Liberal Education

Liberal Learning as Conversation

Many of our metaphors for teaching and learning are horrible. Some are mechanistic and liken education to the stocking and pouring of knowledge as though it were simply different solids and liquids. Others image student minds as clay and wax awaiting impressions, or as empty rooms to be furnished. There are organic metaphors -- planting seeds, clearing brush, fertilizing soil, cultivating or strengthening flabby minds, etc. Still other metaphors present education as a process of production from raw materials to finished product, and liberal education as though it were a piece of quality control -- an immunization against snarls and defects in the production line. There are better alternatives. The late English philosopher Michael Oakeshott bequeathed us the marvelously rich and provocative metaphor of education as "conversation."(1) We would do well to consider it -- critically, because it needs a bit of repair -- and then incorporate it within a collegial ethic of hospitality.

Becoming human
Learning is not natural in the sense of automatic, Oakeshott notes. To become human, we must claim, appropriate, and then dwell in the rich heritage of our culture and civilization -- a world of meanings, not of things. Entering this world "is the only way of becoming a human being, and to inhabit it is to be a human being" (1989, 45). Each individual must do this for himself or herself, though older generations usually recognize a responsibility to initiate newcomers into the world they are to inhabit. As a result, Oakeshott observes, society has set aside colleges and universities with their privileges of leisure and open discussion as special places where the work of becoming human can take place.

In this work of becoming human, students learn to engage in conversation with their inheritance and its many voices -- what Oakeshott calls its various modes of thought or distinct idioms of human self-understanding. These are not collections of beliefs or perceptions. They are various languages of understanding. These voices reflect the achievements of humanity, its insights in science, history, literature, the arts, politics, economics, and philosophy, as well as in the more applied skills.

"A university is not a machine for achieving a particular purpose or producing a particular result; it is a manner of human activity," Oakeshott tells us. It is both a conversation and a place where one learns how to access the voices and to join in the conversation. In colleges and universities of integrity more than one voice must be clearly heard, and the manner (not the mannerisms) of the voices is deliberately taught. The proper conversation of the college or university involves a rich variety of intellectual, imaginative, moral, and emotional voices -- each field of special study "a particular manner of thinking" or a distinctive voice, having "some insight into its own presuppositions," and each being "easily recognized as belonging to the single world of learning" (1989, 96, 126, 134, 126).

No one of these voices, certainly not that of science or other empirical idioms, is to have a preeminent role in the conversation. None is privileged, and none should dominate. Each has something to add, but each is only one voice. Human understanding comes in accepting this ongoing, unconcluded conversational array of riches as presenting a variety of different ways of understanding self and world. It provides an extraordinary mirror of human achievements in which to recognize oneself. The conversation into which we are invited is "an endless unrehearsed intellectual adventure."

Liberal learning is just such an intellectual adventure. An education in the importance of imagination, liberal education initiates us "into the art of this conversation in which we learn to recognize the voices, to distinguish their different models of utterance, to acquire the intellectual and moral habits appropriate to this conversational relationship and thus to make our debut dans la vie humaine" (1989, 39). I suggest below that it is precisely these habits -- the ones acquired in liberal learning -- that help other conversations, and indeed all of education, to become an intellectual adventure.

Many voices
Several important features of conversation recommend it as a root metaphor for higher education. For instance, conversation calls attention to active learning -- each learner taking responsibility for his or her own inquiry. Simply to overhear the conversation is not sufficient. Indeed, to continue the metaphor, we know that each person must work to find and then use his or her own voice -- thereby becoming both engaged in, and contributing to, the ongoing conversation. To find and use one's own voice is to bring one's unique talents, perspective, and experience to the greater conversation. Conversations are self-involving and in part self-referential. There is potential for inner impact, even for individual self-transformation. There are no generic voices. And to be voiceless is like being faceless, stripped of what is distinctively human.

Conversation also requires the other -- indeed, a multitude of important others. Conversation is not a soliloquy. The multiculturalism of our time presents distinctive opportunities as well as challenges -- opportunities to broaden what is shared in common, but experienced differently, perhaps even discordantly. Conversation undertaken hospitably can honor, thicken, and extend what is already shared and known. It also gives us grounds for holding that what we experience in our community is not unlike what others in other communities experience. Yet this kind of openness revokes the impossible requirement that we all understand the same things. Precisely because of conversation with others we can generalize without making universal claims.

The metaphor of conversation challenges other self-preoccupations and tendencies toward relativism and even solipsism. Such self-centeredness can characterize the new college student as well as the experienced college professor. It may even extend to conversational voices that seek to be privileged. New students must be invited to see their college and university experience as an invitation to put earlier, limited views, traditions, and habits of thought and conversation behind them. They must learn to ask new and better questions, to listen closely, and to acquire the competencies and practice the dispositions that will distinguish them as confident members of the broader human community. At the same time, part of their confidence should be rooted in their awareness that they have gifts to offer others.

Likewise, faculty (old and new) should see themselves as important voices, not neutral, bland transmitters of the voices of others. They are not simply record players or tape decks that amplify selected recordings, devoid of concrete and imaginative renderings. But neither are faculty to read solely from their own scripts, ignoring or drowning out other voices. Faculty must point to and hold up other voices. But they should also add their own tonality and nuance, thereby contributing to the conversation and inviting their students to respond.

Instructors teach by example by expressing interest in others and by being hospitable toward them, thus transforming education into more than impersonal transactions. Instructor and students are seen to be more than fragmented purveyors and consumers of learning. For faculty and students alike often abstract themselves from relationship with the voices they select for conversation. The result is no application of the meaning of the selected voice to the selecting self, no indication of why, or even whether, the voice is judged personally important. So faculty must show by their own example why teaching is so important and the differences that learning can make so significant. In yet another metaphor Oakeshott makes the point: "Not the cry, but the rising of the wild duck impels the flock to follow him in flight" (1989, 62).

The metaphor of conversation also challenges the privileging of certain voices. Feminists have called our attention to the prominence of the male timbre in too many conversations. Others have noted the absence of voices reflecting the achievements of non-Western cultures. Oakeshott himself remarks on the common disposition "to impose a single character upon significant human speech ... the voice of argumentative discourse, the voice of 'science'" (489).(2) But even muted voices can become self-preoccupied. The fragmentation and competition of the academy can lead each voice to disharmony -- even solipsism. "Each voice is prone to superbia ... an exclusive concern with its own utterance, which may result in its identifying the conversation with itself and its speaking as if it were speaking only to itself" (1991, 492). Without care, we can attach ourselves to exclusivistic voices, becoming self-centered and self-serving.

Working together, faculty can create the collegia in which such conversations can take place. They do so through their own commitment to conversation with one another. The healthy collegium that these conversations create is displayed in concern for the educational opportunities provided and the adequacy of the standards invoked. This kind of conversation provides individual and institutional renewal that draws from the best of the past and the present in order to meet the opportunities of the future. As John Ramsey notes, sustained conversation "has the potential to lower levels of distrust, build a common vocabulary, and identify shared problems and standards." When engaged in this way, conversation "can protect us from the hypocrisy of preaching an ethic of dialogue while practicing a code of silence" (Ramsey 1999).

Successful conversation implies commitment to certain protocols or what Oakeshott calls manners. I would use a stronger term and speak of the ethics of conversation. Healthy conversation involves respectful engagement with the other, "acknowledgment and accommodation," rather than indifference or conquest. The self-promotional nature of much academic politics and competition is unmannerly. In the sharing and receiving of healthy conversations "different universes of discourse meet, acknowledge each other and enjoy an oblique relationship which neither requires nor forecasts their being assimilated to each other" (1991, 490), though they can be enriched and changed. Healthy conversations include, but are more than, disputes and quarrels, assertions and denials. Arguments are used constructively to clarify issues, not to vanquish opponents.

Usefulness of liberal learning
Conversation is a rich and capacious metaphor -- applicable to many forms of education, and not just liberal learning. It calls our attention to the openness necessary for learning and to the give- and-take required for advance in knowledge in all areas. But Oakeshott's interest is clearly more restricted -- using conversation to promote and defend liberal learning. This, he tells us, is education which promises "liberation from the here and now of current engagements, from the muddle, the crudity, the sentimentality, the intellectual poverty and the emotional morass of ordinary life" (1989, 30). Doubtless, most of us would agree with this promise and are working to make it so. But Oakeshott's prose is also cloaked in elitist garments. He castigates what he calls the "self-corruption" of universities in pursuing the socialization of the student into serving the economic functions of society or promoting its social stability.(3) He restricts, unnecessarily I think, liberal learning to that undertaken with no extrinsic or ulterior purpose. Here, I think, is where we need to do some repair work.

Like John Henry Newman, Oakeshott contends that college and university education must not be entangled with utilitarian pursuits. For the undergraduate, a university "is a place where he has the opportunity of education in conversation with his teachers, his fellows and himself, and where he is not encouraged to confuse education with training for a profession, with learning the tricks of a trade, with preparation for future particular service in society." Liberal learning is the proper business of a university and has no connection with extrinsic purposes or utilitarian applications. Whenever ulterior purposes appear, Oakeshott, asserts, "education (which is concerned with persons, not functions) steals out of the back door with noiseless steps" (1989, 101).

How are we to assess Oakeshott's claim? The metaphor of education as conversation that at first sight appeared so promising now seems to be artificially constraining -- available only in liberal education, quite narrowly construed. Yet higher education can be corrupted in many ways -- and pursuing a broader concept of liberal learning is scarcely the most serious, if indeed it qualifies at all. Much of Oakeshott's critique of what he sees as threats to liberal education turns on a narrow understanding of the concept of "utility." He quotes with approval from Valery and contends that everything that constitutes le prix de la vie humaine is "curieusement inutile" (1989, 37). But we can understand utility in more than one way.

Presumably Oakeshott understands utility as that which highlights the skills and knowledge relevant to the production of material goods -- to securing the satisfactions of the consumer appetite. In this view, the value of pursuing knowledge and learning rests in their anticipated instrumentality and usefulness in obtaining other goods. Knowledge is good because it is a means to something else. We can agree that the best of liberal learning is not learning undertaken in this spirit -- though, of course, a learner's agenda and horizons can be broadened in the middle of things, sometimes to her or his great surprise and eventual delight. This is a possibility Oakeshott seems not to contemplate.

But utility can also refer to the value of liberal education as initiating one into claiming and possessing the inheritance that alone constitutes one's humanity. Certainly this engagement in the conversation of culture and civilization is itself remarkably practical and useful; indeed, in the last analysis it may be the thing most useful (and therefore most practical) in the conduct of the meaning and identity of our lives. It is one thing to hold that liberal learning is that into which we enter without primary, overriding concern for its utility. That it is learning we engage in chiefly for its own sake, not in response to external demands. It seems altogether another (and unnecessary) thing to hold that if learning has utilitarian dimensions it is no longer liberal.

For surely the liberal is the liberating, not the useless; it is profoundly practical, not impractical. Today it also liberates by distancing one from attachment to culturally invasive consumerism. It need not be viewed as hostile to the acquisition of skills and understandings that may be put to utilitarian ends. Indeed, if it has done its job, liberal learning will have directed the use of these skills to assist individuals in their authentic, humane vocations, not their consumer-oriented pursuits.

This reluctance by Oakeshott and others to recognize and employ the full meaning of the use and usefulness of liberal learning is both curious and unfortunate. It suggests that liberal learning is ultimately useless in the very context of daily life in which people actually assess and delineate significance. Whatever rhetorical value may have been gained by denying a crude and vulgar instrumental utility to liberal learning is lost by the artificial restriction of the broader terms in which most of humanity understands value itself. Surely a position like Whitehead's is preferable: "Pedants sneer at an education which is useful. But if education is not useful, what is it? Is it a talent, to be hidden away in a napkin? [Education] is useful, because understanding is useful" (1967).

Openness to the other
Conversation also has a clear relationship to hospitality, to what I suggest is the cardinal virtue in academe, however much it may be neglected or abused.(4) Healthy conversations require practicing hospitality. They require both sharing and receiving. We injure others as well as ourselves when we keep our learning private -- warehousing it, so to speak, placing it in cold storage, or keeping it pure and unsullied. Likewise, it is a poor conversation in which only we talk, interrupting and drowning out the voices of others. To share our learning without being prepared to receive the learning of others is not really to share. It is a false hospitality.

Authentic hospitality requires radical openness to the other -- willingness to go beyond the boundaries of the ego, with its self-centeredness and preoccupation with self-protection, promotion, and esteem. Conversation involves creating a relationship with another. Hospitality means offering oneself in that relationship. Practicing hospitality involves making oneself vulnerable in these conversations, risking being ignored, ridiculed, misinterpreted or misinterpreting others. But the fruit of liberal learning is the knowledge that the practice of hospitality is well worth the risks. When done well, liberal learning exemplifies hospitality and brings hospitality to other learning, enabling all of education to become an unrehearsed intellectual adventure.

The act of creating the relationship involves developing responsibility to it and the other, enlarging the capacity for response by diminishing one's concern for self. The other can be distant in time as well as space. The conversation can be with one's earlier self, with someone from another time and place, with texts and persons of all kinds -- especially those that convey our inheritance and teach us how to practice it.

What kind of responsibility to the conversation and the other does hospitality require? Some think that it is like a contract. A better term, I suggests, is "covenant."

Conversation suggests the root character of educational activity. Covenant points us toward the relationship in this activity of teacher to student, of colleague to colleague, and of educational institution to its members. A covenant relationship is one in which each person is committed fundamentally to the welfare of the other as a partner in the conversation. The more usual notion of social contract carries us only part of the way, for while contracts point to responsibilities and obligations, they also suggest boundaries to those responsibilities. Contracts lead to attitudes of "so much and no more." Covenants suggest "what else can I do to help you, and us?" In the best of conversations the commitment is not restricted -- it is not a contract form of association, but a covenantal one.

Summing up
There are, therefore, good reasons to look to conversation as a metaphor for education, one informed by the values of liberal learning. Unlike many of our received images, conversation points toward the cultural importance of individual participation in engagement with the voices that constitute our human inheritance; it highlights the importance of the active engagement of those participating -- faculty and students alike -- as well as the significance of elements of self-involvement and reflexivity. It also reminds us of the need for hospitable openness to the other, be the other multicultural, global, near or far. And it illustrates the importance of observing a covenant with the other in mutual learning, not simply a contract of mutual convenience.



  1. See the collection of his essays on this topic in Timothy Fuller, ed. 1989. The Voice of Liberal Learning: Michael Oakeshott on Education. Notes to this volume will be incorporated within the text with reference to 1989. Additional resources by Oakeshott are to be found in Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, 1991. See, in particular his "The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind."

  2. This and following quotations incorporated within the text with reference to 1991, are from "The Voice of Poetry in the Conversation of Mankind" (Oakeshott 1991).

  3. Notice the unqualified severity of the following observation by Oakeshott:"The design to substitute 'socialization' for education has gone far enough to be recognized as the most momentous occurrence of this century, the greatest of the adversities to have overtaken our culture, the beginning of a dark age devoted to barbaric influence" (90).

  4. I treat some of the dimensions of hospitality elsewhere. (Bennett 1998). Excerpts appeared in, "The Academy, Individualism, and the Common Good" (Bennett 1997).

Works Cited
Bennett, John. 1998. Collegial professionalism: The academy, individualism, and the common good. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press.
Bennett, John. 1997. "The academy, individualism, and the common good." Liberal Education, 83:4.
Fuller, Timothy, ed. 1989. The voice of liberal learning: Michael Oakeshott on education. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Oakeshott, Michael. 1991. Rationalism in politics and other essays. Indianapolis: Liberty Press.
Ramsey, John. 1999. "Talk of the college: Has it grown quiet?" Liberal Education, 85:1.
Whitehead, Alfred North. 1967. The aims of education. New York: Free Press.

John B. Bennett is a university scholar and provost emeritus at Quinnipiac University.

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