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Liberal education: an overlapping pragmatic consensus

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In reviewing the course of liberal education in the US during the 20th century, Bruce Kimball in 1995 proposed that a pragmatic consensus was emerging about the understanding of liberal education. The two-fold tradition of liberal education, with its shifting emphases and accommodations between 'orators' and 'philosophers,' was being transformed into a 'new American tradition of liberal education deeply rooted in the resurgent intellectual tradition of pragmatism'. A number of different, even contradictory, criticisms of Kimball's thesis have been offered concerning the existence and nature of such a consensus and its relationship(s) to pragmatism. We suggest that the consensus thesis and the criticisms it has encountered might be best understood by comparing it to Rawls's idea of an 'overlapping consensus'. Comparing and contrasting Kimball's project and Rawls's approach suggests that the emerging consensus concerning liberal education at the beginning of the 21st century is an overlapping consensus, that is, a consensus whose nature is pragmatic, as well as a consensus whose substantive tenets are rationalized by pragmatism. Understanding the consensus in this way accounts for the varied criticism that Kimball's thesis has received and makes a significant difference in understanding the theory and practice of liberal education in the 21st century.

Document Type: Research Article


Publication date: March 1, 2000

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