Posted by: mrlock | May 31, 2014

Liberal Education and the nature of knowledge – P.H.Hirst

A positive definition of liberal education

Liberal education is frequently defined by what it is not. It is not vocational education. It is not training for a job. It is not exclusively scientific education or specialist education of any kind.

Liberal education is also often referred to as the type of education the author approves, at the same time as not being any of the above. It is often defined in response to a wholly negative set of conditions.

Hirst’s essay (published in The Philosophy of Education, edited by R.S.Peters, 1973 and elsewhere) is an attempt to give the concept of liberal education explicit positive content in order that it can be more useful for educational planning. It is this I want to try to explore and explain in this post.

A liberal education is an explicit teaching of the liberal arts – the subjects that were considered essential in Ancient Greece to play a full part in society – those of grammar, rhetoric, logic and extended to arithmetic, geometry, music and astronomy. It is intimately bound up with enabling humans to lead the good life. This in itself needs defining: Plato’s those that live the good life are those that seek out what is true, rather than what is immediately apparent. Those who seek knowledge, no matter how difficult the journey, are able to uncover the real truth, and hence what is really good. Those people can create a just society, for they are aware of the real truths of the world, and simultaneously aware of how these truths distort themselves and are hence understood by those who have not embarked on this pursuit of truth and hence knowledge.

I have said that I believe that people have a right and a responsibility to shape the world in their vision. I’m utterly committed to education both as a route to enable them to have that vision, committed to education as a method of enabling that vision to be good, and education as a tool to be able to shape the world in that vision.

Hirst explains that the Greek notion of liberal education was rooted in doctrines surrounding the significance of knowledge for the mind and the relationship between knowledge and reality.

The achievement of knowledge satisfies and fulfils the mind which thereby attains its own appropriate end. The pursuit of knowledge is thus the pursuit of the good of the mind and, therefore, an essential element in the good life… the achievement of knowledge… (is) the chief means whereby the good life as a whole is to be found…

…the mind, in the right use of reason, comes to know the essential nature of things and can apprehend what is ultimately real and immutable. Consequently, man no longer needs to live in terms of deceptive appearances and doubtful opinions and beliefs. All his experiences, life, and thought can be given shape and perspective by what is finally true, by knowledge that corresponds to what is ultimately real.

Liberal education is about pursuit of knowledge. More specifically, there is an objective range, structure and content of education determined by the forms of knowledge and how they relate hierarchically.

It further follows that:

Firstly, such an education is based on what is true and not on uncertain opinion and beliefs or temporary values. It therefore has a finality which no other form of education has. Secondly, knowledge itself being a distinctive human virtue, liberal education has a value for the person as the fulfilment of the mind, a value which has nothing to do with utilitarian or vocational considerations. Thirdly, because of the significance of knowledge in the determination of the good life as a whole, liberal education is essential to man’s understanding of how he ought to live, both individually and socially.

I might say education of and for its own sake.

A liberal education is liberal because it is the education of those that are free, and simultaneously frees the mind to function according to it’s true nature, “freeing reason from error and illusion and freeing man’s conduct from wrong”.

There is something about education that entails learning about values. These values have changed through time, according to minority interests, region, or who one’s teacher is. The point here, is where do these values derive from? Hirst suggests that there might be a objective basis for values that determine education, what he calls the “final ground for determining values”.

there has arisen the demand for an education whose definition and justification are based on the nature and significance of knowledge itself, and not on the predilections of the pupils, the demands of society, or the whims of politicans.

Against a middle road between skills and knowledge:

I have seen many commentators refer to the debate around whether schools should teach knowledge or skills suggest that in actual fact this is ‘a false dichotomy’ and the reality is that ‘we need a bit of both’. While being an apparently sensible position of compromise, I suggest that there is no such thing as skills as expressed in this debate. Skills are just two or more piece of knowledge rubbing against each other (as someone I can’t remember so can’t attribute the quote to said). Knowledge leads to skills, but they’re not distinct. I therefore don’t think it’s about a bit of both and I think the compromise is wrong-headed.

Hirst also engages in this debate. He writes about the Harvard report – pointing out that the doctrines about the mind, knowledge and reality might be too speculative a starting point for educational planning, and so we might want to re-examine an education defined entirely in terms of the scope and character of knowledge:

knowledge is achieved when the mind attains its own satisfaction or good by corresponding to objective reality. A liberal education is therefore seeking the development of the mind according to what is external to it.

As long as knowledge is developing the mind in ways that are desirable, this is fine. However, if there is a challenge – that knowledge does not allow this positive development and framing of the mind, we might have to redefine education in order to address the values and character of the mind that we are aiming for.

Hirst thinks the Harvard report does this, but is wrong and wrongheaded. In effect, Hirst, I think, is saying that the authors of the Harvard report have compromised too quickly. This is his criticism of the Harvard report: that it weakens the value of knowledge as significant for the mind. The Harvard report was an effort to downplay the importance of knowledge, while paradoxically simultaneously claiming that it is important – it says for example that knowledge and the mind are in reflection of each other. However, the clear emphasis in the report is on the development of the mind rather than on the knowledge required to do that.

The Harvard report refers to abilities such as self-control, fair play, making value judgements, moral qualities like candour, intellectual values such as love of truth and aesthetic values like good taste. These are the types of cultivation that are promoted for the mind. Three types of knowledge- the natural sciences, the humanities and social studies are identified as the knowledge preferred in order to cultivate them, but the aim is still ‘the cultivation of the human mind’.

Hirst rails against this. The phrase used by Hirst which might now be called transferable skills (such as creativity, independence and so on) is effective thinking:

In the first place, the notion that a liberal education can be directly characterized in terms of mental abilities and independently of fully specifying the forms of knowledge involved is, I think, false. It is a result of a misunderstanding of the ways in which mental abilities are in fact distinguishable. From what is said of ‘effective thinking’, it is perfectly plain that the phrase is being used as a label for mental activity which results in an achievement of some sort… the solving of a mathematical problem, responsibly deciding who to vote for, satisfactorily analysing a work of art. Indeed there can be effective thinking only when the outcome of mental activity can be recognised and judged by those who have appropriate skills and knowledge, for otherwise the phrase has no significant application

As I’ve seen many others do more recently, and cognitive psychologists such as Daniel Willingham have illustrated more effectively, Hirst points out that skills are domain specific:

In the second place, the use of broad, general terms for these abilities serves in fact to unify misleadingly quite disparate achievements. For the public criteria whereby the exercise of any one of these abilities is to be judged are not all of a piece. Those that under the banner of ‘effective thinking’ are appropriate in, say, aesthetic appreciation are, apart from certain very general considerations, inappropriate in say, mathematical thinking. In each case the criteria are peculiar to the particular area of knowledge concerned. Similarly, for instance, ‘communication’ in the sciences has only certain very basic features in common with ‘communication’ in poetic terms.

And by further analogy

to talk of developing ‘effective thinking’ is like talking of developing ‘successful games playing’. Plainly that unifying label is thoroughly misleading when what constitutes playing cricket has practically nothing in common with what constitutes playing tiddly-winks….

It is vitally important to realize the very real objective differences that there are in forms of knowledge, and therefore in our understanding of mental processes that are related to these.

And as I’ve read Willingham, Daisy Christodoulou and dozens of bloggers write, Hirst wrote before these:

Maybe this unfortunate desire to use unifying concepts is a relic of the time when all forms of knowledge were thought to be similar, if not identical, in logical structure and it was though that the ‘laws of logic’ reflected the precise psychological operations involved in valid thinking

The QCDA version of the national curriculum, with Personal Learning and Thinking Skills, and the Learning to Learn movement of the early 2000s comes to mind.

Hirst is using the Harvard report as a counterpoint to the idea that studying one science, for example, in depth, can be the foundation of a curriculum that allows humans to access the good life and shape society, for what is required is a broad academic knowledge based curriculum. Studying one major science cannot lead to these transferable skills, because they do not transfer. Hirst continues to rail against the concept of ‘imaginative thinking’ expressed in the Harvard report. I could bring to mind any number of critiques of Ken Robinson’s work as something similar:

Even if these forms of thinking can be satisfactorily defined, it remains to be shown that each of them demands the exercise of one distinct but general ability and that this ability can be developed in one particular area of human learning. Generally speaking there is little such evidence. What there is on transfer of training suggests that it occurs only where there is marked logical similarity in the elements studied

Asserting what Liberal Education is

Logically then, liberal education must be fully worked out in terms of knowledge. Not just a collection of facts, but “the complex ways of understanding experience which man has achieved, which are publicly specifiable and which are gained through learning”.

This of course develops the mind and its qualities and abilities, but it the form of education is fully worked out in terms of knowledge. Drawing attention to these qualities has the opportunity cost of identifying the differences as these qualities occur in different disciplines.

Hirst promotes a liberal education which is

concerned with certain specified forms of knowledge, the essential characteristic of which are then detailed explicitly as far as possible, is to be given a clear understanding of the concept and one which is unambiguous as to the forms of thinking, judgement, imagination and communication it involves.

I couldn’t agree more. It’s one of the reasons I have a lot of time for the idea of a Hirschian Common Core curriculum.

The Harvard report is not the only differing concept of liberal education that Hirst challenges. It is worth reading the essay to get a better understanding of the debate Hirst was immersing himself in, including with the Gulbenkian Foundation report. Hirst is engaged in a 1970s polemic against those who are willing to cede any ground whatsoever from a knowledge based curriculum to have any explicit aim of developing skills.

It’s not ‘a bit of both‘. We need a knowledge based liberal curriculum full stop.

Objectivity of a liberal education

Hirst spends some time justifying a knowledge based education referring to shared schema amongst humans and it being through the truth of knowledge that we can understand complex emotions – that the rooting of these, for example, is based in knowledge. Hence knowledge is the public aspects of how the human experience is shaped.

A form of knowledge is then, a distinct way in which human experience is structured around accepted use of public symbols. These have shared meaning and are testable against experiences. By testing symbolic expressions, experience can be probed further via elaboration of the use of symbols. It is therefore possible for individual experience to fully structured and fully understood.

He also claims liberal education to be the ultimate and objective form of education.

It is a necessary feature of knowledge that there be public criteria whereby the true is distinguishable from the false, the good from the bad, the right from the wrong. It is the existence of these criteria which gives objectivity to knowledge; and this in its turn gives objectivity to the concept of liberal education…

Further, as the determination of the good life is now considered to be itself the pursuit of a particular form of rational knowledge, that in which what ought to be done is justified by the giving of reasons, this is seen as a necessary part of a liberal education. And as all other forms of knowledge contribute in their way to moral understanding, the concept as a whole is once more given a kind of justification in its importance for the moral life. But this justification, like that of objectivity, no longer has the distinct significance which it once had, for it is again simply a necessary consequence of what the pursuit of knowledge entails. Nevertheless liberal education remains basic to the freeing of human conduct from wrong.

The importance of subject knowledge to learn knowledge

I’ve heard enough teachers claim they are teachers of children rather than teachers of disciplines. I beg to differ. If we are to induct people into the conversation of mankind, we need masters:

The art of scientific investigation, the forming of historical explanation, the appreciation of a poem: all of these activities are high arts that are not in themselves communicable simply by words. Acquiring knowledge of any form is therefore to a greater or less extent something that cannot be done simply by solitary study of the symbolic expressions of knowledge, it must be learnt from a master on the job. No doubt it is because the forms require particular training of this kind in distinct worlds of discourse, because they necessitate the development of high critical standards according to complex criteria, because they involve our coming to look at experience in particular ways, that we refer to them as disciplines. They are indeed disciplines that form the mind.

While Hirst spends some time demarking the disciplines according to different criteria (and pointing out that some may consider the arts to not be a form knowledge at all), his conclusions on the distinctive disciplines are:

In summary, then, it is suggested that the forms of knowledge as we have them can be classified as follows

(1) Distinct disciplines or forms of knowledge (subdivisible): mathematics, physical sciences, human sciences, history, religion, literature, and the fine arts, philosophy

(2) Fields of knowledge: theorietical, practical (these may or may not include elements of moral knowledge

It is the distinct disciplines that basically constitute the range of unique ways we have of understanding experience if to these is added the category of moral knowledge

How to deliver a liberal education

Curricular can’t be constructed solely in terms of information and isolated skills. They need to introduce pupils to interrelated aspects of basic forms of knowledge, each of the several disciplines. They must also cover the range of knowledge as a whole (though this is inevitably sampled, as Hirst goes on to show). They must be broad.

The aim of liberal education is comprehensive, but not encyclopaedic, and as said at the start of this blog, it is not after the specialist knowledge of, for example, one science.

What is being sought is, first, sufficient immersion in the concepts, logic, and criteria of the discipline for a person to come to know the distinctive way in which it ‘works’ by pursuing these in particular cases; and then sufficient generalization of these over the whole range of the discipline so that his experience begins to be widely structured in this distinctive manner…

It is the ability to recognize empirical assertions or aesthetic judgements for what they are, and to know the kind of considerations on which their validity will depend that matters. Beyond this an outline of the major achievements in each area provides some grasp of the range and scope of experience that has thus become intelligible.

And then, importantly I think

the study of a discipline as part of liberal education contributes practically nothing directly to any specialist study of it, though it does serve to put the specialism in a much wider context

We don’t learn to be scientists by aping what expert scientists do, mathematicians who are experts did not operate in the same way when they were learning the basics of mathematics (like multiplication tables). Those considered brilliant in literary critique didn’t become like that by engaging in a kind of junior form of that occupation during their education before learning anything else about literature. We do expect our schools, however, to give genuine insight so that pupils can come to think and operate within those disciplines as experts once they have been inducted into the conversation.

Hirst points out that we should be wary of assigning an inherent logical structure of a discipline. This entails that we might identify the learning of a discipline as a series of intellectual steps, and though there is a grain of truth in there, there is a huge amount of error. As Hirst says, this confuses logical processes with psychological processes.

understanding a form of knowledge is far more like coming to know a country than climbing a ladder. Some places in a territory may only be get-at-able by a single specified route and some forms of knowledge may have concepts and relations that cannot be understood without first understanding certain others. But that countries are explorable only in one way is in general false, and even in mathematics, the most strictly sequential form of knowledge we have, many ways of coming to know the territory are possible.

Liberal education must be designed so that fields of knowledge are chosen because in combination they can be used to develop understanding of all the various forms of knowledge. To be a liberal education, steps must be taken to ensure that this end is achieved. It is not a liberal education unless the aim of gaining the fullest possible grasp of the disciplines is at the fore of its implementation. There must be no misapprehension from the teacher that this is not the purpose of education. This is not to say that forms of specialist, physical or character education might not be desirable in addition to a liberal education, but we must not be confused about the aims of a liberal education, nor dilute them.

It is so easy for schools to claim they have a ‘broad, balanced curriculum’, perhaps I might posit, sometimes incorrectly. I don’t think any school would admit to not delivering that. Broad, balanced knowledge is the embryo of a liberal education. There are some lessons for primary schools in my view here too. I would love primary schools to develop the embryo of a liberal education.

in such a basic primary education, the ever growing range of a child’s experience and the increasing use of linguistic and symbolic forms lays the foundation for the various modes of understanding, scientific, historicial, religious moral and so on. Out of this general pool of knowledge the disciplines have slowly become ever more differentiated and it is this that the student must come to understand, not confusing the forms of knowledge by appreciating them for what they are in themselves, and recognizing their necessary limitations.

I visited a primary school last month that delivers a Hirschian curriculum. I can’t begin to describe how much I wish the school my daughters will be attending delivered something similar. Unfortunately, we don’t live close enough.

As I have referred to before Michael Oakeshott is clearest on the outcomes of a liberal education. For him various forms of knowledge are seen as voices in a conversation, and these voices contribute in a distinctive manner. Hirst ends his essay with my favourite passage from Oakeshott, and I’m going to end this blog with the same passage, hoping that it has given you pause for thought on the curriculum we deliver in our schools:

As civilized human beings, we are the inheritors, neither of an inquiry about ourselves and the world, not of an accumulating body of information, but of a conversation, begun in the primeval forests and extended and made more articulate in the course of centuries. It is a conversation which goes on both in public and within each of ourselves. Of course there is argument and inquiry and information, but wherever these are profitable they are to be recognized as passages in this conversation, and perhaps they are not the most capitivating of the passages… conversation is not an enterprise designed to yield an extrinsic profit, a contest where a winner gets a prize, not is it an activity of exegesis; it is an unrehearsed intellectual adventure…

…Education, properly speaking, is an initiation into the skill and partnership of this conversation in which we learn to recognize the voices, to distinguish the proper occasions of utterance, and in which we acquire the intellectual and moral habits appropriate to conversation. And it is this conversation which, in the end, gives place and character to every human activity and utterance.


This blog is the third in a series on the liberal philosophers of education. Here are the links

The first, an introduction.

The second, which was Hirst again on What is Teaching?




  1. Reblogged this on The Echo Chamber.


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