A good liberal education will provide students with a basic cultural literacy about those aspects of the human condition sufficiently important to warrant a place in the curriculum. We have argued in earlier chapters that a major purpose for studying history and literature is the understanding and insight they provide into the human condition. History is a record of social, political, moral, and religious experiments; it provides interpretations of the suffering and flourishing of humankind. The study of literature gives students imaginative insights into how people have thought and felt about the world in different times and places. History and literature provide students with a multitude of vicarious experiences so that they are not at the mercy of their limited and inevitably inadequate personal insights and experiences. So, for example, it is impossible to understand matters of racial justice (and so specific a policy issue as affirmative action) without understanding a good deal of history, and the insights gained from imaginative literature (art, drama, and film) will be immensely valuable in making that history come alive. Indeed, one major criterion for choosing the history and literature we teach should be its relevance to deepening students’ understanding of what is central to the suffering and flourishing of humankind.
As we suggested in Chapter 2, a liberal education has both conservative and liberating aspects. A good liberal education will initiate students into cultural traditions, shaping their moral identities in the process. We are not social atoms, but inheritors of languages, cultures, institutions, and moral traditions. From the beginning it has been a purpose of public education to make students into good citizens, good Americans. In teaching history we provide students with a past, a sense of identity, a role in developing stories, a set of obligations.