The Conservative Purpose of a Liberal Education


Conservative author and thinker Russell Kirk (1918-1994) understood well that the purpose of education is not to provide career training but to form students in virtue and “to teach what it is to be a true human being.” In the following excerpt called “The Conservative Purpose of a Liberal Education,” from his book Redeeming the Time, Kirk articulates a number of fundamental principles of a classical Christian education. We do well to take them to heart.

Our term “liberal education” is far older than the use of the word “liberal” as a term of politics. What we now call “liberal studies” go back to classical times, while political liberalism commences only in the first decade of the nineteenth century. By “liberal education” we mean an ordering and integrating of knowledge for the benefit of the free person—as contrasted with technical or professional schooling, now somewhat vaingloriously called “career education.”

Liberal education is conservative in this way: it defends order against disorder. In its practical effects, liberal education works for order in the soul and order in the republic. Liberal learning enables those who benefit from its discipline to achieve some degree of harmony within themselves. As John Henry Newman put it, in Discourse V of his Idea of a University, by a liberal intellectual discipline, “a habit of mind is formed which lasts through life, of which the attributes are freedom, equitableness, calmness, moderation, and wisdom; of what… I have ventured to call the philosophical habit of mind.”

The primary purpose of a liberal education, then, is the cultivation of the person’s own intellect and imagination, for the person’s own sake. It ought not to be forgotten, in this mass-age when the state aspires to be all-in-all, that genuine education is something higher than an instrument of public policy. True education is meant to develop the individual human being, the person, rather than to serve the state. We tend to ignore the fact that schooling was not originated by the modern nation-state. Formal schooling actually commenced as an endeavor to acquaint the rising generation with religious knowledge: with awareness of the transcendent and with moral truths. Its purpose was not to indoctrinate a young person in civics, but rather to teach what it is to be a true human being, living within a moral order. The person has primacy in liberal education.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *