Liberal education in crisis? Comment by Anderson

On the Horizon

ISSN: 1074-8121

Article publication date: 4 February 2014



Anderson, G.L. (2014), "Liberal education in crisis? Comment by Anderson", On the Horizon, Vol. 22 No. 1.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Liberal education in crisis? Comment by Anderson

Article Type: Authors' Comments From: On the Horizon, Volume 22, Issue 1

As I read these papers on liberal education, I naturally was concerned about how they related to the themes in my own paper. Bussey (2014) uses "intrinsic knowledge" in a manner similar to how I use "conventional knowledge" to escape the bounds of inherited Western European tradition. He writes about innovation, inclusivity, and transformation, all of which transcend intrinsic knowledge. If modern universities are to teach "intrinsic knowledge," they will need to find common threads in the intrinsic knowledge of different cultures that can be personally and socially relevant to students, transcending "boomeritis," which holds teachings of all cultures as equally valid in a pluralistic world. Universities have to move beyond this popular doctrine, or they will not be able to teach intrinsic knowledge.

Graber (2014) provides an anthropological perspective in which he contrasted the conservative nature of culture, which I refer to as "conventional knowledge," with the anti-enculturation he associates with liberal education and innovation, and I associate with freedom, science, and scientism. I argue for a balance between these two poles in the language "transcend and include."

In writing from the point-of-view of anthropology, Graber stimulates me to think of liberal education as a modern equivalent of the various rites of passage that prepare individuals for adulthood in pre-modern societies, and how those rites require initiates to prove both knowledge of, and loyalty to, the community while implicitly giving the initiate flexibility to go beyond the tradition as an adult when leading the society through unforeseen challenges. The period of liberal education might be somewhat related to Victor Turner’s idea of "liminality." I am also reminded of the requirements for becoming a knight in English legend by proving capable of saving a princess or defeating a dragon before being worthy to defend the castle at home, and transcultural human structures recorded in Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale, where the hero goes through a universal pattern to prove worthy of being an adult citizen. The requirements of leadership in traditional society are far more than eating food for 18 years and then getting the right to vote handed to you on a platter. Indeed, social dependents that have not met society’s standards of loyalty, heroism, and trustworthiness are never qualified for positions of leadership. To what extent has liberal education succeeded in producing these traits that modern societies need in their leaders? Or, do we have to elect leaders based on their performance in the military rather than in colleges and universities?

Jennings (2014) looks directly at this problem, arguing that society wants the attributes of a liberally educated person as spelled out in the Harvard statement he cites. But even Harvard University concentrates on covering curriculum content and not the critical judgment modern societies need in their citizens. Schools of higher education are failing to produce the modern equivalent of rites of passage for citizenship that premodern societies, in their own way, often did better.

Scott (2014, p. 23) agrees that undergraduate education ought to be "as much about character and citizenship as it is about careers and commerce." He acknowledges that many people in positions of leadership lack the required depths of knowledge of history to prevent repeating mistakes of the past. A liberal education, he argues, must enable people to distinguish between true and false, right and wrong. Delclos and Donaldson (2014) make the point that society is changing so rapidly that we might have to slow down to discern. However, as I argue, our current dominant culture fights distinctions of true and false, promoting the idea that every viewpoint is equally valid, symptoms of the disease Wilber calls "boomeritis."

Scott provides an excellent overview of what a genuine modern liberal curriculum might contain. However, is it marketable? I wonder why we do not demand that most of this curriculum be taught in high school rather than at the undergraduate university level. In my wife’s one-room schoolhouse, Greek classics were read and discussed in the sixth grade. Why is public high-school education failing to produce an education that promotes character, citizenship, and critical thinking? I would like to see much of the "liberal education" of which we write begin in high school. This is one reason many parents home school their children. Perhaps there is some sense to the German system that sends students to either trade schools or advanced education after the sixth grade (gymnasium and hoche schule);but this creates an aristocratic class. In a democracy, this period of educational development should not focus simply on practical skills for employment, but also on critical thinking about human behavior and values. I think addressing the lack of liberal education in the universities will have to begin with a reform of public high schools. Today the first years of higher education have become remedial education, correcting deficiencies related to public education.

Maxwell (2014) concludes that liberal arts ought to include "real philosophy," a search after fundamental questions, rather than the fragmented philosophies of science, language, or other disciplines that are characteristic of our disintegrated culture. Conrad’s (2014) paper outlines this disintegration and argues that education must become re-integrated. I second both motions.

Abeles (2014) brings out the important connection between the government, the economy, and liberal education. In my view modern society has developed into three relatively autonomous but interrelated spheres: culture, government, and economy. The separation of church and state allows for freer thinking, and the separation of government and the economy stimulates innovation, wealth creation, and philanthropy. Government has a legitimate role in policing society and the economy, to prevent exploitation and abuse of one citizen by another; but as the US founders well knew, people will attempt to use their political or economic power to exploit others. Neither government nor large corporations want liberal thinkers that might design political and economic systems that would curtail their power grab. People employed in both these spheres want culture to serve them; in a democracy, both bureaucrats and economic factions want to manipulate the people’s representatives. They even try to rename "citizens" as "voters" or "consumers" in their effort to create political dependents and contented serfs. However, for a democracy to function, the cultural sphere, rooted in citizens thinking critically, should be in charge, designing laws that root out the corruption and social dependency that oligarchs and politicians use for their own personal gain. These would be the "misdeeds of old men" that I think Pollard (2014) has in mind in his paper.

Paino (2014) counterposes "liberal" and "interdependence" parallel to the way I counterpose "liberal" and "conventional" knowledge. It is another way of approaching the same topic. Conventional knowledge is an expression of an interdependent group’s collective consciousness. And, as he and many other authors state, today we are interrelated at a global level. This challenges us to articulate a set of common global values that transcends more particular group values and to enable students to distinguish not only between right and wrong, but between right and wrong at every level of society. Perhaps Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale provides insight on how particular cultures can be transcended without throwing out values altogether.

Too often we think of our "world family" as though the values of a particular family or ethnic group can be imposed on the world; alternatively, there are those who believe that a world federal government should impose values related to more personal decisions, on topics like abortion, on all cultures equally – reducing the diversity of cultures to music, food, clothing, and dance styles. Without real liberal education, we see countless social movements for change uncritically attempting to impose their views on everyone, while educational institutions fail to facilitate critical thinking about what might be good or bad in these movements, or about why they have emerged. Rather, we see academics often engaged in the art of rhetoric, using unscientific words like "extremist," empty of rational content, rather than in genuine pursuit of truth. A similar situation in ancient Greece led to the popularity of Socrates – a rhetorician turned critical thinker, and founder of the liberal education that seems to be disappearing today. Perhaps the world has gone full circle on some evolutionary spiral and, deluged with political rhetoric and strategic marketing, we will again be tempted to seek truth. Let’s try to avoid sentencing to death those who promote genuine liberal education.

Comment by Gordon L. Anderson, President, Paragon House, St Paul, Minnesota, USA.


Abeles, T. (2014), "Is there a case for a ‘liberal education’?", On the Horizon, Vol. 22 No. 1, pp. 67–71

Bussey, M. (2014), "Liberal education may be dead but the magic will not die!", On the Horizon, Vol. 22 No. 1, pp. 3–6

Conrad, L. (2014), "Integration and the liberal arts: a historical overview", On the Horizon, Vol. 22 No. 1, pp. 46–56

Delclos, V. and Donaldson, R. (2014), "Contemporary liberal education: slowing down to discern", On the Horizon, Vol. 22 No. 1, pp. 7–9

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

Jennings, W. (2014), "Liberal arts in a new era", On the Horizon, Vol. 22 No. 1, pp. 19–22

Maxwell, N. (2014), "How can our human world exist and best flourish embedded in the physical universe? An outline of a problem-based liberal studies course", On the Horizon, Vol. 22 No. 1, pp. 35–45

Paino, T. (2014), "The reflective practitioner: the role of a public liberal-arts university in saving liberal education", On the Horizon, Vol. 22 No. 1, pp. 72–74

Pollard, S. (2014), "Men grow old", On the Horizon, Vol. 22 No. 1, pp. 75–79

Scott, R. (2014), "The meaning of liberal education", On the Horizon, Vol. 22 No. 1, pp. 23–34

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