IN 75 BC, when the great Roman politician and champion of liberal learning Cicero was quaestor in Sicily, he led an expedition to a neglected, overgrown jumble of funerary monuments just outside the city of Syracuse. Directing men with scythes to cut away the briars, he uncovered the tomb of Archimedes, lost for more than a century, just as he had found it described in an old manuscript.
Education secretary Michael Gove took on Cicero’s mantle this week, in a remarkable speech that sought to cut away modish assumptions and reveal Britain’s forgotten debt to liberal education – the tradition of learning for its own sake.
Britain once played a central role in defending and continuing this tradition. The Romans inherited it from the Greeks and it was in turn carried forward, after Rome’s fall, through the Christian church. Today it lies almost forgotten, lost in the brambles of vocationalism and personalised learning.
That is a tragedy. From Alcuin of York, summoned by Charlemagne to be Europe’s schoolmaster, and Alfred the Great, who spread learning to unify his kingdom, to more recent champions of liberal education, like John Ruskin and RH Tawney, the ideal of a broad education to liberate the intellect, rather than training in a narrow specialism, has been a torch holding back the darkness of ignorance, as it passes from generation to generation.
As Gove pointed out, business leaders can be as guilty as anyone of calling for education to be narrowed. In the absence of enough graduates with the necessary skills for the workplace, it is all too tempting for practical men and women to call for schools to become a boot camp to prepare their future employees for office life. But as so often, the short cut is not the best route. A true liberal education not only enriches the lives of those it touches, but helps them to succeed. As scholar and statesman Richard Pace wrote in 1517 in The Fruits of Liberal Education, “consider and ponder how many individuals in the past and present, and how many born in obscure positions, learning has rendered most noble and illustrious”.
Liberal education focuses on logical analysis, hard numerical skills, essential facts and knowledge of classic texts. It also develops more intangible qualities, including the skill of persuasion and qualities of character and personal integrity.
Surrounded by technological marvels, we have become used to looking to new inventions to open up fresh vistas of achievement. Gove’s courageous speech reminds us that sometimes only recovering our past can unlock the future. Restoring the ancient tradition of liberal learning has a unique power to open minds and unleash human potential.