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How Can Liberal Arts Education be Reformed?

The university, as I would like it, does not exist.

Northrop Frye (Interview)

[Before attempting to reform liberal arts education, we must examine how liberal arts are currently taught at most universities. In general, would it be true to say that university education is open to the criticisms and falls short of the objectives found below?]

What distinguishes education from the fact that people have always been able to learn a large number of things? According to Ivan Illich, education is learning under the assumption of scarcity, learning under the assumption that the means for acquiring something called knowledge are scarce, and therefore education is a marketable and expensive commodity.

The classical view of education is that you learn from the experiences you have and from the company you keep—especially from the people you identify with. Learning is easy and the most natural thing in the world, and first and foremost it is a social activity.

Education, to be successful, must not only inform but inspire.

T. Sharper Knowlson

The primary purpose of a liberal education is to make one’s mind a pleasant place in which to spend one’s time.

Sydney J. Harris

What is more wonderful than the delight which the mind feels when it knows? It is the satisfaction of a primary instinct.

Mark Rutherford

Happiness consists principally in the act of the intellect, and not in an act of the will.


Education is the ability to listen to almost anything without losing your temper or your self-confidence.

Robert Frost

Education does not mean teaching people to know what they do not know; it means teaching them to behave as they do not behave.

John Ruskin

It can never be repeated often enough that nothing intellectual can be achieved in a field that does not attract us. Working in our vein, without a sense of effort, and, on the contrary, with a sense of ease and freedom, is the fundamental condition of a healthy mental operation.

Ernest Dimnet

Real interest is essential for concentration and creates it in an instant.

Ernest Dimnet

Education is nothing if it is not the methodical creation of the habit of thinking.

Ernest Dimnet

University presidents are a nervous breed who praise independence of thought on all occasions of public ceremony; and worry deeply about its consequences in private.

John Kenneth Galbraith

Education cannot produce the wish to think where it does not exist, but, given this indispensable germ, it ought to provide the necessary conditions to bring it to maturity.

Ernest Dimnet

You can lead a man to the university, but you can’t make him think.

Finley Peter Dunne

Aristotle considered education the occupation of leisure.

Education in the modern world is intimately associated with work. Education is not only considered to be a necessary preparation for employment, it is, itself, one of the largest employers in a modern economy.

Education frees the intellect and imagination from its bondage to unexamined ideologies or beliefs.

David Cayley

A thinker must think about his theories rather than simply with them. Everybody thinks with their theories in the sense of using those theories as organizing devices for understanding the world, but most people do so at an implicit level.

Diana Kuhn

The two predominant activities of liberal education are reading and conversation.

There must be a proper balance between written and spoken forms of language. An exclusive emphasis on texts can devalue the spoken word.

Reading after a certain time diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking.

Albert Einstein

Reading is sometimes an ingenious device for avoiding thought.

Arthur Helps

One can’t be right until one has first conceived the possibility of being wrong.

Diana Kuhn

Bigotry is an incapacity to conceive seriously the alternative to a proposition. It is not bigotry to be certain we are right; but it is bigotry to be unable to imagine how we might possibly have gone wrong.

G. K. Chesterton

The simple realization that there are other points of view is the beginning of wisdom. Knowing what they are is a big step. The final achievement is understanding why they are held.

When a subject is highly controversial one cannot hope to tell the truth. One can only show how one came to hold whatever opinion one does hold. One can only give one’s audience the chance of drawing their own conclusions as they observe the limitations, the prejudices, the idiosyncrasies of the speaker.

Virginia Woolf

Education, in the sense in which I mean it, may be defined as the formation, by means of instruction, of certain mental habits and a certain outlook on life and the world. It remains to ask ourselves, what mental habits, and what sort of outlook, can be hoped for as the result of instruction?

Bertrand Russell

Civilized people can talk about anything.

Clive Bell

Is the University Too Much like School?

Ivan Illich defines “school” as an age-specific, teacher-related process requiring full-time attendance at an obligatory curriculum.

School is an institution built on the axiom that learning is the result of teaching. And institutional wisdom continues to accept this axiom, despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

Ivan Illich

Real knowledge is always acquired in the pursuit of real goals.

It is futile and vastly expensive to try to teach people things they are not motivated to learn.

Once the mechanical teach and test cycle was established it tended to perpetuate itself. If it doesn’t work it must be because either the students or the teachers are doing it wrong.

One professor defined a lecture as the process by which information passes from the notebook of a speaker to the notebook of a student without encountering resistance in the minds of either. If the purpose of a university is to teach and that of a student to learn, why do we still use the method least likely to satisfy either objective?

The official view of learning and all its apparatus should be abolished and the classical view re-established. Then the way people naturally are would become an advantage instead of a disadvantage.

Education is never neutral. It either liberates people or it dominates and oppresses them.

Compulsory education has a hidden agenda to turn the citizenry into a pliable, unthinking mass. That’s why the schools so often seem to inhibit their students intellectually.

Extreme busyness, whether at school or college, church or market, is a symptom of deficient vitality; and a faculty for idleness implies a catholic appetite and a strong sense of personal identity.

Robert Lewis Stevenson

The longer each person is in the grip of [institutional] education the less inclination he will have for self-directed learning.

Ivan Illich

It’s nothing short of a miracle that modern methods of instruction have not yet entirely strangled youthful curiosity. For this delicate plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom.

Albert Einstein

Someone in the English school pointed out that of the outstanding living authors who were educated at Oxford—W. H. Auden, Graham Greene, Evelyn Waugh, Robert Graves, Anthony Powell, William Golding—none had firsts, and half got thirds. The head of one of the colleges once said to me: “I understand why we’re teaching the students, but I don’t understand why we’re examining them.”

Bryan Magee

The highest marks [at Oxford] tended to go to examinees who were good at doing what was expected of them and these tended to be unoriginal people. More independent-minded students did not usually behave like this; and the more imaginative they were, and the more distinctive their intellectual personalities, the less likely they were to behave in his way. What these tended to do was to pursue with unusual intensity those subjects that interested them while neglecting those that did not, often with little regard for examination results. The consequence was that first-class degrees went to students with the mentality and temperament of high-grade civil servants.

Bryan Magee

Schools are becoming career factories.

School prepares you for just one thing: School. It doesn’t prepare you for life. As a result School is utterly future oriented. The present is awful, but the future will be wonderful.

The age-old idea of education as the quiet pursuit of wisdom is being replaced by a utilitarian scramble to acquire knowledge of facts, and especially material facts, and above all, commercially rewarding facts.

Christopher Derrick

We produce a higher education system which is more and more separated, more and more divorced from the intellectual function. What I see out there is an enormous public hunger for high quality, general propositions of an intellectual kind, something that isn’t journalism, isn’t the sound byte culture, isn’t entertainment, is ideas.

Michael Ignatieff

Healthy students often redouble their resistance to teaching as they find themselves more comprehensively manipulated. This resistance is due not to the authoritarian style of a public school nor the seductive style of some free schools, but to the fundamental approach common to all schools—the idea that one person’s judgment should determine what and when another person must learn.

Ivan Illich

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