“On Liberal Education” by Brock McLeod
Editor’s note: Brock McLeod graduated with a degree in Liberal Studies from VIU (formerly Malaspina University-College) and went on to became a passionate advocate for the kind of learning that we foster here, in which students engage in small seminar discussions, animated by great ideas and guided by beautiful and deep works of literature, philosophy, politics, art and science from the distant past to the present.
Brock took this passion for reading great books, learning deeply, and discussing ideas with others back to his community. He began discussion groups in his home town, connected with civic leaders, and enhanced his community through the friendly but serious pursuit of great ideas. He and his wife, Heather, opened and ran an extremely successful organic farm near Duncan, BC. Even while he underwent treatments for cancer, he was active in the life of books, ideas, and conversation. He attended conferences when he could, and sat in on occasional Liberal Studies lectures at VIU. Sadly, Brock passed away in 2017.
The Brock McLeod Liberal Studies Award was established in his honour by Heather in accordance with Brock’s wishes. Proceeds from the fund will be used to generate scholarships for Liberal Studies students who, like Brock, can perceive and articulate the connection between deeper learning and better citizenship in a liberal democracy. Tax deductible donations to the fund are still being accepted by VIU (Note: in the “Designation” field of the online form, click “other” then type or paste “The Brock McLeod Liberal Studies Award” into the new field that opens up). The Department would like to give our thanks to Heather McLeod for establishing the fund, and to all those who have contributed and who continue to contribute. It will ensure Brock’s passion for liberal education continues into the future.
In addition to everything else he did, Brock was preparing chapters for a book about the connection between liberal education and liberal democracy. In the following essay, intended to be the second chapter of the book, Brock eloquently argues for the enduring importance of liberal education anchored in the great books. He sincerely hoped more of h
is fellow citizens would learn to love as much as he did this unique kind of education.
Permission to republish this chapter was graciously granted by Heather McLeod.
“On Liberal Education”
By Brock McLeod
“It’s a strange image,” he said, “and strange prisoners you’re telling of.” – Plato’s Republic (515a).
Neo: “Why do my eyes hurt?” Morpheus: “You’ve never used them before.” – The Matrix
In the 1999 blockbuster hit, The Matrix, humans are kept enslaved by machines that have artificial intelligence. The machines trick humans into believing they are free, when, in reality, they are prisoners whose minds have been hooked up to a virtual reality program to simulate freedom in a modern world. The machines enslave the humans in order to use their bodies as sources of energy. Morpheus, Neo’s liberator, holds up a battery to bring home the point. Later, Neo is referred to as “coppertop,” after the Duracell battery moniker.
The grand political message of The Matrix is that we, today, are enslaved. Corporations and their owners need us to work for them, or provide energy, in order for them to reap profits. Neo, for example, works for a “respectable software company” and when he shows up late, he is lectured by his boss about the needs of the corporation and his role in its success: “This company is one of the top software companies in the world because every single employee understands that they are part of a whole.” In order to keep us serving this system, we are led to believe that the laws and morals of our society are for our own good. They keep us free. In reality, according to The Matrix, they are the fetters of our minds, keeping us in service to someone else’s benefit. CIA agents, and other law enforcement, help to ensure that anyone who starts to work against the system is neutralized.
This idea, that we are serving the interests of the rich and powerful, is not a new one, however. It was expressed most forcefully, perhaps, in 1848 by Marx and Engels, in their Communist Manifesto. It is not a coincidence, I believe, that Marxist and Matrix look so similar. To Marx and Engels, the world had forever been divided into antagonistic classes, the rulers and the ruled, the oppressors and the oppressed. These groups go by different names throughout history according to Marx and Engels, such as “freeman and slave, patrician and plebeian, lord and serf,” and finally, in Marx and Engels’ day, “Bourgeoisie and Proletariat.” Throughout history, according to Marx and Engels, the rules were set in favour of the rulers, essentially using the people to generate wealth and leisure for themselves.
In order to justify this, they tricked the people. As Marx and Engels put it, exploitation was “veiled by
religious and political illusions.” Religion, in particular, helped dampen people’s desire for change, as it made them accept their suffering, leading Marx to state that religion is “the opium of
the people,” or, more popularly, the opiate of the masses. The name “Morpheus,” from The Matrix, one might note, is the name of the ancient Greek god of dreams. The word ‘morphine’ is derived from the word Morpheus. Morphine is an opiate. The computer-generated “dream world,” as Morpheus describes it, or Matrix, then, is the new opiate of the masses. Are the Wachowski’s suggesting that we now use video games to escape from our reality? Virtual reality, via Minecraft or Call of Duty, as the new opiate of the masses?
In any case, the idea of rulers exploiting the ruled by defining right and wrong in their interests is a recurring one. In fact, it goes back much further than Marx and Engels. In ancient Athens, around 380 BCE, Plato made a similar argument. When discussing, for example, the popular concept of “justice” in his day, “that of doing good to friends and harm to enemies,” Plato points out that the people who promoted that false definition were the rulers and the rich in society. So Plato, too, one could argue, is warning us that the Matrix has us.
Plato, however, used a different image. He said people are like prisoners in a cave with respect to knowing the truth about things, with “their legs and necks in bonds.” Instead of seeing real things in the daylight above the earth, people are only exposed to false images of things, shadows on a wall from a fire burning behind them. When exposed to the world above the cave, their eyes would hurt from the sudden exposure of the sun (truth), because, like Neo, they had never really used their eyes.
Plato’s call to action is also different from that of Marx and the Wachowski brothers. While Marx and Engels called for people to “support every revolutionary movement against the existing social and political order of things” since they had nothing to lose but their chains, Plato was less revolutionary, in a sense. Even though he, too, envisioned a new social and political order, it was education, or philosophy, that Plato saw as the mechanism for people to lose their chains. That is, if the notions of right and wrong in society are compromised by the self-serving views of the rich and powerful, the goal should be to come to that realization and then seek for the real truth of the matter. What really is “justice,” if it is not what society would have us believe? For Plato, freeing people from the cave of ignorance is the revolution. That these freed people might one day replace the existing rulers was a nice dream, but not his main end.
I also think, to an extent, Plato was less cynical than Marx and the Wachowski’s. For while Plato recognized that some of the notions in society might be self-serving justifications for the powerful, he also recognized that false notions may be serving no one at all, neither rich nor poor, neither ruler nor ruled. That is, they may simply be the products of ignorance or prejudice, or the result of authors or screenwriters needing to make things sound dramatic, accidentally leading to false beliefs based on artistic images. In any case, these false notions get in the way both of people living good lives and of society being well-governed. For Plato, then, it was important that people thought for themselves about these things and came to their own conclusions. He was a champion of education, of helping people shed false notions and get at the truth.
Ultimately, this led to one of his most famous claims – one for which he has been variously ridiculed or condemned, as well as celebrated: “Unless,” I said, “the philosophers rule as kings, or those now called kings and chiefs genuinely and adequately philosophize… there is no rest from ills for the cities… nor I think for human kind…”. Now, this probably sounds as fanciful, and undemocratic, in our own day as it did in Plato’s, for the reputation of philosophers has not improved much; but I think it helps to understand what he means by “philosophers.” For to Plato, a philosopher was someone who could think clearly and was wise and prudent. So if we substitute these words in place of “philosopher” throughout his quote, and modernize others, we get: “Unless,” I said, “citizens who are wise and prudent, and who can think clearly, rule as prime ministers, or those now called prime ministers and cabinet ministers genuinely and adequately seek wisdom, think clearly and act prudently, there is no rest from ills for nations… nor I think for human kind…”.
Now, I hope this lays to rest the idea that what Plato proposed is fanciful. What Plato proposed is actually much more like common sense. Do we not want to be ruled by people who are smart, knowledgeable, and have shown themselves to be prudent and honourable in their conduct throughout their lives? Or would we rather be ruled by those who are foolish, imprudent and ignorant? Now, of course, there is, perhaps, one other complication that I have glossed over. For I have couched Plato’s quote in democratic terms. But it is not clear that, for Plato, the people should be the one’s to choose their leaders. In fact, he was convinced that the people themselves would never choose the wisest to rule them. This was, in part, why he thought it would take a fluke of history for philosophers to ever rule. It would be more of an accident that a philosopher would come to power than that the people would specifically choose one.
For Plato, and this is again where he sounds undemocratic, thought that the mass of people could never be wise: “Then it’s impossible,” I said, “that a multitude be philosophic.” 494a. If the voters are neither wise, nor prudent, nor can think clearly, what hope is there that they will not be fooled by populists and other candidates who are good at campaigning, leaving the wise and prudent candidate unrequited? Now, for many, this is where the story ends on Plato. They think he is totalitarian (see Karl Popper), or an enemy of democracy. But I think this is misreading Plato. For Plato’s Republic is aspirational. He recognizes that, in his day, it would be impossible to conceive of the people as wise and choosing a ruler well, but we shouldn’t necessarily take it that he thought it would be this way for all time. It might be a good time to note, too, that the democracy of his day voted to put his teacher, philosopher Socrates, to death for raising pesky questions and calling into question the society’s religious beliefs. What faith could we expect Plato to have in his fellows if they voted to murder the wisest man he knew?
So, I think we need to cut Plato some slack. For despite stating that it was near impossible for a philosopher to come to rule society, he still wrote a book which is arguably a manual in bringing about a revolution in education that could, one day, result in enough educated people to make wise decisions about rulers. That is, he hoped that one day, more people would receive a good education, or at least recognize those who did. And, as we know, educational levels in society have risen exponentially since Plato’s day, thanks in part, probably large part, to him and other authors throughout the ages making the case for the value of education. In Canada, for example, around half the working age population now has a university degree or college diploma. Granted, most of those graduating from these programs would not be considered “philosophers” by Plato’s standard, nor any other, but the extent to which people are enchained by false notions of justice, crime, health, economics, history, science and other areas of knowledge has surely been reduced, decimated even. Though this is not to say there isn’t still a lot of work to do, which leads us to our next idea for democratic reform.
What connection does all this talk about The Matrix, The Communist Manifesto and Plato’s Republic have to do with democratic reform? They are all valuable reminders about the connection between the ideas we have in our heads and our ability to lead a happy and free life, both because of their impact on our personal lives as well as on our political lives. That is, if the goal of a democracy is, in part, to leave us free to pursue happy lives, but both our ability to make good choices for ourselves and our ability to make good choices for our society, government, or democracy, is negatively impacted by false ideas of the good, or truth, then it is important that education plays a significant role in society. Sound education is no less important to get right as a society than what kind of voting system we have.
Different types of education, or their absence, lead to different kinds of citizens and different kinds of decisions about how our democracy should operate. If, as a society, we are supporting education for the people, shouldn’t we be concerned about making that education good? Shouldn’t we be concerned with whether the type of education we are supporting is conducive to the continued support and improvement of our society and democratic institutions, or whether it ignores or undermines them? I think we are losing sight of this notion and it is important that we reform things to get back to a more holistic view of education, one that recognizes its importance for democracy.
For instance, we seem to be losing sight of the fact that higher education should not just be about getting good jobs. But in our individualistic and commercial age, most post-secondary students choose their educational path based almost entirely on whether it will help them get a “good” job, and society is increasingly funding degrees based on the same thinking. What has happened to the idea that going to university should help free one from the illusions of the Matrix, or help one escape from the darkness and bondage of Plato’s Cave?
Even if a job is all a particular student wishes to get out of his or her education, however, there are advantages to society from an educated electorate. Society functions better and people are able to make better decisions about how to live their lives if they have ideas in their heads that are consistent with the truth, when their minds are free from false ideas. Take a student of criminology, for instance, who ends up working as a police officer or in the correctional system. They will be able to make better decisions about how to address crime in society, ideally taking measures to help prevent it, but, if not, then figuring out how better to catch criminals and then, perhaps, help them get back to a healthy relationship with society after incarceration. Other degrees have similar effects in other areas of society, from health to history to economics to science. In educating our society, we are not simply helping ensure people get good jobs or helping increase our GDP through innovation, though those are certainly worthy outcomes. We are also creating a more well-run society. A more human, or humane, society.
The Communist Manifesto, The Matrix and Plato’s Republic also help us see the world as a place that is not neutral with respect to ideas. Marx, Engels and the Wachowski’s, in fact, argue that the world is against us. Bad ideas are intentionally cultivated in our minds in order to help those in power maintain their positions or wealth. Plato, on the other hand, also shows us that bad ideas can simply be the byproducts of our culture. We like watching dramatic movies, but these inadvertently produce false images of reality in our minds, as does watching the nightly news. Our brains are wired to think that something is more true if we see it more often. People are often shocked how little crime we actually have in our society when you show them the statistics because it is so different than the picture we get in our minds from watching the nightly news, Criminal Minds and CSI. And, of course, unless you are really cynical, the reason there is so much crime on the news or in T.V. series is not because someone wants to intentionally mislead us about the statistics, but because we find it interesting and entertaining to watch shows about crime.
Now, this is not to say that there aren’t ideas out there and people promoting them that are favourable to certain people’s interests. Certain businesses, and some think tanks they fund, are likely to argue that free trade, in general, and free trade agreements, in particular, are good for our society. While, at the same time, unions and other businesses, and the think tanks they fund, are likely to argue against free trade or, at least, particular free trade agreements. What is the truth? And how do we determine where it lies? Without the tools to think for ourselves, and think well, society is at the mercy of those who wish to put ideas in our heads, regardless of the truth, regardless of whether it is good for society.
Another important lesson from The Matrix, The Republic and the Manifesto is that education has to be an active force in society in order to prevail. Neo and Morpheus, for example, have to return to the Matrix in order to free the minds of the others, while Plato’s philosophers need to descend to the Cave in order to unshackle those who remain there. People, the Wachowski’s and Plato are saying, need an intervening force in order to be mentally liberated. Education is that liberating force. If we are not actively struggling, as a society, like Neo, to fight off the ideas that control us, then we are losing to the machines, and the virtual reality they are pulling over our eyes.
People do not wake up of their own accord or, at least, not enough of them. Education is not a natural, self-generating phenomenon. It is an artificial intervention that we make into the minds of others in order to free them of false ideas. Yet, today, we tend to think of it as a personal choice, saying: “If a person feels the return from their investment in a degree is worth it in terms of their future earnings, then they will get an education. If not, then they may as well start their own business or go straight to a job or trade school.” Where is the calculation for democracy?
Let’s sum up. The stories in The Matrix and Plato’s Republic, in particular, help remind us about the link between education, personal liberty and the good society. They remind us that, when discussing education, or educational reform, it is not enough to focus solely on the extent to which an education will help a person get a job. We must also remember that the quality and quantity of educated individuals in society also impacts on our democracy and governance, and our freedom, not to mention one’s personal well-being outside of financial or career considerations. They also help us remember that the ideas that get into our heads are not neutral. Many of the ideas or beliefs we hold are false and are put there either intentionally by self-interested groups in our society or accidentally as a result of a culture that seeks to entertain or amuse us, among other reasons. They also remind us that we need to be actively seeking to replace bad ideas and false notions with good ones and the truth. In the absence of intervention, by society or parents or Churches or others, we generally do not become educated, for we do not self-educate. And, generally speaking, most people throughout adulthood do not systematically analyze the ideas and beliefs they hold, challenge them themselves, read difficult books or take any other steps to further the quality of their thought. Consequently, if we want people or citizens to engage in these types of activities, society needs to intervene.
Today, society is not unaware of this, and generally provides 13 years of free, and mandatory, schooling before people go out into the world. This education is directed at and does a good job of dispelling in people’s minds many of the basic false notions about our world, such as that the sun revolves around the earth. However, it is not enough to emancipate people fully from their false notions, nor does it cultivate habits of the mind that are necessary to remain free and free others. For this, we generally rely on a university education.
Depending on the program of study a person chooses to pursue at university, their false notions will continue to be shed, usually in one narrow subject area, such as geography, economics, history or medicine. In good programs, with good instructors, and especially in the arts, they will also begin to learn the habits of mind of the free person, gaining skills in analyzing whether notions are false or not, rather than relying on others to tell them this information. They may become inspired to become a lifelong learner, continually cleansing the existing ideas in their minds and carefully guarding the new ideas they allow in. But there is one program of study, in particular, which puts an enormous emphasis on these outcomes: liberal education.
By liberal education, I am not speaking of the liberal arts, those degrees in a single subject area, such as history, English, philosophy and others. As I mentioned, these degrees often take students farther than many other degrees in freeing their minds, but still not as far as a liberal education. Rather, I am talking about a degree in which a student engages with the major ideas and works across the spectrum of, typically, Western civilization, from history, English, philosophy and political science to mathematics, art, music and science, among others. Now, sometimes this is called a “general” education, as opposed to a specialized education, but I like to think of liberal education as specializing in something itself. Not in a specific subject, but in a specific outcome. A liberal education specializes in giving a person the knowledge, tools, habits and inspiration to free their minds, keep them free and help them free others. It specializes not only in helping you see the Matrix, but also in giving you the confidence and skills to alter it. It is kung fu for critical thinking. It is martial arts for writing and arguing. It is tai chi for confidence and inspiration. In short, it is the best system humans have ever devised for educating people, or freeing their minds.
I always struggle a bit in explaining liberal education, for it is both similar to other degree programs, particularly the arts, which makes it seem no different from other programs, and substantially unlike them. What may seem like moderate differences to a person looking from the outside are, in fact, quite radical differences. There are two main differences that set liberal education apart from other programs. The first is a wide variety of subject matter rather than one narrow area of study, which I have already mentioned. This I call the content. The second concerns the process, or method. And this is where liberal education really shines.
The centre of a liberal education is the student, not the professor. The centre of a liberal education is a small group discussion among students, not a lecture by a professor, though lectures may still be a part. The professor merely acts as a facilitator of the discussion among the students, rather than leading the discussion. This puts the responsibility for the discussion in the students’ laps, which is both empowering and demanding. Students all read the same book or poem or listen to the same musical piece. It is then up to them to discuss and discover what the author or composer is saying. It is up to you to figure out what you think about why Machiavelli suggests rulers should prefer to be feared than loved, or why Hobbes is so adamant about the need for monarchical governments. And it is up to you to try to persuade your peers of your perspective and then modify it in response to the insights of your classmates, and, finally, convince your professor of your perspective in written assignments. These small group discussions in which the students discuss things amongst themselves help motivate students to read very carefully. They give you practice in making the case for your perspective and the confidence that you know what you are talking about, as you have done the thinking yourself, rather than relying on the interpretation of your professor, which you simply try to memorize. This responsibility and freedom is incredibly liberating, exhilarating, and inspiring. The liberal studies seminar is a microcosm of democracy or, rather, democracy as it ought to be.
But don’t take my word for it. Here are some descriptions of people’s experiences in a liberal education program at Vancouver Island University in British Columbia, taken from the alumni website.
“For much of my life I have been a listener. In seminar I found I could hardly stop talking. I wanted to articulate the ideas, intuitions and questions bubbling up inside me. I learned that it was OK to disagree, to propose something I hadn’t thought through fully, not to have the ‘one right answer.’ This experience was so freeing.”
- Selinde Krayenhoff
“As far as what the program has given me since completion – number one is confidence: confidence in myself; confidence in my ability to communicate in virtually any medium, and to live comfortably and peacefully in a diverse community. I’ve become a much better human being.
- Jane Larsen
“Whenever I am asked what I studied at post-secondary school, my typical response is to exclaim ‘Liberal Studies!’ with such vigor and passion that people often take a step back. True story. My experiences as a LBST student were deeply profound and life-enriching. As I prepare for my future studies in law, I can say with confidence that my training in the LBST Department at V.I.U. gave me the foundation needed to achieve academic excellence. In my humble opinion, I believe that all citizens should have a Liberal Studies education!”
- Katie Sutherland
“It is no exaggeration to say that the Liberal Studies program at VIU changed the course of my life. I entered the program filled with doubt about my academic abilities… As I left class that first day, I knew I was hooked… Discussing great ideas with our wonderful cohort kept me coming back week after week. Striving to improve my writing, discussion, and research skills was engaging and challenging. Searching for meaning and coming to understand diverse points of view have been invaluable to me as I have moved forward on my journey.”
- Sheena Falconer
“I found my experience in the Liberal Studies Program to be liberating. I honed my ability to think critically, to think outside the box and to become more fearless about taking on new ideas. I learned to stand more solidly behind my own inspiration and to take more risks.”
- Nancy Greene
“…interacting with the great stories and ideas of Western culture has helped me grow intellectually, emotionally, and socially. I cannot overstate the quality of the experience.”
- Gary Hartford
“If life can be viewed as a long hallway with countless doors leading off to new experiences, I have yet to find one that my Liberal Studies degree hasn’t opened.”
- Stefan Martin
And, finally, one of my favourites:
“The Liberal Studies program at VIU was life-changing for me. I approached books such as Plato’s Republic or Homer’s Odyssey without mediation from an ‘expert’. I learned that with careful reading and discussion with professors and other students, I could indeed grapple with the very difficult material and understand it for myself. These reading and discussion skills have been invaluable to me, both in my further education and in my professional life. I feel confident that I can read any text, and given enough time and thought can understand the messages within, whether I agree with them or not.
Also, Liberal Studies provided such a safe environment that I was able to really practice my listening and public speaking skills; dialogue with others, especially when we disagree, is essential to understanding and peace. These interpersonal skills have also served me very well in my work and education. I would recommend the Liberal Studies program to anyone, whether they are beginning their schooling or are simply interested in expanding their understanding. I believe that a Liberal Studies education helps to create inquisitive people and better citizens.”
- Miki Klaver
Need I say more? I should note, too, that these students are regular people, by which I mean they are not all top Ivy League students. These are the experiences of Plato’s multitude, regular people in your community, some of whom were on their way to becoming teachers, others of whom had completed their careers and returned to school in their older age. I mention this to dispel any notion that only the smartest or most philosophic students can benefit from this type of education. This is education suitable for all people, for all citizens. I could go on describing what a liberal education aims at, but I think it would be hard to convey, any better than the personal descriptions above do, what the end of a liberal education is. For these descriptions embody it.
But before we leave our discussion of liberal education, I think it is worthwhile to go back to the other aspect of a liberal education, not its process – the class discussion – but its content. For the content is also uniquely useful to people as citizens of a democracy. As I mentioned previously, the content is not any one subject area, but a diversity of areas. Typically, it consists of the major works, such as books, poems, artworks, scientific and mathematical treatises and other important creations, of human endeavour. If the process of liberal education is class discussion, the content is classical. The classics have somewhat gone out of fashion, particularly as university disciplines increasingly fractured into subdisciplines, making the study of non-specialized areas of knowledge seem even more arcane. But there is good reason not to give up on the ‘classics’.
In order to help make this point, I would like to bring in a quote from G.K. Chesterton, an English essayist, among other things, from the early 1900s. This quote is often paraphrased as “don’t take a fence down unless you know the reason it was put up,” but it is worth going back to the full text:
In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.
Chesterton’s paradox is that we must come to understand something’s usefulness before we can consider abandoning it for its uselessness. Chesterton is saying we must know and value the reasons for creating or maintaining laws, institutions and social customs before we can determine whether to get rid of, amend, or preserve them.
We are all, to some degree, Chesterton’s “deformers”. We look around ourselves and see laws, institutions and social customs that seem to be getting in our way rather than helping us along. We may work towards for their removal only to realize after the fact that we have removed a useful check on some harm. We often keep making the same mistakes throughout history. Our temptation is to look at the world and see a bunch of fences getting in the way of our ideal society. Not taking the time to look into the matter, we proceed to lobby for their removal. A few voices protest and we label them backwards-looking and wonder why they stand in the way of progress. But it often turns out when we attempt to move our society ahead, we end up taking it back – back to the problems we had before we put up the fence. That said, when we take the time to understand why the fences were put up, they sometimes do need to come down. If this is the case, then we need a way for citizens to familiarize themselves with the reasons fences were put up and to gauge whether they should remain. This is the content of a liberal education.
For a liberal education can be seen, in part, as a study in why the fences were put up – or torn down. A liberal education consists in thinking about the arguments thoughtful people have made in the past about fences. Throughout history, there have often been great debates about whether to put fences up or tear them down. It’s not always easy for us to grasp the importance of these fences without reading these original conversations. To what degree should we allow freedom of speech in society? What role should religion have in society and what relationship should it have to the state? What is justice? Why should vigilantism or revenge-killing be prohibited? What role does the institution of marriage play in society? What is the good life? How ought I treat others? By reading and discussing these conversations with a small group of people, we not only familiarize ourselves with many of society’s most important fences, but we strengthen our ability to assess and debate the need for other fences, including new ones created in our own day. The content of a liberal education, then, to put it more clearly, is not so much ‘classics,’ as conversations. Conversations, as well as arguments, expressions, and other creations, about what the good life is and what the good society requires.
Unfortunately, however, and ironically, a liberal education itself came to be seen as an unnecessary fence. The requirements of a liberal education were seen as an archaic barrier by educational reformers. With the increasing importance and contribution of science and technology to society, among other changes, a liberal education was viewed as a fence restraining students from getting down to business and getting prepared for jobs, or devoting themselves to the mastery of one specific body of knowledge. Some of this, of course, was warranted. But the pendulum swung too far one way.
Which is why I am arguing that for the sake of democracy, we need to bring liberal education back into better balance with our other educational ends. If, as we discussed previously, education is necessary to combat false notions in order to free us to lead good lives and achieve a just society, it is not responsible to leave decisions about education solely to market forces. Education is a civic, or communal, endeavour, as much or more so than it is a private endeavour. Just because our economy demands a certain type of education from our citizenry, does not mean that it also serves our democracy. So if the pendulum has swung towards education serving economic ends at the expense of democratic ends, we need to actively attempt to re-balance it. But this is difficult.
Liberal education is a hard sell. The benefits to the individual are extraordinary, but it is hard to convince people of this. Partly, this can be blamed on the fact that it is hard to convey the full value of a liberal education in words. It is one of those things that you have to experience to fully appreciate. One of my professors used to say that it is like trying to explain to a virgin what sex feels like. Thankfully, we don’t need to have someone convince us that we should want to have sex, so it doesn’t matter that we can’t explain it. Unfortunately, though, most of us don’t have an innate drive to enroll in a liberal education program. So we have to rely on words. But words can never do it justice. Ultimately, then, what this means is that we should not rely entirely on convincing students that it is good for them, for we will never achieve this fully. Rather, we may have to support liberal education in ways that make it more likely that students will choose it, even if they don’t understand its full benefits. I will discuss some of these ways after discussing the second reason is it will be difficult to re-balance liberal education with other forms.
For not only is it difficult for a student to fully appreciate the value of a liberal education without having received one, but it is also difficult because a good portion of the benefit goes, not to the student, but to society. Let’s imagine the thinking of a prospective student. They may think: “If I take a liberal education, I will be able to lead a much richer, freer, fulfilling life (though they won’t fully appreciate this before they have taken the degree) and I will also be of much greater value to my society. But I don’t get paid to be of value to my society, I get paid to be of value to a company, and what job can I get with this degree? If I had a teaching degree, I could a teaching job. If I had an engineering degree, I could get an engineering job. But what job do I qualify for with a liberal education degree?” As you can see, the traditional calculation many students use to determine their choice of degree does not leave the liberal education degree looking very appealing. But there is a way society can help to address this, which I will discuss further down.
For now, I want to raise the stakes even higher to help drive home the notion that we need to put liberal education back into proper balance in our educational institutions. Liberal education has always been important to the well-being of society and those who received it. But, today, it is even more important. I turn to Joseph Heath and his book Enlightenment 2.0 to help make this point.
In Enlightenment 2.0, Joseph Heath argues that the Enlightenment put too much faith in the individual’s ability to use reason, claiming: “Reason is not natural; it is profoundly unnatural (p.52, emphasis his).” He discusses a plethora of research from the past few decades to make his case, pointing out the many flaws in our brains and how they work. On top of this, he chronicles how the environments in which we use our brains, such as the commercial and political environments, have changed for the worse. Politicians and marketers increasingly try to take advantage of the weaknesses in our reasoning – or avoid it altogether, appealing to emotion or prejudice instead. Grocery stores, for example, have learned to place hard to resist treats near the check-outs, while the proliferation in political news channels and programs has led to political conversations taking place in soundbites on T.V. rather than in debates in legislatures.
This double whammy of imperfect reason and perfected marketing threatens our personal and political lives, according to Heath. We are now living in a world that has been specifically designed to be hostile to reason, or its use, leading Heath to observe: “People in the modern world are simply called upon to exercise far, far greater willpower and foresight than anyone ever had to in the past (p. 180)”.
So what do we do? According to Heath, we need to update the Enlightenment project. We need Enlightenment 2.0. The main idea he presents is that reason is not a stand alone tool. In order to make good use of the power of our brains and reason, we need to support the exercise of reason externally. This sounds odd, but it makes sense when you think about some examples. It also helps to more accurately describe what Heath is getting at. It is not so much reason that is being supported, as Heath would put it, but decision-making.
For example, one of the aids that Heath discusses is putting your alarm clock away from your bed in order to help avoid just hitting the snooze button and falling back asleep. If you place your alarm clock away from the bed, you will have to first get up in order to hit the snooze button. You are much less likely to go back to bed after you are already up than if you could just hit the snooze button lying down. Now, this is not so much a support for reason as it is a support for willpower. But the important thing is, it helps you make the decision that you wanted to make.
Another example Heath uses is the trick we can employ in order to help maintain a healthy weight. In Enlightenment 1.0, we would rely entirely on our willpower to make the decision each time we eat to not take too much food. But in Enlightenment 2.0, we will download that decision-making by first choosing a smaller plate (and getting rid of the large ones from the house). Our brains are happy as long as we fill our plate, so by using a smaller plate, we trick our brain into being satisfied with less food. Again, then, we are supporting our ability to make the decisions that we want.
These tricks and aids we can use to externally support our decision-making are called “kluges”. Heath also uses the term “scaffolding”. There are much larger kluges as well, such as institutions like parliaments and schools.
I mention Heath’s call for a rebooted Enlightenment particularly because of his analysis of a school as a kluge, or scaffolding, for learning. Heath points out: “Because “school” is more than just a curriculum, it is also a social setting (p. 312, emphasis his)”. In the real world, we would never be willing to listen to a friend or acquaintance propound on the theory of comparative advantage, which helps explain the benefits of free trade, or the theory of natural selection, which helps explain evolution, for half an hour or more. We would consider such people boring. Yet in the social setting of school, this is perfectly acceptable according to Heath, though sometimes still boring! In the social setting of a classroom, you have to put your hand up before speaking, which would be considered weird when discussing issues over drinks at the pub or in the bleachers at your kid’s soccer match. And it would be equally weird if your friends or acquaintances gave you a list of books and expected you to read them and then gave you their thoughts on how well you understood it by assigning you a grade afterwards. The social setting of school, according to Heath, is where these things are acceptable, making school a great kluge for learning, as we spend more time reading books, listening to instruction, and studying to make grades than we otherwise would without this institution. In fact, the difference is so stark that for many people, once they are done their formal education, they hardly ever read books again, let alone study the types of books they would have encountered in their university or college programs.
So Heath helps us to see that schools are kluges that help create the conditions for learning. Liberal education, then, can be seen as a kluge that helps create very particular conditions for learning, such as the small, student-led class discussion focused on important conversations about the good life and the good society. This results in very particular outcomes that are as advantageous to society as they are to the individual, including:
- significantly increasing people’s ability to read.
- significantly increasing people’s ability to write.
- creating people who are much more likely to continue reading throughout their lives, including books which are challenging.
- significantly increasing people’s listening, discussing and speaking skills.
- creating people who are more open to new and unfamiliar ideas, as they are taught to seriously consider ideas which they normally wouldn’t consider at all.
- increasing people’s confidence to provide their perspectives on matters, whether through writing letters to editors, books or speaking up at community meetings.
- creating people who are more likely to try to understand something before they consider replacing or changing it.
- creating people who are ambassadors for the value of education, particularly for liberal education.
- creating people who are more likely to recognize that the ideas in their heads may not be good ones and that they have an interest and responsibility to root out the bad ones and carefully guard which new ones they allow in.
- creating people who are better able to recognize ideas in their infancy, making them better able to resist bad ideas both in their personal lives and in their communities, much as a master gardener is better equipped to recognize weeds in their garden and deal with them when they are small.
- and more.
Do we not want a greater number of our citizens, voters, politicians and neighbours at community meetings to have these characteristics? Do these characteristics not seem particularly relevant to the healthy functioning of a democracy, in particular, as opposed to forms of government that don’t require the active participation of their citizens? And if, as I am proposing in this book, we increase the opportunities for citizens to take on a more meaningful role in decision-making in society, wouldn’t we want to have more people with these habits and traits in society?
If so, then we need to figure out ways of increasing the number of liberal education graduates. What kind of kluges can we create in order to increase the likelihood that more people will obtain a liberal education, given the problems I identified above, such as students not seeing a direct connection to a job and not fully understanding its benefits until they experience it?
One way is to reduce the price. Cheaper televisions means that people are able to afford more of them, leading them to put one in the kitchen and another in the bedroom in addition to the one in the living room. But there are a couple of problems with this approach for liberal education. First, it may simply be too expensive to do so. For in order to make liberal education cheaper for students means taxpayers have to pick up more of the tab. To ask society to put even more money into education, particularly education that doesn’t lead directly to jobs, may not be politically feasible, even if it is desirable.
But there may be an even bigger problem on price. People respond to price changes differently depending on the type of product. Economists call it price elasticity. If the price of food goes up in general, people can’t just stop eating in order to reduce their costs. As a result, price increases for food in general don’t have much of an impact on the amount purchased. This is an example of an “inelastic” product, as the amount purchased doesn’t change much in response to price. On the other hand, products that are elastic see larger swings in amounts purchased in response to price changes. For example, when a high American dollar makes it expensive to holiday in the U.S., many Canadians will take vacations in Canada instead, decreasing the amount of trips to Hawaii or Disneyland. Of course, conversely, more Americans vacation in Canada when their dollar is strong, helping our tourism industry. Typically, items are elastic when there are alternatives, or substitutes, for the item which has gone up in price. A Canadian vacation can substitute for an American vacation, but one cannot substitute food with some alternative to food. Within the food category, however, there can be price elasticity on various products, so that when the price of beef rises, people will buy less beef and more chicken instead.
With respect to education, price elasticity is also at play. If education in general gets cheaper, people will buy more of it or, rather, more people will buy education. This is why governments typically want to keep tuition low, in order to encourage more people to get an education. However, within the category of education, price changes may have differing effects, just like with beef and chicken. If you are going to university, but don’t have a strong preference for a program, and would be happy with either anthropology, history or liberal studies, then making liberal studies cheaper would have the effect of increasing enrollment in liberal studies. But if you want to be an engineer, or a teacher or a psychologist, then you will have to take a degree in engineering, education or psychology, respectively. So making liberal education cheaper would have no effect on these students. So while making liberal education cheaper may have an effect on some students, it won’t have an effect on all.
Here are a couple of ways to address these challenges. First, with respect to the students without a strong preference, there are a couple of things universities and society could do. First, a simple nudge would be to make a liberal education the default choice of study for those students who don’t know what to take. Rather than guidance counsellors spending their time trying to find the right program for a person who isn’t sure what they want to study at university, simply make a liberal education the starting place for these students. If they decide to study something else later, their year or two in liberal studies will have given them an excellent foundation for their further studies. This also puts liberal education back in its historic role as the first program that students would take upon entering university before specializing into other areas, such as law. It is an action that is both economical, for if anything it will save administrative costs, as well as relatively easy, as no major changes to the university system are required. You’re simply changing your counselling directives.
In order to strengthen this idea, universities could also give credit for this time in liberal studies towards a subsequent degree. So, for instance, a person who takes liberal studies for two years and then decides to do a four-year history degree could be given one year’s worth of credits towards their history degree, making it a five year education altogether instead of a six-year education. For those unsure about what to take, this would also give them more assurance that they aren’t just “wasting” their time. They will know that this time will count for something (of course, it also counts for a lot else, but the prospective student may not realize this at the outset).
Furthermore, for the undecided students, price elasticity is at play, so making liberal education cheaper is worthwhile here. If taxpayers, through government, are unwilling to take on this added expense, then individuals could play a role by creating scholarships specifically for people pursuing a liberal education. Every scholarship could help convince another person to get a liberal education that otherwise wouldn’t, so it doesn’t need to be an all or nothing initiative. The more people who are convinced of the value of a liberal education and are willing and able to fund a scholarship, the better. I would specifically encourage those who are liberal studies graduates to consider this as an option when considering your charitable giving. Perhaps you could combine efforts with your graduating class to create a scholarship fund in the name of your class. I would also specifically encourage politicians, if they are looking for something to do with that large salary and pension that society gives them, to consider funding liberal education scholarships. What better example to set than to encourage the next generation of active citizens by helping fund an education specifically tailored to the needs of democracy?
Another nudge or kluge that could help increase prospective liberal education students to take the leap comes from an article in the Windsor Star, March 10, 2015, in which University of Windsor president Alan Wildeman is interviewed about the decline of the liberal arts and what to do about it. The article mentions Wildeman’s plan to put the problem to the student body for consideration, which is a nice touch. Before the event even took place, political science student and University of Windsor Students’ Alliance president Ronnie Haidar was already coming up with ideas, suggesting that students of liberal arts programs be given the same opportunities for internships and co-op placements as other programs, such as business and nursing. This is an effective idea, for one of the reasons that people are afraid to commit to liberal studies is their inability to see a link to the job market. By adding the option for co-op placements during their education or institutionalizing links to internships after graduation, people will be more likely to see that liberal education sets people up for good jobs, even if this is not its main purpose or specialty. This connection could be particularly important for wary parents who are funding their children’s education: the business degree looks relatively less pragmatic if the liberal arts degree leads to a similarly engaging, good-paying job in the civil service.
Now, for those who have their minds made up and are pursuing a degree specifically because they need it to get a job, all hope is not lost. However, we move beyond the realm of nudges here and enter policies that will be more contested. I will not discuss the idea of requiring a liberal education, though that is, of course, a policy option. I am more focussed on ideas that are more politically palatable, even if we will soon be bumping up against the boundary of the palatable. One way to affect those who need to get a particular degree in order to qualify for their career, such as an education degree to be a teacher or an engineering degree to be an engineer, is to encourage them to “tack on” a liberal education degree. For wouldn’t it be better to have teachers and lawyers and architects and geneticists who have also studied the moral, political and artistic achievements of our society in addition to the requirements of their particular professions? While it may be unrealistic and, perhaps even undesirable, for every person to have these extra studies, it would certainly help to have more such people.
One way to incentivize this is to make it cheaper or easier for those who are also pursuing a liberal education to access these other degree programs. For example, many of these programs are competitive: how about giving extra admission points for those coming with a liberal education, or even a free pass, assuming grades are acceptable? Or how about making the degree cheaper to those who already have or who are concurrently obtaining a liberal education degree? In order to fund it, you could make the degree more expensive for those not obtaining a liberal education. Consequently, it wouldn’t be government funding the extra liberal education, but those who want to complete their degree quickly, for instance. Of course, if government doesn’t want any part of this then, again, privately funded scholarships could be linked to this double-degree idea. That is, for those considering funding new scholarships, they would be encouraged to fund scholarships for biology or engineering students who are also taking or have taken liberal studies, thereby lowering the costs for those students who would consider such a double-degree route.
Many of these ideas will work well in combination. Imagine a student, Jane, who wants to go to university but is unsure about what program to take. The liberal education default policy leads her to start a liberal studies degree. After her first year, she decides she would also like to get a creative writing degree. She remains in the liberal education program for a second year before starting her creative writing degree, knowing that she will get credit for one year of her creative writing degree anyway, and she takes advantage of the many scholarships for liberal studies students to help fund her second year. Throughout her creative writing degree, she takes advantage of co-op placements for liberal studies students or joint-degree students. These placements help her earn good income to fund her more lengthy degree and she learns that she does not want to make a career of working for the public affairs bureau of government, where she interned in the summer of her fourth year. Upon graduation, however, she is connected with the Art Gallery of Vancouver, who sees value in her creative writing skills and exposure to works of art through her liberal studies degree. Jane is pleased to have an opportunity to work with a creative team of people at the Gallery and has time to pursue her own writing on the side. She goes on to become an award-winning poet and novelist, and doesn’t forget to establish a scholarship for future liberal studies students.
Okay, perhaps I’m getting carried away now, but hopefully you get the picture. While any of these ideas to help encourage liberal studies in society could be implemented alone, and would have value in themselves, a combination of these policies could really make a difference. There are also, no doubt, many other ideas that people could come up with if they put their minds to it. I would encourage those who see value in liberal education to do so.
In conclusion, I would urge us to consider putting back up the fence of a liberal education, even if it is not a solid fence, but simply sections of fence oriented in a way that helps gently channel people towards a degree that is of great benefit to themselves and of equally great benefit to our democracy. On this, let us, as Chesterton advises, go away and think.
“If you discover a life better than ruling for those who are going to rule, it is possible that your well-governed city will come into being. For here alone will the really rich rule, rich not in gold but in those riches required by the happy man, rich in a good and prudent life (p. 199)”.
– Plato’s Republic. trans. Bloom