By 1989, when Michael Oakeshott’s Voice of Liberal Learning was first published by Yale University Press, books that held a negative view of education in the United States, such as Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind and E. D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy, had garnered a remarkable amount of attention. There have been countless lamentations about the state of schooling in America in recent years, and there have been countless recommendations toward what is invariably called “educational reform.”
To those weary and wary of the cacophony about what’s wrong with education in America and what ought to be done about it, Oakeshott’s voice beckons. As usual, his approach to the subject is subtle, comprehensive, and radical—in the sense of summoning readers to the root of the matter. That root, Oakeshott believed, is the very nature of learning itself and, concomitantly, the means (as distinct from the method) by which the life of learning is discovered, cultivated, and pursued. As Oakeshott has written, “This, then, is what we are concerned with: adventures in human self-understanding. Not the bare protestation that a human being is a self-conscious, reflective intelligence and that he does not live by bread alone, but the actual enquiries, utterances, and actions in which human beings have expressed their understanding of the human condition. This is the stuff of what has come to be called a ‘liberal’ education—‘liberal’ because it is liberated from the distracting business of satisfying contingent wants.”
Liberty Fund’s new edition of The Voice of Liberal Learning includes a foreword by Timothy Fuller that reiterates the timelessness of Oakeshott’s reflections amid the continuing clamor that characterizes discourse about liberal education.
Michael Oakeshott (1901–1990) was Professor of Political Science at the London School of Economics and a Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge. He was the author of many works, including Rationalism in Politics and Other Essays, On History and Other Essays, and Hobbes on Civil Association, all of which are published by Liberty Fund.
"Rationalism in Politics, " first published in 1962, has established the late Michael Oakeshott as the leading conservative political theorist in modern Britain. This expanded collection of essays astutely points out the limits of "reason" in rationalist politics.Oakeshott criticizes ideological schemes to reform society according to supposedly "scientific" or rationalistic principles that ignore the wealth and variety of human experience. "Rationalism in politics," says Oakeshott, "involves a misconception with regard to the nature of human knowledge." History has shown that it produces unexpected, often disastrous results. "Having cut himself off from the traditional knowledge of his society, and denied the value of any education more extensive than a training in a technique of analysis," the Rationalist succeeds only in undermining the institutions that hold civilized society together. In this regard, rationalism in politics is "a corruption of the mind."Timothy Fuller is Professor of Political Science and Dean of the College at Colorado College.