All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy

August 20, 1999

Liberal education may be out of favour with David Blunkett, but Alan Ryan says it is our defence against mob rule.

Amid this week's talk of A-level grades and university entrance demands, one sort of education has been notably absent - the liberal kind.

Discussion of the purpose of liberal education is bedevilled by three things. The first is Cardinal Newman's declaration in The Idea of a University that its purpose is to create a "gentleman". The second is the culture wars that raged in the United States in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when conservatives wrapped themselves in Matthew Arnold's concern for "the best that has been thought and said in the world", and their opponents became obsessed with destroying "the canon". And the third is the dreary utilitarianism that drives David Blunkett and Baroness Blackstone.

This is expressed in a hostility to "liberal elitism", but it comes across as the pedagogy of Mr Gradgrind.

It seems clear that we ought to care a lot about vocational education without minding any less about liberal education. It would certainly be mad not to mind about vocationally oriented education in a world where semi-skilled jobs are rapidly disappearing and everyone needs plenty of new skills and the ability to pick up others throughout life.

Literacy and numeracy are the basis of this but how far vocational skills need to be inculcated in tertiary institutions as well as secondary schools is an empirical matter. So is the contribution of skills inculcated by a decent liberal education. The ability to listen carefully, to read critically, to write accurately and persuasively and to analyse exactly are just what a decent liberal education offers - and pretty useful transferable skills they are too. The only issue to consider is snobbishness. One thing we must not say is that there cannot be degrees in catering or leisure studies.

Still, there are other values in life than utilitarian ones. What liberal education does is to offer its beneficiaries the chance to take an interest in everything that humanity has cared about over the past several millennia.

Conscious liberal education, as distinct from what you can pick up from clever and argumentative parents and siblings, matters for just that reason more to the worse off than to anyone else. As a working-class child in postwar Islington you could get it in a primary school that played you Benjamin Britten's Young Person's Guide to the Orchestra and took you to Kenwood and the National Gallery.

What liberal education does at university level is something more. If it works properly, it gives students a particular kind of intellectual freedom - more Spinoza than John Stuart Mill, but certainly some of both. Partly, it is a matter of being ready to let arguments, authors and scientific puzzles take you over without fearing that you will be lost for-ever.

Partly, it is a matter of being ready to ask questions of what you read and see, without dismissing other people's questions but without thinking that they define what is worth knowing either. But overall, it is a matter of being in charge of your own thoughts. It is something that only universities are licensed to help students do, but do not always do particularly well.

If this is threatened on one side by excessive vocationalism, it is threatened on the other by real elitism. This is the elitism of cutting-edge research. Educating the new generation of cutting-edge researchers is not exactly part of liberal education. It is more like running a training camp for academic athletes.

Conversely, while research sometimes benefits from the breadth of imagination that liberal education fosters, it more often benefits from sheer grinding effort, and the atmosphere of many successful labs - and editorial projects in arts subjects - can be notably authoritarian.

Why, in that case, is it worth arguing for liberal education, when the Department for Education and Employment wants universities to be modelled on glorified secondary modern schools and the research councils are funding enterprises that tend to distract from the 90 per cent of education that is not the training of future hot-shot researchers?

Two simple reasons. The first, that it is a pity if nobody enjoys the riches of human culture. The second, that democracy is always in danger of degenerating into bread and circuses plus mob rule. An intelligent and wide awake citizenry is about the only long-term defence against that danger. It is not liberal elitism, but liberal populism that is the political face of a concern for liberal education.

Alan Ryan is warden of New College, Oxford. His book Liberal Anxieties and Liberal Education is published in September by Profile.

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