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Liberal education makes unfit slaves by teaching students they are independent, rational beings. The slaveholder fears it; the classical school embraces it.

slave holiday slave to vice

Frederick Douglass: Slavery and Liberal Education

This is the second installment in a series on “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass.” The first post can be read here


Frederick Douglass vividly recalls the beginning of his education, when his master forbade him from learning to read:

To use his own words, further, he said, “If you give a ****** an inch, he will take an ell. A ****** should know nothing but to obey his master—to do as he is told to do. Learning awould spoil the best ****** in the world. Now,” said he, “if you teach that ****** (speaking of myself) how to read, there would be no keeping him. It would forever unfit him to be a slave. He would at once become unmanageable, and of no value to his master. As to himself, it could do him no good, but a great deal of harm. It would make him discontented and unhappy.”

This speech on education is formational to a young Frederick Douglass, who decides upon overhearing it that he absolutely must learn to read. From this, we learn about the nature of a true, liberal education; the sort of education that makes a man free.

A liberal education goes beyond “Do what you’re told.”

Often, modern education attempts to inculcate an attitude of obedience and subservience in its students. Children are asked to face forward, sit still, and imbibe the monologue lecture their talking-head teacher delivers. Even in more creative learning environments, the ultimate goal of test-taking looms large over student activity, as every moment of the day in class is held to the standard of “how will this help on the test.”

Sheer obedience and factual recall cannot be the purpose of a liberal education. Any school concerned with nothing more than obedience from its students has missed the true call of education. Sure, schools should seek to produce respectful citizens, but it should not seek to produce slaves.

Instead, the liberal education must teach students to think, feel, and act freely, letting the “liberal” in liberal education take hold in a natural and definitive way. A slavish education enables you to follow orders. A liberal education enables you to ask questions and consider for yourself. The education that makes one unfit for slavery is that which teaches students that they are independent, rational beings who must weigh evidence and consider conclusions for themselves. It is only through this sort of education that a student is made free.

A liberal education renders students unfit to sit under corrupt leadership.

In being made free, students become unfit to sit under corrupt leadership. It is easy for the thoughtless slave to obey his master without question no matter the command. It is much more difficult for a free man to do this.

The liberally educated man is not by nature disrespectful, but reasonable and virtuous. He looks at the unjust commands of his corrupt superiors as simply that: unjust. Douglass’ master knows that a liberal education will make Douglass unfit for slavery because he knows that a liberal education will make the manifest evils of slavery impossible to ignore. When considering the American slave system through free eyes, the lack of rationality and virtue is clear.

Thus, a student who receives a liberal education will be an invaluable member to a team. He will both work diligently and call his superiors to question when they require wicked things. Rather than letting his community fall into disarray and vice, the liberally educated student will hold leaders accountable to a standard of goodness and virtue.

If corruption is ignored, a liberally educated student will quit. He cannot and will not suffer tyranny as he has breath. He recognizes his own value and the value of others. In a community full of liberally educated people, the tyrant will inevitably fail.

A liberal education leads to a proper understanding of one’s purpose.

Douglass’ master finally asserts that a liberal education would render him unhappy. This unhappiness, however, assumes the perpetuation of his slavery. A liberally educated man will not be able to be happy as a slave. This is, in my estimation, due to his proper understanding of telos.

A liberally educated man knows that he is free and that if he exists outside that freedom, he exists outside of his purpose. He will assert his freedom and use it to pursue happiness, which Aristotle would call the true purpose of man. As being enslaved is at odds with this purpose, he will not be able to live contently as a slave.  Instead, the liberally educated person must act as a free person, pursuing happiness and rejecting slavery.

The world is rife with would-be tyrants, and it is up to liberally educated men and women to resist these tyrants and think freely for themselves. May I be one of these free men, in mind as well as in body, and may I help my students to be free as well.

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