Education for the Future: The Liberating Arts

Paul Kurtz

What do I mean distinctively by education? The learning process, the process of expanding the dimensions of experience and intelligence, the increase in imagination and understanding, the ability to adapt and adjust.

Now let me make it clear that although schools are essential to this educative process, they are not the only institutions that should be charged with that mission. Moreover, education is not a commodity to be supplied only to the young, from elementary school through college. As I view it, it is a continuing process for all age groups and at all levels. It is never-ending. Perhaps the greatest crisis of the generation ahead will not concern the young but will arise from the necessity of adults adjusting and responding to new and challenging horizons.

Classically, education was the task of the schools, whose chief function was to inculcate the beliefs, values, and basic skills of a society and to train for vocations and professions. It was, as it were, the transmission belt for the traditions of the past. Today, the perennial truths of history no longer seem adequate. The growth of knowledge is intense, and one cannot hope to obtain a degree in a specific field and then rest on one’s laurels; there is the ongoing need to keep learning and growing. Virtually all of the institutions of society must have an educative function. The family, churches, labor unions, corporations, business, and industry need to incorporate work-study programs. But perhaps most vitally today the electronic mass media—TV and radio—and magazines, newspapers, and other publications have a role to play. Indeed, the greatest single need that we have, I submit, will be to develop new forms of adult education in society at large.

However, the colleges and universities will no doubt continue to make as their main contribution to society the fulfillment of the tasks of general education; they can do this best by providing a rich curriculum in the liberating arts—scientific and humanistic. These studies will help to fulfill one of the chief functions of education: enabling individuals to adapt to the changing future, to withstand future uncertainties and novelties, and, it is hoped, to enjoy them.

It is clear that the curriculum of the future will need to undergo a rather drastic alteration that older forms of general education are unlikely to undergo. It should, in my view, involve several components, many of them familiar: training in the basic skills—reading, writing, computation, for example—professional and occupational preparation, understanding of the nature and practice of democracy, and an appreciation of history and the arts. Yet, the vital element is to increase, by means of the sciences, our understanding of the rapidly changing world in which we live so that we can develop the ability to make reflective value judgments.

These later emphases help to realize the ideals of a general education and of the liberal arts that many of our schools have recently abandoned for vocational training or programs in individual self-expression. I believe that we need to return to generalist endeavors but, in a new sense, by explorations in the liberating arts. The chief goal of this kind of education is to clarify our ability to formulate value judgments so that individuals can creatively expand and realize their potentialities in a changing world.

It is curious that in the United States, perhaps the most innovative scientific and technological civilization in history, a drastic critique of science and technology is now under way. Science is blamed for many of our current problems. There is in some circles a neo-romantic flight into anti-intellectualism. This points to a failure in education. For we have not adequately explained science as a great adventure in learning; nor have we succeeded in developing an appreciation for the scientific method: the appeal to evidence and logical criteria in judging hypotheses, the tentative and hypothetical character of knowing, the use of reflective intelligence as a way of solving problems. Given the rapidly changing character of the postmodern world, we cannot retreat from the use of technology and science.

Today, some are overwhelmed by a failure of nerve. If people are to adapt to the future, then education in the sciences—physical, biological, behavioral, and social—must be a required part of every course of study, along with other courses in the liberal arts. But the emphasis must not be simply upon science as a static form of knowledge but rather as an instrument for control: science as a method of modifying the natural and cultural world. It is not scientific discovery that is to be feared but the misuses of scientific applications, their abuses by dehumanizing social and political forces.

Concomitant with this cultivation of scientific imagination is the urgent need for moral education, a continual process of value examination. By moral education, I do not mean indoctrination, inculcation, behavioral conditioning, but rather, as the psychologist Lawrence Kohlberg labels it, the process of cognitive moral growth.

Moral values, in the best sense, are the product of a process of evaluation that human beings engage in as they respond to the challenges in the environment: an appeal to traditional standards is never enough, though they be enshrined in religion, law, or custom. Rather, we need to learn how to deliberate about the things that we hold to be good, bad, right, and wrong, worth cherishing and appreciating. Mere emotion or passion is not enough; we need to learn how to deal with our values cognitively, by means of critical intelligence. According to Dewey, values should be treated as hypotheses upon which we act; they grow out of concrete situations and are most wisely grounded when they are fashioned in terms of the needs of the situation and their consequences in the world.

Given the strains of modern life, we cannot always provide young people with ready-made answers, and certainly not ready-made professions, careers, or occupations. No one can anticipate fully the future course of an individual’s or society’s existence; the best that we can provide is some resiliency, some help in developing cognitive moral awareness, as a way of life, a means by which the person can respond effectively to life in light of a deeper understanding of it. We need a whole new curriculum, one that deals not simply with what is or has been but with what is likely to be, given our effort and persistence.

Thus, surely one of the basic goals of education of the future—perhaps the most important—is to develop resourceful people—self-reliant, resilient, capable of critical and responsible thinking, able to adjust and adapt, preferably with some sense of wisdom, some understanding of their own capabilities and power but also aware of constraints and limitations. Individuals especially need to know how to judge truth claims objectively; how to be skeptical; how to avoid gullibility, nincompoopery, fraudulent and counterfeit promises; how to live with ambiguities and uncertainties. But if we are to cope with the future we also need some audacity and courage—a willingness to introduce new and daring departures. We must dare to dream, to create new visions of what can be. In a sense, we may become what we wish—if the wish is informed and implemented by a firm will, patience, and energy. As we face new problems, we need to introduce new means and new alternatives. Thus, creative imagination as well as deliberation are essential prerequisites for coping.

In talking about education for the future, I am not unmindful of the need for the schools and teachers to deal with the individual learner. There ought to be electives; affective education is important, and we nee
d to develop in students an appreciation for learning. It is not merely dead subject matter that we want to transmit; we want to deal with live human beings who need to be motivated.

But I fear that the recent movement for affective education—sometimes called “humanistic” and which is exemplified by Paul Goodman, John Holt, Edgar Friedenberg, and others—has emphasized the immediate experiences of the individual student to the detriment of cognitive skills. There has been a tendency to depart from the hard and vigorous cultivation of the arts of intelligence—the difficult effort of mastery and achievement. We need to use our intelligence to judge claims about the world, to describe and explain what we encounter and to develop normative judgments that will guide our decisions and conduct.

The task of education of the future is to enable us to cope with new and unexpected situations and challenges. But this can be done only if we liberate individuals from repression, discipline, and habits and encourage impulse, creativity, and exploration. We need to draw forth and nourish innate spontaneity and curiosity, to satisfy a hierarchy of needs and drives. But part of human development and growth involves moral growth. This is not, I reiterate, obedience to dicta or law but a reflective process of deliberation, a recognition and appreciation, not only of our own mature needs but also those of others. Thus disciplined thinking, self-regulating and demanding, is required.

Moral education, as I conceive it, must begin in elementary school, continue in high school, and reach fruition in college but still be part of the ongoing life of a man or woman. Moral education cannot be left solely to religion or the home, as in the past; nor is it solely the task of philosophy departments, but it should permeate the curriculum. In the best sense, value education involves freedom and autonomy, the capacity to think critically and creatively about life’s problems, about options, alternatives, and choices. Among the frontiers of moral concern will be the definition and evaluation of the ethics of freedom and equal rights, the implications of scientific discovery, and the creation of a world community in which our commitment to humankind as a whole, over and beyond narrow loyalties and parochial allegiances, is possible.

Freedom from authority, dogmas, ideology, or tradition in the area of morality need not mean subjective caprice, promiscuity, or anarchism in taste. It can lead to objectively relative and responsible judgments, based on human experience and reflection, value judgments worked out in shared experience. But if this is to occur, then it is essential that the method of critical valuation be cultivated, not only in the schools but in all the institutions of society.

In summary, possibly the most important needs for education in the liberating arts in the future will be to develop at all levels, including the area of adult education, the ability to adapt to a changing world; to expand our understanding of our own world, particularly by means of the sciences; to cultivate the skills of intelligence, especially as they bear on moral judgment and decision; and, finally, to develop autonomous individuals capable of withstanding the shock of rapid change and social conflict. The challenges to education have never been greater.

Excerpted from The Philosophy of the Curriculum by Paul Kurtz (Amherst, N.Y.: Prometheus Books, 1975).

Paul Kurtz

Paul Kurtz is editor-in-chief of FREE INQUIRY and professor emeritus of philosophy at the State University of New York at Buffalo.


What do I mean distinctively by education? The learning process, the process of expanding the dimensions of experience and intelligence, the increase in imagination and understanding, the ability to adapt and adjust. Now let me make it clear that although schools are essential to this educative process, they are not the only institutions that should …

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