Richard Peters argued for a general education based largely on the study of truth-seeking subjects for its own sake. His arguments have long been acknowledged as problematic. There are also difficulties with Paul Hirst's arguments for a liberal education, which in part overlap with Peters'. Where justification fails, can historical explanation illuminate? Peters was influenced by the prevailing idea that a secondary education should be based on traditional, largely knowledge-orientated subjects, pursued for intrinsic as well as practical ends. Does history reveal good reasons for this view? The view itself has roots going back to the 16th century and the educational tradition of radical Protestantism. Religious arguments to do with restoring the image of an omniscient God in man made good sense, within their own terms, of an encyclopaedic approach to education. As these faded in prominence after 1800, old curricular patterns persisted in the drive for ‘middle-class schools’, and new, less plausible justifications grew in salience. These were based first on faculty psychology and later on the psychology of individual differences. The essay relates the views of Peters and Hirst to these historical arguments, asking how far their writings show traces of the religious argument mentioned, and how their views on education and the development of mind relate to the psychological arguments.