Marshall Gregory on Liberal Education

Here’s a lengthy but rich excerpt from an article by my late colleague Marshall Gregory:

Excerpt from Marshall Gregory, “Liberal Education vs. Professional Training, or, Liberal Education Knows a Hawk From a Handsaw,” CCTE Studies LXIII (September 1998): 1-16.

In my view, a skills curriculum is deeply culpable on at least one front in its lessons about life, for a skills curriculum carries the implicit but deeply demoralizing lesson that students in a skills-based curriculum are not worth society’s investment of any kind of education larger, broader, or more liberating than the skills needed for an immediate job. The lesson here is profoundly undemocratic in its social implications and potentially degrading in its personal implications. One of the always unsaid but significant features of the argument for a skills curriculum is that this curriculum is never advanced on principle as a universal recommendation for all schools and all students. Advocates of a skills curriculum always loudly target certain schools and certain students while they silently exempt certain other schools and certainother students. No skills advocate would think of suggesting that Harvard, Yale, Stanford, or the University of Chicago (my own graduate alma mater) should deprive students of an education in literature, science, philosophy, and the arts. These curricular deprivations are reserved for “lesser” schools and for community colleges. No one in England would argue for reshaping the curriculum at Cambridge and Oxford along skills-only lines. There is a sinister snobbery of intellect and class underlying the selection of those for whom a skills education is loudly recommended and those for whom it is silently not recommended. The silent presumption—silent because it is so demeaning, so politically undemocratic—is that students from lower-income families and lower social status can easily forego the general enrichment to their lives that an arts and humanities education yields to others. For my money, the governing educational idea of a skills curriculum resembles altogether too much the governing idea behind society in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World,where the politically controversial strategy of educating different classes of people for different classes of work is replaced by the biologically controversial strategy of breeding different classes of people for different kinds of work. But it’s all the same business of those in power making sure that there is a well stocked supply of uneducated and uncritical slobs around to do society’s scud work. . . .

The first great advantage of an arts and humanities curriculum is that the typical objects studied in it teach students both to recognize in the world and to cultivate within themselves a deep existential spirit of freedom and possibility. By “existential freedom” I do not mean to say that students of the arts and humanities learn particular views of or theories about political freedom. They may, but I am using “existential” in its root sense to refer to the most basic features and conditions of existence, and I am using “freedom” to refer to something different from and deeper than politics.

Both in the process by which arts and humanities objects are created and in the contents they express, these objects evade determinism and predictability. No one can ever predict, determine, or reduce to the operation of laws either how a poem, philosophical argument, or painting will be created or what it will say. Once an object of humanistic study has been created—an object, say, such as a breakthrough theorem in calculus or a Shakespearean sonnet or a new musical composition—that object teaches us the rightness of the placement and content of each of its parts and in that sense it seems predictable, but we only acquire this sense of the inevitability after we have seen the finished product. In the process of creation itself, the mathematician working on the theorem, Shakespeare working on his sonnet, or the composer working on her symphony literally does not know what is going to come next into his head or out of her mouth. No scheme of analysis or theory of creativity could ever have predicted that the opening line of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73, “That time of year thou mayst in me behold”, would be followed by “When yellow leaves, or none, or few, do hang / Upon those boughs which shake against the cold, / Bare ruined choirs where late the sweet birds sang.” The first line, “That time of year thou mayst in me behold,” could have been followed by comparisons to grass, to clocks, to the sun, to wind, to some kind of human activity, or to almost anything. Once we see what actually does follow we then see the rightness of it but we never could have predicted it because in the moments during which Shakespeare wrote his second, third, and fourth lines he was exercising a deep kind of existential freedom: the freedom to choose his next word one at a time, the freedom to choose his next image, the freedom, in short, to choose his next choice. In his capacity as a poet, as a maker of the kinds of objects studied in a liberal arts curriculum, Shakespeare is not predictable. There is no law of psychology or economics or history or sociology which would have allowed us to predict that in Sonnet 73 these words in this order would come into the world as a consequence of someone’s poetic choices or that William Shakespeare would be that poetic someone. Not even Shakespeare could have predicted it. He did not know what the specific lines of his sonnet were going to be until he had written them, and the unpredictability of that act of creation is paradigmatic of a deep spirit of existential freedom that lies at the heart of the objects studied in an arts and humanities curriculum.


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  • This is fantastic! One of the best arguments for liberal education I’ve read – I would like to share this with my students.

    • Please do! I am sure that Marshall would have been delighted for you to do so.

      • Steven Pounders

        I have recently been stepping out the box of my own field more often (I’m an associate professor, teaching acting classes in a theatre arts department), to work with student life on a few of the more holistic benefits of a liberal education.

        I instigated a fine arts living-learning center on campus a few years ago, in which students of theatre, art, music, and film (and some other students with related interests) opt to house together in one residential hall, share community activities and services, and engage in artistic work outside of their own disciplines. There is a committee of fine arts professors involved as well, and I’m a faculty-in-residence; my family and I live in the residence hall with the students and see them on a daily basis.

        One of the basic ideas behind a living-learning program is that students who live on campus and experience interaction with their peers and teachers outside the traditional classroom, tend to invest in learning as a lifestyle rather than simply going to classes as a means to an end.There are educational studies that seem to show quantifiable benefits in retention, grades, satisfaction surveys, etc.

        There is a related discussion you’ve been sharing in recent posts, which interests me as well: the question of whether academic freedom is viable at religious colleges and universities. I teach at Baylor University, and the topic has come up in debate on our campus a few times.

        • When the topic comes up in discussions on such campuses, I think that’s a good sign! 🙂

  • arcseconds

    I think I agree wholeheartedly with the general sentiment here — education is an intrinsic good, it should be available for all those that want it, presented in a way that makes it approachable rather than alienating, the focus shouldn’t be on ‘skills for the marketplace’ etc.

    But I do wonder whether this doesn’t end up becoming patronizing and hierarchical in its own way. Stop doing carpentry, start doing liberal arts, because carpentry doesn’t give you ‘existential freedom’.

    I’m not really convinced of the value of liberal arts over carpentry. A craft like carpentry doesn’t just give you employment, it also gives you an ability to interact with the world in a practical way which liberal arts does not. It allows you to shape your environment in a concrete way. Need a bookcase for all your liberal arts books? No problem, you can build one. Give one to your sister for Christmas for her mathematics books. This is existential freedom too, is it not? (What can a liberal arts major make someone for Christmas? An essay on Marshall McLuhan?)

    I also doubt that liberal arts is for everyone. People have different aptitudes and different motivations, and get enjoyment out of different things.

    If I might be permitted some cynicism here, what I wonder might be the case here is that we privilege liberal arts over carpentry in a large part precisely because it’s the sort of thing done at Cambridge rather than in a technical training school. Marshall Gregory wants to take the goodness to the people rather than reserving it for the upper crust, which is great, but if we’re imbuing liberal arts with amazing-sounding metaphysical properties whereas carpentry is a mere ‘skill’, even if we take liberal arts to the world and do it well, we’re still going to be looking down our noses at carpenters.

    • I do not think Marshall wanted to denigrate practical skills, but you do make a good point that it is possible to go to the other extreme and denigrate the practical. I am quite sure Marshall was approaching this in terms of university education as it exists in our time, when pretty much any university has liberal education historically woven into the educational experience it offers, unless it drops that as something not essential for people pursuing a professional track.

      To put it another way, the question I understood him to be addressing is whether the appreciation of poetry and literature and music are luxuries for a particular wealthy class, or bestow something that enriches the life of the carpenter as well as that of the poet.