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Why is liberal education so incoherent? An anthropological perspective

Robert Bates Graber (Professor Emeritus of Anthropology, based at Department of Society and Environment, Truman State University, Kirksville, Missouri, USA)

On the Horizon

ISSN: 1074-8121

Article publication date: 4 February 2014




This paper's purpose is to account for liberal education's characteristic incoherence.


Its approach is to sketch a dilemma created by cultures being inherently conservative, while nations, in order to be internationally competitive, need to be innovative. The definitional and systemic bases of culture's conservatism offer no point of attack; but a third base is enculturation, which does.


Shortly after puberty, society's more promising young people are strongly urged to leave home for an extended period, and be exposed to ways of acting and thinking that often clash with how they have been brought up. They are encouraged to explore new subjects and indulge their curiosity; they are encouraged to “think outside the box” of their own enculturation. The incoherence of liberal education leaves them not with a sense of closure, but in a state of constructive confusion conducive to innovation in all aspects of life. Liberal education thus serves the social function of countering the anti-innovative tendency of culture.

Practical implications

Attempts to impose coherence on undergraduate educational experience by “tying things all together” for students are ill-advised.


Seeing incoherence as a desirable rather than deplorable feature of undergraduate liberal education can help us facilitate rather than inadvertently inhibit innovative thought and action in the rising generation.



Bates Graber, R. (2014), "Why is liberal education so incoherent? An anthropological perspective", On the Horizon, Vol. 22 No. 1, pp. 10-18.



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