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The Meaning of a Liberal Education


by I. L. Kandel - 1939

In the long run the effort to impart a liberal education will succeed as teachers who seek to impart it themselves understand that subjects were not providentially supplied for scholastic or examination purposes, but are aspects of human activities which man has found useful for his survival.

IN A period of crisis such as that through which the whole world is passing it is unnecessary to offer any justification for devoting the current volume of the Educational Yearbook of the International Institute of Teachers College, Columbia University, to a discussion of "The Meaning of a Liberal Education in the Twentieth Century."1 There is scarcely any country in the world that is not affected by the problems involved in such a discussion, and, while it would be too much to expect any unanimity of opinion, a great deal may be contributed to the clarification of thought on the subject, when it is approached from as many different angles as are presented in this Yearbook. The conservative, on the one hand, is compelled to justify his unfaltering devotion to the traditional concepts of a liberal education; the reformer, on the other, must justify his proposals either to modify or to discard this tradition. In neither case can educators evade the challenge which is presented by the current world ferment.


It is too often forgotten, however, both by conservatives and by reformers, that the history of liberal education, as defined for purposes of secondary education, has not been continuous and unbroken. Despite the fact that the definitions of liberal education by Plato and Aristotle have dominated all ages, these definitions have not remained unchallenged. Every great social, political, and, consequently, intellectual crisis has always been accompanied by demands to re-adapt the concept of liberal education to the contemporary situation. This was true in the age of the sophists in Athens. Petronius, Tacitus, and Seneca inveighed against a tradition of education which, to use a modern phrase, had ceased to be meaningful. In the medieval period the grammar school curriculum, inherited from the Romans, was modified to meet the demands of a new era. During the Renaissance and the Reformation liberal education was again re-defined, and even though the new definition was in terms of the Greco-Roman tradition, its intent was to fit man for the world in which he then lived. The early scientific movement of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, stirring man to new hopes and new visions, was everywhere accompanied by educational experiments to bring the secondary school curriculum more or less abreast of the times. This challenge to the traditional concept of liberal education stimulated a house cleaning which, in the form of Neo-Humanism, would give new meaning and new values to the traditional subjects.


The nineteenth century, with the rapid development of the sciences and then of their applications to industry and commerce and with the expanding intercourse between nations, witnessed constant conflicts between the supporters of the tradition and the advocates of reform which culminated in the great unrest everywhere in the last decade of the century. This unrest was settled for the time being by the equal recognition given, at least for purposes of entrance to universities, to modern subjects, especially modern foreign languages and sciences. The principle of equivalence was grudgingly accepted everywhere, and the respectability of the modern subjects was justified on the plea that for purposes of mental training they were just as valuable as the study of the ancient classics. Nevertheless, from the point of view of a liberal education, the study of modern subjects continued to be regarded with a certain skepticism not only by the specialists in the ancient languages but by public opinion in general. The majority of pupils in secondary schools continued to flock to the classical or semi-classical curricula, and even in the United States where, it might be expected, the force of cultural tradition would not exert as strong a hold on the public mind as in Europe, a large percentage of the pupils in high schools have continued to study Latin, if only for two years.


It would be a mistake, however, to conclude that the survival of the classical studies has been due in the main to a genuine appreciation of their value for a liberal education. The reason for their survival, at least in public esteem, is to be sought elsewhere. When national states began to organize their public services at the beginning of the nineteenth century, the highest positions were given to university graduates or to those who had completed a secondary education. The universities in their turn admitted only those students who had had a classical education in the secondary schools; in the first half of the nineteenth century there was, indeed, no alternative at the secondary stage to the classical curriculum. A tariff wall was, as it were, set up to protect the classics by the award of special privileges (Berechtigungen in Germany, sanctions in France, admission to colleges and universities in England and the United States). Impressed with the fact that historically positions of preferment in State and Church were obtained by those who had enjoyed a classical training, a liberal education came to be synonymous in the mind of the public with the study of the ancient classics, and secondary education began to be regarded as a preparation for status. It is not necessary here to discuss the arguments in favor of classical studies which were put forward by professional educators. It is important, however, to remember the effect of a certain circular action; the universities were open through the greater part of the nineteenth century to those whose secondary education had in the main been classical; except for those who planned to prepare for the liberal professions, the opportunities for studying any fields other than the classical were limited; hence a succession from the universities of teachers whose professional faith and equipment were rooted in the classics.2 The circle was broken at the close of the nineteenth century by the official adoption in most countries of the principle of the equivalence of modern and classical subjects.


The discussions during the period of unrest in secondary education in the last decade of the nineteenth century were directed not so much to the meaning of a liberal education, although that was no doubt in the minds of many, but to the question whether other subjects were as good for mental training as it was assumed the classics had been. The conflict, in other words, centered not so much on Spencer's question, "What knowledge is of most worth?," but on "What subjects are best for the training of the mind?" The doctrine of formal discipline probably played a greater part in winning a place for modern subjects than did a readiness to revise the traditional concept of a liberal education. The question whether all pupils who sought a secondary education were capable of profiting from either the classical or the modern curriculum did not arise. Nor was the question raised whether the strictly academic curriculum, either classical or modern, provided an adequate preparation for understanding the world in which the students exposed to them lived. Such a utilitarian motive would, indeed, have been frowned upon as incompatible with the aims of a cultural education. It was assumed that an adequately rigorous training of the mind with as much knowledge of content as the student might acquire was enough to enable him to understand his world and to meet any problem with which he might be confronted.3


The settlement of the unrest at the end of the nineteenth century was only temporary. That settlement was to some extent still based on the assumption that secondary education was to be the privilege of the few who either because of their cultural background or by their own abilities could make up for the deficiencies in their own education. No attention was paid to the fact that, although the secondary school clientele everywhere constituted a selected group, there were many who failed to meet the standards set for them and fell by the wayside, unless they continued their education under pressure to secure certain privileges, such as the Einjahrigerschein in Germany or the diplome d’etudes secondaries in France, given to those who completed a part of the course. This situation became more acute in all countries as enrollments increased in the secondary schools, slightly before the War, and with a surge in the two decades following the War, especially in England, Germany, and the United States. The increasing enrollments and the increasing failures or the severity of pressure on the pupils have raised the question whether pupils should be adjusted to the curriculum or the curriculum should be adjusted to the needs and abilities of the pupils. Another question is also becoming more insistent, and that is whether a curriculum designed as a preparation for further study in the universities is best adapted to the needs of the vast majority who are not likely to continue their education beyond the secondary level. Obviously these questions involve a reconsideration of educational values and the meaning of a liberal education at a time when a complete reorganization of educational systems is being planned or is actually taking place.


Most countries during the nineteenth century developed a dual system of education—elementary for the masses and secondary for a selected group; for the masses it was considered enough to give them a training in skills and certain fundamentals of knowledge, while a liberal education was reserved for the selected group. Since the World War the movement to break down the barriers between elementary and secondary education has everywhere grown with increasing vigor and for a number of reasons. It has been found that a so-called elementary education provides an inadequate preparation for the life of man as citizen and worker in the modern world, that the duration of education must be prolonged, and that opportunities for continued full-time education must be increased in the interests of individuals and of the nations of which they are members. The general outlines of this movement have already taken shape—a common foundation in primary education is to be provided for all (in some countries to the age of ten, in others to the age of eleven or twelve) and is to be followed by some form of post-primary education with postponement of differentiation and specialization as long as possible. The common high school in the United States, the proposals in the Educational Charter for Fascist Italy, the new organization of education in France in terms of schools at the first and second levels, the recommendation of parity of post-primary schools in the recent Report of the Consultative Committee of the English Board of Education (the Spens Report), the new Day Schools Code in Scotland, the recent reforms in the Scandinavian countries, all appear to point in the same direction. The adoption of a common school system, looking ultimately to "secondary education for all" inevitably implies a new approach to the problem of liberal education common to all, while it does not exclude differentiation according to abilities.


Increasing enrollments have already directed attention to the relation of the curriculum to pupils. From psychology have come two other contributions which raise the same issue. On the one hand, the existence of wide variations in individual differences has been proved statistically; on the other, the doctrine of formal discipline, on which so many of the claims made for the traditional curriculum have been based, has been investigated and reinvestigated only to prove that transfer of training does not take place automatically. The first contribution stresses the importance of studying the pupils' abilities, the second that of methods of instruction as well as of educational values. If there is no inherent value for purposes of mental training in certain subjects as such and if the task of educators is to discover the subjects from which each pupil can derive the greatest benefit, it is obvious that a standardized curriculum which had become synonymous with the concept of liberal education and at the same time was justified for its disciplinary value, can no longer be accepted as valid for all.


The issue is, however, much broader. Education is not organized and provided primarily for the benefit of the individual but to enable him to play his part in the social community of which he is a member. There are certain categorical imperatives in education as there are for membership in a society. This means that what is taught in the schools must have affirmative values. Unfortunately there has been a tendency in educational theory of the past quarter of a century to accept a narrow definition of such affirmative values, to discard the old as meaningless for life in the modern world, and to place the emphasis upon the immediate and contemporaneous. Such a theory is in danger of ignoring the cultural influences of the past upon the present; it tends to stress the changing world, and fails to take into account those values, ideas, and ideals that are permanent in the progress of humanity; it results in placing the emphasis on method and in minimizing the value of any content that does not bring immediate returns in understanding the world around us; in seeking to adapt education to the environment of pupils, it tends to narrow the meaning of the environment itself. If, however, the theory is to have general applicability, it can only mean that in every subject whose inclusion in the curriculum is educationally justifiable, the affirmative values—those that give meaning and understanding for the present—must be stressed in instruction. Interpreted thus, the theory can be accepted for the ancient classics as readily as for everyday science or current events. The day has gone when the retention of Latin, Greek, and mathematics can be justified on the grounds of mental training, or when the emphasis can safely be placed upon their formal rather than their cultural values. Nor, as has already been pointed out, can it any longer be claimed that all pupils who now enjoy the opportunity of receiving a post-primary education can profit from the traditional subjects, however well they may be taught. To deny that the traditional subjects have any value or less value than the newest claimants for recognition is to deny the contributions which they have made to human progress. All that can be conceded is that they are not subjects from which all pupils can derive the appropriate benefits. It would be as unfortunate for education as for the progress of culture if the traditional subjects were discarded into the limbo of a forgotten past mainly because they fail to "interest" a certain proportion of the pupils, or because the emphasis has been placed too frequently on the scholastic paraphernalia rather than on the content which has meaning for all times. The risk of arguing against the retention of the traditional subjects from the increasing number of failures, while ignoring the successes, is too great to warrant their sacrifice.


Nevertheless, as the history of secondary education so well illustrates, changing times bring changing emphases in the concept of liberal education. While it is possible for any generation immersed in it to exaggerate the gravity of a social, political, and economic crisis through which it may be passing, the periods in history when the immediate current problems of society have pressed so insistently on public attention have been rare. This is due as much to wider dissemination of literacy and the means of communication as to the effect on the personal lives of all. There is undoubtedly a greater and more universal desire to understand the meaning of the world in which we live; totalitarian states are able to give the kind of understanding which they consider necessary for their stability; democratic, liberal states are seeking to provide that education which will furnish each of their citizens with a sense of their responsibilities and that knowledge which will make it possible to meet them.


Here another issue is raised. There is today everywhere widespread criticism of the traditional concept of a liberal education, as translated into the curriculum of the secondary school, that it led to over-intellectualization; it imparted knowledge but failed to predispose to action; it cultivated intelligence, but did not develop emotional attitudes which are the mainspring of action, or, if it did develop attitudes, they were the attitudes of a class separated and set apart from the common mass. Dealing too much with the past, the traditional curriculum, it is charged, eschewed any consideration of the present; treating the past as a golden age, it ignored the problems and issues of the present or assumed that tomorrow would be as today. It is unnecessary to refer to charges that statesmen and politicians have a certain responsibility for the current crisis because of the failures of schools and universities to pay due attention to the place of the sciences in contemporary life.


Few would be disposed to deny the criticism that intellectual training has always been emphasized more than the cultivation of emotional attitudes. There is, however, a great danger that the balance may swing so far in the latter direction as to constitute what has well been described by many as a "retreat from reason." This is already illustrated in the educational emphases in the totalitarian states. But it is not the totalitarian states alone that have succumbed to this danger; the superficial lispings in all countries of the jargon of the various schools of psychoanalysis, which are today a common possession, indicate that the danger is not limited to totalitarian states alone and has already resulted in an emphasis on what has been called "visceral thinking."


The present disrepute into which the traditional concept of liberal education has fallen is due to two misconceptions. The first is the notion that only certain subjects can be accepted as liberal—Aristotle's old distinction which has survived through the ages—as though the "liberalizing" influence lies in the subject itself. The second is the view that the content of a liberal education should be for a possession rather than for use—the traditional confusion between the cultural and the utilitarian. Neither of these misconceptions has any foundation in history. There is scarcely any writer on the subject of a liberal education who does not define it not primarily in terms of subjects but in terms of ends to be attained in the lives of those who have pursued them. Space does not permit extensive quotations of such definitions.4 One example will suffice. The preoccupation with the content of a liberal education has led many who refer to Matthew Arnold's definition of culture to rest content with his statement that it is the knowledge of "the best that has been said and thought in the world." The most casual reading of Arnold's discussion of culture reveals, however, that he placed greater emphasis on its practical use than on its content.


"Culture," he wrote, "looks beyond machinery, culture hates hatred; culture has one great passion, the passion for sweetness and light. It has one even yet greater!—the passion for making them prevail. It is not satisfied till we all come to a perfect man; it knows that the sweetness and light of the few must be imperfect until the raw and unkindled masses of humanity are touched with sweetness and light.... It seeks to do away with classes; to make the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere; to make all men live in an atmosphere of sweetness and light, where they may use ideas, as it uses them itself, freely—nourished, and not bound by them. This is the social idea; and the men of culture are the true apostles of equality. The great men of culture are those who have had a passion for diffusing, for making prevail, for carrying from one end of society to the other, the best knowledge, the best ideas of their time; who have labored to divest knowledge of all that was harsh, uncouth, difficult, abstract, professional, exclusive; to humanize it, to make it efficient outside the clique of the cultivated and learned, yet still remaining the best knowledge and thought of the time, and a true source, therefore, of sweetness and light." And in the light of the present tensions it may be well to add Arnold's statement that "it [culture] does not try to teach down to the level of inferior classes; it does not try to win them for this or that sect of its own, with ready-made judgments, and watchwords."


A liberal education cannot be defined in terms of content, and yet if it is to produce certain results—judgment and discrimination, good taste and sensitiveness to beauty, moderation and tolerance for everything except intolerance, ideals and convictions, open-mindedness and breadth of interests, and the power of mental enjoyment—the content must be drawn from and be related to living human interests, and methods of instruction must grow out of and be directed to such interests. Only in this way is it possible to develop a mind that is aware of and alert to the world in which it must function. Only in this way, again, will it be possible to avoid an unfortunate dualism which seems to be developing between training for leisure and training for other activities. Further, to use living human interests as the basis for the selection of the content of a liberal education will mean a return to the Latin poet's ideal of Humaninihil a me alienum puto. It will take into account not only the culture that has made the world what it is today, but also those cultural changes which are dominant in the present and seem to be molding the future. It will not disregard physical education at a time when a sound body is as important as a sound mind. It will not leave in the anteroom, as more or less to be tolerated but without being naturalized in the educational world, manual activities and the arts. It will seek to give to all that common basis of understanding and sympathy which is essential for the common tasks of citizens and will aim to give to each opportunities for educational development in accordance with his own special abilities. Broadening the concept of literae humaniores, it will enable pupils, as Herder had hoped, to understand through them "what makes a man a man, what the gift of speech, reason, comradeship, sympathy for others, the influence on others cultivate and demand for the service of all humanity." It may accomplish what a liberal has always sought to achieve, but not always successfully, the ideal of the humanity that is in each one of us and meet the pernicious challenge, which comes from Herder's latter-day compatriots, Nicht Humanitat, sondern vollendete Nationalitat.


It may be well to remind ourselves in the twentieth century that this ideal is not new. "It is as essential today as it was in the best days of Greek education to recapture the meaning of personality in its four aspects—physical, social and moral, aesthetic, and intellectual—which since the Greek period have never been harnessed together in an all-round education. These four aspects define in turn the scope of the curriculum, which should find a place for the literary and scientific, social and moral, aesthetic, and physical activities that are characteristic of the major interest of life. To the Greeks again one would have to turn to see how each of these groups of activities was interpenetrated with the spirit of the others—the intellectual with the aesthetic and moral, the aesthetic with the moral and intellectual, the moral with the aesthetic and intellectual, and the physical with the moral and aesthetic—all combining together to produce an integrated social personality."4 If any lesson has been learned from the past it is that no one subject is more liberalizing than any other, and that, as in the case of mental training, so in the case of liberal education the desired ends can only be secured by a definite effort to secure them; subjects of themselves will not produce them. Otherwise it will continue to be true today as in the days of Montaigne that "the most great clerkes are not the most wisest men."


In an age of skepticism when man has lost faith not only in a Supreme Being but in himself, when he has in many places already surrendered his mind and body to the will of others, when he is ready to yield to the slogans of the propagandist, educators, where they are still free to think for themselves, are challenged to study the meaning of liberal education if the ideals which humanity in its long history has struggled to attain are not to be lost. Already the danger that man may revert to barbarism and cruelty is upon us; if that danger is to be met, it can only be in the main as man is protected against the onslaughts of ignorance by an education which cultivates sound judgment, sympathy and understanding, tolerance and a sense of social responsibility, and ability to face realistically the problems that confront him and his age. But in the long run the effort to impart a liberal education will succeed as teachers who seek to impart it themselves understand that subjects were not providentially supplied for scholastic or examination purposes, but are aspects of human activities which man has found useful for his survival.








1From the Introduction of the Sixteenth Yearbook of the International Institute of Teachers College, Columbia University: "The Meaning of a Liberal Education in the Twentieth Century." (Edited by Professor I. L. Kandel.) Bureau of Publications, Teachers College, Columbia University, 1939.

2The witty remark of Dr. Delisle Burns at a Conference on Examinations, although it referred to examinations, applies with equal force to secondary or liberal education. "One of the worst troubles in the whole examination system is that it has been devised by professors, and the best thing that professors can think of is themselves; they therefore test candidates by what are tests of competence for professors, but not for bankers and other persons." Conference on Examinations, p. 226. Bureau of Publications, Teachers College, Columbia University, 1931.

3For a detailed account of the changes here described see Kandel, I. L., History of Secondary Education (Houghton Mifflin, Boston, 1930). See also the excellent and scholarly "Sketch of the Development of the Traditional Curriculum in Secondary Schools of Different Types in England and Wales" and the "Note on the Conception of General Liberal Education" by Dr. R. F. Young in the Report of the Consultative Committee on Secondary Education, Chapter I and Appendix II (London, H. M. Stationery Office, 1938).

4A number of definitions will be found in Kandel, I. L. History of Secondary Education, passim, and especially in Chapter XI.

4Kandel, op. cit., p. 541



Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 41 Number 2, 1939, p. 91-101
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 8797, Date Accessed: 5/25/2022 8:57:34 PM

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