The Rathouse
Aristotle on liberal education, suitable for a gentleman of leisure (and unearned wealth)
Note 6 to Chapter 11 of The Open Society and its Enemies. The 1939 edition of the Pocket Oxford Dictionary still says: ‘liberal ...(of education) fit for a gentleman, of a general literary rather than technical kind’. This shows most clearly the everlasting power of Aristotle’s influence. I admit that there is a serious problem of a professional education, that of narrow-mindedness. But I do not believe that a ‘literary’ education is the remedy; for it may create its own peculiar kind of narrow-mindedness, its peculiar snobbery. And in our day no man should be considered educated if he does not take an interest in science. The usual defence that an interest in electricity or stratigraphy need not be more enlightening than an interest in human affairs only betrays a complete lack of understanding of human affairs. For science is not merely a collection of facts about electricity, etc.; it is one of the most important spiritual movements of our day. Anybody who does not attempt to acquire an understanding of this movement cuts himself off from the most remarkable development in the history of human affairs. Our so-called Arts Faculties, based upon the theory that by means of a literary and historical education they introduce the student into the spiritual life of man, have therefore become obsolete in their present form. There can be no history of man which excludes a history of his intellectual struggles and achievements; and there can be no history of ideas which excludes the history of scientific ideas. But literary education has an even more serious aspect. Not only does it fail to educate the student, who is often to become a teacher, to an understanding of the greatest spiritual movement of his own day, but it also often fails to educate him to intellectual honesty. Only if the student experiences how easy it is to err, and how hard to make even a small advance in the field of knowledge, only then can he obtain a feeling for the standards of intellectual honesty, a respect for truth, and a disregard of authority and bumptiousness. But nothing is more necessary to-day than the spread of these modest intellectual virtues. ‘The mental power’, T. H. Huxley wrote in A Liberal Education, ‘which will be of most importance in your .. life will be the power of seeing things as they are without regard to authority ... But at school and at college, you shall know of no source of truth but authority.’ I admit that, unfortunately, this is true also of many courses in science, which by some teachers is still treated as if it was a ‘body of knowledge’, as the ancient phrase goes. But this idea will one day, I hope, disappear; for science can be taught as a fascinating part of human history—as a quickly developing growth of bold hypotheses, controlled by experiment, and by criticism. Taught in this way, as a part of the history of ‘natural philosophy’, and of the history of problems and of ideas, it could become the basis of a new liberal University education; of one whose aim, where it cannot produce experts, will be to produce at least men who can distinguish between a charlatan and an expert. This modest and liberal aim will be far beyond anything that our Arts faculties nowadays achieve.