It's harder than you think

2nd June 2006 at 01:00
A stirring defence of Liberal values argues that freedom to think shouldn't be confused with the freedom to do as you please. Julian Baggini feels some discomfort

The War for Children's Minds

By Stephen Law

Routledge pound;14.99

"Liberal" education has been blamed for all sorts of modern ills: from the rise in teenage pregnancies, crime and drug use to the decline in respect, family life and social cohesion. As Stephen Law notes in the introduction to his provocative defence of liberal values in education, it seems there is a consensus that we went too far and it's time the permissive pendulum swung back the other way.

Although Law argues we should be "very liberal indeed in our approach to moral education", he may have made himself an unwitting ally of just the kind of authoritarian religious schools that atheist humanists such as himself usually regard as pernicious.

Law's strategy is to do what analytic philosophers do best and show that there are several important distinctions which protagonists in the debate should make, but rarely do. The most important of these is between freedom of thought and freedom of action. To help distinguish between the two, Law refers to the former as Liberalism with a capital L. Critics of liberal education make the mistake of thinking that to be Liberal, you have to be liberal.

In other words, to encourage people to think for themselves and to resist capital-A Authoritarianism - simply commanding children to accept that what they are told is right or wrong - you have to let them do what they want.

But this is false. A good Liberal school can have an authoritarian approach to behaviour. What it can't be is Authoritarian in not allowing these rules to be discussed and debated. Law is right, and anyone who confuses the two forms of liberalism after reading his crystal-clear explication is beyond intellectual redemption.

Crucially, however, Law announces that he is concerned only to defend Liberal - as opposed to liberal - education. This, he believes, is to take up the true spirit of the Enlightenment: 'Sapere aude!', in Kant's words:

"Have the courage to use one's own reason." Having defined Liberalism in such a narrow way, it is easy for Law to go on to show that more people should love it.

For instance, being Liberal does not entail being an atheist. You can have Authoritarian atheists, such as Stalinists who do not permit dissent; and you can have Liberal religions, such as Methodism, which encourages free and open debate about scriptures. Law suggests that Liberal atheists should build alliances with Liberal religious believers, because they have more in common with them than they do with Authoritarian atheists.

Perhaps most importantly of all, Law argues that Liberalism does not entail a wishy-washy relativism in which you are compelled to accept that no one moral system is superior to any other. Indeed, he argues that a more Liberal, philosophical education would enable teachers to show just why this kind of relativism is untenable.

What's more, he argues convincingly that RE teaching is probably at least partially to blame for the rise in relativism, since it tends to promote the view that all religions are equally valid and that none should be viewed as more or less true than any other.

Liberalism is also compatible with the recent vogue for "character education". This is about instilling good moral habits in children so that they become rounded, moral individuals. Law also has no problem with communitarianism: the view that values and ideals emerge from the particular traditions of our society and family, and that they can only make sense within such a tradition. "Communitarians can quite consistently be Liberals," he writes.

In the war Law wages over the importance of independent thought, his victory for Liberalism over the Authoritarians is absolute. And since there certainly are people who shudder at the idea of free-thinking children, his enemies are no straw men. But the Liberalism which triumphs is so remarkably inclusive that the first to congratulate Law are likely to be the sponsors of religious schools. I can easily imagine an extreme Christian fundamentalist school that could credibly claim to be "Liberal".

According to Law's logic, it could be authoritarian in its rules and make them specific to Christian morality. It could teach its tradition first and foremost, and seek to build a good Christian character in its pupils.

It could do this because Law believes Liberals can be religious, authoritarian and communitarian, as long as they allow freedom of thought.

And this is ostensibly what many religious schools want. Many evangelicals in particular emphasise the need to come to Christ of your own volition.

I don't think this is what Law wants, and he does indeed pre-empt this kind of response. For freedom of thought to be genuine, he argues, there has to be an absence of coercive pressures that make deviation from the official line difficult.

Factors such as social pressure, isolation from dissenters, tribalism and censorship all hinder Liberalism and are likely to be in play in the kind of religious school I have imagined. But that seems to show that although Law is right to say that logically Liberalism is only about one kind of freedom, in practice what we do and how we think cannot be neatly divided.

It would be like arguing that because cars can run on diesel, petrol or ethanol, any car will work if you put all three into it.

In the same way, Liberalism can be religious, authoritarian or communitarian, but there are limits to how much of all three it can take before it ceases to function. Law stresses the good news about Liberalism's great flexibility, but underplays this tough message about the limits of its adaptability. Law has retracted Liberalism's sharpest claws to make it look like an approachable pussycat. But not everyone who tries to pick it up will find the lion purring.

Julian Baggini is editor of The Philosophers' Magazine

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