Oakeshott’s Countercultural Education

Elizabeth Corey:

Martyn Thompson has observed correctly that nearly everything Oakeshott wrote had something to do with education, or at least implied a certain vision of it. His most explicit thoughts about education appear in a collection of arresting and sometimes beautiful essays, edited by Timothy Fuller, entitled The Voice of Liberal Learning. Although Oakeshott is known as a political philosopher, not so much as a philosopher of education, he had radical and fresh views about university education that were unusual in his day and even more so in ours.

Those of us who are involved in liberal education are often put on the defensive by adversaries. These adversaries want to professionalize or politicize the universities; and sometimes they reject or refuse to understand “knowledge as an end in itself,” to borrow John Henry Newman’s famous formulation. Even certain allies—earnest lecturers prone to giving well-intentioned but tedious exhortations about the goods of the humanities—sometimes do more harm than good in their attempts to inspire young people to pursue a life (or at least an interval) of learning. Contemporary writing about liberal education thus often tends toward the defensive, the preachy, or the simply boring.

Oakeshott’s vision of liberal learning, in contrast, offers the prospect of intellectual and moral adventure. His essays are full of varied and enticing invitations to self-understanding. He suggests that individuals might achieve an elegant fluency in thought and speech that comes through learning the “languages” or “modes” of history, science, practical life, and aesthetics.

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