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Liberalism and Liberal Education

By Mortimer J. Adler
From The Educational Record (July 1939)

THE BASIC PROBLEMS of Education are normative. This means, positively, that they are problems in moral and political philosophy; and, negatively, that they cannot, they have not and never will be, solved by the methods of empirical science, by what is called educational research. The reason for the unalterable inadequacy of science is not far to seek. Science can measure and observe, can collect facts of all sorts and generalize from such collections, but neither the facts nor the generalizations can by themselves answer questions about what should be done in education. Such questions require us to consider what is good and bad, to define the ideals or norms of human life and human society, and this is the work of the moral and political philosopher.

The ultimate questions involved in the problem of emotions and the educative process are all moral. They cannot be answered by science. It must be said to the credit of the researchers that they acknowledged the impasse at which they arrived when they realized that ethical criteria could not be avoided. But unfortunately, it must also be said that they manifested the prevalent positivism by supposing that the impasse was due merely to the present limitations of scientific knowledge which further research may remedy. Until then, they regret, "philosophy must continue to play a large part in determining the objectives of education with regard to the training of affective behavior." They regret because they think that ethical criteria are relative and subjective, culturally determined or matters of individual opinion. If that were true, they would have reached an impasse, indeed, for then the problems of education would be forever insoluble, because there is no justification whatsoever for the optimism that science will some day answer normative questions.

May I take issue with the investigators on this crucial point? Not only are the major problems of education—whether in relation to the individual or to the state—soluble, but they have already been solved, for their solution does not depend on scientific research. Scientific research is relevant only in a minor connection, namely, the application of universal principles to local and contemporary circumstances. To hold, as I do, that the major problems of education are already solved, is, of course, to hold that we possess a body of settled truths in the sphere of practical problems, the problems of human conduct and association.

In the light of all that we know about man, without the aid of scientific research, it is demonstrably true that man's well-being depends upon the regulation of his emotional life by reason, what the ancients called the discipline and moderation of the passions. This discipline can be accomplished only by the formation of good habits of action and passion, and these good habits are the moral virtues. To whatever extent the school as an educational institution must deal with the emotions of the young, its aim must be the same as that of the church and of the home, namely, the development of the moral virtues. There are difficult questions here about the division of responsibility among the several cooperating agencies, such as school, church, and home, but there is no unsolved problem about the end which they must all serve. That the cardinal virtues are prudence, justice, temperance, and fortitude is as certain a truth as any theorem in geometry, and as universal and objective, independent of the mores of the tribe and of your and my private prejudices.

I am not saying that the human race has solved the problem of how to train its young, how to cultivate the virtues, but I see no evidence that scientific research has substantially improved our position in this regard. At best, we have learned a little about the pathology of the passions and that may, in turn, have made us realize anew how patient and persistent our efforts must be if, as educators, we share in the responsibility for making children into good men and women.

I have said all this illustratively to explain my approach to the problem of general education and the state. I would not be speaking honestly if I pretended that I was going to express my opinions or the opinions of others. There is no room for opinion in philosophy. This applies to practical as well as theoretic philosophy, and to the philosophy of education as a chapter in ethics and politics. I do not mean, of course, that all men agree, but only that their disagreements are not to be regarded as an affair of obstinate prejudices on their part. These are arguable matters, and argument is both empty and vicious unless it is undertaken on the supposition that there is attainable truth which, when attained by reason in the light of all the relevant evidence, resolves the original issues. Moreover, to claim truth for what one is saying is not to be intolerant of others who may differ, for we can try to speak the truth "with malice toward none and charity for all," but not unless we have "firmness in the right as God gives us to see the right." And, as a contemporary has pointed out, if liberalism forbids such firmness, then liberalism has chosen the path toward doctrinal suicide.

The problem of the individual and education—of which the problem about emotions is a part—is a moral problem. The major principles needed for its solution are to be found in the analysis of the virtues, both moral and intellectual. The problem of education and the state is a political problem. Here the major principle is the most general of all political truths, namely, the distinction between good and bad states, just and unjust governments. The ancients formulated this principle by saying that the criterion of justice resides in the end which the government serves. A government consists of men who, in one way or another, have come to occupy the offices of ruling their fellows. Either they perform the task of ruling for the sake of the common good, for the well-being of the community, or instead of seeking to serve the common interests of the governed, they misuse their offices to further their own private interests. Furthermore, the common good is not an end in itself; the well-being of the community is a good because it contributes to the happiness of the citizens. The tyrant—and tyranny can be taken as the name for any unjust rule—not only misuses his office by considering only his own advantage, but usually tries to conceal his violence by identifying his own fortunes with the state itself, and then making the success of the state the paramount good which all men must serve, though they perish spiritually as well as physically in the process.

The contemporary world, I almost regret to say, has not allowed us to forget this ancient truth. We in America have come to cherish our good institutions with renewed vigor because of the contrast that is afforded by the obviously bad societies in the world today. We regard our institutions as good because they respect the integrity, the sanctity, of human beings, and aim to help them achieve good lives. And by the same principle we regard the various totalitarian regimes as bad because they have made the state itself an absolute end. They have deified the state and have sacrificed men upon a false altar. Whenever men are treated as if they were mere means, they are misused. The totalitarian myth that the state as such is supreme always results in such misuse.

On the contrary, government itself is an instrument for achieving the common good, and the community thus well maintained is a means toward the perfection of men. When I speak of human happiness as identical with the perfection of human nature, I am not thinking in terms of the utilitarian formula of "the greatest good for the greatest number." I am distinguishing between the individual, whose private and idiosyncratic interests are always subordinate to the common good, and the person, constituted by that essential and spiritual nature in which all men equally share. It is not my private interests as opposed to yours which the community must serve, but only my personal, or essentially human, well-being, and that is, in every respect, the same as yours.

These general truths of political philosophy determine the proper role of public education as a political institution. Along with law enforcement agencies, public health service, military forces, the educational system is one of the instrumentalities of government, and in a sense the most important because it is entirely positive and constructive in its operations. All of these implements of government are well employed only if they are directed to the ends which government must itself serve, in order to be just, namely the common good immediately, and the happiness of men ultimately.

The question "What is a good education?" can be answered in two ways: either in terms of what is good for men at any time and place because they are men, or in terms of what is good for men considered only as members of a particular social and political order. My thesis is that the best society is the one in which the two answers are the same; and that one society is better than another in so far as it approximates this ideal. The totalitarian regimes misuse education because they misuse men. They must use education, as they use other pressures and propaganda, secret police and concentration camps, to make men into political puppets. Such bad societies, vicious in principle as well as ruthless in execution, cannot afford to consider education as a means for perfecting men and making them happy.

We must condemn the fascist educational program for the same reasons that we condemn fascist government and fascist international policy. All of these condemnations are justified by the same fundamental principle, according to which we distinguish good and bad in the political and social order. If there is anyone who would say that this principle is merely a matter of opinion—and a fortiori, that there are no objective and universal political truths—that person, whether he knows it or not, is as vicious as his fascist adversary, for he is ultimately reduced to the same position, that only might makes right. This is the suicide of the false liberal, to which I previously referred.

It is a basic tenet of American democracy that men have sacred rights above the state. While admitting that its present forms and operations may be far from perfect, we are, nevertheless, compelled to honor the institutions and practices of our government as abiding by this principle of justice. The corollary which would seem to follow is that American education is fundamentally sound, because we seek to solve the problem of education in our democracy only by determining what is good education for all men everywhere. Unfortunately, that is not clearly the case.

Education as it exists in this country today—and I am thinking primarily of our schools and colleges which perform the function of general education, and not universities and professional schools—has been distorted by some of its leading practitioners in almost the same way that it is misused in the totalitarian countries. The distortion is plainly manifest in a recent publication of the John Dewey Society, a book called Democracy and the Curriculum. The educators who have written this book—and they represent an important faction in our teachers colleges—are so anxious to save democracy that they are willing to make the educational process serve no other end than the perpetuation of a form of government. Their fundamental error is not lessened by the fact that the government they seek to support is relatively just, as compared to others; for they have misconceived the nature of democracy as a good government if they fail to see that citizenship—intelligent participation in government—is only one, and not the exclusive or primary, aim of good education. Public education in a democracy serves the state not simply by making children into faithful democrats, but primarily through serving the welfare of its citizens, not merely as subjects of the state, but as free men. In fact, unless education makes men free it cannot serve democracy at all.

It is not just a play on words to say that the aim of liberal education is to make men free, and for this reason democracy must sustain and extend liberal education or perish, since democracy is the society of free men. There may be a play on words in the motto of St. John's College—Facio liberos ex liberis libris libraque—but the punning on the Latin stem for the word "free" is deeply significant, because to state the purpose of a liberal college as making free men out of children by means of books and balances not only proclaims the end but specifies the means—the liberal arts and the tradition of learning.

The trouble with American education today is not merely that in many quarters the end of liberal education has been forgotten or mistaken, but that the means have been corrupted or deformed. These are related occurrences, for when educators bend their efforts toward making school and college a training camp for citizenship—insisting even that the organization and administration of the school be a miniature democracy so that the pupil can get inoculated with small doses—they also turn the curriculum, if they retain that odious thing at all, into a scheme of indoctrination. But if democratic citizens must be free men, they must have free minds, and minds cannot be made free except by being disciplined to recognize only one authority, the authority of reason. That discipline is accomplished only when the intelligence is trained to work critically on all matters; only when every human doctrine or policy, even that of democracy itself, is submitted to the examination of reason; only when, furthermore, the mind is freed from all local prejudices and current exigencies through being elevated by those universal truths to which the whole human tradition bears witness.

When I say that American education has failed to achieve liberal ends by liberal means—and is still moving in the wrong direction—I appeal for support to the obvious facts with which we are all acquainted. Scientific measurements of the educational product of the schools of New York and Pennsylvania show not merely a failure to master the ordinary subject matters of instruction but, what is more dismal, the inadequacy of the schools with respect to the basic operations of critical intelligence as these occur in reading and writing. Not only are distressingly large numbers of high school graduates unable to read and write to that minimum degree which must be possessed by free minds participating in a democratic community, but the evidence further shows that after graduation they have neither appetite nor capacity for reading anything better than the local newspaper or mediocre fiction. Some of these many high school graduates have terminated their schooling. For them we can have little hope. School has given them neither the equipment nor the impulse to continue their education out of school. Their intelligence, of whatever degree, has been so untrained and so uncultivated, that they will be ready to follow the first demagogue who seeks to beguile them.

If, as Thomas Hobbes observes, a democracy tends to degenerate into an oligarchy of orators, and even sometimes, as we have recently seen abroad, into the tyranny of the leading orator of the land, then education in this country, as judged by its high school products, is inimical to democracy. Nor is the remedy the one proposed by the spokesmen of the John Dewey Society, who would inoculate and indoctrinate the students with democratic notions and practices in the school. That is demagogic rather than democratic education. The person who has not learned to think critically, who has not come to respect reason as the only arbiter of truth in human generalizations, who has not been lifted out of the blind alleys of local and contemporary jargons and shibboleths, will not be saved by the orator of the classroom from later succumbing to the orator of the platform and the press.

Of course, we must remember that some high school graduates go to college, and among these, perhaps, are a few who have profited from their schooling. But we can derive little consolation from this thought because here, too, the facts prevent us. Though they are even more obliged by their historic mission to perform the work of liberal education, the liberal arts colleges fail on their level as badly, if not worse, than the high schools do on theirs. Our colleges produce undisciplined and hence unliberated minds, minds which are cultivated only by a superficial literacy. Almost worse is that they produce skeptics about reason and knowledge, relativists about morals, sophists in political matters, in short, liberals in that worst sense of the word in which liberalism is suicidal because it is unable to give a rational defense of its sentimental protestations without contradicting itself. Since liberals of this sort are comfortable in the presence of contradiction, it will not be implausible if I add that these same college graduates who are skeptics and sophists are also deeply indoctrinated with the local prejudices of their teachers, especially the scientists, natural and social, who dominate the college curriculum. The college graduate is neither a liberal artist nor a liberated mind. When college has affected him most "spiritually," it has made him into a "liberal," by which I mean that monomania for freedom in which the mind abhors discipline and does not acknowledge the authority of reason.

I am, of course, using the words "liberal" and "liberalism" in a dyslogistic sense. These words can be used as terms of the highest praise, and then it would be true to say that a liberal education serves democracy by making men liberal. The distinction here between the contrary senses of "liberal" and "liberalism" turns upon a true and a false conception of the nature and place of liberty in human life. The liberalism I have been attacking as false is false because it misconceives the role and extent of liberty in human affairs. It is this false liberalism which is as much a part of our eighteenth-century heritage as the good democratic institutions which we have preserved and developed. The founding fathers did not speak a pure political truth, a truth unmixed with error; they were inspired by Locke and Voltaire and Rousseau, but they were also misled by them.

The tradition of American democracy is a great blessing in the modern world, but is not without its blemishes, chief among which is the false liberalism that was present at the beginning and has more recently been augmented by positivism, the skepticism, the anti-rationalism, which are so many noxious weeds that seem to attend the flowering of science in a culture. There is no intrinsic and necessary connection between the principles of democracy and this false liberalism; on the contrary, democracy will become mature only through the cure of this infantile disorder. The fact remains, however, that at the present moment we are not only a democratic people but one which has not yet rectified its liberalism.

The false liberalism of which I speak is nowhere more dominant than among our professional educators, our teachers colleges, and our college faculties. The vicious circle of reciprocal causality is nowhere more manifest than in our educational system. Our educators are themselves the products of our schools and colleges and their liberalism signifies the extent to which our institutions have failed to accomplish liberal education. And their liberalism, on the other hand, is of paramount importance in sustaining the present deplorable state of affairs, in some cases going even further in the wrong direction, in others acting to oppose reforms which seek to institute a truly liberal education.

I do not mean to say that false liberalism, on the part of our educators or the public generally, is the only cause of what is wrong with American education today; but it is certainly among the principal causes. I have singled it out for discussion because we are here considering the relation of general education to the state. My point is that although American education can be good because it exists in a democratic country and need not, therefore, be misused, it is at present bad. It is bad largely with respect to the means we employ and the obliqueness of the way in which we direct them to the right end. This we do because of a false liberalism, historically associated with our democratic principles, and rampant today in the texture of our national life.

Let me illustrate this by citing again the authors of Democracy and the Curriculum. They want freedom to such an extent that they wish to be rid of a curriculum as a prescribed course of study. Because it is prescribed, because it expresses the authority of teachers imposed upon students, because it makes teacher and student unequal, it is regarded as undemocratic—as if democracy did not depend, as does every good social order, on leaders and followers, rulers with authority and subjects, not submissive, but well ruled. Throughout their writings they confuse authority, which is nothing more than the voice of reason, with autocracy, which is the violent imposition of a will by force; they confuse discipline with regimentation; they convert the equality of human beings as persons, sharing in a common nature and a common end, into an equality of individuals, despite the differences in their capacities and their merits. This is not the liberality and equality which constitute democracy as the social order in which popular sovereignty is most fully realized because, through the discipline of reason, men have the authority to govern themselves and use the freedom of self-government. This is the romantic libertinism and egalitarianism of Rousseau.

I am willing to admit that I have chosen an extreme example in using this book to make my case; maybe the rank and file of American educators would not accept so preposterous a position. Yet false liberalism is generally prevalent among them, though perhaps not so blatantly, and the falsity is manifested by the same confusions. As President Barr of St. John's College recently said:

"The day's news suggests that liberal democracies are paralyzed. If they are, it is because we twentieth-century liberals have missed the point of our faith. We have slithered into the belief that liberty meant being left alone, and nothing else. We have come to assume that liberalism is the absence of authority because we can no longer distinguish between authority and tyranny. We have forgotten that the mind that denies the authority of reason falls under the tyranny of caprice. We have forgotten that he who will not answer to the rudder must answer to the rock. We have therefore allowed totalitarian dictators to take out a copyright on words like authority and discipline, although their tyranny is a caricature of authority and their terrorism is a caricature of discipline."

It is appropriate, indeed, that these words should be spoken by the president of St. John's, because it is the only college in the country which is making a proportionate effort to adapt and devise means that may succeed in achieving the ends of liberal education. The venture is still too new to be judged by its products, but in aim and spirit it has already overcome false liberalism. Liberty is prized at St. John's, but with such discrimination and moderation that authority and discipline are not sacrificed. The elective system has been entirely abolished. The students become free men at St. John's through liberal disciplines, not through the repeated exercise of unprincipled choices.

This is not the place, nor is there time, to give an adequate analysis of the philosophical errors which underlie false liberalism. But I would like to point out a few of its misleading notions. As we have seen, liberalism is confused in so far as it confuses authority and tyranny, discipline and regimentation. These confusions discover for us the roots of error. In the first place, the confused liberal has a false conception of human liberty because for him it is both a negative and infinite value. It is always "freedom from" and not "freedom for," freedom as a condition of positive accomplishment. Following the major trend of modern thought, the confused liberal denies man's natural freedom, which is the freedom of man's will in acts of choice, and substitutes for natural freedom in this sense, the freedom from government which man possesses in a hypothetical state of nature. This hypothetical freedom man surrenders when, by social contract or otherwise, he enters with his fellows into society and submits to government. Government as such is an evil which must be suffered because life in a state of nature is worse—according to Hobbes, nasty, brutish and short. Hence, we get such eighteenth-century maxims as the one that that government governs best which governs least. And individual, civil liberty, freedom from being regulated or restricted in any way, becomes an unlimited and absolute good. It is a good in itself and we cannot get enough of it. There are of, course, numerous contradictions in this sequence of notions, but that does not prevent many men from taking the false position which exaggerates the value of liberty beyond everything else.

If, on the contrary, we begin by affirming man's natural freedom as his God-given power of free choice, we see that this freedom is, in itself, neither good nor evil morally, since it is equally the condition under which men perform good and bad acts. Freedom is morally good only when it is well used. That is why St. Augustine defined the moral virtues as the proper use of our freedom. It follows, furthermore, that civil liberty is good only to the extent that it comports with justice. Not that government which governs least or most is best, but only the one which governs most justly. Civil liberty is justified only by justice; anything else in excess or defect is license or oppression. In short, a man should have neither more civil liberty than he is able to use justly, nor less than he needs to lead a good life. Totalitarianism, at one extreme, commits the error of defect; false liberalism, at the opposite extreme, commits the error of excess.

The foregoing insight, that civil liberty is not incompatible with government, that, on the contrary, just government augments rather than diminishes one's freedom, leads us to the second point. Man's will is responsive either to the judgments of reason or to the movement of his passions. Only when reason rules the will, however, is a man fully free in his acts. It is not any sort of voluntary conduct which constitutes human freedom, for animals behave voluntarily and so do men under the impulse of their animal passions. Though freedom is in the will, its root or principle is in reason, as a power of deliberation and judgment. Here, again, we see that freedom, far from being the absence of all rule, is rather the submission to a right rule. We are free, in society or in our own acts, when we are properly governed. And this explains the meaning of authority within the human sphere. Authority is reason and nothing else.

Now, here, the confused liberal makes an amazing, a paradoxical, error. Although he usually denies man's free will, he is almost always at the same time a voluntarist, by which I mean that he affirms, by implication at least, the absolute primacy and inviolability of the will. Making the mistake of supposing that law is an expression of the sovereign will, rather than a command of reason, he must necessarily regard government as an organization of force, an imposition which violates his sacred will. For whereas another can speak to me with authority in so far as I can discern therein reason's commands, a voice that proclaims nothing but another's will speaks only in the language of force, and must either oppose or submit my will according to our relative mights. Furthermore, voluntarism, in subordinating reason, tends to merge the will and the passions, so that the ruling principle in society or the individual is merely the force of desire as such, and everyone seeks a maximum freedom to follow his own inclinations.

There is still a further consequence of the voluntarism which is part of the liberal's confusion. The liberal exaggerates the province of the will in thought as well as in action. Whereas, in truth, the intellect moves necessarily within the sphere of its proper objects, so that men are not free to affirm what is self-evidently false, or to deny conclusions which are validly demonstrated by true premises, the liberal makes everything a matter of the will to believe. Thinking is not only voluntary as the exercise of our rational power, but it is voluntary in all its acts, so far as what is affirmed or denied is concerned. It follows, therefore, that just as in the realm of politics, the primacy of will identifies authority with force, so in the realm of thought the primacy of will reduces everything to arbitrary opinions or academic conventions. There are not first truths, but only postulates, demands on the will that something be taken for granted. In some sense, all knowledge rests on acts of faith, though the only principle of such faith is one's private predilections. Liberalism in the realm of thought has gone so far as to regard even mathematical truths as mere conventions, and the rules of logic itself as a set of postulated canons which have only pragmatic significance.

I hope I have said enough to indicate why I think false liberalism is the enemy of liberal education, and why a truly liberal education is needed in this country to correct the confusions of this widely prevalent liberalism. I know I have not said enough to demonstrate the errors of false liberalism, for that would be a work of extended analysis. Suffice it if I have intimated the demonstration by revealing the multiple contradictions with which false liberalism abounds. The task of correction is hopeless in so far as the liberal is not bothered by contradictions. The only hope is in the young, for if they are truly liberally educated they will become sensitive to contradictions, and if, in addition, they come to understand and respect the authority of reason in human affairs, they may be saved from the confusions of false liberalism. Our hope must be for a better education, an education which democracy not only makes possible but needs, for in the rectification of liberalism itself, in the school and in the state, lies the promise of maturity for American democracy.

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Liberalism and Liberal Education


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