Originally published in 1742 and presented here in its first modern edition, Observations upon Liberal Education is a significant contribution to the Scottish Enlightenment and the moral-sense school of Scottish philosophy. George Turnbull embodied these movements of ideas as much as his more famous contemporary Francis Hutcheson.
In Observations, Turnbull applied these ideas to the education of youth. He showed how a liberal education fosters true “inward liberty” and moral strength and thus prepares for responsible and happy lives in a free society. He drew upon an impressive number of authors, both ancient and modern, including John Locke. Indeed, there is probably no richer treasure trove of sources for the educational debates of the eighteenth century.
Terrence Moore, who wrote the introduction, notes that “Observations upon Liberal Education provides an extensive and illuminating treatment of education, sensitive to the means of inculcating the personal responsibility necessary for living in a free society.”
Turnbull was the mentor of Thomas Reid, but his influence was not confined to Scotland. Benjamin Franklin, in drafting his Proposals Relating to the Education of Youth in Pensilvania, drew generously from Observations.
"Instruction in the science or art of right living is the chief lesson in education, to which all others ought to be rendered subservient, and what this science is, and what may justly be called false learning.
If there be any such thing as duty, or any such thing as happiness; if there be any difference between right and wrong conduct; any distinction between virtue and vice, or wisdom and folly: In fine, if there be any such thing as perfection or imperfection belonging to the rational powers which constitute moral agents; or if enjoyments and pursuits admit of comparison; good education must of necessity be acknowledged to mean proper care to instruct early in the science of happiness and duty, or in the art of judging and acting aright in life. Whatever else one may have learned, if he comes into the world from his schooling and masters a mere stranger to the world, quite unacquainted with the nature, rank, and condition of mankind, and the duties of human life (in its more ordinary circumstances at least) he hath lost his time; he is not educated; he is not prepared for the world; he is not qualified for society; he is not fitted for discharging the proper business of man.
The way therefore to judge whether education be upon a right footing or not, is to compare it with this end; or to consider what it does in order to accomplish youth for choosing and behaving well in the various conditions, relations, and incidents of life. If education be calculated and adapted to furnish young minds betimes with proper knowledge for their guidance and direction in the chief affairs of the world, and in the principal vicissitudes to which human concerns are subject, then is it indeed proper or right education. But if such instruction be not the principal scope to which all other lessons are rendered subservient in what is called the institution of youth, either the art of living and acting well is not man’s most important business, or what ought to be the chief end of education is neglected, and sacrificed to something of far inferior moment."
George Turnbull (1698–1748) belongs to the founding figures in the Scottish Enlightenment. Finding their native Calvinism repressive, they sought a rational religion closely associated with their new science of human nature, supportive of tolerance, and compatible with classical ideals. He was a lesser-known contemporary of Hutcheson, Hume, and Smith. He taught at Marischal College, Aberdeen, then became a traveling tutor, and ended his career as an Anglican clergyman, first as a chaplain to the Prince of Wales, then as a minister in Ireland. Turnbull was the first member of the Scottish Enlightenment to provide a formal treatise on the theory and practice of education.