Schooling changes lives. That is the claim. Without having attended school our lives would be different, how different we do not know but, clearly education makes a difference. A liberal arts education is an education for freedom. This seems laudable but what does it mean? Freeing a person through knowledge, insight, and initiating them into the conversation of time, is different from freeing them into being at the beck and call of the tyranny of the majority or the strong. It is an internal freedom, an ideal, a freedom for thought, and to realise oneself through choices as well as being able to free others who come into contact with you. The paradox is that this freedom also gives you the freedom not to do this. You are free to be indoctrinated and also to indoctrinate others. This is where a liberal approach can falter.
By demanding that the future be ‘fairer’ or ‘kinder’ or ‘free from oppression’ one immediately faces the problem that in order to be fairer, kinder and free from oppression one has to deal with those who are deemed to be not fair, not kind, and a bit of an oppressor. Once these types have been ‘identified’ they are then unfairly, unkindly, oppressed. As this continues those who are being unfair, unkind, and oppress in the name of a better world, create a terror which is far from kind and fair.
In a school that believes one shapes the future in pre-ordained ways freedom falters. If a school has decided how a utopia is formed, let us say it is full of ‘fair’ people, they define what fairness is and decide that these ‘traits’ should be forced upon those in their care, whether these children and their parents agree or not with their definition. In the name of progressing towards a ‘new dawn’ children are changed. Sometimes this can be quite extreme. Workers of the world unite, you have nothing to lose but your chains implies freedom but demands ‘unity’ and those that refuse to unite will remain chained.
Tradition offers a different approach, this approach imposes the habits of the past rather than a definition of a new age. Rather than change children for the future, this approach changes them to fit ‘in’ to current conventions. Sometimes this can be quite extreme. This can imply one way to be, just as much as the progressive vision. Both play with history, in one ‘it just is’, and in the other, ‘it must be…’
The liberal arts approach recognises the importance of initiating children into ‘the way things are done around here’ as well as a way of reaching out into the world. It is conversant with different voices and teaches children to recognise these competing voices. Where it is very different is that as it is education for independence it passes the world, in all its complex and competing ways, on. It does not impose on children a blueprint of a utopia that they must create, rather it gives children an idea of what was and what is so that they might form the future in the way that they see fit. Free.
Maybe this is where the obsession with ‘self’ comes from. The fetishisation of the self, the selfish, the selfie, the ‘it’s my opinion so it counts’… this would be the inevitable consequence of teaching that any content is king or anything produced by a child is queen. This could not be further from the truth. A liberal arts education is conversant with truth, with beauty, with quality, with excellence. It is conversant with what it is to be human, in all its divergent interpretations. It begins with the constraints of the past, it investigates and critiques in the present and passes the responsibility on to the next generation to continue the conversation but not in a way that finishes the said conversation in a vision of a utopian state but in a way that is responsible for continuing to pass the conversation forward to their children, their children’s children and so on…
A liberal arts education does not believe that history has ended or that history will end in a progressive vision of a fair and kind world, rather it believes that history will continue to be made and it hopes that the better the quality of a child’s education the freer they will be to make that world, then the better that world might be. Or worse, ay, there’s the rub.