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The History and Meaning of Liberal Education

2:00pm, Saturday 10 June 2017, ACCENT Study Centre, 12 Bedford Square, London, WC1B 3JA

What is a liberal education? How did the concept take shape and what makes it liberal?  Who were the historical thinkers who contributed to its development?

The standard definition was provided almost 150 years ago by Matthew Arnold, school inspector and author of Culture and Anarchy, who argued that we should teach children ‘the best that has been thought and known’. Yet Arnold’s view has been out of fashion for decades and many educators believe that the best that has been thought and known are poor guides to the modern world when compared to ‘twenty-first-century skills’ such as creative thinking and problem-solving.

The idea of a liberal education is now widely thought to be a right-wing preoccupation, associated with grammar schools and assumed to consist of a stodgy diet of Latin and Ancient Greek. Liberal education, it is claimed, prepares a small number of middle-class children to be members of a nineteenth-century-style elite which no longer exists.

One recent advocate of liberal education has been the former education secretary, Michael Gove. His liberal education-inspired reforms, hugely unpopular, have nonetheless have been embraced by a small but growing number of schools. Toby Young, founder of the West London Free School, which aims to provide a ‘classical liberal education’ for children from all backgrounds, argues that progressive ideas in education have in fact entrenched poverty, and that academic subject knowledge is a birthright for children which allows them to ‘transcend the prison of the self’.

The 2010 Civitas report, Liberal Education and the National Curriculum, stated that the primary purpose of a liberal education is to prepare children for life in a free and democratic society, not to train them for work. So who is right?

Join us at this IoI Education Forum study day to explore these questions and discuss whether liberal education is worth defending. Was a liberal education ever more than an ideal, open only to a privileged few? Should we have liberal education for all?



Welcome and Introduction
Kevin Rooney

An illustrated history of education
Harley Richardson

Watch the video of this lecture:


What is a liberal education?
Alka Sehgal Cuthbert




IoI Education Forum Study Days aim to look beyond policy dictats, education fads, and research into ‘what works’ in education, and explore the ideas which have shaped the education of the present and could help shape it in the future. Study Days provide opportunities to consider and discuss these ideas in depth with fellow teachers and education professionals.

Our first Study Day in 2016 looked at E.D. Hirsch and the idea of Cultural Literacy. The next Study Day, in Autumn 2017, will look at the history and importance of progressive education.

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