracies prefer. Against this I would urge that, on balance, parents will know more about the educational needs of their children than bureaucrats, motivated by bureaucratic imperatives with little regard for the individual child. Of course, some parents will make choices other find unfortunate (the price of freedom), but apart from the point of principle at stake we in the Western world are not in a situation in which bureaucratic management of schools is a roaring success. To put it bluntly large numbers of children are failed by this system in the most callous way. There is no reason to suppose that more children would be failed were their parents to have some genuine control over their education, however bizarre some of their choices might look to others.

But then, secondly, let us suppose that we have a traditionalist Muslim school, for example. In a context of parental choice it would be supported by the parents who sent their children there, otherwise it would not exist, which would be important educationally and in other ways, and a big advantage over the present situation in which many parents are unhappy with the schools the state forcers their children to go to; but over and above that, the Muslim school would have to be a pretty dreadful place to be worse that many of the state schools which so signally fail so many children as it is. Of course it would teach things some people did not like, but again many state schools do just that, and from them there is currently no exit for the vast majority. As far as the teaching of what is disliked goes, there would, of course, be the normal application of the law to prevent incitements to violence, suppression of the rights of girls and women, vilification of minorities and the rest. So long as a school remained within the law, it is hard to see by what right even the best meaning of authorities could forbid the teaching of specific doctrines or world views; but equally the vast majority of parents do want their children to enter mainstream society, whatever their own particular beliefs, and so there would be pressure there for an education which was no so bizarre as to make that impossible. And even where that was not the case – as with the Amish in parts of the USA – other things being equal,  tolerance by society as a whole would seem more fair, more constructive and more in a genuinely liberal spirit than attempts to suppress minorities by force (which is what external intervention would amount to).

As to whether an Islamic school would increase religious intolerance and social divisions, which many of the opponents of faith schools allege, it is by no means clear that it would be worse in this respect than the invisible madrassas which many Muslim children currently attend after their days in state schools. A publicly visible, properly and transparently run and accountable religious school might actually do more for religious tolerance and understanding than forcing members of religious minorities to go to secular schools in which their religion was not taken seriously, to which the main counter-balance would be extremist preaching in the home and the church or mosque (which would inevitably occur were there no school the parents and community leaders approved of). Interestingly, in the Netherlands, religious groups were initially allowed to set up their own schools within the state system in the early part of the twentieth century precisely to defuse the bitter conflicts between Catholics and Protestants and between also secularists and religious groups which were occurring in the state schools over just what should be taught in those schools (the so-called ‘Battle of the Schools’); and now that under the same law Islamic schools are being set up, there is no evidence in those schools of the promotion of radical or extremist views. And, just to underline the point about where religious tolerance is most likely to be found, in secular France the hijab is forbidden in state schools – which seems to me to be illiberal, but which I suspect quite a number of secularists in Britain would approve of – but it is permitted in Catholic schools.

In sum, then, supporters of liberal education ought to favour a system of genuine parental choice stimulating genuine diversity of provision, with the state playing as small a role in educations as is consistent with it ensuring that all children are educated and that in their education the law is upheld in a general sense and that children are not subject to obvious physical or moral danger in schools. Not only does liberal education view education as in principle autonomous, but for the practical reasons just considered it is most likely to thrive where education is not run by the state.

It is true that both Plato and Aristotle, who in many ways shared the attitudes of the liberal educator, thought that the state should run education. In Plato’s case every element of education was to enable the good running of the state, though this did require the Guardians to engage in philosophical contemplation of the Good for its own sake for many years, after which they would be forced, kicking and screaming one imagines and as Socrates envisaged, to re-enter the Cave.  In Politics Book VIII, Section 1, Aristotle for once follows very much in his master’s footsteps: ‘The citizen should be moulded to suit the form of government under which he lives… it is manifest that education should be the same for all, and that it should be public and not private… all citizens belong to the state’, though he does go on to concede that in education there will be both liberal and illiberal elements. Notoriously both Plato and Aristotle were admirers of Spartan attitudes to education.

A short response would be to say that although I have drawn on some of the things Plato and Aristotle said about education in exploring what liberal education might be, neither was in the modern sense a liberal educationalist, and that there is in any case a degree of anachronism in discussing systems of thought and education from two and a half millennia ago in terms appropriate to to-day’s schools and to-day’s state. Moreover the education Plato describes in The Republic is, of course, education in the ideal city, to which real cities bore little resemblance. Of education in real cities, Plato says that it is worse than that of the Sophists, being dominated by public opinion, so that ‘in the present state of society, anything which is saved and becomes what it ought to be must, correctly speaking, be said to have been saved by a divine predestination’. (Republic, 493a) At the very least, then, in ’the present state of society’ Plato would seem to be conceiving a good education as one which liberates the pupil from the moods of the great beast – liberal education?  Further, one cannot help wondering just how what both Plato and Aristotle thought about the need for education to develop the higher and contemplative aspects of one’s soul would have worked out in practice in any actual state intent, like Creon in Sophocles’ Antigone, on pursuing its own ends in conflict with those of the higher law. My feeling is that both would have been tempted to put the care of the soul, if one may so put it, above the demands of any realpolitik, Theban or Spartan, and that they would in the end have been driven to concede at least a degree of autonomy for education.

Given, though, that education in most Western democracies is run predominantly by the state, and in many cases increasingly intrusively, and that we do not have a voucher system or anything permitting genuine parental choice for the vast majority of parents (who cannot afford private schooling), the best hope for liberal education would seem to, lie in whatever private sector of education is allowed to exist. Meanwhile, as things stand, the best plan for liberal educators who want to do more than simply teach in whatever setting they can would be to campaign for greater levels of autonomy within their national systems of education.




Home Schooling

A question I would like to consider briefly at this point is whether this desirable autonomy should be taken to include home schooling. Home schooling has always, in a sense, existed, in various forms. Most people throughout history did not go to school, so whatever education they received, they must have got at least in large part at home. Even where there are schools, children learn a lot at home, and in many cases are taught basic academic skills such as reading as well. Among the aristocracy it was and may still be true that children are sometimes taught by tutors at home hired for the purpose. The home schooling phenomenon which is relevant here, however, is different from any of these conceptions. It is where within a modern society parents have taken a conscious decision to keep their children away from schools, whether public or private, and to give them their education within the home, almost invariably as a result of dissatisfaction with what is on offer in the schools to which their children would otherwise have gone (which inevitably means in most cases the available state schools).

In the USA in particular home schooling has grown dramatically in the last two or three decades, particularly since home schoolers have become more skilled in fighting off the inevitable legal challenges they have had to face from state authorities interpreting legal requirements for the education of children as meaning that they have to go to officially recognized schools . The bureaucratic attitude is neatly captured by what one official is said to have told some home-schooling parents: ‘No matter how enriching the home environment, the public schools still know best how to educate your child.’ But do they, even in the terms laid down by the public schools? To the consternation of educational researchers and others professionally ill-disposed, there is now considerable evidence to show that children who are home schooled do at least as well as their schooled contemporaries not just in terms of academic knowledge and ability (as measured by public examinations and tests), but also in terms of whatever measures are employed to assess socialization and affective development.

This point is worth underlining, particularly perhaps in Britain, where home schooling is beginning to take a bit of a hold, and where there are ominous signs that politicians are speaking of the need to regulate it in the interests of child protection. But where is the evidence that home schooling per se raises issues of child protection, to a greater degree than, say, bullying and sexual immorality in state schools? Home Schooling: Political, Historical and Pedagogical Perspectives, edited by Jane van Galen and Mary Anne Pitman, (14) provides a useful overview of the evidence on the reasonable outcomes of home schooling, though the somewhat sniffy attitude of many of the authors to what they describe fairly enough is neatly encapsulated by the conclusion of one of the essays which says that ‘we continue to posit that humans are learners and that they cannot be prevented from learning, even in their own homes.’ (p 97)

Anyway, whatever Mary Anne Pitman and M.Lynne Smith continue to posit, in 2007 there were 1.5 million children in the USA being home-schooled, or about 2.9% of the school age population, according to a report from the US Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences National Center for Education Statistics from December 2008. This was up from 850,000 in 1999 and just over one million in 2003. With the rapid growth in numbers, there are also increasingly extensive support networks and a plethora of materials for parents to use, as well as an effective and well-staffed legal defence body based just outside Washington DC (The Home School Legal Defense Association or HSLDA). From the IES survey we learn that 88% of home schooling parents had concerns about the environments of schools and 73% were dissatisfied with the instruction schools provided. Positively, 83% wanted to provide their own religious or moral instruction, while 65% had an interest in a ‘non-traditional approach to a child’s education’. From these data it is pretty safe to conclude that there are two main groups of home schoolers, among whom there could be some significant overlap: conservative Christians on the one hand and, on the other, educational ‘progressives’ who believe that a child’s education should be firmly centered on the interests and life of the child. Interestingly in this context John Holt, the scourge of anything to do with traditional forms of education, in his later years became a strong advocate of home schooling, his last book being entitled Teach your own: A hopeful path for education (15). And the most famous of all educational experiments (a thought experiment, admittedly) was Rousseau’s Emile, the fons et origo of progressive de-schooling, in which Emile was deliberately kept away from all social influences in order that he could develop naturally, at his own pace, according to the rhythms of nature and childhood (or, more accurately, what Jean-Jacques imagined those rhythms to be).



‘Christian-Classical’ Schools

The obvious conclusion to draw is that, as things stand, home schooling is not likely to be propitious to liberal education. Fundamentalist Christianity is anything but liberal in an intellectual sense, while Holtian progressivism seems to be the antithesis of any structured initiation into the best that has been thought and known.

But maybe this is a bit too quick. Home schooling curriculum materials often contain plenty of coverage of that core of liberal education, the great books, considerably more in many cases than pupils will encounter in state run schools. And for many home schoolers, or at least for those helping and influencing them, Dorothy L.Sayers ‘The Lost Tools of Learning’, which advocates a Christian-classical education, appears to be an inspiration, if not actually a manifesto. ‘Let us amuse ourselves’, she said in 1947, ‘by imagining that (a) progressive retrogression is possible. Let us make a clean sweep of all educational authorities, and furnish ourselves with a nice little school of boys and girls whom we may experimentally equip for the intellectual conflict along lines chosen by ourselves. We will endow them with exceptionally docile parents; we will staff our school with teachers who are themselves perfectly familiar with the aims and methods of the Trivium…’ (16)

It seems that many not so docile parents are doing more these days than amusing themselves. By-passing teachers, they are actually putting into effect in their own homes something like Sayers’ interpretation of the Trivium. This a rather generous one which has the Trivium encompassing most of what followers of Newman and Arnold would hope to include in a decent liberal education for children under the medieval headings of Grammar , Dialectic (or Logic) and Rhetoric. The Trivium will then lead, Sayers hopes, to the mental liberation and ability to go further in whatever sphere which comes about through having a mind prepared in this way. One key aspect of Sayers’ proposal is that in it she distinguishes three stages in a child’s development, which she characterises as Poll-Parrot, Pert and Poetic, and to each of which one of the three elements of the correspond. Learning by heart (grammar) is appropriate to the first stage, in areas such as foreign languages (including Latin), poetry, mathematical tables, scientific and historical facts, and the basic elements of the Christian story. In the Pert stage, the pupil begins to analyse and argue about what is learned (dialectic), while elements of self-expression enter in the third – Poetic – stage (rhetoric), which coincides with adolescence and which pedagogically speaking culminates in Sayers’ vision in the presentation of some topic in which the pupil has taken a particular interest. With this background – to be completed by the age of 16 – Sayers argues that pupils would be as well prepared as their medieval predecessors of the same age to enter university and move on to the Quadrivium (more advanced study of arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy, leading on, in the medieval scheme of things, to philosophy and theology).

Tongue-in-cheek as some of Sayers’ proposals may be, and irritatingly arch as some will find her style, the spirit of what she has to say has certainly informally enthused many home-schoolers too.  Formally ‘The Lost Tools of Learning’ has become the pedagogical bible for the Association of Christian and Classical Schools, on whose web-site the article can be found. The ACCS was started in 1991 and now comprises 220 schools, educating 33,000 pupils. There is considerable overlap in motivation between ACCS and home-schooling, as many ACCS schools were started by parents who began by meeting together with the same sort of inspiration as many home-schooling parents.

What might well seem strange to the outsider is that Dorothy Sayers’ dream of a revived medievalism, whose highest fruits were Chartres Cathedral, the great universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Paris and Bologna, the theology of Thomas and Scotus, the painting of Cimabue and Giotto, and the Divine Comedy should go hand in hand with a narrow and intolerant approach to religion and a literalistic approach to Scripture, as well as a formal rejection of ‘the follies of ancient paganism’, yet this is precisely what would appear to happen in the ACCS, and, one would guess from anecdotal evidence, among many home schoolers as well.  The ACCS was set up as a result of the publicity given to a book published in the year of its founding called Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning. (17) Its author was Douglas Wilson, who ten years before had set up the Logos School in Moscow, Idaho, supposedly on Sayersian lines, which he describes in the book, and the Logos School remains the flag-ship institution of the ACCS.  Wilson himself has gone on to gain national fame (or notoriety) for his uncompromisingly fierce Old Testamental views on homosexuality and adultery.

The ACCS has powerfully resounding statements of what their Christianity means. Some flavour of what it might come to in detail is suggested by the following statement from Wilson himself: ‘It is said among us, “If we continue to maintain that God created the world in six days, we will not be granted academic respectability, “ To which we must reply, well, who cares? Why should we care that the guardians of the academy believe we are not intellectually respectable? They believe that the moose, the sperm whale and the mongoose are all blood relatives. Why do we want their seal of approval? It is like asking Fidel Castro to comment on the economic viability of Microsoft.’  (18) And New St Andrew’s College, like the Logos School associated with Wilson, has as part of its ‘Statement of Faith’ (as revised and approved by its trustees as recently as March 2010) the proposition that ‘God created the material universe from nothing in six ordinary days.’

As far as I can make out, the ACCS itself does not explicitly require its members to subscribe to creationism, although they are expected to affirm that ‘the Bible is the only inerrant Word of God’ and ‘the only authoritative rule for faith and practice’. This is not the case with Patrick Henry College, which makes all its trustees, administrators and faculty attest to the proposition that ‘humans and each kind of organism resulted from God’s distinct and supernatural creative intervention and did not result from a natural evolutionary process; nor from an evolutionary process God secretly directed .’(My italics – so even a fairly standard attempt to reconcile evolution and a literalist Christianity is blocked off). They also do not like homosexuals and many others: ‘any sexual conduct outside the parameters of marriage is sin.’  And in the College’s ‘Biblical World-View Applications’, the teaching of six-day creationism alongside Darwinism is explicitly mandated, even in biology courses, with faculty being selected on the basis of their ‘personal adherence’ to six day creationism. The relevance of this to the current discussion is that Patrick Henry College – which has had considerable academic and debating success, and also with getting its graduates internships in Washington DC – was set up in 2000 by the HSDA as a university which would cater specifically for home schooled students, and it prides itself on following a classical liberal arts curriculum. Wheaton College, to take a further example of an institution favoured by home-schoolers, while also being committed to ‘Christian liberal arts’, requires its faculty and staff to affirm annually that ‘God  directly created Adam and Eve, the founders of the entire human race’. Sex outside marriage, with homosexual relations explicitly mentioned and also alcohol and tobacco, are off limits for undergraduates, while the righteous are commended to ‘confront’ backsliders ‘in love’.


A True Conversation

While it is more than possible that liberal education could be associated with Christianity in some form,  while it is certain that a liberal education here and now will have for its subject matter many works produced within a Christian context, and while I have already argued that liberal education may well have a religious dimension, it is impossible to reconcile the spirit of liberal education – its spirit of liberal generosity – with the hectoring and dogmatic tone of the institutions we have been looking at. I said earlier that liberal education involved conversations and also that conversations develop. I do not know whether the statements and attitudes we have been considering represent Christianity in a certain moment in the past – I suspect they do not, and that, like contemporary radical Islam, they might be a peculiarly modern phenomenon – but whether they do or not, they are certainly in no sense part of a conversation. They are conversation blockers, thought stoppers, and even if they do have some historical provenance, a genuine conversation cannot be stuck in a moment in the past, nor in a genuine conversation can dogmatic formulae be treated as the last word on anything.

Late in his life Newman watched with dismay the promulgation of the doctrine of the infallibility of the Pope and the narrow-mindedness of the first Vatican Council.  But then, shortly before he had turned his mind to educational topics, he had argued for the idea of the development of doctrine, (19) an idea which both Protestants and Catholics of certain bents might find difficult, but which might well serve as a model for liberal education itself.  For a doctrine that develops is one which is essentially open-ended, unfinished, not necessarily fully articulated or even anticipated in its first formulations, receptive to shaping by new (and old) voices, unpredictable, requiring on the part of its adherents  a knowledge of and love for its earlier moments and contributions, and a sense of being true to their spirit. And as far as the earlier history of a doctrine goes, Newman is happy to talk of its later development as being in the early time ‘unperceived’, and he also makes considerable play of the way new circumstances and influences will motivate later development.

In his own analysis Newman gives seven ‘notes’ or criteria by which a genuinely developing doctrine can be distinguished from a doctrinal corruption. These are 1) that in the development there is ‘preservation of its type’ (preservation, that is, rather than eradication); 2) that in a genuine development there is continuity of principles (as, when for example a newly discovered work is judged by its stylistic similarity to be the work of some known author); 3) that a genuinely developing doctrine is one which has ‘assimilative power’ (that is, that it can incorporate new influences and respond to new circumstances, without being engulfed by them);  4) that there is a logical sequence to the development, with one element leading to another;  5) that the doctrine has ‘anticipation of its future’ (that is, its later developments can be seen as being in a sense implicit in the earlier stages); 6) that a genuine development manifests conservative action on its past (that is that it does not destroy its past meaning); and 7) that the doctrine itself and its developments manifest ‘chronic vigour’ (that is, they survive over time, and do so vigorously -which is rather in the spirit of Hume’s’ test of time’, that is the sense that a genuinely canonical work has the power to appeal in different times and places, and to different audiences, and are even refreshed and renewed in the process, rather than turning out to be an artifact of a temporary vogue or fashion).

The notion that doctrines can and should develop runs counter to the idea of their being a once and for all statement of faith (as we get from ACCS, and would, of course, preclude the Marian doctrines Newman was keen to defend as being Christian), but it is also against the idea that each man is his own Pope. Faith, in Newman’s view, is the prerogative of the community of believers over time. Doctrines are not explicitly realized once and for all, but they develop, tried and tested in what, in another context, F.R. Leavis referred to as a continuing ‘collaborative-critical dialogue’. As Newman pointed out, the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation had emerged over centuries in just such a way (and, we might add, can hardly be said to have been exhaustively analysed even now). Not surprisingly Newman’s doctrine came under inquisitorial fire when it was invoked, quite reasonably, by the unfortunate modernists of the early twentieth century, but that says more about the attitude of the Vatican bureaucracy than it does about Newman’s vision. In all these aspects, though, Newman’s analysis of the development of doctrine would seem to be a very good model for the spirit of liberal education itself and of the conversations over time and over generations which such an education should foster, which is partly why I have spent a little time looking at what Newman has to say. But if any of this is correct, on either the side of religious doctrine or on the side of the conversation of mankind, it becomes hard to see the attitude to religion of the forms of contemporary conservative Christianity in the USA which we have been looking at as being compatible with what one might hope for in a liberal education.

Reluctantly I am forced to see Patrick Henry College and the rest as at best parasitic simulacra of liberal education, despite their invocation of Dorothy Sayers and their profession of adherence to what they call the Christian-Classical tradition. If one were to be cynical, one might take the inclusion of ‘classical’ in the ‘Christian-classical’ school movement as being an attempt to mask what is really going on in those schools, and to gain a form of intellectual respectability for something which is not respectable at all. This would be too cynical of a movement which doubtless involves many sincere and well-meaning teachers and parents, but I wonder what the students (or teachers) in the institutions we have been examining make of the classical part of what they study: Homer? Horace? Ovid? Lucan? Virgil? – all admired by the Christian Dante, to say nothing of Sappho, Plato (of the poetry and the Symposium), Anakreon, Catullus and Propertius, who are all certainly part of the classical tradition, and from whom even (or perhaps especially) Christian fundamentalists might learn more about themselves than perhaps they wanted. It is often remarked that there was something strange about the admixture of muscular Christianity with the Greek and Roman love poets in the English public schools of the nineteenth century. I would prefer to take an Arnoldian view, and say that it was precisely this mixture of Hellenism and Hebraism – and the necessary tension between the two – which was their strength. Maybe this will prove, ultimately, to be the strength of the Christian-classical movement as well, its pupils emerging as somewhat more rounded and open-minded that their founders’ statements of faith; at least within the curricula themselves this possibility is implicit, and for that they should be given some credit.

As far as home-schooling goes, there is, of course, no reason why it could not accommodate any form of education, including an unadulterated form of liberal education. Maybe in to-day’s circumstances and for many people this would be the best that could be done. It could certainly be better than much of what is on offer in the typical state school. Had I not been able to send my children to well-established and venerable schools offering a genuine liberal education, it is an option I might well have considered myself. However, I would just want to underline the conversational aspect of liberal education. In a good school there would be many voices and many teachers. It is highly likely that the conversation in a good school would be broader and richer than what could be provided in even the best home, and there is or should be in a school a sense that one is in an institution with its own history and tradition, extending over more than one generation, which is itself a living link to the voices of the past. And there is the further point that from the point of view of the pupil the aim of a liberal education is his or her mental and moral independence from the state, to be sure, but from the family too, en route to entry into a wider world of culture and sensibility. These aspects of liberal education will be hard to replicate in an education focused on the home, which, to that extent, would be the poorer for it. The shame in to-day’s world is that so few children are able to go to schools where either the spirit or the letter of liberal education is likely to be found.




  1. John Holt, How Children Fail, New York: Pitman, 1964. A further complication at this point is that in England we now have another sense of ‘free’ school, to refer to a school set up within the state sector of education, but by the direct initiative of parents or other providers, outwith the previously standard bureaucratic channels. This, of course, has nothing to do with A.S Neill’s ideas, though it may be that for those interested in those ideas this other type of ‘free’ school might give them the best chance they are likely currently to have of putting their ideas into practice with state funding.
  2.  ibid, pp 207, 196
  3. ibid, p 196
  4. the phrase and variants of it occur many times in Matthew Arnold’s  Culture and Anarchy (London: Smith Elder, 1882).
  5. John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University (1858) (Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982), esp Discourse V.
  6. see ‘The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy’ in John Dewey, The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy  and Other Essays in Contemporary Thought, ,New York: Henry Holt and Co, 1951
  7. John Dewey, School and Society, Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1956 edition, p 9
  8. E.Knight and C.Hall (eds), Readings in American Educational History, New York: Appleton, 1951, p 306
  9. J.S.Mill, On Liberty in his Utilitarianism (ed M.Warnock, London: Collins/Fontana, 1960), pp 239-40
  10.  see A.O’Hear and M.Sidwell (eds), The School of Freedom: A Liberal Education Reader from Plato to the Present Day, Exeter: Imprint Academic, 2009
  11. see Alasdair MacIntyre, God ,Philosophy, Universities, Lanham, Maryland: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009
  12. Martin Stephen, ‘The Strange Death of Liberal Education’, in O’Hear and Sidwell, pp 1-3.
  13. Frank Musgrove, School and the Social Order, Chichester and New York: John Wiley, 1979
  14. J.van Galen and M. Pitman (eds), Home Schooling: Political, Historical and Pedagogical Perspectives, Northwood, New Jersey: Ablex Publishing Corp, 1991
  15. John Holt, Teach Your Own: a Hopeful Path for Education, New York: Delacorte Press, 1982
  16. Dorothy L. Sayers, The Lost Tools of Learning and the Mind of the Maker, Benediction Classics, 2010
  17. Douglas Wilson, Recovering the Lost Tools of Learning: An Approach to Distinctively Christian Education, Wheaton, Ill: Crossway Books, 1991.
  18. Douglas Wilson, ‘Sanctified Apathy’, Tabletalk, Nov 2002,pp 60-1
  19. John Henry Newman, An Essay on the Development o f Christian Doctrine, 1845, revised 1878, (Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1989).

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