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The following quotes, excerpted from the article “The Conservative Purpose of a  Liberal Education” by Russell Kirk, emphasize the importance of liberal education–in the sense of an education that liberates the person from ignorance in vice–for the preservation of conservative ideals. 

“The Conservative Purpose of a Liberal Education,” Redeeming the Time by Russell Kirk(Wilmington: ISI Books, 1996), 41-52.

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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.”

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Hamilton, you will observe, informs us that one must not expect to make money out of proficiency in the liberal arts.  The higher aim of “man as an end,” he tells us, is the object of liberal learning.

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Why, to put the matter another way, he meant that the function of liberal learning is to order the human soul.

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To put this truth after another fashion, Lowell tells us that a liberal education is intended to free us from captivity to time and place:  to enable us to take long views, to understand what it is to be fully human—and to be able to pass on to generations yet unborn our common patrimony of culture. T. S. Eliot, in his lectures on “The Aims of Education” and elsewhere, made the same argument not many years ago.

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I mean that liberal education is conservative in this way: it defends order against disorder. In its practical effects, liberal education work 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.

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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 instrument of public policy. True education is meant to develop the individual human being, the person, rather than to serve the state.

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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.

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Yet a system of liberal education has a social purpose, or at least a social result, as well. It helps to provide a society with a body of people who become leaders in many walks of life, on a large scale or a small. It was the expectation of the founder of the early American colleges that there would be graduated from those little institutions young men, soundly schooled in old intellectual disciplines, who would nurture in the New World in the intellectual and moral patrimony received from the Old World. And for generation upon generation, the American liberal-arts colleges (peculiar to North America) and later the liberal-arts schools and programs of American universities, did graduate young men and women who leavened the lump of the rough expanding nation, having acquired some degree of a philosophical habit of mind.

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The more people who are humanely educated, the better. But the more people we have who are half-educated or quarter-educated, the worse for them and for the republic. Really educated people, rather than forming presumptuous elites, will permeate society, leavening the lump through their professions, their teaching, their preaching, their participation in commerce and industry, their public offices at every level of the commonwealth. And being educated, they will know that they do not know everything; and that there exist objects in life besides power and money and sensual gratification; they will take long views; they will look forward to posterity and backward toward their ancestors. For them, education will not terminate on commencement day.

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True liberal education, that standard of excellence, that conservator of civilization, is required not in Washington alone, but everywhere in our society. Most possessors of a liberal education never come to sit in the seats of the mighty. Yet they leaven the lump of the nation, in many stations and occupations; we never hear the names of most of them, but they do their conservative work quietly and well.

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Much needs to be conserved in these closing decades of the twentieth century, when often it seems as if “Whirl is king, having overthrown Zeus.” One benefit of a liberal education is an understanding of what Aristophanes meant by that line—and of how Aristophanes, and Socrates, retain high significance for us. If you have studied Thucydides and Plutarch, you will apprehend much about our present time of troubles, and if you cannot order the state, at least a liberal education may teach you how to order your own soul in the twentieth century after Christ, so like the fifth century before him.

If in a way that is at once conservative and radical and reactionary, we address ourselves to the renewal of liberal learning, conceivably we may yet live a life of order and justice and freedom. But if we linger smug and apathetic in a bent world, increasingly dominated by squalid oligarchs, we shall come to know servitude of mind and body. If our patrimony is cast aside, Edmund Burke reminded his age, “The law is broken, nature is disobeyed, and the rebellious are outlawed, cast forth, and exiled from this world of reason, and order, and peace, and virtue, and fruitful penitence, into the antagonist world of madness, discord, vice, confusion, and unavailing sorrow.”

When liberal education is forgotten, we grope our way into that antagonist world—if you will, from space to anti-space, into Milton’s “hollow dark.”

Books on or by Dr. Kirk may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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