Whatever liberal education is, its very name suggests something different than technical or “vo-tech” education. Our institutions of higher education today, often, blur the lines between these two forms of learning, as liberal arts curricula and vo-tech training are often blended in an uneasy mix, resulting in a world of educated people with vastly differing notions about what it means to be educated.

THE USEFULNESS OF VO-TECH

Vo-tech training, at its core, is instrumental. It is education meant to help us get a job and then to get the job done well. In a word, technical education is useful. But its usefulness is precisely why it is not the highest kind of education.

Useful technical knowledge or skills are desirable only until they produce the things we want: we want the skills of a pilot only until our airplane or ship reaches its destination. We want the skills of a physician only until our health is restored. We want the skills of an accountant only until our tax bill is settled.

Technical education is a means of obtaining, and is therefore subordinate to, the objects it is used to produce or the ends it is used to serve. Technical education is a servile kind of education, in other words, because it is in the service of the necessities we need to live.

LIBERAL EDUCATION

Technical education is not and cannot be truly liberal education, because liberal education is education for minds that are free, at least to some degree, from the slavish necessities of life—minds that enjoy the liberty and leisure to contemplate the highest and permanent questions:

  • What is good, true, and beautiful?
  • What is the right way to live, and what is the purpose, end, or telos of human life
  • Is there a reality that cuts across time and space, and what might its nature be?
  • What does it mean to be free? Is any being truly free? Is the mind free? If so, what might that mean socially, politically, and morally for the ways human beings live and work together?

Liberal education presents a special challenge for the human capacity to think because these questions have no simple or prepackaged answers. Merely understanding these questions and all they entail typically requires much time, effort, and reflection, and any possible answers are likely to be intrinsically disputable and greatly disputed.

The aim of liberal education is not merely to help us do something, but to help us understand something.

This leads some who are not liberally educated to dismiss liberal education because it is not especially “useful.” Indeed, liberal education is not especially useful in sailing a ship, curing an illness, or staving off the tax man in the way that the art or science of a pilot, medical doctor, or accountant is. That is because the aim of liberal education is not merely to help us do something, but to help us understand something, namely, ourselves and the world in which we live. Liberal education is education for its own sake—learning not for the sake of doing, but learning for the sake of understanding.

Liberal education, of course, has a stake in the political liberty without which there can be no liberal education. Thus, liberal education and political science reinforce one another; they are two sides of the same coin. Free minds study and teach the conditions of freedom so that free minds can continue to study and teach freely.

POLITICS OF LIBERTY

Political science arises from the fact that every human task is informed by some art or some science that instructs us how to do the task better. Each art produces a product or condition that is used for higher purposes. For example, the art of saddle-making produces saddles used by horsemen; the art of horsemanship produces riders who are used as cavalry by generals; the art of generalship is used by statesmen to secure victory in war.

But if each practical art serves a higher purpose than itself, is there one highest art that does not point beyond itself? Is there a comprehensive art that instructs and gives order to all other arts? According to no less an authority than Aristotle, whom Thomas Aquinas admiringly called, “The Philosopher,” there is one such art: political science.

Consider the military victory in war secured by the statesman. What should we do with that victory? Should we continue to make more war (we can always find new enemies, if needed) merely for the sake of war? The ancient Spartans, to name but one example, thought so, because they believed that victory in war is the highest human good of which there never can be enough.

Political science is the science of answering these highest practical questions by intensive study of human nature. In particular, political science teaches us that war is not the highest good; rather, war is in the service of something higher: the peace it might produce. But even peace is not the highest good. Once peace is won, we still must ask: What should we do with our peace?

A liberal arts-oriented political science answers that peace provides the opportunity to live well, to thrive and flourish, to be productive and creative, to improve our lives by striving freely for excellence of all kinds.

POLITICAL LIBERTY UNITED WITH LIBERAL EDUCATION

By studying political science within a framework of liberal education, we discover that all human action points to the good life, the happy life, the life of the active pursuit of excellence. This is also why political science teaches us that the character of citizens is inseparable from any free and decent political community in which they live. As George Washington explained in his First Inaugural Address, there is “an indissoluble union between virtue and happiness” woven right into the fabric of human nature.

Happiness requires good character because a people who lack good character will not be a happy people. Washington understood, as all good political scientists do, that as a free and prosperous society requires limited, constitutional government, so limited, constitutional government requires citizens who are self-restrained, independent, responsible, productive, and willing to extend trust to one another and deserving of trust themselves.

The opposite—citizens who are untrustworthy, unproductive, irresponsible, dependent, and unrestrained—is the material out of which a police state is made. It is the recipe for tyranny in the name of government management over our lives. And tyranny is the opposite of a liberal, free society. Tyranny is where liberal education dies. That is why liberal education requires liberal politics, and vice versa.