Michael Connors

As a current graduate student in the great books program at St. John’s College, Annapolis, U.S., I am regularly asked to give an account of what liberal arts education is, and to justify its relevance. I believe that an investigation into the relationship between the terms of liberal education and the liberal arts will help illuminate their relevance and key benefits offered by their advocates.

Liberal Education

One of the most thorough definitions of liberal education, I think, was offered by Leo Strauss (1899-1973). Strauss was a political science professor and author of many political science books. His professorship history included tenures at The New School - New York, The University of Chicago, Claremont Men’s College, and St. John’s College, Annapolis.[1] In an address delivered on 6 June 1959 at the graduation exercises of the Basic Program of Liberal Education for Adults at the University of Chicago, titled ‘What is Liberal Education?’, Strauss defines a liberal education as the ‘cultivating of the mind, the taking care and improving the native faculties of the mind’. How does Strauss say that one should receive this education?

Strauss states that a liberal education should come from ‘the greatest minds’. Unfortunately, the greatest minds are not around to teach us. In fact, according to Strauss, it is unlikely that we will witness another truly ‘great’ mind in our lifetime. So how can we learn from the greatest minds? Strauss says that Liberal education consists of ‘studying the great books which the greatest minds have left behind’. Which books exactly are the ‘great books’? Let us consider the advice of an outstanding expert in this field.

Perhaps one of the greatest advocates for the great books was the extremely accomplished American educator, Robert Maynard Hutchins (1899-1977). Hutchins was the president of Chicago University from the age of 30, and in the college’s leadership for 22 years, moving it toward an emphasis on liberal education and the great books.[2] Among his many other achievements, he was chairman of the Board of Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica and one of its directors. As editor-in-chief of the 54-volume ‘Great Books of the Western World’ (1952) Hutchins speaks of the canon of ‘great books’ to which Strauss refers, labelling them ‘the masterpieces of Western Literature’.[3] These books, says Hutchins, constitute ‘The Great Conversation’ or ‘The Great Books Tradition’ of the West. What separates a great book from the rest?  

Hutchins emphasizes the unique nature of the great books, which inspire us profoundly, and share insights and wisdom of enduring significance. He says the great books are those which ‘have endured because men in every era have been lifted beyond themselves by the inspiration of their examples…In their [the great minds] company we are still in the ordinary world, but it is the ordinary world transfigured and seen through the eyes of wisdom and genius’.

Hutchins supports Strauss’s connection of liberal education and the great books. Hutchins says that the great books were, and should be the principal instruments of liberal education, which help men to ‘lead more human, and better, lives, than they otherwise would be able to do’. Why does Hutchins connect liberal education and the great minds with Western literature? Are there not great minds from other cultures? Strauss says that liberal education is ‘an education in culture toward culture’. He makes it clear which culture he is referring to. ‘Culture in the sense of the Western tradition.’

Hutchins also seems in agreement with Strauss that liberal education involves this education in Western culture. ‘The tradition of the West’, he says, ‘is embodied in the Great Conversation that began in the dawn of history and continues to the present day’. And further, ‘These books are a way of understanding our society and ourselves’.

As my study at St. John’s College is in the Great Books of the Western tradition, I have encountered earnest questions as to its validity, when held up against some other tradition. To these questions I offer the answer: because I am Western; I live in the West. The next question following this response is typically ‘what makes the Western tradition better than, or more important to study than, say, the Eastern?’ Rather than attempt a comparison of cultural achievements, I believe that the simple answer is that the merit of studying one tradition over another does not lie in one being better than another, but in the fact that one is mine.

It seems right to me that a Westerner should study the Western tradition. How else would one learn their culture? This view is supported by educator and senior fellow at the PM Glynn Institute at the Australian Catholic University, Kevin Donnelly. Donnelly appears to have a similar conception of Strauss’s ‘education in culture towards culture’, and points to the importance of ‘enculturation’ in his 2017 essay titled ‘A Sense of Scale: Why We Still Need Liberal Education’[4]. He says, ‘In order to survive and prosper, cultures must ensure that there is some way of passing knowledge, skills, abilities, customs, rituals, and beliefs from generation to generation’. This is achieved, says Donnelly, through educational institutions and particularly through liberal education. He says ‘While family is central to the process of enculturation, education, especially in the more formal sense, is also vital. In particular, and in the context of Western culture, two of the most influential and beneficial institutions are universities and schools.’ Is enculturation as necessary for Australians as with other countries like the U.S. or those in Europe, who have a longer history, and therefore, perhaps more to learn about their culture?

In a 2023 article titled ‘Enduring Truths and Neglected Lessons’[5], Donnelly points to the importance of enculturation for Australians. ‘Not all cultures are the same and, in relation to Australia… our institutions, language, religion, music, literature and the arts have grown out of Western civilisation…it stands to reason students have the right to be introduced to that corpus of knowledge, understanding and skills beginning with the ancient Greeks and evolving over thousands of years.’

I agree with Donnelly. I think that Australians would greatly benefit from a deep understanding of Western culture via the study of the great books of the Western tradition. If one thinks there is anything good about the Australian culture, our way of life, and the institutions which support it, I think they would do well to learn how and why it all came to be. For, I think this knowledge would help perpetuate those aspects of our culture which have stood the test of time, which have provided for our way of life, and which would continue to allow us to flourish. 

For Strauss, it seems that the enculturation involved in liberal education acts as more than simply a historical understanding of one’s culture, it seems to be a sort of elevation to a higher ideal. It seems to be a type of guard against the negative effects of popular culture. ‘Liberal education’ says Strauss ‘is the counterpoison to mass culture, to the corroding effects of mass culture, to its inherent tendency to produce nothing but "specialists without spirit or vision and voluptuaries without heart”’. It seems to me that Strauss is claiming that liberal education may be a kind of safeguard against a type of utilitarian and base society. This seems right in view of his claim that ‘Liberal education reminds those members of a mass democracy who have ears to hear, of human greatness.’

Benefits of a Great Books Liberal Education Summary

We find that according to Strauss, Hutchins, and Donnelly, the benefits of a liberal education centre on enculturation; the gradual learning of characteristic norms of one’s own culture. For Strauss, particularly, liberal education also protects one against the negative effects of mass, or popular, culture. Hutchins and Strauss also offer that liberal education leads to a better, elevated, more human life.  Now, how does one read the great books? Is there a technique or method?

How should one gain a liberal education in the great books? Should one read any ‘great’ book as they feel the inclination? Should one consider the context and the sequence of the subjects contained in the great books? I am sure a scattered approach to reading the great books would yield benefits. However, there may be a more effective way to study them. 

The Liberal Arts

Hutchins outlines the distinction between, and relationship of, liberal education and liberal arts – ‘The method of liberal education is the liberal arts, and the result of liberal education is discipline in those arts’. This seems to suggest that the study of certain subjects, or arts, through the reading of the great books, which address those subjects, constitutes a liberal arts education. These groupings of subjects, then, are the liberal arts. What are considered the liberal arts subjects?   

The Statement of The Program for St. John’s College[6] identifies that there existed a traditional set of seven liberal arts – grammar, rhetoric, logic—the arts of language; and arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy—the arts of mathematics. Australia’s first liberal arts college, Campion College, suggests there are now essentially four modern liberal arts subjects – natural sciences, social sciences, arts, and humanities.[7] Within these broad subjects, or liberal arts, multiple subjects are offered. St. John’s College identifies 5 groupings or ‘segments’ of liberal arts subjects for the graduate institute – literature, philosophy and theology, history, politics and society, and, mathematics and natural science.[8] Campion College offers courses under similar headings, including history, literature, philosophy, theology, mathematics, science, Greek or Latin.[9] So it seems that Liberal arts subjects can vary slightly, and involve a broad study of language, mathematics/ sciences, and the humanities.

Now that we know what the liberal arts are, let us now investigate some of their benefits.

Benefits of the Liberal Arts?

Hutchins points to the importance liberal arts has to every human being, whether they know it or not. He seems to suggest that, as the liberal arts subjects are embedded in our day to day lives, we would do well to educate ourselves in them. He says, ‘We all practice the liberal arts, well or badly, every day …so we should be as good liberal artists as we can in order to become as fully human as we can’. I take this statement to refer to two ways in which the liberal arts are used by all, every day.

The first is regarding how all people would benefit from a firm knowledge of the specific subjects studied within the liberal arts. It seems right to say that human life requires that all people engage in some way with politics, literature, mathematics, history, social science etc., while participating in society. The second way I take Hutchins’ statement relates to the specific skills gained from a liberal arts education.

Hutchins catalogues the core skills resulting from a liberal arts education. ‘The liberal artist’, he says, ‘learns to read, write, speak, listen, understand and think…reckon, and to measure and manipulate matter, quantity and motion, in order to predict, produce and explain’. St John’s College seems to support this view of the skills acquired through liberal arts study with its Statement of The Program reading ‘the liberal arts bring to light what is involved in the use of words and numbers… in analyzing, speaking, and writing; … in measuring, deducing, and demonstrating.’ I agree with Hutchins. These skills do indeed seem to me as integral to the effective functioning of every human being.

As we conclude our exploration of the relationship between liberal education and liberal arts, let us summarise our findings.

Liberal Education and Liberal Arts Defined

Liberal education involves a broad study of the great books of the Western tradition. The means by which one becomes liberally educated is through the study of the liberal arts – the arts broadly known as language, mathematics, and the humanities. I believe our investigation has highlighted the validity of a liberal arts education couched in the great books. This education, I believe, results in a cultivation of the mind, an enculturation of the person, an understanding of oneself and society, and ultimately leads to a more human life.


[1]Britannica Website – See Leo Strauss for a comprehensive biography.  https://www.britannica.com/biography/Leo-Strauss

[2] Britannica Website – See Robert Maynard Hutchins for a comprehensive biography. Hutchins’ achievements include an active role in forming the Committee to Frame a World Constitution (1943–47), leading the Commission on Freedom of the Press (1946), and vigorously defended academic freedom. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Robert-Maynard-Hutchins

[3] See the Preface of The Great Books of the Western World – Encyclopaedia Britannica 1952 ‘The Great Conversation’, for all Robert Maynard Hutchins references.

[4]Institute of Public Affairs Website. Kevin Donnelly, 1 June, 2017. https://ipa.org.au/ipa-review-articles/a-sense-of-scale-why-we-still-need-liberal-education

[5] Quadrant Online Website. Kevin Donnelly, 22 June, 2023. https://quadrant.org.au/opinion/education/2023/06/enduring-truths-and-neglected-lessons/

[6] See St. John’s College Website ‘Statement of The Program’:  https://www.sjc.edu/academic-programs/statement-of-the-program

[7] See Campion College Website. https://www.campion.edu.au/why-campion/liberal-arts-education/

[8] See St. John’s College Website ‘Statement of The Program’: https://www.sjc.edu/application/files/2316/1108/5054/St_Johns_College_Statement_of_the_Program.pdf

[9] See Campion College Website – Unit Outlines https://www.campion.edu.au/units/

  • About the Author: Michael Connors is a Postgraduate Scholar with the Ramsay Centre For Western Civilisation. He is currently completing his Master of Arts in Liberal Arts at St. John’s College in Annapolis, U.S.A. Contact: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..