April 18, 2003
Sean Gabb on liberal education

I have just been reading Sean Gabb's one hundredth Free Life Commentary, which is called The Value of Education and is about the importance of an all-round education of the "useless" variety, as opposed merely to the acquisition of marketable skills.

I know of schools that teach information technology but not history. Again, I do not dispute the value of technical skills. I am proud of my ability to build computers and to make software work: my own website is almost entirely crafted by hand in HTML. But history also is important. An accountant who is ignorant of the French Revolution, or cannot recognise sonata form, or knows not a line of poetry, is nothing more than a skilled barbarian. In a nation where only a small minority is truly educated, legal equality becomes a hard concept to maintain, let alone political equality. In a nation without even that minority, public life must inevitably become savage and arbitrary - a thing of wild, inconstant passions, led by those unable to perceive or follow longer term goods.

That is where, I think, we are now fast approaching. We have a Prime Minister who cannot spell, and is not ashamed of the fact. We have a political class in general that lacks nearly all skill of persuasive speech and seems ignorant of the past. Of the first Ministers appointed to serve under Tony Blair, apparently, the majority listed football as their main hobby in their Who's Who entries; and not one listed any humanistic pursuit. I doubt if the Conservatives are much better. Perhaps the Judges and permanent heads of department will soon follow the trend. Little wonder our freedoms are being given up, one at a time, to moral panics and appeals to administrative convenience.

That catches the drift. I remember having a similar argument at my school, with a Latin master inevitably. He spoke of Ovid's writings about bees, claiming that to have read this was to have learned something useful. So my school was already rotten with the importance of being useful, or he would have found a quite different way to defend Ovid. However else you sell it, you can't sell Latin as better science than science.

Sean's piece doesn't convince me of much, but it is, as always, beautifully written, and Sean does at least explain nicely why such a thing is good to have. It makes your own company more pleasing. A liberal education – in the sense of lots of interesting things to think about and the habit of thinking intelligently about them – is accordingly an economic benefit every bit as palpable as an education in html or accountancy.

The availability of such writings as Sean's on the Internet illustrates that a liberal education is now easier to obtain then ever before. And even if the Internet didn't exist, there are all the newly liberated TV channels, a few of which provide quite cultured stuff, in among all the rubbish, that is to say in among all the stuff I don't care for. And then there are the remainder shops, which are now an amazing source of wisdom and learning.

As to the loss of our freedoms, would a different educational syllabus during the last few decades really have made that much difference? They had philistines in the nineteenth century. They may have known more Latin than the present cabinet does, but they were philistines nevertheless. And by the same token there are plenty of widely read people now, who acquaint themselves with many different things, but just with different different things to their grandparents. There's a certain sort of person – Sean and I are two such, although our preferred fields of study are not at all the same – who pride themselves on the broadness of their reading and thinking. Such people will always dig beneath the surface of whatever they learn, useful or useless, to the deeper meanings and profundities of their civilisation, and of other civilisations. Even if our exam results driven and vocationally obsessed schools stop bothering with such things, they will still continue.

Insofar as our bit of civilisation does need its freedoms rescuing, such a rescue is far more likely to come from the philistine USA than from the educated elites of continental Europe, whose critiques of American culture - i.e. lack of culture - Sean partly echoes. Those vulgar Americans seem to have at least as firm a grasp of our freedoms and their tendency to get lost as any product of Balliol or the Sorbonne. And the texture of their civilisation isn't that bad either.

I'm tempted to observe, so I will, that a liberal education is merely the mastery of a few techniques which happen to be obsolete, like sonata form or composing Latin verse, plus some history of a sort that has now been updated out of regular existence with the passing of time. Why concocting appalling poetry in a dead language is any better for your mind than playing adventure games on a computer or training to be a surgeon I truly do not know, and learning about sonatas dates from the time, now gone, when if you wanted to listen to music that was even adequately musical without going to a rare and expensive and probably hard-to-get-to concert, your, or your wife, or your friends, or your servants, had to make it for you. Knowing sonatas used to be a skill as relevant to enjoying life as knowing html or how to set the video is now.

I dare say that in centuries to come, people will not be considered truly educated unless they have a smattering of at least two obsolete programming languages.

But please don't let me put you off reading Sean's piece. No doubt many readers of this will agree more with him than with me about these matters.

Posted by Brian Micklethwait at 05:49 PM
Category: Liberal education