Books - Talks

What is a liberal education?

This week I was delighted to give Derby University’s 4th Annual Education Studies Lecture and help launch their new history of education module. History was dropped from many degree courses in the 1980s, so it’s great to see it making a comeback at Derby. It was an honour to talk to first year students at the beginning of their studies, although it was a shame that Covid-regulations meant it couldn’t be in person.

Many thanks to course leader Dr Ruth Mieschbuehler for inviting me to speak and to Dr Nicholas Joseph, editor of the forthcoming Routledge History of Education (to which I’m contributing a couple of chapters), for his forthright chairing.

The talk was followed by a lively hour-plus of discussion, with a lot of interest in the Ancient Greek distinction between the ‘mechanical arts’ (in other words crafts, as taught to slaves) and the ‘liberal arts’ (open-ended studies, for the free man), a distinction that resonates strongly with today’s debate about teaching skills versus teaching ‘knowledge for its own sake’. In my view, the history of education shows that attempts to provide a narrow education in order to fulfil a perceived need (such as the current vogue for critical thinking skills) usually backfire, and it is the open-ended, more liberal, approach to education that creates the possibilities that help move society forward.

You can hear some powerful arguments both for and against the idea of everyone having a liberal education in a recent edition of Radio 4’s Start the Week on Meritocracy and Inequality, featuring Michael Sandel, Elif Shafak and David Goodhart.

If you are interested in having me give a talk on this or other topics, please get in touch.

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