Definition of classical liberalism

The Headmaster of the West London Free School recently asked the governors if it would be possible to come up with a relatively short statement of what's meant by a Classical Liberal Education that could be included in the Staff Handbook. This is a phrase we've often bandied about, but never tried to define before – at least, not beyond shorthand phrases like "the best that's been thought and said".

I produced a first draft, circulated it among the governors, and then produced a second draft after input from several governors, particularly Dr Jonathan Katz, a lecturer in Classics at St Anne's College, Oxford and the former head of Classics at Westminster.

It is now up on the school website and, having been approved by the Head, will shortly be included in the Staff Handbook.

By a Classical Liberal Education we mean a rigorous and extensive knowledge-based education that draws its material and methods from the best and most important work in both the humanities and the sciences. The aim of such an education is not primarily to prepare pupils for a job or career. It is more to transform their minds so that they are able to make reasonable and informed judgments and engage fruitfully in conversation and debate – not just about contemporary issues, but also about the universal questions that have been troubling mankind throughout history. We want children to leave our school with the confidence that comes from possessing a store of essential knowledge and the skills to use it. We believe that independence of mind, not compliance with socio-economic expectations, is the goal of a good education.

This sort of education requires children to be given information. But it is a mistake to imagine that the passing on of factual knowledge – often caricatured as “rote learning” – impedes the development of children’s ability to think. Factual knowledge and critical thinking are complementary. Daniel T. Willingham, a cognitive scientist at the University of Virginia, summarises the evidence:

Data from the last thirty years lead to a conclusion that is not scientifically challengeable: thinking well requires knowing facts and that’s true not just because you need something to think about. The very processes that teachers care about most – critical thinking processes such as reasoning and problem solving – are intimately intertwined with factual knowledge that is stored in long-term memory (not just found in the environment).

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