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The Purpose of Liberal Education

Education, to be successful, must not only inform but inspire.

T. Sharper Knowlson

[What is the purpose of a liberal education? While it is not possible, with any hope of general agreement, to definitively answer that question, the following statements will help us form some idea of it. Note that indented passages are illustrations, explanations, commentaries, enlargements, or footnotes with respect to the preceding passage.]

Education is nothing if it is not the methodical creation of the habit of thinking.

Ernest Dimnet

Education cannot produce the wish to think where it does not exist, but, given this indispensable germ, it ought to provide the necessary conditions to bring it to maturity.

You can lead a man to the university, but you can’t make him think.

Finley Peter Dunne

Intelligence is as contagious as gracefulness and wit used to be in the eighteenth century. This is not all. Taine use to say that thought is a collective, not an individual process...doctrines are tested and developed, methods are improved, views are completed, the work of the whole world becomes the property of each individual seeker who cares to annex its results. In one word the volume of thought is growing.


Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.

Robert Frost

Civilized people can talk about anything.

Clive Bell


The primary purpose of a liberal education is to make one’s mind a pleasant place in which to spend one’s time.

What is more wonderful than the delight which the mind feels when it knows? It is the satisfaction of a primary instinct.

Mark Rutherford


Aristotle considered education the occupation of leisure.

A genuine liberal education is often uncharted, unpredictable, hesitant, and even leisurely.

Extreme busyness, whether at school or college, church or market, is a symptom of deficient vitality; and a faculty for idleness implies a catholic appetite and a strong sense of personal identity.

Robert Lewis Stevenson

The unfortunate notion that a painful effort must be associated with everything great—a curious perverseness in many intellects—is responsible for ridiculous delusions.

Ernest Dimnet


Real education must ultimately be limited to men who insist on knowing, the rest is mere sheep-herding.

Ezra Pound

Every age has its folly, and the folly of the twentieth century is probably a desire to educate.

George Moore


Education frees the intellect and imagination from bondage to unexamined ideologies or beliefs.

Northrop Frye

A thinker must think about his theories rather than simply with them. Everybody thinks with their theories in the sense of using those theories as organizing devices for understanding the world, but most people do so at an implicit level.

Diana Kuhn

The schools don’t offer many opportunities to learn how to think about thinking.


Education does not mean teaching people to know what they do not know; it means teaching them to behave as they do not behave.

John Ruskin

He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.

John Stuart Mill

The human mind is generally far more eager to praise or blame than to describe and define. It wants to make every distinction a distinction of value.

C. S. Lewis

Self-righteousness is the inevitable fruit of simple moral judgments.

Reinhold Niebuhr

Non-paradoxical thinking splits the truth in two. It reveals something by denying or obscuring something else.


The two predominant activities of liberal education are reading and conversation.

We all do some of it, but this kill-time reading is very enfeebling, if it is the only kind of reading we do, if we never turn to reading for its true purpose, which is to feed our mind on minds richer than our own.

Frank Sheed

Reading after a certain time diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and use his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.

Albert Einstein

Reading is sometimes an ingenious device for avoiding thought.

Arthur Helps

There must be a proper balance between written and spoken forms of language. An exclusive emphasis on texts can devalue the spoken word.

True knowledge is always a dialogue. Between two human beings talking something can be constructed that is greater than either of them, that is more than the words can convey, and more than either of them can fully comprehend. There is a kind of third entity created in dialogue.


A great deal of education is simply passing on culture.

Education is a word like “transmission” or “inheritance”; it is not an object, but a method. It must mean the conveying of certain facts, views, or qualities to the last baby born. They might be the most trivial facts, or the most preposterous views, or the most offensive qualities; but if they are handed on from one generation to another they are education.

G. K. Chesterton


Education, in the sense in which I mean it, may be defined as the formation, by means of instruction, of certain mental habits and a certain outlook on life and the world. It remains to ask ourselves, what mental habits, and what sort of outlook, can be hoped for as the result of instruction?

Bertrand Russell

One can’t be right until one has first conceived the possibility of being wrong.

Bigotry is an incapacity to conceive seriously the alternative to a proposition. It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong.

G. K. Chesterton

The simple realization that there are other points of view is the beginning of wisdom. Knowing what they are is a big step. The final achievement is understanding why they are held.

When a subject is highly controversial one cannot hope to tell the truth. One can only show how one came to hold whatever opinion one does hold. One can only give one’s audience the chance of drawing their own conclusions as they observe the limitations, the prejudices, the idiosyncrasies of the speaker.

Virginia Woolf

Be sparing in praise, and more so in blame.

William Langland

I have never in all my life succeeded when I spoke with the faintest trace of harshness or asperity. I have always noted that if one wishes to move another’s mind one must be ever so careful not to embitter that person’s heart.

St. Vincent de Paul

Moderation is an conspicuous proof of our strength of character.

La Rochefoucauld

There is nothing sweeter than to be sympathized with.

George Santayana

The art of being wise is the art of knowing what to overlook.

William James

To escape heresy we must accept paradox. Thinking with integrity is paradoxical thinking.

M. Scott Peck

You cease being a mere logician and become a philosopher when you stop trying to eliminate paradox from reality and begin contemplating it.

The battle between the idealism of Don Quixote and the realism of the inn-keeper is a battle so hot and ceaseless that we know that they must both be right. A vulgar philosophy laments the wickedness of the world, but when we come to think of it we realise that the confusion of life, the doubt and turmoil and bewildering responsibility of life, largely arises from the enormous amount of good in the world... Deep underneath all the superficial wit and palpable gaiety of the story there runs a far deeper kind of irony—that the battle of existence has always been like King Arthur’s last battle in the mist, one in which “friend slew friend, not knowing whom he slew.”

G. K. Chesterton


School—I define “school” as an age-specific, teacher-related process requiring full-time attendance at an obligatory curriculum—is an institution built on the axiom that learning is the result of teaching. And institutional wisdom continues to accept this axiom, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Ivan Illich

Real knowledge is always acquired in the pursuit of real goals.

It is futile and vastly expensive to try to teach people things they are not motivated to learn.

As for Greek accents, I triumphantly succeeded, through a long series of school-terms, in avoiding learning them at all; and I never had a higher moment of gratification than when I afterwards discovered that the Greeks never learned them either. I felt, with radiant pride, that I was as ignorant as Plato and Thucydides... But it is a simple psychological fact, that the sight of a Greek capital [letter] still fills me with happiness, the sight of a small letter with indifference tinged with dislike, and the accents with righteous indignation reaching the point of profanity. And I believe that the explanation is that I learned the large Greek letters, as I learned the large English letters, at home. I was told about them merely for fun while I was still a child; while the others I learned during the period of what is commonly called education; that is, the period during which I was being instructed by somebody I did not know, about something I did not want to know.

G. K. Chesterton

Learning communities should grow naturally on the basis of a shared morality. Without such a basis education is inevitably an imposition on the student.

It can never be repeated often enough that nothing intellectual can be achieved in a field that does not attract us. Working in our vein, without a sense of effort, and, on the contrary, with a sense of ease and freedom, is the fundamental condition of a healthy mental operation.

Real interest is essential for concentration and creates it in an instant.

George Bernard Shaw seemed to have no power of learning anything that did not interest him.

Michael Holroyd (biographer)

The longer each person is in the grip of [institutional] education the less inclination he will have for self-directed learning.

Ivan Ilich

It’s nothing short of a miracle that modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled youthful curiosity. For this delicate plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom.

Albert Einstein

One professor defined a lecture as the process by which information passes from the notebook of a speaker to the notebook of a student without encountering resistance in the minds of either. If the purpose of a university is to teach and that of a student to learn, why do we still use the method least likely to satisfy either objective?

Someone in the English school pointed out that of the outstanding living authors who were educated at Oxford—W. H. Auden, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Robert Graves, Anthony Powell, William Golding—none had firsts, and half got thirds. The head of one of the colleges once said to me: “I understand why we’re teaching the students, but I don’t understand why we’re examining them.”

Bryan Magee

Once the mechanical teach and test cycle was established it tended to perpetuate itself. If it doesn’t work it must be because either the students or the teachers are doing it wrong.


Education is never neutral. It either liberates people or it dominates and oppresses them.

Compulsory education has a hidden agenda to turn the citizenry into a pliable, unthinking mass. That’s why the schools so often seem to inhibit their students intellectually.

University presidents are a nervous breed who praise independence of thought on all occasions of public ceremony; and worry deeply about its consequences in private.

John Kenneth Galbraith

School life [at Malvern, the English public school Lewis attended] was a life almost wholly dominated by the social struggle; to get on, to arrive, or, having reached the top, to remain there, was the absorbing preoccupation. It is often, of course, the preoccupation of adult life as well; but I have not yet seen any adult society in which the surrender to this impulse was so total. And from it, at school as in the world, all sorts of meanness flow; the sycophancy that courts those higher in the scale, the cultivation of those whom it is well to know, the speedy abandonment of friendships that will not help on the upward path, the readiness to join the cry against the unpopular, the secret motive in almost every action.

C. S. Lewis

Compulsory schooling teaches a hidden curriculum that is much more powerful than its overt subjects. This curriculum produces estrangement between students, frustration, weak powers of expression, alienation from tradition, and a sense that one can only learn under duress from certified experts. There is an elimination of curiosity and concentration; there is a difficulty connecting the present to the future and the past; there is a taste for cruelty and moral numbness that is cumulative; there is an uneasiness with intimacy and candour; there is a disloyalty to family and friends; children become excessively materialistic; and finally they become dependent, passive and timid in the face of new situations. All of these effects are the product of schooling, but they are also extremely useful in making a highly organized and highly layered commercial civilization self justifying.

John Taylor Gatto

Healthy students often redouble their resistance to teaching as they find themselves more comprehensively manipulated. This resistance is due not to the authoritarian style of a public school nor the seductive style of some free schools, but to the fundamental approach common to all schools—the idea that one person’s judgment should determine what and when another person must learn.

Ivan Illich

The highest marks [at Oxford] tended to go to examinees who were good at doing what was expected of them and these tended to be unoriginal people. More independent-minded students did not usually behave like this; and the more imaginative they were, and the more distinctive their intellectual personalities, the less likely they were to behave in his way. What these tended to do was to pursue with unusual intensity those subjects that interested them while neglecting those that did not, often with little regard for examination results. The consequence was that first-class degrees went to students with the mentality and temperament of high-grade civil servants.

Bryan Magee

Schools are becoming career factories.

Education in the modern world is intimately associated with work. Education is considered to be a necessary preparation for employment and is, itself, one of the largest employers in a modern economy.

The age-old idea of education as the quiet pursuit of wisdom is being replaced by a utilitarian scramble to acquire knowledge of facts, and especially material facts, and above all, commercially rewarding facts.

Christopher Derrick

We produce a higher education system which is more and more separated, more and more divorced from the intellectual function. What I see out there is an enormous public hunger for high quality, general propositions of an intellectual kind, something that isn’t journalism, isn’t the sound byte culture, isn’t entertainment, is ideas.

Michael Ignatieff

The average Ph.D. thesis is nothing but a transference of bones from one graveyard to another.

J. Frank Dobie

School prepares you for just one thing: School. It doesn’t prepare you for life. As a result School is utterly future oriented. The present is awful, but the future will be wonderful.


The official view of learning and all its apparatus should be abolished and the classic view re-established. Then the way people naturally are would become an advantage instead of a disadvantage.

The classic view is that you learn from the experiences you have and from the company you keep—especially from the people you identify with. Learning is easy and the most natural thing in the world, and first and foremost it is a social activity.

What distinguishes education from the fact that people have always been able to learn a large number of things? According to Ivan Illich, education is learning under the assumption of scarcity, learning under the assumption that the means for acquiring something called knowledge are scarce, and therefore education is a marketable and expensive commodity.

The moment men begin to care more for education than for religion they begin to care more for ambition than for education. It is no longer a world in which the souls of all are equal before heaven, but a world in which the mind of each is bent on achieving an unequal advantage over the other. There begins to be a mere vanity in being educated; whether it be self-educated or merely state-educated. Education ought to be a searchlight given to a man to explore everything, but very specially the things most distant from himself. Education tends to be a spotlight; which is centred entirely on himself. Some improvement may be made by turning equally vivid and perhaps vulgar spotlights upon a large number of other people as well. But the only final cure is to turn off the limelight and let him realise the stars.

G. K. Chesterton

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