From the beginning of the American Republic, our best statesman and thinkers have seen an essential connection between liberal democracy and liberal education. According to Thomas Jefferson, the extensive educational plan he proposed for his native Virginia was a necessary means for “rendering the people the safe, as they are the ultimate, guardians of their own liberty.” Robert Maynard Hutchins, the influential president of the University of Chicago, wrote that “the object of the educational system, taken as a whole, is not to produce hands for industry or to teach the young how to make a living. It is to produce responsible citizens.” For both Jefferson and Hutchins, a free society cannot long subsist without vibrant institutions of liberal learning, fully mindful of their dependence on the liberal democratic political institutions that sustain them.
The curriculums Jefferson and Hutchins envisioned, however, have little relation to what is taught in American universities today. The rich education in political history Jefferson thought necessary to the protection of democratic liberty would be hard to come by on most campuses. The “Great Books” approach championed by Hutchins has fallen out of favor at all but a tiny minority of colleges. In its place, one all too often finds a smorgasbord of topical approaches, methodological disputes, ill-concealed political advocacy, and a decimated set of general education requirements that have somehow inherited the mantle of liberal education.
Recently, the atomization of our university curriculums has combined with the financial crisis to produce a disturbing prospect for all those who care for genuine liberal education. Parents, students, and politicians have begun to wonder whether the kinds of education available at our colleges and universities are worth a price tag that strains the limits of middle-class credulity. At the same time, our universities seem increasingly incapable of giving an account of their function in terms of the high and noble purpose of liberal education itself: the full development of the human person. Instead, we hear the value of higher education justified in terms of economic, technological, and social utility. But precisely insofar as we conceive of the role of universities in merely utilitarian terms, the prospect of their replacement by less pretentious and expensive modes of credentialing, such as online and explicitly vocational training, becomes more thinkable. In terms of both liberal education’s present malaise and its uncertain future, the possibility that Jefferson and Hutchins may have been right in supposing that liberal democracy was unsustainable without a liberally educated citizenry should give us pause.
These considerations thus make the present moment a timely one for asking a timeless question: What is liberal education? In particular, what is—or should be—liberal, or liberating, about such an education? What is the moral and political function of liberal education? What, ultimately, does it mean to be educated? What, ultimately, does it mean to be free?