Liberal, utilitarian or progressive: ideas on what makes up a good education


By Jennie Thomas

Date Posted: Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Jennie Thomas is a mother, a wife and a teacher.


Liberal, utilitarian or progressive: ideas on what makes up a good education


I remember my history teacher telling me that our education system in the United Kingdom is based on liberal ethics and that our children are first and foremost provided with an education which is for the sake of education rather than vocation. I deduced from her observation that the epigraph for a liberal education seemed to be “an education is for edification rather than qualification.”   Now that my sons are recipients of such an education, I have become interested in this notion of a “liberal education” and concerned to find out if it is fit for the purpose of preparing them for what lies ahead in their lives. Since this is an article for the goodenoughcaring Journal I want to assure you that I have no wish to diminish the purpose and fun of boyhood and its opportunity for daylong play and yearlong play. I may say also that as a recently qualified teacher I am have an interest in what ethos underpins the work that I do.


A liberal education

A conflation of definitions of a liberal education might be that it is an education based primarily on the liberal arts, emphasizing the development of intellectual abilities as opposed to the acquisition of professional skills.  The notion of a liberal education system stems from ancient Greek philosophers such as Isocrates and Aristotle and was taken up by Roman thinkers such as Cicero. The liberal education system saw a revival in 12th century England with the work of St Thomas Aquinas serving to unite the tradition of Aristotelian logic with Christian faith. It was, at that time, an education carried out substantially in the classic languages of Greek, Latin and of course the language of Mathematics (Pratt,1992). Perhaps thankfully, this part of a liberal education is a tradition which is no longer prevalent.  It is an idea of education, which has been criticised in our era of universal education for being elitist in its approach. These naysayers ask  “What purpose is there to teaching old texts or pure mathematics to children who will be finding jobs in, for example, the local call centre?”  A good question, which leads me to wonder what education should be.


A useful approach

As is often the case, one question leads to another and one that springs to mind, when I ask myself about what  education should be,  is, “Is the main objective of an education to educate the child for his own benefit or to produce a useful member of society?”  While accepting the attraction of the liberal idea that, as Hutchins (1953) grandly suggests, “the object of an education system…. is not to produce hands for industry or to teach the young how to make a living. It is to produce responsible citizens,” I am also attracted by some of the critics of a liberal education and by this I do not only mean those who are concerned about the education of call centre workers. John Locke one of the first to disdain a liberal education believed that education should have the aims of producing individuals who fit conveniently into their social and economic environment. He opposed the supposition that education for its own sake would produce a moral individual. He believed the aim of education should be utilitarian and that skills developed should be ones with a practical purpose. He was dismissive of the idea that learning Latin should be treated as of equal importance to being able to write and speak well in one’s own language. “If,” he said, “a gentleman be to study his own language, it ought to be that of his own country, that he may understand the language which he has constant use of, with the utmost accuracy” (Locke,1693). Please notice the use of the word “gentleman.” Utilitarian he might be but Locke’s ideas were still imbued in the culture of a society defined by a social class system. I’ll return to the issue of elitism later. Locke was also a supporter of teaching what have been called the Enlightenment studies of science and of a broader based mathematics. For him the teaching of music and poetry was of no purpose. As parents we may feel that had Locke’s views on this prevailed we might have saved all that money we spent on that violin or that piano that we had to buy for the bairns, but surely we would have lost too much if play, imagination and creativity were taken from the classroom. It is sad to hear that so many schools are cutting down on the study and playing of music along with many other creative activities.


The Dewey eyed progressives

My view is that the influential American educationalist John Dewey tried to build a bridge between the two camps of “liberal” on the one hand and  “utilitarian” on the other. I also think he saw that implicit in both traditions was the potential for learning by rote in the Gradgrindian view of education, “Now what I want are the facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but facts. Facts alone are wanted in life” (Dickens,1854).

John Dewey thought rote learning limited the development of analytical skills and believed that teachers should be facilitators of learning rather than masters of students. Typical of the Dewey mantra is,

It is the business of the school to set up an environment in which play and work shall be conducted with reference to facilitating desirable mental and moral growth. It is not enough just to introduce plays and games, hand work and manual exercises. Everything depends upon the way in which they are employed.” And the subjects to be taught should be physically engaging and practical: “There is work with paper, cardboard, wood, leather, cloth, yarns, clay and sand, and the metals, with and without tools. Processes employed are folding, cutting, pricking, measuring, molding, modeling, pattern-making, heating and cooling, and the operations characteristic of such tools as the hammer, saw, file, etc. Outdoor excursions, gardening, cooking, sewing, printing, book-binding, weaving, painting, drawing, singing, dramatization, story-telling, reading and writing as active pursuits with social aims (not as mere exercises for acquiring skill for future use), in addition to a countless variety of plays and games, designate some of the modes of occupation (Dewey,1916).

Dewey’s  theories criticised teaching methods as much as content.  He believed in experiential learning. He did not think being told something is true was as effective as physically experiencing something to be true.
Dewey I think would have been concerned about some developments in current national education systems in which schools are given a prescribed curriculum to follow, and where targets and criteria for success are defined centrally rather than within schools. He may have felt that in such a system where there is little scope for schools to develop innovative teaching methods, the opportunities to encourage children to think creatively or to learn from experience would be severely limited.

The Dewey tradition has often been described as “progressive” and the progressive movement, if I am permitted to describe it as this has many celebrated members. Among those I would include the Scottish educationalist, A.S. Neill who felt children were limited by adult society’s desire to manipulate them in order to maintain the cultural status quo. Neill felt that this limited children’s opportunities to grow both psychologically and socially. He believed children should have more scope for making decisions about their lives and schooling. He thought they should learn at their own pace and to a large extent develop their own curriculum. Neil wanted to educate children to become confident to question things rather than accept the handed down script. For him children understood things better if they discovered and explored things for themselves. It was the adult’s role to facilitate this.

What I have labelled “The progressive movement” has its opponents. Indeed they are legion and I conclude that being shouted down is the fate of those who challenge the accepted order. In my view the most temperate and balanced of these critics of progressive education is Michael Oakshott (2001) who argues that allowing children to learn at their own pace in a way which is more akin to free play blurs children’s distinction between school and the outside world to such an extent that school becomes nothing more than a “community centre” that is absorbed into the adult world.
Oakshott also took against the idea of teaching only what is useful to society. He thought this reduced education to mere socialization, susceptible to political social engineering in which, according to whatever the current political creed is,  “the needs of the nation”can be satisfied in no other way”; thus condemning many children to an education which for them will be “an unprofitable engagement.”


Elitism in education

Before attempting to try to make navigable sense of the avenues I have explored in my quest to find out what an education should be, I want briefly to examine the claim that the classic liberal education is elitist, that it is for many children “an unprofitable engagement.”  It is often said to be unsuitable for poorer or less able children who are perceived to be either incapable of grasping the subject matter or will find it irrelevant as they will as adults be too busy working in unskilled jobs facing unemployed poverty to spend time on analytical thinking (Oakshott, 2001). Nonetheless during the 20th and now the 21st century it is generally accepted by proponents of traditional or progressive systems of education that all children and adults should have access to education. Ignoring my immediate thought that it was so noble of the men to decide that the female sex had developed to the extent that it is now able to benefit from an education, and I am nonetheless wondering how can it be claimed that our current education system is elitist? Well, let me think of some of the ways it might be considered so. The wealthy have access to schools that are too expensive for poorer folks to send their children. I hear one of the new, soon to be opened  “free” schools managed by local parents and advocated and financially supported by the United Kingdom government’s current minister responsible for education matters, Michael Gove, has decided that it will not accept children from a particular local housing estate (Lyons, 2011). The system of streaming children in classes within schools and the allocating of education based on intellect has also been considered as elitist. Educational resources for children excluded from school are under-resourced in comparison with mainstream education. However in my view it is the poverty that many children have to face in their daily lives, which may be the principal driver for the claim that our education system is elitist. It may argued that we have a system which makes inadequate allowance for children who have few resources at home to support their studies, for children who are reluctant to attend school because their clothes are in poor repair, for children who cannot concentrate because they are hungry and for children who have to care for their parents and siblings. I am sure that my list is not an exhaustive one.


Creating an education system fit for all children

At first glance it would appear sensible and appropriate that a system of education would aim to serve all its children as equably as possible. We may have to accept that it will not be perfect because human beings are involved in its development.  One of the obstacles we face is that in current world cultures which predominantly emphasise the significance of order and which limit significant material wealth to a powerful yet still small minority it is difficult to avoid restricting the development of the child by focusing the education system on a narrow set of requirements of the prevailing culture.  Where this abuse of power is carried out overtly it can be challenged. It is its exercise in subtle ways, for example through often polite behaviour which nevertheless defends and reinforces a class system based on affluence which is difficult to change and so is very potent.

On the other hand we like to say that modern society, the human community, culture, call it what you will, is dynamic. I can accept aspects of this view particularly when we consider the technologically driven increase in the different methods by which we can communicate with each other.  We are also constantly changing and adapting to environmental, social, economic and other technological developments.  A strategy for education that appeared beneficial in one era might well prove irrelevant or even damaging in another.  If the focus of education is tailored to the ideologies of whoever are the current political leaders then this has implications for those who received an education under previous political leaders. An education system geared solely to the needs of society is very vulnerable to political change particularly in democratic systems such as the United Kingdom where with the election of a new government it possible for the focus of education to be completely re-designed every 4 or 5 years. These changes are often so dramatic that a great deal of the impetus in our teaching is lost and time used up while a completely new set of rules is implemented. I am reminded here of some wise words from Bertrand Russell(1950):

The teacher, like the artist, the philosopher and the man of letters, can only perform his work adequately if he feels himself to be an individual directed by an inner creative impulse, not dominated and fettered by an outside authority.

From this we might conclude that a sensible system of education should have some immunity from political change at the same time as absorbing new methods of teaching and technological and environmental changes which are relevant to children. This was a position Kelly (1977) was advocating when he suggested that the development of the curriculum in schools should be a process of natural evolution rather than a revolution. This is the work of a confident, outlooking, creative and well trained teaching force responding to the needs of its local community as well as to culture of the wider community. It is not work for politicians and powerbrokers.



Dewey, J.(1916)  Democracy and Education/Section 15: Play and Work in the Community  retrieved from on May 3rd, 2011.

Dickens, C. (1854) Hard Times  London, Wordsworth 2000.

Hutchins, R.M. (1953) The University of Utopia, Chicago, The University of Chicago PressKelly, A.V. (1977)  The Curriculum: Theory and Practice,  London, Sage: third revised edition.

Locke, J. (1693) Some Thoughts Concerning Education  Vol. XXXVII, Part 1, New York: P.F. Collier & Son, 1909–14;, 2001.

Lyons, J. (2011) ‘Poor kids snubbed by new “bankers” school set up with public cash’ in Daily Mirror, 14th January, 2001, retrieved from  .

Neill, A.S. (1960) Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing , London, Penguin, 1962.

Oakshott, M. (2001) The Voice of Liberal Learning, Indianapolis, Liberty Fund Inc.    

Pratt.M. (1992) “Humanities for the Future: Reflections on Western Culture Debate at Stanford” in The Politics of Modern Culture (eds. Gless, D.J. & Herrnstein Smith, B.)  USA, Duke University Press.

Russell, B. (1950) Unpopular Essays, London, George Allen & Unwin.



Jeremy Millar  writes,

Organised education similar to organised religion can not be divorced from ideological influence from whomever is politically prevailing at any given point. It is my impression that discussion of the educational life space and what children want seldom enters the arena of public debate. Some people hark back to the ‘best days of my life’ learning latin under fear of the scud, or rail against the injustices heaped upon them for daring to question the wisdom of the educators. Policy is progressed on the experiences and unresolved trauma and elitist smugness of preceding generations. Michael Gove, case in point.
If we listen to children, they want to feel safe, not be treated differently, always to be treated fairly and have fun. They wish to have significant adults take an interest in their endeavours and offer consistent praise for their efforts.
Not much to ask for or for well educated compassionate adults to deliver along side loving and supportive parent/carers. We as adults must work really hard not achieve this simple goals. Do we really, as a society, dislike children this much?On a lighter note I would abandon formal education and let BBC radio 4,3, regional, Alba, a little 2 but no 1, educate the children. Listen to all of  the ‘In our time’ programmes and your education would be pretty much complete. Although the psychological damage of exposure to Melvyn Bragg may offset the benefits.