Berkowitz on Liberal Education

The December 2006/January 2007 edition of Policy Review features an essay by Professor Peter Berkowitz based on a lecture entitled "John Stuart Mill's Idea of a University and Our Own" delivered in September 2006 at a St. Andrews University (Scotland) symposium honoring the 200th aniversary of Mill's birth and the address on liberal education he delivered there in 1867. Berkowitz explores the nature and constitution of a true liberal education, both as defined by Mill and as relevant in today's world, saying, "While it does not nearly cover the whole of education, the university's mission, which is to provide a liberal education, is essential to preparing students to understand the other constitutive elements of education, or the variety of material, moral, and political forces that form the mind, shape character, and direct judgment."

Liberal Education, Then and Now, Policy Review, December 2006/January 2007. By Peter Berkowitz.

"Mill's nineteenth-century analysis of liberal education is relevant to the twenty-first-century university not for the specific curriculum he proposes but because of the larger principles he outlines and the greater goods he clarifies. His analysis suggests several lessons. First, a liberal education aims to liberate the mind by furnishing it with literary, historical, scientific, and philosophical knowledge and by cultivating its capacity to question and answer on its own. Second, a liberal education must, in significant measure, provide not a smorgasbord of offerings but a shared content, because knowledge is cumulative and ideas have a history. Third, a liberal education must adapt to local realities, providing the elementary instruction, the stepping stones to higher stages of understanding, where grade school and high school education fail to perform their jobs. Fourth, the aim of a liberal education is not to achieve mastery in any one subject but an understanding of what mastery entails in the several main fields of human learning and an appreciation of the interconnections among the fields. Fifth, liberal education is not an alternative to specialization, but rather a sound preparation for it. Sixth, a liberal education culminates in the study of ethics, politics, and religion, studies which naturally begin with the near and familiar, extend to include the faraway and foreign, and reach their peak in the exploration, simultaneously sympathetic and critical, of the history of great debates about justice, faith, and reason. Seventh, all of this will be for naught if teaching is guided by the partisan or dogmatic spirit, so professors must be cultivated who will bring to the classroom the spirit of free and informed inquiry."

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