A few weeks ago at a conference, I listened to a distinguished political philosopher tell those in attendance that he would not be speaking before them had he not been the beneficiary, as a working-class youth in England, of a government policy to provide a free university education to the children of British citizens. He walked into the university with little knowledge of the great texts that inform modern democracy and he walked out an expert in those very same texts.

It goes without saying that he did not know what he was doing at the outset; he did not, that is, think to himself, I would like to be come a scholar of Locke, Hobbes and Mill. But that’s what he became, not by choice (at least in the beginning) but by opportunity.

That opportunity — to stroll into a world from which he might otherwise have been barred by class and a lack of funds — is not likely to be extended to young men and women in England today, especially if the recommendations of the Browne report, ‘Securing a Sustainable Future for Higher Education’ (Oct. 12, 2010), are implemented by a government that seemed to welcome them and, some suspect, mandated them.

The rhetoric of the report is superficially benign; its key phrase is ‘student choice’: ‘Our proposals put students at the heart of the system.’ ‘Our recommendations … are based on giving students the ability to make an informed choice of where and what to study.’ ‘Students are best placed to make the judgment about what they want to get from participating in higher education.’

The obvious objection to this last declaration is, ‘No, they aren’t; judgment is what education is supposed to produce; if students possessed it at the get-go, there would be nothing for courses and programs to do.’

Very important essay by Stanley Fish. There are of course some people — some blessed few — who have the judgment to pursue their own educational path. But in my experience there are far more people who think they have that discernment than actually possess it. I have had too many former students come back to tell me how little they knew in comparison to what they thought they knew; and again and again I see people following career paths (and personal paths) that they never could have imagined in those days when they were perfectly sure that they knew where they were going. A key task of liberal education is to give people intellectual tools that they can use on any path they happen to travel.