The Closing of the Conservative Mind

Why do we call it liberal education? When an eighteen-year-old graduates from high school and goes off to college to pick up a smattering of history and literature, why should we describe his course of study as the liberal arts? Educators once knew the answers to these questions, but it has been many years since I have run into a college dean who did not explain the term "liberal education" as having something to do with liberating the young mind from the shackles of ignorance, prejudice, and tradition.

In a sense they are right, since for all practical purposes a liberal education is a system of indoctrination designed to produce liberals. In origin, however, the root meaning of liberal comes from the Latin liber, "free." In phrases like "liberal arts," liberalis was used to translate the Greek eleutherios (similarly derived from eleutheros, "free"), which meant something like: having the quality and character of a free man, as opposed to a slave. A liberal education, then, is an education fit for free men and one that fits them for freedom.

What did the ancients mean by such a distinction? Most obviously, freedom signified that a person was not owned by anyone else—not his body or his mind, not his time or his labor. This is not to say he was free of all obligation—quite the contrary. An Athenian or Roman citizen owed a great deal...

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