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The Liberating Arts

By Edmund Opitz.


The recent movie called Out of Africa has acquainted millions of Americans with the name of a Danish Baroness Blixen, whose pen name was Isak Dinesen. The movie is based on Dinesen’s 1938 book, a semi-autobiographical work called Out of Africa. Four years earlier, in 1934, Isak Dinesen had published a work entitled Seven Gothic Tales, really seven short novels within the covers of a single book. One of these Gothic tales was set in the Paris of several generations ago and consisted mainly of the reminiscences of an old gentleman. There is a story within this larger story involving an Armenian organ grinder and his pet monkey. Some of you may recall seeing this type of street musician who would wander through city neighborhoods carrying, slung over his shoulder, a kind of music box the size of an accordion, a crank on its side. This contraption was set atop a pole, which supported the weight of the music machine when the man stopped to perform. The man would be dressed in a sort of gypsy costume, and as the entertainer cranked out his tunes his little capuchin monkey would pass through the crowd collecting coins, which he’d turn over to his master. This in itself was quite a stunt; but this little monkey was cleverer than most of his kind, because his master had taught him to perform a great variety of crowd-pleasing tricks, each one triggered by a word of command—in Armenian.

The Armenian died, and the little animal came into the possession of a kindly French couple who housed the monkey and fed him well. Time passed, and although the animal was properly cared for, he languished; he seemed to know that he had talents lying dormant which no one knew how to bring out. There was no one to voice the magic Armenian words. Lots of potential talent was trapped inside the little beast, but no one knew how to release it; the key had been lost.

It is my guess that Isak Dinesen intended this little story to be a parable of the human condition. Translate the parable and it suggests that individual men and women are loaded with potential talents of all sorts—talents unlimited—but these potentialities are locked up inside us and become actual only when touched by a magic wand from without—the magic wand called “education.”

The scholastic curriculum labeled “liberal arts education” emerged, developed, and grew—in the course of centuries—in order to give the young people of each successive generation the tools of learning, tools which they could then use to free themselves from the hindrances and obstructions, the ignorance and taboos which prevented them from becoming the kind of persons they had it in them to be. The “liberal arts,” in other words, were the “liberating arts”; they freed the individual person from all that prevented him from realizing his full potential. The ultimate goal of liberal education is wisdom and understanding—a broader and deeper understanding of human nature and the human condition, and a few clues as to the purposes of our earthly pilgrimage. Education deals with the goals of life; it is “ends oriented,” and its primary tools are language, literature, philosophy, history, and mathematics.

Education and Training

Education is not the same as training. Training has to do with “how-to” knowledge, with practical instruction; training is what might be called “instrumental” knowledge. Training deals with means rather than with ends—ends being the province of education. The world could not continue on its course without the help it gets from the millions of trained men and women who accomplish the world’s work—the scientists, inventors, entrepreneurs, engineers, and technologists; the doctors, dentists, nurses, manufacturers, managers, and so on. If asked to name an American exemplar of the trained man, most of us would mention someone like Thomas Alva Edison. Edison’s kind of genius has given us inventions which have transformed life in modern societies in many beneficial ways; our life is cleaner, brighter, healthier, more convenient—and noisier—because people like Edison have lived and worked. We have many more things; sometimes it seems that gadgetry almost overwhelms us!

Virtually everyone acknowledges the important contributions of trained people; they keep our society going, and they make it better. They have enormously increased the number and potency of our means; enormous power is now at our disposal. But what about the people who are schooled merely in the liberating arts; what role might they aspire to play in our culture? If students have been exposed to the best that has been thought and said about man, the human species, so that they have some understanding of what it means to be a person, some understanding of the nature, destiny, and proper end of a human being, then—if such people are heeded by those with know-how and power—we might yet scrape together sufficient wisdom to save our society from being fragmented by the detonation of its newly released energies. It seems to be our fate to live at a time in history when enormous power is in our hands but barely under our control. Ideas still role in human affairs and we won’t know what to do with our recently acquired powers until we have decided what to do with our lives. And that is where the liberating arts come in, for it is a main function of a liberal educa-6on to help us face up to the question of how to make our lives count for the things that really matter.

Education and Schooling

I have briefly drawn a distinction between education and training and I shall now draw an equally important distinction between education and schooling. No society before our own has ever put so much faith in schooling, which we usually mislabel “education.” Virtually no child in America lives beyond the reach of his local public school and every child’s exposure to public schooling is compulsory. A few generations ago schooling at the college level was deemed a rare privilege; but now there are as many local community colleges as there once were high schools; the college population in this nation has exploded during the past generations while the curriculum has been downgraded. We proudly point to our vast network of schools and colleges as our “educational establishment,” when it is no such thing. Education does occasionally occur in our schools and colleges, but it is rare to find a student who is really educable. In one of Will Durant’s early books, written in 1929, he mentions a foreign student who came to this country to get a graduate degree at one of our great universities. Shortly before he returned to his native land the young student summed up his experience by declaring: “American universities are really athletic institutions, with opportunities for study for the feeble bodied.”

My remark a moment ago that only the occasional college student is really educable may sound arrogant and elitist. But it wouldn’t have sounded at all elitist if I had referred to the occasional educable student as a bookworm! It’s a fact; liberal arts education is primarily for bookworms—a bookworm being defined as a kid who’s mesmerized by the printed page. The liberal arts scholar frequents the library, not the laboratory; he gets his education by studying the books and papers written by other scholars. And a liberal arts scholar is the kind of person who does quite well in the typical IQ test, the Stanford-Binet test, for example. I would point out to you that what is measured by the typical IQ test is not the only kind of intelligence human beings possess; but it is one kind. The results of an IQ test predict reasonably well how the individual would fare in a typical liberal arts curriculum. But that’s it!

Many years ago when I was studying in Berkeley at the Pacific School of Religion our psychology teacher was the head of the psychology department at the University of California. Of course he had to expose the theological students to an IQ test. As it turned out we did reasonably well, having an average IQ score of over 130 compared to the average of the graduate students at the University next door of about 120. Does that mean that we were smarter than the students at U Cal? Not at all. It simply means that we had a different kind of smartness than the graduate students in physics, or chemistry, or geology, or astronomy; our forte was book learning, their intelligence was of another species. The modern world has suffered unduly from its failure to understand important distinctions in this area of schooling. We exhibit a weak understanding of the role of the liberal arts program—it’s not for everyone—and we extravagantly over-value the figures obtained by IQ testing.

We began about a hundred and fifty years ago to set up a vast system of compulsory public instruction in this country. With the centuries-old liberal arts tradition in mind we geared our school system into the three R’s—Readin’, ‘Ritin’, ‘n’ ‘Rithmetic. This was a system well adapted to bookworms; it prepared them to enter one of our liberal arts colleges. But it was not adapted to the youngsters whose intelligence ran in the direction of vocational and technical training. School, for them, tended to be a frustrating experience.

Come down to the period after World War II when someone decided that everyone ought to have a college education. There was a vast expansion of the student population. Teachers in great numbers were needed and hired, but only a few men and women in each generation have a true vocation to teach, and only a few students have a vocation for a liberal arts education. There was bound to be trouble. Trouble came, and it turned many campuses into what resembled battlefields. Our first mistake was to set up a system of compulsory public instruction, and then we compounded this error by refusing to recognize the important distinction between education and training.

Needed: Talents

A complex modern society needs a great diversity of talents, and not all talented people, by any means, are good material for a liberal arts education. As a matter of fact, no society can absorb more than a tiny percentage of people with a liberal arts Ph.D.—too many liberal arts doctors will rain any society! But no society can have too many honest craftsmen and artisans . . . butchers, bakers, candlestick makers, and all the rest. The head is important; the hands are important. More important is the proper balance between them. Listen to John Gardner on this point: “The society that scorns excellence in plumbing because plumbing is a humble activity, and tolerates shoddiness in philosophy because philosophy is an exalted activity, will have neither good plumbing nor good philosophy. Neither its pipes nor its theories will hold water.”

This lack of balance was perceived by an astute French critic, Ernest Renan, more than a century ago, but we did not heed his warning: “. . . . countries which, like the United States, have set up considerable popular instruction without any serious higher education, will long have to expiate their error by their intellectual mediocrity, the vulgarity of their manners, their superficial spirit, their failure in general intelligence.”

Every one of us has encountered persons of enormous energy and enthusiasm; bursting with ideas which sound plausible but whose projects fizzle out without getting anywhere. I once knew such a man. He had written a widely noticed book during the thirties, and since that time had started numerous organizations to save the world. The world persistently refused the offer. Discussing the matter with a friend some years ago I wondered aloud why so-and-so had never gotten himself off the ground. “The trouble with him,” said my friend, “is that he got his drive shaft installed before his steering wheel.”

It is a prime function of a liberal education to provide us with the moral equivalent of a steering wheel, and perhaps a map, as well. A bishop of the early church said much the same thing when he declared that society needs three kinds of men: those who work, those who fight, and those who pray. Society needs someone to grow the wheat and bake the bread. it needs someone to stand guard and protect the producer against marauders. But in addition, every society needs those who continually remind the rest of us that there is more to life than taking care of our creaturely needs. Man has a spiritual and intellectual nature with needs just as real as our physical hungers. Human life has meanings which transcend material comfort or even physical survival, and we will not resolve our material and social problems until we absorb those meanings and live by them.

Scholarship, therefore, has a significance beyond mere scholarship. The tradition of Western learning goes back to Socrates—or to Plato. These men laid down the lines along which most serious thought has moved until our own time. This body of thought, which goes back nearly two and a half millennia, comprises “the grand old fortifying classical curriculum” of our ancestors. It is like the Gulf Stream, coursing through the Atlantic as it comes down to us through the generations, touching, at any given time, only a handful of persons. There is only a little exaggeration in Emerson’s observation that “There are not in the world at any one time more than a dozen persons who read and understand Plato—never enough to pay for an edition of his works; yet to every generation these [works] come duly down for the sake of these few persons . . . .”

The custodian of this intellectual treasure of ancient learning is the university. Every college in the American colonies consciously partook of this heritage, and likewise most of the colleges founded during the nineteenth century. The first of our colleges, Harvard, was founded in 1636. John Harvard, an eminent English divine, came to the new world in 1637 and was immediately involved in supporting the college. He donated half his estate, nearly 800 pounds, plus his 320-book library, and a grateful citizenry named the college after him. William Bradford, of Plymouth Plantation fame, traces Harvard’s line of descent: “A light was kindled in Newtown [that is, Cambridge] in the Bay Colony in 1636. But the spark that touched it off came from a lamp of learning first lighted by the ancient Greeks, tended by the Church through the Dark Ages, blown white and high in the medieval universities, and handed down to us in direct line through Paris, Oxford and Cambridge.” Harvard College was largely a duplicate of Emmanuel College, the most Puritan of the Cambridge (England) colleges, and the one where John Harvard earned his Master of Arts degree. The Harvard curriculum was the classical liberal arts educational scheme unique to Western Civilization.

Western Civilization

A hundred and thirty years ago, Cardinal Newman paid an eloquent tribute to Western Civilization, the historic culture within which most of us were reared. Its nature is such, he argues, that, to all intents and purposes, Western Civilization and Civilization are equivalent terms. This idea is under deadly attack these days, so let me allow Cardinal Newman to say what he has in mind, in his own words: “. . . though there are other civilizations in the world, as there are other societies, yet this civilization, together with the society which is its creation and its home, is so distinctive and luminous in its character, so imperial in its extent, so imposing in its duration, and so utterly without rival upon the face of the earth, that the association may fitly assume to itself the rifle of ‘human society,’ and its civilization the abstract term ‘civilization.’”

These words of Cardinal Newman are taken from a lecture he gave in Dublin in 1858. England was at the height of her powers, prestige, and self-confidence. Britannia ruled the waves; her colonies were on every continent, leading to the proud declaration that the sun never sets on the British flag. The English gentleman was regarded the world over as the model, as the human male par excellence. English was a universal language. “Never since the heroic days of Greece has the world had such a sweet, just, boyish master,” declared the noted philosopher, George Santayana.

Much has happened since Newman’s day to change that picture. We now know that high levels of civilization were attained in Asia and Africa thousands of years ago, long before Greece and Rome emerged onto the world scene. Civilization can no longer be regarded as simply a European thing. But note that it was through the work of European scholars during the past couple of centuries that the world came to know something of the glories of ancient China, India, and Egypt. The people of India had lost contact with their remote past, and owe it to the work of English scholars that ancient Hindu literature—such as the Vedas and the Upanishads—was discovered, translated from the Sanskrit, and read for the first time—in English—by Hindu students!

The growing awareness of ancient civilizations upset the idea that the culture whose time span stretched from Homer to the Victorian Age was the world’s only civilization, and this new knowledge also caused Europeans to have a keener perception of the defects of their Western world. Besides, the English were weary of bearing the white man’s burden, and, in the colonies, the natives were restless. Herbert Spencer, writing a letter to Grant Allen just before the turn of the century, voiced the opinion that “. . . we are in course of re-barbarization.”

But it was World War I that really stunned the West and proved to the rest of mankind that Western world hegemony was but a shadow and no longer a thing of substance. The statesmen of Western nations played their dangerous games during the early years of this century, completely lacking in the kind of fore sight which wiser statesmen might have employed to anticipate the horrible end results of the trends they had set in motion. A Serbian terrorist assassinated an Archduke and the whole house of cards began to crumble. A man named Francis Neilson resigned from Parliament in 1914 to publish his book, How Diplomats Make War, a piece of foresight that reads like hindsight. But not even Neilson could anticipate that the war would continue its slaughter for four dreadful years. Virtually no one in August of 1914 believed that the war would involve millions of combatants from nations all over the globe. Some did, of course. Viscount Grey of Fallodon, the English Foreign Secretary until 1916, uttered the gloomy prophecy, “The lights are going out all over Europe, and we shall not see them come on again in our lifetime.” The opinion of the man in the street I heard from the lips of Max Brauer, the mayor of Hamburg in 1938, who lectured that year in Berkeley: “We all thought we’d be home for Christmas,” that is, in four months.

A youngish German high school teacher spent the last year or so of the war writing a book. Volume I appeared in 1918; volume II in 1922. New York publisher Alfred Knopf brought out an English translation in 1926, entitled The Decline of the West. It was not easy reading and the thesis was dubious. But the pessimism of Oswald Spengler matched the post-war despair and gloom of many people in Europe and America, with the result that The Decline of the West was probably the most talked-about book and the most written-about book of the 1920s and ‘30s. Spengler’s overwrought book seemed to say in exhausting detail what many felt in their bones—that Western Civilization was finished, kaput. Spengler despised the Nazis and had no use for Communism, but his devaluation of the West added fuel to Soviet expansionism by making it appear that some kind of Marxism was the only viable alternative now that the West was sinking below the horizon.

Our Present Situation

Where do we stand today? I think we must admit that Cardinal Newman’s panegyric to Western Civilization was overstated; there were and are, we now know, other civilizations which merit our respect. That’s the first point; and the second is to emphasize that although Western Civilization is not the only civilization, it is our civilization; and only persons firmly rooted in their native habitat can come to a proper appreciation of, say, Hindu culture, or Chinese culture. Those who are alienated from their native soil fall prey to charlatans. We have recently witnessed the spectacle of a grubby turbaned clown, who’d be ridiculed by real Hindu scholars, conning gullible Americans into parting with their money and with whatever wits they possessed in order to grovel at his feet. Genuine Hinduism serves the spiritual needs of millions of Indians, but fake Hinduism is a bad joke; and so, of course, is fake Christianity as other recent events remind us.

In any event—to return to our original theme—the liberal arts curriculum has been the educational scheme of Western Civilization, and will be again. A civilization like ours has immense and still untapped powers of recovery and regeneration—as its story is told m several of the books in my bibliography. It has been said that no civilization has ever been murdered, never destroyed from without. Civilizations suffer decay from within, and crumble; that is to say, they commit suicide. But a civilization which responds vigorously to challenges from within and challenges from without may renew itself. It all depends on the kind of people who compose that civilization. In other words, the fate of our society depends on us, and we can work on ourselves.

Reviving the Freedom Philosophy

It was a set of ideas along these lines that inspired Leonard Read to set up The Foundation for Economic Education 42 years ago. The American nation had lapsed into a New Deal type of socialism because this country’s citizens, for several generations, had failed to educate themselves in the freedom philosophy. The beliefs upon which our eighteenth-century ancestors had erected the basic political and economic structures of this society no longer inspired us even to maintain those structures. And during the decades when the freedom philosophy was in remission, the ideologues of socialism carried on an unremitting campaign to persuade people that the government could run things better than we could run them ourselves. The socialists manufactured a new public opinion different from the original and, as a result of the inculcation of bad ideas, we are saddled with numerous bureaucratic interventions into every sector of our lives.

The suggested FEE remedy is two-fold: first, try to arouse an interest in personal liberty and the free society; and second, nourish this new interest in freedom by having on hand books, pamphlets, periodicals, and speeches expounding the freedom philosophy. Thus, gradually, bad ideas will be replaced by better ideas. Right action will follow. The Foundation emphasis is on self-education. And when you come right down to it, self-education is the only kind of education there is. A wise and experienced teacher is one who has been over the route before, so he can tell you where the mine-fields are, which roads are blind alleys and which are dead ends, and which books are worth studying. But there’s one thing no teacher can do: he cannot educate you. You have to educate yourself. “Educate” is not a transitive verb, that is, education is not something that anyone can do to another or for another. But anyone who has the incentive can do it for himself.

I first encountered this approach years ago in a pamphlet by the eminent British novelist, Arnold Bennett; it was entitled “How to Live on Twenty Four Hours a Day.” You can make your own life more exciting and fulfilling, wrote Bennett in the breezy manner of a novelist, if you resolve to learn some subject, any topic of your own choosing—like political economy—and make a pact with yourself to spend 90 minutes three evenings a week in intense study. This does not mean merely sitting down with a book in front of you, which is all you’ll be able to do at first. You’ll start to read, and after a few pages your mind will be miles away. Grab your mind and drag it back by the scruff of the neck! says Bennett, and gradually your mind will realize that you are in charge and that you mean business. At this point your mind will start to pay attention and do what you demand of it.

Another way to teach your mind that you are in charge of it is to spend a few minutes before retiring rehearsing the events of the day, hour by hour: what you saw, heard and did, whom you met, what you said, and so on. Once your mind realizes that it will be called upon to recite at the day’s end, it will begin to pay attention during the day; you’ll experience things more vividly and thus recall them more readily. Plan to keep a daily journal, as Leonard Read did for years.

The liberating arts require a lot of reading,and reading requires seeing, which is why I recommend The Art of Seeing by Aldous Huxley. Reading does not come naturally; reading is an acquired skill, like playing the fiddle or walking on your hands.

You can teach yourself to read better with books like Walter B. Pitkin’s The Art of Rapid Reading. Several courses are now available which teach speed reading, but I don’t know how well they live up to their claims. I do know it to be a fact that anyone can train himself to read easier, faster, and with greater pleasure. Better comprehension follows. Use a red pencil to bracket and underline salient points. This is an aid to memory and helpful for later review.

The Art of Thinking

Now that you have awakened a few billion brain cells and pumped some information into them, your mind will begin to churn out ideas and you’ll be thinking lots of new and exciting thoughts. What is it like to think? Let me quote a few lines from Jacques Barzun, a first-rate thinker: “Thinking is inwardly a haphazard, fitful, incoherent activity. If you could peer in and see thinking going on, it would not look like that trimmed and barbered result, A Thought. Thinking is messy, repetitious, silly, obtuse, subject to explosions that shatter the crucible and leave darkness behind. Then comes another flash, a new path is seen, trod, lost, broken off, and blazed anew. It leaves the thinker dizzy as well as doubtful; he does not know what he thinks until he has thought it, or better, until he has written and riddled it with a persistence akin to obsession.”

Once you get hooked on thinking you’ll be irresistibly drawn into writing, and you’ll quickly discover that almost no author who relies on the contents of his own mind alone ever wrote a readable essay, let alone a book. Every thinker and writer needs to know how to use reference books and conduct research, and the complete guide to this is the book, The Modern Researcher, by Jacques Barzun and Henry Graft. But you cannot stop there; you have to learn to write passable English prose, and there’s no easy way to do that. The most helpful book on writing, in my view, is Barzun’s Simple and Direct. If you’re interested in knowing how the ancient Greeks went about the chore of putting together a persuasive speech, look into Aristotle’s Rhetoric.

The human person is emphatically not the mere accidental end result of the chance interaction of physical and chemical forces, however much it might please certain of our contemporaries to believe this. Nor is man some untidy excrescence appearing on the earth’s surface sometime between the last two ice ages, tossed about by the same natural forces which rust iron and ripen corn. To the contrary, every man and woman is a work of divine art; through our being flow the primordial creative forces of the universe. Coordinate with those forces and we become creators too, some of us in small and others in large measure.

Novelty comes onto the cosmic scene with every thought we think. The future is still in the making, and there’s no action we take that does not alter the future in some degree. The future really is in our hands, and this is a responsibility we cannot avoid. Even if we do nothing, the future inexorably records our inaction, by being a little bit different than it would have been, had we done something.

The center of human creativity is the individual human mind, and the creative process in thought, literature, music, and art is the subject of The Creative Process, a wide-ranging anthology edited by Brewster Ghiselin.

To sum up: I’ve had some things to say about the ages-old liberal arts curriculum as an essential element of Western Civilization. Now that we know something of other great world civilizations we realize that we can learn from them, but only if we retain a firm hold on our own heritage. I have pointed out that education is not at all the same thing as schooling, and I have argued that education and training are not quite the same. All genuine education is self-education. But you must first train yourself, in order to acquire the tools of learning you need to educate yourself with. Education deals with ideas, and ideas rule the human world. The man or woman who thinks is an influence on those who come into contact with him, and by his thoughtful actions he exerts leverage over the future.

Albert Jay Nock was a product of “the grand, old, fortifying classical curriculum,” and it’s fairly safe to refer to Nock as the most exquisitely educated gentleman of the first third of this century. And Nock thought of himself as a superfluous man! It is certainly true that a classical education will not make you the life of the party; it won’t put you among the rich and famous; it might even make you feel superfluous. But “the fun is in the going”; where it gets you is secondary. Self-education is a never-ending series of challenges. Each challenge we surmount only confronts us with a bigger and more complex challenge—and a wider horizon. But that’s what life is all about. And such a life is never dull!


Originally published in The Freeman, December 1988. “The Liberating Arts” was presented as a FEE Seminar lecture in Alderbrook, Washington, in 1988.

Read more from the Edmund Opitz Archive.


Aristotle — The Rhetoric, Lane Cooper, Editor. 1932.

Barzun, Jacques— Darwin, Marx, Wagner, 1941.

Barzun, Jacques— Teacher in America, 1945.

Barzun. Jacques— Simple & Direct: A Rhetoric for Writers, rev. ed. 1985.

Barzun and Graff— The Modern Researcher. 4th ed.. 1985.

Bennett, Arnold— How to Live (n.d.).

Chesterton, G. K.— Orthodoxy, 1924.

Chesterton, G. K.— The Everlasting Man, 1925.

Dawson, Christopher The Making of Europe, 1937.

Dawson, Christopher—Religion and the Rise of Western Civilization, 1950.

De Burgh, W. G.—Legacy of the Ancient World, rev. ed., 1947.

DeRougemont, Denis—Man’s Western Quest, 1957.

Hazlitt, Henry—Thinking As A Science, 1916. 1969.

Heard, Gerald—Man the Master, 1941.

Heard, Gerald—The Human Venture, 1955.

Highet, Gilbert—The Classical Tradition, 1949.

Highet, Gilbert—Man’s Unconquerable Mind. 1954.

Huxley, Aldous—The Art of Seeing, 1942.

Joad, C. E. M.—Guide to Philosophy, 1936.

Joad, C. E.M.—The Recovery of Belief, 1952.

Krutch, Joseph Wood—The Modern Temper. 1929.

Krutch, Joseph Wood—The Measure of Man, 1954.

Lewis, C. S.—Abolition of Man, 1947.

Lewis, C. S.—Miracles, 1947.

Lewis. C. S.—God in the Dock, 1970.

Matron, H. I.—Education in Antiquity, 1956.

Newman, J. H.—The Idea of a University, 1852, 1959.

Nock, A. J.—The Theory of Education in the U.S., 1932.

Nock, A. J.—Memoirs of a Superfluous Man, 1943.

Pitkin, Walter B.—The Art of Rapid Reading, 1929.

Polya, G.—How to Solve It, 2nd ed., 1956.

Sayers, Dorothy—The Lost Tools of Learning, 1948 (Reprinted in A Matter of Eternity, R. K. Sprague, editor, 1973).

Whitehead, Alfred North—The Aims of Education, 1929.