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Peer-Review Record

Reclaiming Liberal Education

Educ. Sci. 2019, 9(4), 264;
Reviewer 1: Stephen R. C. Hicks
Reviewer 2: Anonymous
Reviewer 3: Howard Woodhouse
Educ. Sci. 2019, 9(4), 264;
Received: 22 August 2019 / Revised: 7 October 2019 / Accepted: 30 October 2019 / Published: 31 October 2019

Round 1

Reviewer 1 Report

This is a solid overview of liberal education -- both its themes and its classical and contemporary advocates and detractors -- and a clear identification of its current relevance and, in the light of criticisms, what needs to be updated. 

The summaries of Hirst and Oakeshott are especially useful. 



Author Response

The reviewer has not raised any questions in regard to the article.

I would like to thank the reviewer for taking the time to read this paper.

Reviewer 2 Report

Does the introduction provide sufficient background and include all relevant references?

The introduction begins to set the scene for the essay when it is stressed that while “any conception of education is contestable”, it is essential to be able to answer questions about education. What is lacking in the introduction, it seems to me, is…

1) a clear statement of the overall purpose of the essay, i.e. to articulate and defend an updated conception of the value of liberal education (this should be easy to do);

2) a more substantial introduction to what is meant by “contemporary reality”. Later on we learn that the world is “complex and globalized”; that’s true, but I still think this notion is underdeveloped given the significance of the claim that an update of the concept of liberal education is forced on us because the world is “rapidly changing”.  


Is the research design appropriate?

The basic research design is in principle fine. The author begins with a influential understanding of liberal education and then argues that it needs updating in the light of contemporary reality and relevant critiques.  


Are the methods adequately described?

Yes, to some extent. At least the reader can understand the methodological and conversational context in which the argument is offered by looking at the references which generally come from anglo-american philosophy of education.


Scientific Soundness

What is most lacking with regard to scientific soundness is a stronger explanation of where in the current literature the present work fits in. It is not sufficiently clear how the author’s views differ from the views of other researchers whose work is related: Jane Roland Martin is mentioned, for example, but it would be interesting to know where exactly the author departs from her work. One might also mention Mulcahy’s work. There are many similarities between his paper ‘What Should It Mean to Have a Liberal Education in the 21st Century?’ (from 2009) and the present one, for example. Nussbaum’s work is briefly mentioned, but not really used, though it would seem relevant to do so.


Originality / Novelty

The idea that the notion of liberal education needs updating is not new. For references to the relevant debate, see e.g. the essay by Mulcahy mentioned above. There may be something new here, but if so it does not come out clearly enough.    


Are the results clearly presented?

To some extent. The overall thrust of the argument is clear, but I don’t think the essay lives up to the standard of clarity one might hope for when one begins to look at the details. For example…

1) In lines 530-551, the claims made about objectivity do not seem entirely coherent. It may be easily fixed, perhaps, but there is still some work to do.

2) A few times, the author argues that in order for an education to be truly liberal, it must free the mind “from any constraint” (lines 457, 488). At the same time, the significance of moral values in teaching and of educating the student to take responsibility seem like constraints of some sort.


Are the conclusions supported by the results?

In the conclusion, the author suggests that liberal education in the US is in decline. Perhaps, but what about Europe? There is no reference to the renewed interest in liberal education that have played a significant role in continental Europe in the past 30 years, and in the UK during the past 5-10 years. Even if the author is primarily interested in mandatory education, claims about the need for an updated notion of liberal education should in principle take into consideration current relevant practice, but there is no engagement with the rapidly developing liberal arts scene in European higher education. I am not saying that the paper should be updated with this material, the more meaningful move would be to tone down the conclusions and their significance.


Significance of Content / Interest to the readers

The issues dealt with are very important, and the general thrust of the argument is still an important one, but I am not convinced this adds much that is new to the ongoing conversations about liberal education. I also think it would make sense to make it clear that there is a lot of potentially relevant theory and practice that has not been considered.  

Author Response

I would like to thank the reviewer for his/her comments/suggestions, with which i totally agree, as can be seen from my responses below.  


Point 1: A clear statement of the overall purpose of the essay. 

Point 2: A more substantial introduction to what is meant by “contemporary reality”.

I have included two whole new paragraphs in the introduction. In it i have also made reference to the fact that my paper is in line with recent scholarship on liberal education and included reference to both Mulcahy's and Nussbaum's work. And i explained briefly why we need to reclaim Liberal Education especially nowadays. More specifically i have included the following two paragraphs:

The purpose of this essay is to articulate and defend an updated concept of liberal education for mandatory education, based on the ideas of three British philosophers of education, namely, Paul Hirst, Richard Stanley Peters, and Michael Oakeshott. Even though the meaning of liberal education can be debated, as it has been, over the centuries (due to society’s changing educational ideas), the writings of the above three philosophers can help delineate a concept of liberal education that can be updated and be relevant to all education levels, and in line with recent scholarship in the field of education [9, 10, 11].The need for such an updated concept of liberal education is imperative given the fact that students live, and will also work in the near future, in a complex and globalized world. Nussbaum’s notion of “inclusive global citizenship” necessitates a new approach to liberal education [10]. As she argued, citizens in an “interlocking world” need to develop “imaginative understanding”, that is, the ability “to think what it might be like to be in the shoes of a person different from oneself” (p. 43). Such “narrative imagination” is of crucial importance if our goal is to help students transcend barriers set up by both physical and cultural distance, as well as by distrust. And this ability needs to be considered by an updated concept of liberal education. In short, liberal education should become more humanistic and inclusive.

Also, as I will discuss later in this paper, liberal education should be more critical, in the sense that it fosters the development, not only of critical thinking but also of critical consciousness. Such a perspective on liberal education is in line with Daniel Mulcahy’s work [10, 11]. But while Mulcahy bases his concept of liberal education on pragmatist philosophy (which incorporates in it feminist theory as well as critical pedagogy), I base my defense of liberal education, as I said above, on the original writings of Hirst, Peters, and Oakeshott, given that importance they attached on intellectual autonomy as well as the skills of thinking critically, insightfully and imaginatively. In addition, the work by Hirst and Peters did address aconcept of liberal education applicable to mandatory education, so the value of such work needs to be considered. Nowadays, ‘thinking for oneself’ inevitably becomes a primary goal of an updated liberal education. People of all ages are bombarded on a daily basis with so much information which needs to be critically evaluated by people themselves before they make informed decisions. At the same time though, intellectual autonomy and thinking skills need to be complemented with empathy, caring and generally with a more humanistic attitude toward the world.

Point 3: Where current literature the present work fits in. It is not sufficiently clear how the author’s views differ from the views of other researchers whose work is related

Both in the new paragraps in the introduction and in the first paragraph of the in the Final Comments section i have pointed out that my paper is in line with Mulcahy's work and also with  Nussbaum's ideas, even though i based my my arguments for an updated liberal education on the work of H, P, & O.


Point 4:

1) In lines 530-551,the claims made about objectivity do not seem entirely coherent. It may be easily fixed, perhaps, but there is still some work to do.


The argument, as has already been pointed out, about the epistemological basis of a curriculum, which includes both the traditional disciplines and human issues and problems does not stand up to criticism. Even though the traditional disciplines or ‘forms of knowledge’ appear to represent knowledge as something objective and absolute – which goes contrary to the idea that knowledge is personally and socially constructed – one has to bear in mind that there are always standards to be used for something to count as ‘knowledge’. As Hirst argued, a necessary feature of knowledge is that there must be public criteria whereby ‘the true’ is distinguishable from the false, the right from the wrong and the good from bad. Indeed, it is these criteria that give ‘objectivity’ to knowledge (and in this sense an objectivity to the concept of liberal education) [19, 20]. True, social constructivism challenges forms of knowledge as objective and arbitrary. But although all knowledge is a product of human endeavour, this does not mean that objective knowledge is unattainable. In fact, it has been argued that “the sociality of knowledge does not undermine its objectivity and the possibility of truth, but is the condition for it” [89] (p. 196). Marta Nussbaum’s work has provided persuasive arguments about the pursuit of critical inquiry, of truth and objectivity in a globalized, humanistic context [90].

Hirst’s view of “public criteria” can be easily understood in the context of an issues-based curriculum, where social reality is involved. In such a case, some ‘objective standards’ are imperative in order for dialogue to take place. In the case, for example, in which students study socio-scientific issues, the common good and the betterment of human life can be considered ‘objective standards’ necessary for the achievement of a consensus. However, it is important to point out that even in the case of knowledge about physical reality consensus is also involved. Kuhn’s seminal work on the “structure of scientific revolutions” has provided ample evidence that ‘scientific truth’ is the result of a negotiation among scientists [91]. From such a perspective, the dualism between an issues-based curriculum and a disciplines-based curriculum is resolved. Even in the case of school science education, students can approach knowledge as something tentative, provisional, uncertain, and subject to revision and reconsideration not only in the case in which they study human issues and problems but also in the case of studying science per se [92]. Thus they come to understand that even scientific inquiry and the construction of models that explain physical reality (e.g., an atom) do not aim at the discovery of an absolute ‘truth’ but rather at the improvement of our current knowledge. However, the view of knowledge as provisional and tentative is central to Kieran Egan’s theory of education, according to which education is conceived as a process, during which students recapitulate (i.e., repeat) the kinds of understanding, as these have appeared in our cultural history. These ‘kinds of understanding’ that Egan has called ‘somatic’, ‘mythic’, ‘romantic’, ‘philosophical’ and ‘ironic’ can be developed if students are given opportunities to develop them. The last kind, namely, ‘ironic’ is the development of an awareness that all of our knowledge is provisional and subject to revision [93]. Such an approach to education, especially when the latter refers to the development of ‘philosophic’ (i.e., conceptual) and ‘ironic’ understanding, is in line with a liberal education perspective [94, 95].

Point 5

 few times,the author argues that in order for an education to be truly liberal, it must free the mind “from any constraint” (lines 457, 488). At the same time, the significance of moral values in teaching and of educating the student to take responsibility seem like constraints of some sort.

I agree and was changed

  students’ mind is freed form the constraints of everyday experience

Point  6

In the conclusion, the author suggests that liberal education in the US is in decline. Perhaps, but what about Europe? .


]The renewed interest, of course, in liberal education in continental Europe over the past 30 years and the United Kingdom in the last decade needs to be acknowledged [4]. On the other hand, Mulcahy’s proposal of a new paradigm for liberal education [10, 11] represents, in my view, the first serious proposal for the revival of liberal education worldwide. My primary concern though in this paper was to reclaim the value of liberal learning, and liberal education in general, as I have already stressed, in the context of mandatory education. And this is the reason why I based my arguments for the crucial importance of liberal education on the writings of Oakeshott, Hirst, and Peters. In fact, the work by Hirst and Peters was meant to be applicable in mandatory education.  


Reviewer 3 Report

The history, context, and importance of liberal education are generally well explained, and the writings of Hirst, Peters, and Oakeshott well explained.  The suggestions for reclaiming liberal education are interesting, since their goal is to enable it to become liberating for students, especially those from minority cultures.  One major claim here is that this can be achieved through either an issues-based or subject-based curriculum, thereby avoiding a dualism between the two (lines 384-6).  In the conclusion, the author tries to find a balance between constructivism and the notion of truth as correspondence with fact, which challenges current orthodoxy.

When explaining Peters' ideas, there are several references to the need to avoid inert ideas (lines 221, 247-8) and to engage students in intellectual adventure (lines 176-7, 459).  Since A.N. Whitehead articulated both of these ideas at some length in "The Aims of Education and Other Essays," I suggest the author make reference to this valuable work, which complements that of Dewey.

In addition to some sentences having awkward expression (e.g. lines 144-148), there is at least one run-on sentence (lines 520-525).  And, at the very end of the section on Peters (lines 277-282), there are so many ideas and comparisons compressed into two sentences that they should be expanded for the purposes of clarification. 

Otherwise, I think this is a valuable article.

Author Response

I would like to thank the reviewer for the comments/suggestions:

Point 1: With regard to
"awkward expression", these were dealt with

Point 2: With regard to A.N. Whitehead's views on inert ideas, i have included a whole new paragraph at the end of the paper as i saw it as a good closing comment

Nevertheless, what should be noted in closing this essay is the centrality of the notion of ‘useful knowledge’, something that is very relevant to the context of mandatory education. Whether one looks at the classical concept of liberal education, as was articulated by Hirst and especially Peters (who was very critical of what he called “inert knowledge”) [2, 27, 56], or at an updated concept of liberal education, knowledge is about things that have some significance in life. Such a view - which concurs with both Mulcahy’s proposal for a new paradigm for liberal education [10, 11] and Nussbaum’s work on education in a globalized world [9, 90] - had been expressed by British philosopher and mathematician Alfred North Whitehead [97]. For him education is “the guidance of the individual toward a comprehension of the art of life” (p. 39) and “the acquisition of the art of the utilization of knowledge” (p. 4). In pointing out that “education […] is useful, because understanding is useful”(p. 2), Whitehead argued that “there is only one subject matter for education, and that is Life in all its manifestations”(pp. 6-7). An updated concept of liberal education is indeed about “Life in all its manifestations”. What better argument could one produce for defending a concept of education?  


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