Liberal education, Bildung and theory of knowledge

In this chapter I address knowledge questions in the policy arena; that is, at the interplay between schooling and society and culture. As indicated in Chapter 3, curriculum making at the policy level involves articulating a vision of what education is for, which in turn calls for a theory of knowledge - concerning what knowledge is of most worth or what knowledge should be taught.

Since the cultivation of human powers is seen as a central purpose of education in this book, I examine the two distinctive ways of thinking about the role of knowledge in liberal education, namely the knowledge-its-own-end thesis and the cultivation-via-knowledge platform. In the knowledge-its-own-end thesis knowledge is seen as intrinsically worthwhile because the pursuit of such knowledge entails the development of intellectual powers or capacities, irrespective of whether it has some extrinsic end in addition to this. In the cultivation-via-knowledge platform knowledge is regarded as an indispensable resource/vehicle for the cultivation of human powers - rather than something to be studied for its own sake.

These two ways of thinking lend support to two types of theory of knowledge: one is concerned with epistemological questions about the nature, scope and kinds of knowledge per se, whereas the other is with questions of how knowledge is related to the cultivation of human powers.

Knowledge-its-own-end thesis

As suggested in Chapter 1, the social realist argument regarding the educational power or significance of knowledge, albeit developed within the tradition of sociology of education, bears resemblance to the knowledge-its-own-end thesis - notably advanced by educational philosophers like John Henry Newman (1801-1890) and Paul Hirst - within the traditions of liberal education in the United Kingdom (R. White, 1986). Behind the thesis is a vision of a liberal education based on the nature of knowledge and directed towards the intellectual and cognitive development of mind. The thesis entails a theory of knowledge that addresses what constitutes knowledge and how knowledge is classified.


The knowledge-its-own-end thesis is arguably first formally expounded in the mid-19th century by Newman. In his seminal The Idea of a University he provided an eloquent, forceful defence in the post-Enlightenment era of the virtue of what he thought of as a liberal education against the demand for utility, the growing scepticism concerning liberal education, and the questioning of the place of theology in a university (Ker, 1990). According to Newman, liberal education, unlike professional education, is centred on the development of the intellect for its own sake: ‘(L)iberal education, viewed in itself, is simply the cultivation of the intellect, as such, its object is nothing more or less than intellectual excellence’ (Newman, 1852/1982, p. 92). The cultivation is achieved through the study of knowledge, which is valuable in itself and is its own end.

Behind this vision of a liberal education is a theory of knowledge that construes all knowledge as a unified and organic whole consisting of various branches of learning which are in relationship to one another:

all knowledge is a whole and the separate sciences parts of one . . . all branches of knowledge are connected together, because the subject matter of knowledge is intimately united in itself, as being the great Creator and his work. Hence it is that the Sciences, into which our knowledge may be said to be cast, have multiplied bearings one on another, and an internal sympathy, and admit, or rather demand, comparison and adjustment. They complete, correct, and balance each other.

(Newman, 1852/1982, p. 75)

These various branches including sciences (theology, science and literature) represent varying ways of arranging and classifying phenomena, uniting them under common laws and tracing effects to causes.

Such a theory of knowledge provides the essential basis for the discussion of the nature of a liberal education. The cultivation of the intellect is achieved by way of imparting to students various branches of knowledge and their interrelationships. When proceeding in an active, in-depth manner, the acquisition of knowledge entails the cultivation of mind: it allows us to grasp things as they are, view things as a whole, and develop the capacity of‘discriminating between truth and falsehood’, of‘arranging things according to their real value’ and of making normative judgements (Newman, 1852/1982, p. 115). Therefore, ‘Knowledge is capable of being its own end. Such is the constitution of the human mind, that any kind of knowledge, if it be really such, is its own reward’ (Newman, 1852/Í982,p. 77).

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