What is it to be liberal? My definition runs as follows:
Liberalism is a world view that espouses the values of freedom, democracy and equality. Encoded into the term as a political system are the notions of social welfare, secularism and choice.
A liberal worldview would thus be one which emphasizes the value of personal choice – so long as no-one else is hurt as a result of those choices. Translated into a system of government, liberalism focusses on this same freedom to choose, as well as endeavoring to uplift the living standards of all people (especially the destitute) so that they have the option to choose their lifestyles more freely. A liberal society is thus one which embraces individuality, change and the welfare of the many.
A conservative world view is not the opposite of liberalism but a perversion of it. Co-opting the language of liberalism, conservatives will still say they value freedom of choice, but in reality, these choices are placed within such narrow bounds, as to make them statutory. Thus, even though conservatives will argue that they should have the freedom to choose how they live their lives, those choices are essentially confined to what the group believes is traditionally morally acceptable. As a political philosophy, this constrained worldview is put forward as the model of correct behavior, to which all citizens are to subscribe. A conservative society will privilege the rights of the few, be averse to change and multiple perspectives, and advocate a parochial view of the world.
Now let's look at education:
Tragically, the majority of schools in the world still follow a conservative model of education. As Sir Ken Robinson has it, 'batch education' follows the model of the industrial system (in which it has its roots). Children were (and mostly still are) taught the same thing at the same age, as if they were manufactured parts on an assembly line. There is one source of authority on the line, and one does not question the foreman. To succeed, students need to pass a 'quality-control test' within certain boundaries of tolerance. Those who excel at traditional education will apparently be set for life, whether by learning the system, or by accident of birth. And those who fall by the wayside deserve to be there.
Moreover, this homogenized, industrial model invariably inculcates a system of morality into children. And this moral code, like the content they are forced to learn, is very much regimented and controlled and prescribed. And it is seldom secular in nature.
Of late, there is a great deal of talk about 'twenty-first century' education (or what I prefer to call 'progressive education'). In essence, this 'new' form of education seeks to personalize and customize education by giving students more freedom to choose their own learning paths. (It actually isn't new at all – individualized education goes back to Socrates at the very least.) Progressive education also aims to teach kids the value of critical thinking, of generating innovative solutions, of working independently, as well as being a member of a team, and of communicating their ideas confidently. Most importantly, a progressive education will emphasize the values of tolerance, empathy and individuality.
A truly progressive education will also seek to offer opportunities for gifted learners, decrease the obsession with grades and standardized assessments as a means of measuring academic ability, and encourage students to develop links between different areas of knowledge. Most importantly, it will teach children to find out independently, to embrace and leverage their own passions and curiosity, and to become mindful and active learners.
In essence, then, a progressive education is a move towards a more liberal education. Not only does it teach kids to question more deeply and to develop their own world views in a real and meaningful sense, but it also teaches them to have the courage to make their own independent choices, as well as respecting the different choices other people make. Moreover, this liberal view of education provides students with a social conscience which enables them to become confident, active citizens who can build a future for themselves, as well as playing their part in alleviating deprivation and inequality on a broader scale.
Unfortunately, much of this can, and is undone when conservative schools hijack the language of a liberal education, while rejecting the core values of liberalism. Hence, they will teach 'critical thinking' and creative problem-solving, but only within very confined limits. There are some things students simply shouldn't question, according to these schools, and these are usually issues around authority, respect and tradition. And, of course, they will still prescribe what it is to be a moral being. These schools will proudly announce how they adopt the principles of a 'modern education' while at the same time subscribing to 'traditional values', when in truth, they do nothing of the sort. At most, they have a thin dishonest veneer of liberalism covering their stolid old conservatism.
This simulacrum of a progressive education is incredibly dangerous, as it produces kids who are told (and who end up believing) that they are independent thinkers – but who are mostly unable to even perceive, let alone question their very limited world views. Hence, you get people who think of themselves as critical thinkers, but who find themselves intolerant of difference, and citizens who think that people should be allowed to do whatever they want to, within a very limited range of options. And in the end, these young people become parochial thinkers who are unwilling or unable to play their part in uplifting those who need help, because these people do not believe what they believe. And since they don't believe what these young conservatives believe, or seem unwilling to convert their thinking, they deserve what they get.
A more genuinely liberal education is a more meaningful education because it has the interests of both the individual student at heart, as well as society more generally. A liberal education is a more compassionate education, and it is one which embraces diversity and difference. In the end, liberally educated children are less likely to feel alienated at school, and are happier, less violent, more responsible, and less inclined towards hatred and willful ignorance.
It's true, not every young person transfers the lessons they learn at school into adult life. There will always be those people who end up adopting a contrary world view to the one they grew up being exposed to. You may say I'm overly idealistic, but I do think more and more people, both young and old, are finding meaning in a liberal world view, by being encouraged to forge their own path through life. More and more people are choosing to be the people they want to be, rather than the people they are told to be. There is more critical analysis and genuine innovation, and there is also more compassion and understanding.
And that, dear readers, can only be good for the world. Just give it a little time.