Why the classical liberal arts?

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By Hywel Jones, Headteacher

At the heart of a classical liberal arts education is the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake. At the West London Free School we want our pupils to acquire a broad general knowledge of the world around them by studying traditional academic subjects, and to be immersed in an intellectual environment where knowledge beyond the curriculum is constructed through reading, questioning, lectures and seminars. The concept of a “core subject” is absent in a classical liberal arts education: ancient and modern languages, history, classics, geography, literature, music and art all contribute to a fuller understanding of the physical and human world, as much as the natural sciences and mathematics. Yet, just as academic scholars continue to refine and debate the fruits of their research, and just as artists continue to create and re-interpret within their traditions, so pupils, being introduced to the foothills of such traditions, have to be engaged in a vibrant, dynamic process. Their knowledge is never complete: it is tentative and shifting as it is accumulated and refined through continual study and debate.

The accumulation of knowledge is not a means to an end but an end in itself. RS Peters emphasised the contrast between a liberal arts education and other concepts of education when he stated with reference to the crude instrumentality of education policy in the 1960s that ‘a politician or administrator, in an economic frame of mind, might think of education as the means by which a supply of trained manpower is supplied’. His point resonates in the present when so many treat schools as have the principal purpose of preparing children for ‘jobs that do not yet exist’. Education until the age of 16 should not have employability as its driving outcome; it should instead have as its aim that pupils become more knowledgeable about the world we inhabit.

A classical liberal arts education has also traditionally existed in order to free people from the control of the church and the state. Rather than reproducing a prescribed dogma, a liberal education is based on the knowledge produced by academic institutions and the intellectual heritage passed down between generations. The autonomy that either free school or academy status confers to pursue a liberal arts ethos entails a responsibility to ensure effective curriculum leadership. The role of a Headteacher and other senior leaders thus includes the rigorous evaluation of the content that is taught in each subject. High expectations have to be held with regard to the complexity of the sequencing of knowledge within and between each subject. A liberal arts approach concentrates on the ‘what’ not the ‘how’, focusing on the best that has been thought and said.

The outcome of the classical liberal arts education for pupils of all backgrounds and abilities is an intellectual life of active involvement in society. A liberal education should foster the bonds of civil association and induct young people into the conversation of mankind. Michael Oakeshott’s reflections focus our attention on what matters: to reflect on human experience in all its joy, pain and tragedy. A liberal education offers no short fixes, no panaceas and no axioms. Instead it develops a life of thought, rigour and contemplation.

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