Re-discovering and Renewing the Past: Liberal Education in the Oratorical Tradition

Benjamin Musachio

The seven liberal arts, subjects of study reserved for free men, illustrated by Herrad von Landsberg from the Hortus deliciarum of the 12th Century.

The seven liberal arts, subjects of study reserved for free men, illustrated by Herrad von Landsberg from the Hortus deliciarum of the 12th century.

“A little education is a dangerous thing,” said Alexander Pope. This holds especially true for liberal education. A self-satisfied elite, purported to be liberally educated, can wreak havoc on any society over which they preside. After the radical revolutions in higher education during the 1960s, defenders of a traditional liberal education decried relativism, Anglophobia, and scientism, all of which, they claimed, impoverished liberal education. Other proponents of liberal education met the criticism of the right with zeal, extolling the virtues of the Socratic method, absolute academic freedom, and diversity. In short, there existed a wide range of opinion concerning the ideal liberal education. This modern debate fascinates, but it is not particularly new. Ancients argued about the purpose of a liberal education ever since its inception in antiquity.  Unlike technical or vocational training, with its telos of producing men and women proficient in some practical skill, liberal education’s purpose cannot be so neatly defined. A survey of the development of the idea of liberal education is critical for informing more contemporary conversations and critique; liberal education, the primary method through which our future leaders are instructed, deserves nothing less.

The origin of liberal education can be found in Athens between 450 and 350 B.C. The noted philosopher of education, Bruce A. Kimball observes two different strands of liberal education in antiquity: the oratorical and the philosophical.  From the beginning, liberal education had no dogmata or singular ideology. Philosophers like Socrates, Plato and Aristotle advocated the “dialectical search for truth” (Kimball, 18). In contrast to a philosophic brand of liberal education (also referred to as the liberal-free paradigm) orators like Isocrates maintained that liberal education’s purpose was to teach good men to speak well and think right. They argued that the truth could be known through careful study of the texts and traditions of our forefathers. Moreover, the recipients of that liberal education, the pupils of the good and the right, should persuade their fellow citizens to also lead lives of virtue. The oratorical vision is much more active than the liberal-free one, for the student educated in the oratorical tradition has an obligation to serve in some sort of public leadership role upon the completion of his studies; this tradition dominated throughout much of antiquity. Henri Marrou, a 20th-century philosopher of education, put so eloquently, “on the whole it was Isocrates, not Plato, who educated 4th Century Greece and subsequently the Hellenistic and Roman worlds,” (Kimball, 31).

Raphael's famous fresco Scuola di Atene (School of Athens). Some of the earliest contributors to the philosophical tradition - including Plato and aristotle - are depicted.

Raphael’s famous fresco Scuola di Atene (School of Athens). Some of the earliest contributors to the philosophical tradition – including Plato and Aristotle – are depicted.

The oratorical tradition, also called the artes liberales, merits a more thorough description. As hinted at before, it “educates that perfect orator, who must be a good man” (Quintillian, Institution oratoria). These few words speak volumes. First, the assertion that an orator may be good stands in opposition to relativism, which holds that all values and truth are inherently subjective. The true relativist ignores the very notion of any sort of objective, knowable “good.” Secondly, the study of the artes liberales has important epistemological ramifications. Through their study, objective truth can be revealed. The great orators of antiquity held that the good life could be known if actively pursued. Instead of loafing under the arcades at the agora, philosophizing on the specificities of virtue, orators endeavored instead to learn virtue in context, by reading and discussing the experiences of men and women that literature had preserved for them, with an eye to putting it into practice. Kimball asserts that the oratorical tradition sought to “inform the student about the virtues rather than, as the Socratic tradition held, to teach the student how to search for them,” (Kimball, 38). This is not to say that the orators were against any sort of philosophy, far from it. Philosophy, as we understand it today, was an important part of the oratorical curriculum. Advocates of a liberal education did, however, fear the paralysis that can arise from sophistry.

In Ancient Greece and the Roman Republic, liberal education was intimately bound up in the belief that free men were to participate in the public life. All of the recipients of the artes liberales were expected to, in some way, contribute to the public good. In order to lead society, students had to learn how to persuade others, or, in other words to practice the art of oratory. Through the use of rhetoric and logic, they would persuade their fellow man to see the merit, the virtue even, in their proposed legislation. From its origin in political oratory in the agora, the performance of a virtuous act in the public sphere took on many more forms. As the idea of liberal education developed, persuading fellow citizens was (and still is) not exclusive to oratory or even written treatise. Those who lead by example, exemplars who uphold principles through action and virtuous living, are just as influential in the public sphere as statesmen. Many young people attempt to emulate moral behavior, as they perceive it from either their revered elders or their peers. This in its own way is a convincing form of persuasion. Additionally, artists and philanthropists can also be considered public leaders. Impassioned musical performances, heartfelt stanzas of poetry, and charitable works can all be construed as contributions to the public good. Make no mistake; liberal education is not just training for future politicians. Involvement in the public sphere isn’t just limited to political machinations; it can be undertaken through a variety of mediums.

An artist's rendition of the public sphere in Greek antiquity.

An artist’s rendition of the agora, the public sphere in Greek antiquity.

If we agree that liberal education is one of the best ways to create a class of virtuous future leaders, what disciplines should a liberal education comprise? While Greeks invented liberal arts subjects themselves, a normative program of seven liberal arts was not agreed upon until the 1st Century B.C. in the Roman Republic. The septem artes liberales included: rhetoric, logic, grammar, arithmetic, geometry, astronomy, and music. Since both the term artes liberales and a set course of study can both be attributed to the Roman tradition, it appears that many in the academy and in the culture at large today overstate the Greek contribution to the development of a liberal education. This overstatement is indicative of the moderns’ lack of nuanced understanding concerning the history of liberal education.

Equally egregious is the modern assertion that “liberal education liberates the mind!” People who make such statements have a shallow understanding of the historical use and etymology of the expression, artes liberales. Contrary to popular belief, liberales does not connote “self-liberation.” The study of the artes liberales was for free men, those who had the time and the resources to dedicate to years of intense study. The Latin descriptor liberales stands in opposition to adjectives servile and mechanical (Online Etymology Dictionary). It is not however used as a reflexive verb, i.e. “to free.” Contemporary aversion to elitism, a word that is profoundly distasteful to the modern ear, brought about a convenient revision in the pages of history. What was once an enterprise “only worthy of a free man” (OED) thus became a program of study that frees the mind. This linguistic somersault, which has its origins in American pedagogical discourse of the 20th century, is characteristic of the imprecision with which contemporary debate concerning liberal education is conducted.

Some of the criticism of liberal education in 20th-century America warrants re-examination in light of the existence of the divergent philosophical and oratorical strands of liberal education. Are critical voices — Hannah Arendt, Russell Kirk, and even film director Noah Baumbach — bygone reactionaries who fetishize a western canon that is profoundly sexist, racist, and imperialistic? Or are they instead defenders of the oratorical tradition of liberal education in an era dominated by the philosophical strand, with disastrous consequences? This writer sees merit in the latter assertion.

In light of this history concerning the development of liberal education and the independence of its institutions, the critiques of the 20th century don’t seem quite so cantankerous or curmudgeonly. On the contrary, thinkers – like the political theorist Hannah Arendt – hope to salvage that once dominant oratorical tradition of liberal education, before it disappears from American discourse altogether. Arendt, in her essay “The Crisis of Education,” claims that education is intimately connected with natality. By educating the young, the future citizens of the republic, we provide them with the experience and knowledge with which to build something new. At its very foundation, Arendt’s take on education is similar to the oratorical tradition of liberal education, for both methods compel the graduate to go forth and create. While Isocrates would exhort his liberally educated orator-students to persuade their fellow citizens in the agora, Arendt would say that, “the essence of education is the fact that human beings are born into this world” (Arendt, 175). The use of the plural “beings” is vital. Arendt contends that men, not man, reside in this world. For her, the method by which any action is accomplished is through the collective, orchestrated efforts of men (“men” is used in the catholic sense). In order to achieve anything in the public sphere, we must persuade others to act in concert with us. Thus, we can see that both Isocrates and Arendt advance the same idea, namely, that liberal education demands action through collective orchestration. Such action can only come about through the persuasion of our fellow citizens to live out hallowed principle.

Arendt’s assertion that, “conservatism, in the sense of conservation, is of the essence of the educational activity,” (Arendt, 188) is a bold one. She clearly buys into the oratorical notion that the student of the liberal arts should venerate tradition as the best that has been thought and said (Matthew Arnold). Arendt laments the fact that the young student is denied access to these truths as derived from classic texts because of “the crisis of tradition,” (Arendt, 190). Adherents to progressivism, many of whom also advocated the liberal-free paradigm of education, rejected any sense of reverence for the past. This aversion to the traditions and wisdom of the past is irreconcilable with any sort of authentic artes liberales education. As Arendt says, “The problem of education in the modern world lies in the fact that by its very nature it cannot forgo […] tradition” (Arendt, 191).

In order to create something new (and here we recall Arendt’s contention that education is connected with natality) the liberally educated student must know what has been thought and said in the past. Why must that be so? Robert Pogue Harrison defends the study of the past in his book, The Dominion of the Dead. Past legacies are living, breathing things that give rise to future possibilities. One can adopt a brilliant thinker or an evocative writer and make him/her one’s own. On this point, Harrison asserts: “Authenticity liberates the possibility of choosing one’s ancestors” (Harrison, 103). Those who have been educated in both the crowning achievements and sorrowing trials of the past – the heirs of history – have the ability, nay the obligation, to retrieve and renew the past creatively. This, according to Harrison, can only come about if we authentically select those past intellects who genuinely and profoundly affect us. This relationship transcends mere affection; “worshipping” an adopted ancestor “fosters the becoming of who one already is” (Harrison, 103). This is why tradition and authority are to be venerated. The discerning student of history applies his knowledge to the problems of today, whereas the ignoramus, who shrugs off the importance of history, repeats the same mistakes time and again. The latter student is much more likely to commit blind, “mimetic repetition” – to borrow an expression from Harrison. If we turn our backs on the past, we are eliminating any possibility of authentic renewal, the act of appropriating or applying past wisdom in present day endeavors in the public sphere; we effectively become “orphans of history,” unable to avoid the tragedies or rekindle the successes — in new and novel ways — of yesteryears. To Arendt and Harrison, both of whom, in their way, advocate for the oratorical tradition, such an outcome is undesirable.

Much like Kimball, Arendt, too, differentiates between the Greek and Roman attitudes toward education. As we have established, the Greek thinkers, with the notable exception of Isocrates, were advocates of the liberal-free brand of education. The Greeks, Arendt argues, viewed aging as one’s gradual disappearance from the world of men; namely, a process of mortal decay. In contradistinction, the Romans celebrated aging. For only in growing old and slowly disappearing from the mortal world does man, “reach his most characteristic form of being,” (Arendt, 190). Moreover, education in Roman antiquity had an explicitly political function. Thus, liberally educated and richly experienced men, having achieved their “characteristic form of being,” became authorities and exemplars for others. It is evident that Arendt endorses the Roman attitude, and thus the oratorical artes liberales, when it comes to educating the young, who are charged with the world’s continual regeneration. Only by embracing the wisdom of the past — and following the example of the wise and aged — can they hope realize their latent potential for natality, creating something both novel and virtuous.

A Roman statesman of the highest pedigree, Cicero also championed the oratorical brand of liberal education.

A Roman statesman of the highest pedigree, Cicero also championed the oratorical brand of liberal education.

Few can deny that liberal education, in the realm of higher education especially, is in a bad way. Ballooning tuition costs, concessions to utilitarian ideology concerning the employability of certain majors, a lack of concern for tradition, and a culture of ever-increasing specialization threaten to degrade the artes liberales. An unchecked liberal-free paradigm bears rotten fruit. One need look no further for confirmation of this than Noah Baumbach’s witty exposé on the lives of recent college graduates entitled, Kicking and Screaming. Released in 1995, Baumbach’s directorial debut centers on the misadventures of four Occidental College graduates who lack any sense of purpose whatsoever. All four male protagonists live in a small suburban house near their alma mater. None has a job and all of them drink heavily; their biggest worry is how they will spend the day and avoid crippling boredom. Shortly after his graduation ceremony, one particularly acerbic character, Belmont, says despairingly, “Eight hours ago I was Max Belmont, English major college senior. Now, what do I do? I do nothing” (Baumbach).

These young men exhibit all the marks of indoctrination into the liberal-free education. They can quote Kierkegaard and Kundera with ease and they are quick to spar intellectually by dropping sardonic quips. Their conversations are characterized by pretention and sophistry. It’s clear that their shallow readings of Kundera and Kierkegaard did not provide any sort of insight into the attainment of a virtuous, purposeful life. Their educators and professors obviously did not impress upon them the need to use their liberal education in an effort to think, write, or create something new. Coffee shop sophistry was privileged over active pursuit of wisdom or knowledge of principle and virtue. Baumbach’s disillusioned youth are wonderful illustrations for the dangers of a liberal-free paradigm that goes unchallenged by the oratorical tradition. For what is the purpose of the deepest, most profound philosophical or literary or scientific understanding if one is rudderless in the “real world” outside of the ivory tower? Belmont’s lament, “I do nothing,” is a sad but all too accurate summation of the effects of a liberal-free education that is left unchecked by the artes liberales. Belmont would do well to remember that, “philosophy is something one engages in, not something one reads about,” (Kimball, 223).

All of this thoughtful criticism of the modern brand of liberal education raises the question: Which is the ideal model liberal education in the 21st century? I am no reactionary traditionalist. The tension that has existed between the oratorical and philosophical traditions throughout history has always been beneficial to the development of educational institutions. The current state of affairs however, in which the artes liberales survive only in small pockets within certain institutions, if at all, must be altered. We have seen laissez-faire academic freedom, specialized research, and misguided, progressive pedagogy flourish; all of these are hallmarks of a liberal-free education run amuck. The liberal-free paradigm overwhelmed the oratorical tradition in the late 19th and early 20th century by claiming that the oratorical tradition “tempts dogmatic conservation in education and culture, tending in the long run toward authoritarianism,” (Kimball, 237). This worry is largely unfounded. Even more to the point, liberal-free advocates rarely mention the self-indulgence and nihilistic attitude that sophistry — masquerading as liberal education — inculcates in its students. Two examples of this include listlessness and indolence, as seen in Kicking and Screaming, as well as a propensity toward disastrous mimetic repetition as described by Harrison. A better balance between artes liberales and the liberal-free paradigm is therefore in order.

How can this equilibrium be achieved? Instituting more rigorous instruction in the art of rhetoric would be a good start. The 20th century’s most celebrated Man of Letters, Russell Kirk, advocates for this reform. He lists rhetoric as one of the primary disciplines that should be studied at his ideal college (Kirk, 302). Courses on the use of rhetoric, an integral part of the oratorical tradition, should not be a hard sell. Every student should have the ability to persuade his fellow man through the effective use of rhetoric; it is an invaluable skill. Even past adherents to the philosophical tradition – men like Anslem, Boethius, and John Dewey – saw merit in the study of rhetoric.

A liberal education for the 21st century must zealously guard against an intimate marriage with vocational training. To be sure, vocational applications do have their place in our society (for where would we be without our plumbers?), but confusing vocation with liberal education does both a disservice. How will this separation manifest itself concretely? University and college administrators must ask hard questions of disciplines like electrical engineering, communication, energy resources engineering, and even computer science, all of which are among the most popular undergraduate majors at Stanford University, an institution that prides itself on providing its students with a liberal education. Do these subjects draw on past tradition to illuminate and promote the good? Or are degrees in these disciplines merely tunnels to lucrative careers? These majors don’t need to be abolished per se, but administrators should, at the very least, consider altering the content of these majors so as to decrease specialization/applications and increase the student’s exposure to the underlying mathematical or scientific theory.

Perhaps the more pressing problem is the absurdly high number of classes within one specific discipline that students must take to earn a degree in certain fields. This specialization severely reduces the amount of non-major courses a student may take. Administrators should encourage intellectual exploration within the seven liberal arts, which, as the student of history knows, include a smattering of humanities, sciences, and performing arts. In higher education today, more and more institutions are forcing students – especially those interested in engineering and applied math/science – to specialize early, often during their sophomore or freshman years. At Stanford for instance, students hoping to major in disciplines like computer science or chemical engineering find it difficult to justify choosing courses in, for instance, philosophy or music, if they want to graduate in four years. Many devise plans for their four years of study at the start of their freshman year, making sure all of the requisite science, math, and engineering courses needed for graduation will be completed by the time they graduate. For instance, the Stanford University Degree Catalogue says that students “who are considering and/or wish to major in chemical engineering should talk with departmental student services as early as during freshman orientation if feasible” (Stanford Explore Degrees). These students discover that there is little opportunity to take courses outside of their respective majors. Stanford’s concession to specialization enthusiasts is antithetical to true liberal education – the very education it purports to impart – by diminishing breadth in the septem artes liberales.

A potential academic plan  for an aspiring materials science major at Stanford University

A potential academic plan for an aspiring materials science major at Stanford University.

The four-year academic plan above, written and disseminated by a recent alumnus who studied materials science, illustrates the increasingly prevalent culture of specialization in many STEM fields. Depth in a specific engineering application is privileged over breadth in course selection. Readers may be interested to note that 93 units is the absolute minimum number of units needed to graduate with a bachelor’s in computer science – the high unit count for computer science is contrasted by the comparatively low minimum requirement for a philosophy degree: 55 (Stanford Explore Degrees). To provide context, students must accumulate 180 units to graduate. These facts illustrate the point that broad exposure to the septem artes liberales at Stanford is quite difficult if one chooses to major in certain STEM disciplines. Specialization doesn’t just preclude academic breadth; the student who adheres to this plan is very restricted in his/her opportunities when it comes to studying abroad. These sorts of travel programs, where students encounter the “other” and feel a profound but ultimately empowering sense of disorientation, enrich liberal education.

During the liberal education process, professors must impress upon students the need to use their education for the common good. After receiving an education, subsidized by alums, parents, and/or taxpayers, students should have the obligation to lead and persuade others. This assertion — long associated with the oratorical tradition — if implemented thoughtfully, could be attractive to many. Colleges and universities should dedicate more resources to service and leadership opportunities. Meaningful spring break service trips, a summer spent teaching English abroad, or a quarter of policy formulation in a D.C. think-tank are all ways for students to use their liberal education actively. Students don’t even necessarily have to travel too far to encounter such experience; volunteering in their local communities would also help to inculcate a larger sense of purpose. Notice that these leadership experiences do not replace traditional study during the school year, they supplement it. Administrators have to be sure, however, that daily beach excursions to Costa Rica, with a few hours of service in between, are not misrepresented as “service.” The liberal arts student is simultaneously studying great texts, scientific theories, and art in addition to serving the public good. Combining these elements is a recipe for personal and societal success both during and after the completion of one’s formal schooling.

Cardinal Newman, the august 19th-century Oxford academic, warns against a utilitarian reduction of liberal education. Newman provides a bridge between the philosophical and oratorical traditions in the realm of liberal education; in The Idea of a University he advocates for aspects drawn from both traditions. He declares that, “knowledge is capable of being its own end,” (Newman, 128) a belief associated with the liberal-free paradigm, but also maintains that a liberal education should prepare the student “to reason well in all matters, to reach out toward the truth, and to grasp it,” (Newman, 152) – to wit, by actively pursuing knowledge, the truth can be acquired through liberal education, an assertion belonging to the oratorical tradition. In the face of a common enemy – the reduction of wisdom, virtue, and principles to means of greater social utility – both traditions should unite. Ensuring the greatest good for the greatest number is not the principal goal of a liberal arts education, in either tradition. Education as way to pursue pleasure is no education at all; philosophy, reflection, and contemplation are all tossed out when unfeeling econometrics are fetishized. Throughout his ten discourses, Newman celebrates “intellectual enlargement” (131), the ability to take, “a connected view of old and new, past and present, far and near,” which arises from a study of religion, philosophy, and history. Advocates for education as a means to further social utility – like current Florida governor Rick Scott, who wants to lower in-state tuition for certain STEM majors – often disparage those aforementioned subjects, claiming they do not provide the student a suitable monetary return on his/her investment. If we as a society truly value liberal education, such policy should be attacked vigorously. Adherents to liberal-free paradigm and artes liberales tradition may phrase their arguments differently, but they must argue all against utilitarian reductionism all the same.

Cardinal Newman, a proponent of liberal education who championed aspects of the philosophical and oratorical paradigms.

Cardinal Newman, a proponent of liberal education who championed aspects of the philosophical and oratorical paradigms.

Reductionism, at its very foundation, treats education as a means to an end instead of an end in and of itself. To the advocates of both the philosophical tradition and the oratorical tradition, education is a lifelong pursuit. Liberal education doesn’t just teach us how to think (though it does that, too); it also gives us the choice of what to think about. The liberally educated student is free to pursue a variety of ideas, cultural forms, and scientific concepts that otherwise would have been inaccessible to the uninitiated. Invaluable skills, including, critical thinking, the art of persuasion, and mathematical reasoning, allow the student to explore the wisdom of the ages – and to ponder contemporary society. After learning how to think, students have the capacity to evaluate liberalism and libertarianism, theism and atheism, and free will and determinism with a degree of understanding reserved only for those who have pursued a rigorous course of liberal study. If properly and thoughtfully administered – with more attention being paid to the oratorical tradition – liberal education will create a generation of more (to borrow a word from Russell Kirk) “imaginative” leaders. Such leaders, who have the creative capacity to envision novel undertakings, can look back through history and appropriate past wisdom to address the problems of today.

Works Cited

Arendt, Hannah. Between Past and Future. New York: Penguin, 1961. Print.

Baumbach, Noah, dir. Kicking and Screaming. Trimark Pictures, 1995. Film.

“Chemical Engineering.” Stanford University Explore Degrees. Stanford
Unviersity, n.d. Web. 7 Dec. 2013. <

Harrison, Robert Pogue. The Dominion of the Dead. University of Chicago Press, 2003. Print.

Kimball, Bruce A. Orators & Philosophers. New York: College Board, 1995. Print.

Kirk, Russell. Decadence and Renewal in Higher Learning. South Bend: Gateway Editions, 1978. Print.

“Liberal Arts.” Online Etymology Dictionary, n.d. Web. 8 Dec. 2013. <;

Newman, John Henry. The Idea of a University. N.p.: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982. Print.

“Philosophy.” Stanford University Explore Degrees. Stanford University, n.d. Web. Dec. 10, 2013. <;

“Considering CS?” Stanford University Undergraduate Computer Science. Stanford University, n.d. Web. Dec. 10, 2013. <;

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