American higher education, or rather a part of it, is today the envy of the world, producing and maintaining research scientists of the highest caliber. But liberal education is another matter.  The dominant opinion proclaims that no shared set of ideas, no common body of knowledge, and no baseline set of values or virtues marking an educated human being exist.  Universities increasingly fail to give students more than a dim intimation that a liberal education has a distinctive shape and a coherent and cumulative content.

Yet, properly conceived, a liberal education provides invaluable benefits for students and the nation. For most students, it offers the last chance to read widely and deeply, to acquire knowledge of the opinions and events that formed them and the nation in which they live, and to study other peoples and cultures. And the nation benefits as well, because a liberal democracy presupposes an informed citizenry capable of distinguishing the public interest from private interest, evaluating consequences, and discerning the claims of justice and the opportunities for — and limits to — realizing it in politics.

In this opening week, led by Hertog Political Studies Program Dean Peter Berkowitz, students explore what liberal education is and why it is necessary for a free society. Among the questions students will discuss include: Why is a liberal education necessary? What are the benefits of liberal education? What is the relationship between the cultivation of moral virtue and liberal education? Why should the study of classical authors be emphasized in an age of scientific progress? Is increasing specialization helpful or harmful to the progress of civilization? What are the tensions inherent in liberal education, and how might they be resolved?

Images: Henry Holiday, Aspasia on the Pynx, 1888 | Pesellino, Seven Liberal Arts, ca. 1440

Peter Berkowitz on Liberal Education


Peter Berkowitz

Peter Berkowitz is the Tad and Dianne Taube Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University. He studies and writes about, among other things, constitutional government, conservatism and progressivism in America, liberal education, national security and law, and Middle East politics.

Preview the Syllabus by Week/Session



Discussion Questions:

  1. What, according to Buckley, is the purpose of college education?
  2. What, according to Bloom, is the aim of liberal education?
  3. What, for Bloom, is the connection between “openness,” moral relativism, and freedom?
  4. How, according to Bloom, do they conspire to undermine liberal education?
  5. What, according to Kors and Silverglate, is political correctness, and how does it subvert liberal education?



Discussion Questions:

  1. What are “the first false charges” against Socrates? What are “the later charges”? How successful are Socrates’ refutations?
  2. Socrates mentions the virtues of citizens and human beings (20b).  In what ways are those virtues similar?  How might they differ?
  3. How is Socrates’ determination to investigate the oracle’s pronouncement that “no one was wiser” an act of piety? How is it an act of impiety?
  4. Is Athens’ failure to protect Socrates’ freedom to philosophize a failure of democracy?  An authentic expression of democracy?  Both? Neither?
  5. In what ways is Socratic wisdom humble?  In what ways is it boastful?  In what ways can it nourish the laws and politics?  In what ways does it threaten the city?



Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the costs of silencing wrong opinions?
  2. What lessons does Mill draw from the lives of Socrates, Jesus, and Marcus Aurelius?
  3. How, according to Mill, can progress in knowledge impair understanding? How can Plato’s dialogues be helpful?
  4. What contributions do “a party of order or stability, and “a party of progress or reform” make to a healthy politics and to liberty of thought and discussion?
  5. What is “the real morality of public discussion” (last sentence of Chap. 2) and how might it be cultivated consistent with the principles of freedom?



Discussion Questions:

  1. How does liberal education differ from professional education?
  2. What distinctive contributions, according to Mill, does study of the classics make to a liberal education?
  3. Why is study of political economy, jurisprudence, and international law essential?
  4. Where does study of morals, politics, and religion fit in?  How is the goal attained?
  5. How does the study of literature and art— that is, “the education of the feelings and the cultivation of the beautiful”—complete liberal education?

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