why liberal education, again?

Why do I feel that a specifically liberal education is so important?

I see it this way. People are different. While we all belong to the same species, we have different backgrounds, characters, interests, and aims. Sometimes these aims come into conflict. Then what?

As I see it, the ways of managing interpersonal conflict boil down to two:

  1. violence
  2. negotiation

Violence, which includes not just brute force but also intimidation and deception, is how animals resolve their differences. The bigger and the stronger prevail, the smaller and the weaker give way. This is the law of the jungle.

It is also how a great many human conflicts are managed. From sibling spats to the invasion of Iraq, people use force in an effort to make their will prevail. In doing so, humans show themselves to be animals, not different in this respect from sea urchins or caribou.

But humans, in possessing reason and language, have access to resources that those other animals do not. Reason and language make it possible for us to work out our differences not by violence but by agreement. But resolving conflicts by agreement requires a lot of, well, humanity. For not only are reason and language required, but also things like mutual respect, honor, and good-will. These civilized values need to be deliberately and widely cultivated in order for them to do their magic. Then, assuming they’re in place, the would-be conflict resolver or negotiator needs something further: persuasive power. When words are your main conflict-resolution tool, advantages flow to those who master their use better.

This is where education, and more specifically liberal education, comes in. For the whole purpose of a liberal education, as its name is intended to convey, is to prepare the free man to live a free, self-responsible life. The ancients contrasted it with a servile education, which meant an education that better enabled one to serve others. This meant mainly what we would call vocational training—which does not demand the same skills as training to be free. When we’re serving others, we’re intentionally subordinating our own will and making ourselves the tools of their will.

For the most part we don’t get into domestic service nowadays; rather, we’re serving bosses, clients, and customers. But service is what it is, and ancient thinkers such as Aristotle believed that such service disqualified one from being a citizen.

Liberal education prepares one for a life of full self-responsibility in a civilized world. Liberally educated people are exactly those most likely to foster a culture in which conflicts are resolved by negotiation, as they are also those best able to make their views prevail in that culture.

Robert Frost said that “Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.” The education he was referring to was liberal education. If you think about it, violence is exactly the acting-out of people who have lost either their temper or their self-confidence, or both.

The tradition of liberal education was already dying by the dawn of the 20th century. Since then it has continued to disappear like Earth’s glaciers. Technically educated people have created weapons of ever greater lethal power and placed them in the hands of other technically educated people to try to impose their will on others. This process has given us the world we live in now.

I want to change that. I want a world in which people resolve their differences by negotiation, not violence. That is why I’m pursuing a self-directed liberal education. My intention is that the civilized view and values that it represents will not die so long as I am alive.

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