Enduring Interest

Michael and Catherine Zuckert on Leo Strauss’s “What is Liberal Education?” and “Liberal Education and Responsibility”

November 1, 2021

With this episode Enduring Interest moves into a new series on the subject of education. In the coming months we will be hearing from guests on authors including Leo Strauss, Hannah Arendt, Eva Brann, Michael Oakshott, and others.


Leo Strauss once wrote, “I own that education is in a sense the subject matter of my teaching and my research.” Yet, as Michael and Catherine Zuckert note, Strauss wrote very little directly on this subject. “What is Liberal Education” was first given as a commencement address at the Basic Program of Liberal Education at the University of Chicago in the late 1950s—it was subsequently published in 1961. The second essay was prepared for a conference sponsored by the Fund for Adult Education—the organizers asked Strauss to elaborate on some lines from the first address. “Liberal Education and Responsibility” was then published in 1962. These two essays can be found in An Introduction to Political Philosophy: Ten Essays by Leo Strauss or in Liberalism Ancient and Modern.


Michael and Catherine Zuckert are both Nancy Reeves Dreux Professor Emeritus in the Department of Political Science at the University of Notre Dame. They are currently visiting professors at Arizona State University’s School of Civic and Economic Thought and Leadership. In addition to their voluminous, independent scholarly work, together they are the co-authors of The Truth about Leo Strauss and Leo Strauss and the Problem of Political Philosophy. Listeners can find their reflections on the two essays under discussion here in chapter 11 of this latter volume.


The Zuckerts and I discuss Strauss’s understanding of education as the cultivation of the mind and the capacity to see human greatness. Although both essays ultimately point to liberal education as the study of what Strauss calls the great books, we explore the differences in these two essays. Strauss emphasizes different threats to liberal education—consumerism and mass democracy on the one hand and scientism and technocracy on the other. We also discuss Strauss’s biography and how he conducted himself in the classroom over the course of a long teaching career.


Strauss points to liberal education as something to be pursued for its own sake—a liberation from vulgarity. “The Greeks had a beautiful word for ‘vulgarity,’” notes Strauss, “they called it apeirokalia, lack of experience in things beautiful. Liberal education supplies us with experience of things beautiful.” As the Zuckerts emphasize in our conversation, Strauss also suggests liberal education is necessary for the civic goods it can yield. Liberal education might produce the moderation that “will protect us against the twin dangers of visionary expectations of politics and unmanly contempt for politics…It is in this way that the liberally educated may again receive a hearing even in the market place.”


We hope you enjoy the episode and don’t forget to rate Enduring Interest on iTunes and other places where you might get your podcasts. Follow us on Twitter: @theEIpod. We are sponsored by the Zephyr Institute.

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