Acton Institute Powerblog

The arts of liberty: Education for image bearers

In the United States, there is a constant background critique of education. Complaints include the following: Teachers are too liberal. Professors are too abstract. Schools don’t do a good job of preparing students for work. Education costs too much, both for governments and the parents and students paying tuition.

Yet despite all the dissatisfaction, we value education highly. When we are honest with ourselves, we recognize that an educated public brings with it all kinds of benefits.

It is tremendously valuable, for example, to have people who know—as John Mark Reynolds is fond of saying—how to “read well, write well, think well, and to figure.” Many things are changing in education under the influence of technology, but despite the complaints about expense and the time it takes, I suspect we will continue to want more of it rather than less,.

Institutions of higher education describe foundational studies in the general curriculum as the “liberal arts.” Most people think of them as a grab bag of courses that students are forced to complete before they take the classes that will actually help them make money. We often fail to appreciate that the liberal arts—studies in language, writing, history, philosophy, the arts, science, and mathematics—operate as the fulcra, levers, and pulleys that improve our ability to learn everything else. The great management theorist Peter Drucker correctly predicted that the person best adapted for a rapidly changing future is the one who has learned how to learn. Education in the essentials lays the necessary groundwork for education for professionals.

But there is something else to be said about the liberal arts. The word “liberal” has come to mean something like “big government” or “welfare laborism” or “soft socialism.” Those are strange associations for a word like “liberal,” which relates to the Latin word liber, meaning “free.” This Latin root of “liberal” is also the root of “liberty,” which clearly has to do with freedom. When used as part of the descriptive phrase “liberal arts,” the word “liberal” does not indicate something like left-wing politics, although the academy in America certainly has that reputation. The liberal arts, then, are the arts related to freedom. To be more specific, the liberal arts constitute the program of education for a free man or woman.

Education for Citizens, not Subjects

For much of the world’s history and in probably all of its lands at various points, human beings have lacked the freedom suitable to their nature. Rather, they have found themselves subject to some ruling authority that owed them little by way of participation or even accountability.

You may note that I just referred to people being subject to some ruling authority. That is an important word. One definition of a subject is a person brought under jurisdiction or control. It seems to me that a subject is a different sort of being in society than a citizen. A citizen is one who has freedom and is able to act with agency in the broader society, whereas a subject is more acted upon than acting. The citizen, then, is the person to whom the liberal arts are directed. We should educate citizens and soon to be full citizens (such as children) in the arts of liberty.

Another word related to the Latin liberis “libertine.” A libertine is a person who acts in an immoral or irresponsible way. A good way of thinking about the libertine is to think of that person as making a poor use of freedom. The libertine embraces all the freedom imagined by liberty and none of the responsibility and self-government. While the libertine may be satisfied with their stewardship of their own life, they do not recognize or care that they endanger liberty for everyone else.

The reason is that freedom actually requires the exercise of responsibility. Those who will not govern themselves and those who will not exercise virtue will ultimately find themselves surrounded by rules and authorities. In America, we publish tens of thousands of new pages of federal regulations each year, which are a nice proxy for our failure to act morally and responsibly.

We would need less paper, pixels, and compliance officers if we were more virtuous. It seems to me that if we had more and better teachers (in both public and private systems), we would perhaps need fewer bureaucratic rules.

The liberal arts, the arts of liberty, are for the education of citizens rather than subjects. A ruler would not necessarily want the people to be philosophic, thinking critically, well-informed, and articulate in both writing and speech. For the authoritarian, the more attractive quality is obedience. The ruler would likely prefer an education for obedience (or maybe apathy) to an education for liberty and citizenship. But the proper education for citizens is one that will generate knowledge of context, provide tools of analysis, provide frameworks for judging right and wrong, and help learners to reflect meaningfully on their lives and choices.

The liberal arts have a complement, by the way. Historically, there was a division between the liberal arts and the servile arts. Whereas the liberal arts focused on grammar, logic, and rhetoric, the servile arts were geared toward occupational tasks. It is strange to think that in our current push for vocational and professional training and our simultaneous disrespect for the liberal arts, we reject an inheritance that has been hard won. Rather than take advantage of the good and more holistic education available to us at various levels of our school careers, we wonder why we are made to learn such things. It is important to receive training in how to program a computer, design and build structures, manage finances, and treat patients. But don’t neglect the liberal arts along the way. Cherish the opportunity afforded by them. Be glad for the respect shown to human beings by including them in our curricula.

Education for Freedom and Flourishing

I’ve spent a good bit of time thus far talking about education and liberty. Specifically, I’ve set out a vision for education that is significantly larger than education for career (as important as that is). While I have so far discussed education in terms of liberty, we could also think of education for human flourishing. Our lives are much richer and more full than simply working for money and then using that money as a consumer.

While education is for work, education is also for citizenship. Education is for parenting. Education is for marriage. Education is for discovery. Education is for leadership. Education is for living a fulfilled life. Education, if I may be so bold as to say it, is for the soul.

For that reason, we need to be philosophical about how education is to be pursued, funded, administered, and regulated. Because education, rightly understood in its broadest scope, has this crucial relationship to life, liberty, and human flourishing, it is important to think about the spirit of our age and which voices we will follow.

In his Politics, Aristotle argued that the nature of the constitution should dictate the shape of education in the society. The problem with that approach, from our point of view, is that the constitution of an unfree people would dictate an education in servility rather than the more empowering and ennobling education I have defended in the form of the liberal arts. I believe, with other Christians, that God created man as a reasonable creature, indeed, as the uniquely reasonable creature. With Augustine, I affirm that man was made to rule over the irrational creatures and not to rule over other men as though they lacked reason.

Another way to express this thought is to say that the Christian anthropology of man is for humans to be learning and thinking beings. We do not simply react to our environment or to the sensations our body feels. There is another level, which has to do with our sense of reason and I would say also with things such as faith. We are unique in the creation in this way. I referred to the Christian anthropology of man, but I think these facts are also easily observed in general terms.

Before and Beyond the State

If this vision of the human being is correct, then the cultivation of the intellect for all human beings through education of various types is an essential activity of life. Education, in this sense, is not for the state’s purpose, or at least not necessarily so. Education is for human beings and is directed at their nature. The state (or the government) is a tool that serves human beings. As the great Catholic scholar Jacques Maritain once wrote, “The state is made for man, not man for the state.” Those of us who are Christians believe that while human beings have an eternal destiny, the state does not. It is merely temporal. To the extent some philosophers have believed that we will find our ultimate fulfillment in the state, they have exalted the wrong entity.

For that reason, the state should never have too much control over education. In his seminal work On Liberty, John Stuart Mill explained that while it is entirely appropriate for governments to support education and to make sure that standards of quality are met, they should have wide tolerance for a variety of schools, ideas, and methods. This wide tolerance is appropriate because of the intellectual diversity of human beings and because of the lack of any serious claim to a monopoly on truth by the state.

Does the state benefit from education? It can hardly do without it unless it wishes to be at a tremendous disadvantage in a highly competitive global landscape. However, the fact that education is a public good does not establish some kind of mass ownership of the activity. Education should take place in an environment characterized by substantial freedom because it is the only way to do justice to the kind of beings we are. For that reason, the involvement of the government should be supportive, but not excessively controlling lest it frustrate the interests, hopes, and plans of the spiritual, reasoning citizens who hope to flourish within their communities.

The Teacher as Steward of the Soul

I recently ran across a statement by the 20th-century political philosopher Eric Voegelin, who put the matter well in the book From Enlightenment to Revolution:

This process of general education for the purpose of forming the useful member of society, while neglecting or even deliberately destroying the life of the soul, is accepted as an institution of our modern society so fully that the awareness of the demonism of such interference with the life of the soul on a social mass scale, and of the inevitably following destruction of the spiritual substance of society, is practically dead.

What does that suggest for teachers? We should have a vision for the office of teacher in the broader society. The teacher is, or should be, a person in whom much trust is reposed. Students need to trust the knowledge and authority of the teacher so as to reduce resistance and to embrace learning. Parents also have to put their faith in the teachers of their children and young people because they are generally unable to do it all on their own for reasons of time, training, breadth of knowledge, and other factors. Whether this high status is communicated by pay and social position or not, the fundamental reality exists. When my children leave home, I tell them to protect my treasures. They know that I mean them. Teachers are stewards of these treasures of priceless value.

Accordingly, let us treat students not as cogs in the mass machine or as captives of the movements of the age or as resources belonging to the state for the purpose of bringing prosperity or bolstering some ideology. Let us use the office of teacher—a spiritual office, I would argue, an office relating to great wonders in our nature—to cultivate the specifically human capabilities we possess.

I’ve spent most of my life on politics one way or the other: whether studying it, writing about it, talking about it, participating in it, or helping others to participate. But there is a reason I decided to become a professor. I realized that politics is largely a reflection of who we are. It isn’t the moving force of culture so much as it is a fruit of it, an indication of the health of the people. By looking at the politics, you can see what the people love, whether they have a realistic vision of what government can do, and what they wish to accomplish with power.

It seems to me that the United States is sick with a cancer of the mass mind. In so saying, I do not mean to indict people of any particular persuasion. I doubt that we ever really had a golden age, but it increasingly seems that we are gorging ourselves on the confirmation of our biases and the demonization of our opponents. There is a tremendous lack of humility and awareness about personal sinfulness. We are becoming less teachable and more tribal in our thinking. Our politics often partakes of magical thinking.

When I think about how things can be better, how we can reunite and regain some semblance of civic virtue, the answer starts with teachers. Education is upstream of politics. We need to teach our students to be fair, to be measured, to love the truth, and to be charitable to others. By embracing the liberal arts as we should, we can cultivate, as an American president said long ago, the better angels of our nature and thus make a better use of our freedom and thus preserve it.

This essay is adapted from a keynote lecture given in Pretoria, South Africa.

Image: Classroom and Lecture Hall, Wokandapix (CC0)

Hunter Baker

Hunter Baker, J.D., Ph.D. is a professor of political science and the dean of arts and sciences at Union University and an Affiliate Scholar in religion & politics at the Acton Institute. He is the author of The End of Secularism and Political Thought: A Student's Guide.