Mortimer Adler surrounded by research cards when overseeing the writing of the Syntopicon, the index to the Great Books of the Western World.

In his now out of print book Great Ideas from the Great Books, Mortimer Adler, late editor of The Encyclopedia Britannica and the The Great Books of the Western World, points out that, contrary to common opinion, the liberal arts have quite a lot to do with science and innovation. In fact, he says, they are essential.

Liberal education, including all the traditional arts as well as the newer sciences, is essential for the development of top-flight scientists. Without it, we can train only technicians, who cannot understand the basic principles behind the motions they perform. We can hardly expect such skilled automatons to make new discoveries of any importance. A crash program of merely technical training would probably end in a crashup for basic science. He explains this idea in his essay, “What is Liberal Education?”

The connection of liberal education with scientific creativity is not mere speculation. It is a matter of historical fact that the great German scientists of the nineteenth century had a solid background in the liberal arts. They all went through a liberal education which embraced Greek, Latin, logic, philosophy, and history, in addition to mathematics, physics, and other sciences. Actually, this has been the educational preparation of European scientists down to the present time. Einstein, Bohr, Fermi, and other great modern scientists were developed not by technical schooling, but by liberal education.

The aim of liberal education, however, is not to produce scientists. It seeks to develop free human beings who know how to use their minds and are able to think for themselves. Its primary aim is not the development of professional competence, although a liberal education is indispensable for any intellectual profession. It produces citizens who can exercise their political liberty responsibly. It develops cultivated persons who can use their leisure fruitfully. It is an education for all free men, whether they intend to be scientists or not.

From Adler’s essay, “What is Liberal Education?”


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