A LIBERAL EDUCATION
By Thomas Henry Huxley
A LIBERAL EDUCATION, by Thomas Henry Huxley, as reprinted in Roger Sherman Loomis’s Freshman Readings, Boston, Houghton Mifflin Company, 1925, pp. 301-305.
Thomas Henry Huxley （1825-1895）, English biologist who lectured widely and wrote extensively.
What is education? Above all things, what is our ideal of a thoroughly liberal education? —of that education which, if we could begin life again, we would give ourselves—of the education which, if we could mold the fates to our own will, we would give our children? Well, I know not what may be your conceptions upon this matter but I will tell you mine, and I hope I shall find that our views are not very discrepant.
Suppose it were perfectly certain that the life and fortune of every one of us would, one day or other, depend upon his winning or losing a game at chess. Don’t you think we should all consider it to be a primary duty to learn at least the names and the moves of the pieces; to have a notion of a gambit, and a keen eye for all the means of giving and getting out of check? Do you not think that we should look with a disapprobation amounting to scorn upon the father who allowed his son, or the state which allowed its members, to grow up without knowing a pawn from a knight?
Yet, it is a plain and elementary truth that the life, the fortune, and the happiness of every one of us, and, more or less, of those who are connected with us, do depend upon our knowing something of the rules of a game infinitely more difficult and complicated than chess. It is a game which has been played for untold ages, every man and woman of us being one of the two players, in a game of his or her own. The chessboard is the world, the pieces are the phenomena of the universe, the rules of the game are what we call the laws of nature. The player on the other side is hidden from us. We know that his play is always fair, just, and patient. But also we know, to our cost, that he never overlooks a mistake, or makes the smallest allowance for ignorance. To the man who plays well, the highest stakes are paid, with that sort of overflowing generosity with which the strong shows delight in strength. And one who plays ill is checkmated—without haste, but without remorse.
My metaphor will remind some of you of the famous picture in which Retzsch has depicted Satan playing at chess with man for his soul. Substitute for the mocking fiend in that picture a calm, strong angel who is playing for love, as we say, and would rather lose than win—and I should accept it as an image of human life.
Well, what I mean by education is learning the rules of this mighty game. In other words, education is the instruction of the intellect in the laws of nature, under which name I include not merely things and their forces, but men and their ways; and the fashioning of the affections and of the will into an earnest and loving desire to move in harmony with those laws. For me, education means neither more nor less than this. Anything which professes to call itself education must be tried by this standard, and if it fails to stand the test, I will not call it education, whatever may be the force of authority or of numbers upon the other side.
It is important to remember that, in strictness, there is no such thing as an uneducated man. Take an extreme case. Suppose that an adult man, in the full vigor of his faculties, could be suddenly born in the world, as Adam is said to have been, and then left to do as he best might. How long would he be left uneducated? Not five minutes. Nature would begin to teach him, through the eye, the ear, the touch, the properties of objects. Pain and pleasure would be at his elbow telling him to do this and avoid that; and by slow degrees the man would receive an education which, if narrow, would be thorough, real, and adequate to his circumstances, though there would be no extras and very few accomplishments.
And if to this solitary man entered a second Adam, or, better still, an Eve, a new and greater world, that of social and moral phenomena, would be revealed. Joys and woes, compared with which all others might seem but faint shadows, would spring from the new relations. Happiness and sorrow would take the place of the coarse monitors, pleasure and pain; but conduct would still be shaped by the observation of the natural consequences of actions; or, in other words, by the laws of the nature of man.
To every one of us the world was once as fresh and new as to Adam. And then, long before we were susceptible of any other mode of instruction, nature took us in hand, and every minute of waking life brought its educational influence, shaping our actions into rough accordance with nature’s laws, so that we might not be ended untimely by too gross disobedience. Nor should I speak of this process of education as past for anyone, be he as old as he may. For every man the world is as fresh as it was at the first day, and as full of untold novelties for him who has the eyes to see them. And nature is still continuing her patient education of us in that great university, the universe, of which we are all members—nature having no Test-Acts.
Those who take honors in nature’s university, who learn the laws which govern men and things and obey them, are the really great and successful men in this world. The great mass of mankind are the “Poll,” who pick up just enough to get through without much discredit. Those who won’t learn at all are plucked; and then you can’t come up again. Nature’s pluck means extermination.
Thus the question of compulsory education is settled so far as nature is concerned. Her bill on that question was framed and passed long ago. But, like all compulsory legislation, that of nature is harsh and wasteful in its operation. Ignorance is visited as sharply as wilful disobedience—incapacity meets with the same punishment as crime. Nature’s discipline is not even a word and a blow, and the blow first; but the blow without the word. It is left to you to find out why your ears were boxed.
The object of what we commonly call education—that education in which man intervenes and which I shall distinguish as artificial education—is to make good these defects in nature’s methods; to prepare the child to receive nature’s education, neither incapably nor ignorantly, nor with wilful disobedience; and to understand the preliminary symptoms of her displeasure, without waiting for the box on the ear. In short, all artificial education ought to be an anticipation of natural education. And a liberal education is an artificial education—which has not only prepared a man to escape the great evils of disobedience to natural laws, but has trained him to appreciate and to seize upon the rewards which nature scatters with as free a hand as her penalties.
That man, I think, has had a liberal education who has been so trained in youth that his body is the ready servant of his will, and does with ease and pleasure all the work that, as a mechanism, it is capable of; whose intellect is a clear, cold, logic engine, with all its parts of equal strength, and in smooth working order; ready, like a steam engine, to be turned to any kind of work, and spin the gossamers as well as forge the anchors of the mind; whose mind is stored with a knowledge of the great and fundamental truths of nature and of the laws of her operations; one who, no stunted ascetic, is full of life and fire, but whose passions are trained to come to heel by a vigorous will, the servant of a tender conscience; who has learned to love all beauty, whether of nature or of art, to hate all vileness, and to respect others as himself.
Such an one and no other, I conceive, has had a liberal education; for he is, as completely as a man can be, in harmony with nature. He will make the best of her, and she of him. They will get on together rarely; she as his ever beneficent mother; he as her mouthpiece, her conscious self, her minister and interpreter.
ideal, answering to our highest conception; perfect type; actual thing as standard for imitation.
liberal education, education that is befitting or worthy of a man of free birth; education that is not restricted.
discrepant, different; contrary; in disagreement.
chess, a game of pure skill played upon a chessboard with chessmen, the players moving alternately until the king on one side is so attacked that he cannot escape. The chessmen are named king, queen, bishop, knight, castle （or rook）, and pawns.
primary, chief; of first importance; of the greatest importance.
the moves of the pieces, how to move the pieces, as each piece has a fixed path.
notion of a gambit. Gambit is a chess opening in which the first player voluntarily gives up a pawn or a piece for the sake of an advantage in position. Hence, a person who possesses the notion of gambit is one who has the ingenious quality to grasp the opportunities of life.
giving and getting out of check. Check is the word of warning denoting that the king is in danger. One who has a keen eye for all the means of giving and getting out of check, therefore, is one who knows how to outdo an adversary when he is attacked, and how to surpass him in any situation.
disapprobation, act of passing unfavorable judgment upon.
never makes the smallest allowance for ignorance, one who never makes the smallest allowance for mistakes due to ignorance is one who never entertains the slightest error or wrong committed as a result of lack of knowledge or information on any subject.
stakes, sum of money or its equivalent which is wagered or pledged between two parties in any gamble.
checkmate is the exclamation made by a chessplayer when he makes a move that puts the opponent’s king in check from which there is no escape. Here, checkmate means complete defeat.
metaphor, figure of speech by which a word or phrase literally denoting one kind of subject or idea is applied to another by way of suggestion, a suggestion of likeness or analogy between them; a compressed simile.
Retzsch, Moritz （1779-1857）, German painter, etcher, and designer.
mocking fiend, the devil who is ridiculing contemptuously, who is defying, his opponent.
Adam. According to Genesis, the first book of the Bible, “God created man in his own image” on the sixth day. This man was Adam.
Eve. Later God took a rib from Adam and made of it a woman, to be the mate of man. “Adam called his wife’s name Eve; because she was the mother of all living.”
monitors, persons who offer advice or serves warning; senior schoolboys placed in authority of the class.
susceptible, made sensitive to; exposed to; given over to.
Test-Acts. In English history, the Test-Act was a statute passed in 1673 requiring persons holding office, civil or military, or positions of trust under the crown, to take the oaths of supremacy and allegiance, renounce under oath the right to take arms against the king, and receive communion under the Church of England. This act was partially repealed in 1828.
Those who take honors, those who win distinction, such as academic distinction.
“Poll.” In Cambridge University, England, the poll （collective） are the students who “go up” for, or obtain, a pass or ordinary degree （poll degree）, that is, a degree without honors.
plucked. Originally an English university slang meaning rejection from the university for some deficiency or misdemeanor; but, now only, rejection for failure to pass in an examination.
extermination, utter destruction; death.
compulsory education, the system of education in which every child is enforced or compelled to attend school.
visited as sharply, punished as severely and suddenly.
boxed, strucked with the hand or fist, especially on the ear or on the side of the head.
intervenes, interferes; breaks in to take a part.
artificial education, education that is artificial because it is obtained by human skill and labor, in opposition to natural education.
anticipation, act of introducing beforehand; an education that teaches the students beforehand how to make use of natural education.
spin the gossamers, deal with very delicate matters, perhaps somewhat airy. A gossamer is a light filmy substance, like the webs of small spiders, floating in calm air or spread over grass.
forge the anchors, deal with coarser matters, undoubtedly more stable and substantial. Anchors are used to moor ships to the bottom of the sea, and are heavy and large.
stunted ascetic. An ascetic is one who devotes himself to a solitary and contemplative life, with rigorous discipline of the self, as by celibacy, fasting, and self-mortification. Such extreme self-denial stunts or checks the otherwise normal man and his development.
to come to heel, to obey, just as a hunting dog is trained to follow closely at the heel of his master when commanded to do so.
the servant of a tender conscience, obeying a moral sense of right and wrong that is easily touched or moved.
to hate all vileness. A man who has had a liberal education is one who has learned that not only must he not be satisfied merely to be good, but also that he must take an aggressive attitude and hate all evil, try to eradicate evil.
beneficent mother, mother doing good or showing active kindness.
her mouthpiece, spokesman, one who speaks for Nature.
her conscious self, Nature represented as conscious, through his conscious thought; Nature shown as being aware of external things, Nature with mental faculties alive and awake because he is wide awake.
her minister, the person employed by Nature to carry out her purposes; her agent.
- What is Huxley’s first definition of a liberal education?
- How much does he include under “the laws of nature”?
- What instruction other than that received in school does one receive?
- Why is Nature’s education insufficient?
- What is the object of artificial education?
- What is Huxley’s final definition of a liberal education?
- What kind of man has had a liberal education?
- What will be the relationship of such a man to nature?