Crisis in Liberal Education and Liberal Democracy: A Canadian Perspective
Liberal Education, Civic Education, and the Canadian Regime: Past Principles and Present Challenges. David W. Livingstone, ed.. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015.   There is general consensus today that liberal arts education is in crisis. Fewer and fewer students are interested in pursuing university degrees in the humanities and social sciences that do… The post Crisis in Liberal Education and Liberal Democracy: A Canadian Perspective appeared first on VoegelinView.




Liberal Education, Civic Education, and the Canadian Regime: Past Principles and Present Challenges. David W. Livingstone, ed.. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015.


There is general consensus today that liberal arts education is in crisis. Fewer and fewer students are interested in pursuing university degrees in the humanities and social sciences that do not offer clear pathways to careers. Educators, administrators, and students are understandably concerned about job prospects in an economy that is highly competitive and technologically focused.   Much of the emphasis in postsecondary education is on building technical skills and improving business acumen. Spending your university years immersed in “Great Books” seems like folly, something that can only be indulged in by students from relatively wealthy families.   Even affluent students are less and less disposed to spend their undergraduate years – let alone their lives – reading Plato, Shakespeare and Tocqueville. In our technologically saturated society, fueled by a global free-market economy, a liberal arts education has never looked so irrelevant. And yet, given the illiberal challenges faced by contemporary democracies, a liberal arts education has perhaps never been more necessary.
This sense of a crisis occurring in the liberal arts is nothing new. It has been nearly thirty years since Allan Bloom published The Closing of the American Mind back in 1987, a book lamenting the state of higher education in the United States at that time. It was a runaway blockbuster, read (or at least partially read) by people outside of academia. It is unlikely, however, that such a book today would be a bestseller. Though many excellent books and articles are being published about the crisis in liberal education, the general public seems less concerned, and, indeed, they might not even think that this constitutes a true crisis.[1]
Add to the list of such books Liberal Education, Civic Education and the Canadian Regime: Past Principles and Present Challenges, edited with an introduction by David Livingstone, Professor of Liberal Studies and Political Studies at Vancouver Island University. The volume contains twelve essays by Canadian political scientists and scholars with links to Canada. True to its title, the book examines the relation between liberal education and Canadian democracy. As such, this collection will mostly be of interest to Canadian political scientists, but should be required reading for any citizen troubled by the quality of post-secondary education and liberal democracy in contemporary Canada. Indeed, the issues raised by these essays extend beyond the Canadian context and concern all Western democracies. The central issue is the connection between liberal democracy and liberal education.
This volume makes a central point: several key Fathers of Confederation and some prominent early Canadians, in the decades before and after Confederation in 1867, recognized that liberal (“Great Books”) education should play a central role in shaping the character of Canadian citizens. Gradually, however, the place of liberal education diminished, impoverishing the souls of “educated” Canadians and the quality of Canadian politics. With the decline of liberal education, students today no longer seriously debate the deepest questions about justice, human excellence, and the good life. This also means that these questions no longer shape the deliberations occurring in Canadian politics and civic life.
Richard Myers points out in his essay on Tocqueville that today’s students are, on the one hand, “indifferent to the questions of liberal education” because they are value relativists and “believe there are no answers to those questions.” On the other hand, they “dismiss the questions of liberal education” because students are “common sense” hedonists, believing that “happiness is pleasure, and pleasure is whatever makes you feel good” as long as you do not harm others and have consent (188). Meyers’ description of students is essentially the same as Bloom’s back in the 1980s. If true, this means that generations of students have gone through university without a systematic challenge to their unconscious relativism and friendly hedonism. At the political and cultural levels, relativism and hedonism take the forms of “multiculturalism” and “consumerism” which demand the following: do not criticize anyone’s values, and allow everyone to consume whatever legal pleasures they desire (and do your best politically to expand the range of “legal pleasures”).
This is a radically egalitarian solution to the central questions of liberal education. If, alternatively, you were to argue that some ways of life are superior to others, you would introduce hierarchical and aristocratic notions into the discussion that are not welcomed by most students – or, for that matter, most of their postmodernist professors. Such views make people feel uncomfortable, as if they are being “judged,” and it is considered a bad thing to be judged. To avoid such discomfort, the questions that animated centuries of philosophical debate, as well as some of the answers, are dismissed out-of-hand (“That’s just their opinion!”).
Of course, as Meyers points out, the “value relativist” and “common-sense hedonist” positions are inconsistent: on the one hand, students assume that all values are relative, and on the other they affirm that the pursuit of pleasure is an absolute, universal value. Since students hold both positions at once, this leads to a “compound skepticism” about liberal education which is difficult for a professor to cut through as students bounce back and forth: criticize their relativism (Nazis are evil!) and they will retreat into common-sense hedonism; attack their common-sense hedonism (Some pleasures are bad for you!), and they will retreat into relativism (189).
What is a Canadian liberal arts professor to do?
The main argument in this volume suggests that professors – and indeed all interested citizens – must work to revive the founding principles of Canadian politics and education. According to the central thread that connects most of the essays, Canada is founded on the principles of “responsible government” (government responsible to, and by consent of, the governed), and equal liberty (each person is equally free to pursue what she thinks is the good life with minimal interference from government and other citizens). A liberal education supports liberal democracy insofar as it exposes students to open discussion and free debate, preparing them for engaged citizenship in a free society.
The focus on “liberty” is especially noteworthy in this volume, and that is due to the groundbreaking scholarship of Janet Ajzenstat, whose lifetime of study of the Canadian Fathers of Confederation serves as the foundation for most of these essays. Ajzenstat’s life and work are directly related to the crisis in liberal education as it has been discussed since Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind. Livingstone points out in his introduction that Ajzenstat was a graduate student of Bloom when he taught at the University of Toronto. As such, the specter of Bloom haunts these essays, both directly and indirectly. Bloom dissuaded Ajzenstat from completing her PhD thesis on a single political philosopher, but encouraged her to study Canadian political and constitutional history. Though initially disappointed that she would be analyzing little-read documents by the Fathers of Confederation rather than Plato or Rousseau, Ajzenstat discovered, much to her surprise, that the men who debated and created the Canadian constitution were, in Livingstone’s words “consciously acting within a tradition of political thought” (5).
As Ajzenstat points out in her own essay in this volume, Canadian parliamentary institutions are “rooted in the political philosophy of the European Enlightenment, and Locke’s philosophy of liberty” (40). Ajzenstat’s discovery was surprising for two main reasons: first, because the Canadian Constitution of 1867 (originally called the British North America Act) was usually interpreted by historians as simply a pragmatic document dealing with matters such as “railroads and tariffs” (5) but lacking any real philosophical influence; second, the new generation of Canadian scholars in the 1960s, inspired by Hegelian progressivism and Marxist socialism, claimed the founders were “communitarian” and “collectivist” in their intentions, and thus rejected the Lockean liberty espoused by the American founders.   According to this communitarian narrative, the Canadian Fathers of Confederation sought a strong central government with great power to keep peace and security, and wanted to create citizens who were more willing to sacrifice their interests for the common good rather than affirm their individual liberties.
Most Canadians still proudly (arrogantly?) believe that this is what distinguishes them from Americans, especially when discussions turn to issues such as health care and gun laws. As Ajzenstat points out, generations of Canadian students since the ‘60s have been educated by teachers and textbooks claiming that “Americans hew to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” while Canadians prefer “peace, order and good government,” as if these two phrases were opposites (32). The phrase “peace, order and good government” appears in the British North American Act, but it is Ajzenstat’s contention that the founders did not understand this phrase in a collectivist way; rather, security and responsible government are essential for allowing free individuals to pursue their own interests without fear of unjustified interference. For the Canadian founders, liberty is best preserved through a parliamentary system of government rather than a presidential one. Nevertheless the Canadian founders were drawing from the same philosophical wellspring as the American founders: John Locke and the classic liberalism of the Enlightenment. And this meant a system of minimal government that secures equality before the law and individual liberty.
Livingstone claims in his introduction that several Canadian founders understood that the connection between liberal democracy and liberal education was not “accidental but essential” and that “our regime depends for its proper functioning on a liberal education” (11). The free debate that occurs in the classroom concerning what is true, just and good serves as preparation for civic life, both in terms of providing us with the necessary insight for properly considering the best ends of a polity, and habituating citizens in the give-and-take of open deliberation.
A number of essays in this volume examine the writings and speeches of early Canadians to explore this link between liberal education and the liberal regime. Geoffrey Kellow’s essay on George Brown reveals how Brown did not see the confederation of provinces as simply a pragmatic deal but as the forming of a new people with a specific identify rooted in the new liberal institutions. John von Heyking’s essay on John George Bourinot and David Livingstone’s on Thomas D’Arcy McGee reveal how Bourinot and McGee, in slightly different ways, understood the importance of a liberal education for nurturing democratic citizens – that a liberal education (concerned with how to be a good human being) was indispensable to a proper “civic education” (how to be a good citizen).   As von Heyking writes, “Bourinot seemed to have sensed that the practical wisdom required for responsible government needs an education geared toward history and custom, and that the study of first principles, the stuff of liberal education, would have to be embedded in that study” (53).
However, as Livingstone points out in his introduction, a liberal education can potentially be seen as subversive to civic education: since liberal education studies “first principles,” it may question the foundation of civic laws, and thus set a good human being against the regime he lives in. Notwithstanding this possibility, Livingstone argues that a liberal education, properly pursued, provides students with a variety of different perspectives on the most important questions, and “reveals the difficulty of arriving at final conclusions … without necessarily ending in skepticism.” Liberal education “also reveals the limits of what can be achieved politically, and in so doing it tempers the impatient desire to reform everything in the hope that a perfect world can be brought into existence.” In this sense, liberal education “leads to considerable political moderation” – a moderation that keeps students away from extremism and directs them towards proper civic virtue (10). Liberal education and civic education are thus in harmony, something that many prominent early Canadians realized.
But liberal education in Canada, according to certain founders and some of the authors in this volume, needs to be accompanied by a robust civic society in which religion – and specifically Christianity – is central. Colin Pearce discusses Egerton Ryerson, an early advocate for public education in Canada. Ryerson argued that there was something essential within Christianity that was necessary for shaping the character of citizens, and so his approach to education and politics was “political-theological.” Ryerson claimed that Canadian political and educational institutions must be supported by a “Common” or “non-denominational” Christianity”– an idea that Ryerson derived from Locke’s The Reasonableness of Christianity and A Letter on Toleration (119). All Christian branches in Canada, Ryerson argued, needed to promote tolerance of each other, in order to cultivate an environment amenable to reasoned debate rather than sectarian strife and civil conflict. In this way, the new liberal regime could survive.
Canada, according to the majority of authors in this volume, has moved away from its liberal and Christian foundations and towards what Luigi Bradizza (in his essay on Tocqueville) calls a “soft despotism.” According to Bradizza, this is due is to a number of factors that have emerged since the 1960s. The decline of “religiosity” and “civil society” has led to “moral confusion,” “atomization” and “an unhealthy individualism”; the growth of the welfare state “threatens to smother the independence of many Canadians”; and an activist Canadian judiciary, emboldened by the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms (added to the Constitution in 1982), has used its increased power to “promote a radical egalitarianism at the expense of the liberty of isolated individuals” (201).
Other essays deal with these factors specifically. Thomas Bateman discusses how the Supreme Court of Canada has not used the Charter “to limit the reach of government into the lives of Canadians” (which seemed to be the Charter’s original intent). On the contrary, the Court has acted as a “moral tutor” by imposing “Charter values” on civil society, values which present the myth of Canada as a “progressive, democratic, bilingual, multicultural society” (234). To impose these norms, the Supreme Court has expanded the scope of government, but the task of interpreting these norms is often left to the discretion of individual judges. This has led to a Canadian society that is more “Hobbesian” than “Lockean” insofar as decisions about Canadian law and morality are increasingly made by experts “on-high” rather than through the give-and-take of legislative debate by the people’s elected representatives in parliament.
The Hobbesian character of contemporary Canadian society is discussed in the last essay by Travis Smith. In accord with Hobbes, Canadian politics is “reduced to public administration,” where the goal is “to secure contented enjoyment in the satisfaction of harmless appetites.” Freedom is generally understood as people “enjoying their preferred pleasures and avoiding whatever pains them” (269). Government ensures that laws are established for security and to ensure that no one is offended. “Multiculturalism” (i.e. “relativism”) is enforced in Hobbesian fashion through laws “that curtail freedom of speech and expression and impose penalties for objectionable beliefs and feelings” (277).   Hence, human rights commissions and similar sub-political agencies are established to root out politically incorrect thought and speech, and punish those with views deemed offensive to certain groups, especially groups who have been traditionally marginalized (women, people of color, First Nations, etc.). As a general rule, however, most Canadians accept the following: “Let’s live and let live, flatter each other, and call ourselves good on account of it” (279). This general mindset has been reinforced by the imposed multiculturalism of the Supreme Court, and tends to rule over discussions in the classroom. Professors must continually censor themselves, both consciously and unconsciously.
The rise of Canadian Hobbesianism has been accompanied by the decline of Christianity in Canadian civil society, which, according to essays by Ryan Topping and Grant Havers, has had a negative impact. Topping argues that the decline of Catholic universities has deprived Canadians of accessing “a tradition of thought capable of promoting a good that is central to a democratic conception of justice” (169) – that is, the Catholic “culture of life” which holds that each human life (including life in the womb) is in God’s image and therefore has equal dignity under the law. Topping claims that robust Catholic institutions, supported by prominent Catholic intellectuals, are needed to maintain Canada’s political and civic culture. Similarly, Grant Havers defends the importance of Protestantism in Canadian education and civic life. Havers argues against the derogatory accounts of Protestantism offer by the Canadian theorists George Grant and Marshall McLuhan. He claims that Protestantism, with its supposed emphasis on irrational religiosity rather than reason, is not to blame for the decline of liberal education; rather, this decline is due to the rise of unchecked secular progressivism, which is distinct from Protestantism. A “true liberal education” must include the Protestant emphasis on “fallen humanity,” “biblical charity,” and “humility,” which, Havers claims, is better suited than Greek philosophy for stemming the progressive tide of “technological nihilism and consumerism” in contemporary secular society (161).
Havers and Toppings suggestions that we revive traditional forms of Christianity force us, again, to confront the question: “What is to be done?” On the basis of the majority of these essays, a few directions emerge. First, as Ajzenstat argues, we must not tie “Canadian identity” to any “romantic” ideal or “cultural” symbol, but rather to an awareness of “our citizenship in a country created by the Fathers of Confederation … governed by parliamentary institutions” and “rooted in the political philosophy of the European Enlightenment and Locke’s philosophy of liberty.” It would seem we must mount a civic campaign to remind Canadians that “What we have in common is that precious heritage of equal liberty and consent” (40).   Second, there needs to be a revival of (Judeo-) Christian morality in civil society, and this means, for the majority of Canadians, re-energizing their Catholic or Protestant roots, but in such a way that promotes tolerance (at least between Christian branches) and reasonable deliberation. Third, there needs to be a proper revival of the traditional “Great Books” liberal arts education so that students may become disenchanted with their unconscious relativism and better equipped to discuss questions of justice and the good life. Core curriculum (at least on the basis of names mentioned in this volume) would include Plato, Aristotle, Hobbes, Locke, Montesquieu, Blackstone, The Federalist, Burke, and, most especially, Tocqueville (to whom two essays in this volume are dedicated).
There is no question that the intent of Liberal Education is honorable – that the authors are pointing to real problems, offering reasonable criticisms and, in some instances, proposing sensible alternatives to our current plight. Much of the analysis, particularly the accounts of early Canadians and the diagnoses of contemporary education, is first rate. The problem is that the essays in general point us back towards an older Canada that simply cannot be revived, and may not hold much appeal to those without ties to these older Canadian traditions.   Indeed, much more discussion needs to be dedicated to the issue of how new Canadians and others from outside these traditions can be integrated and contribute to the development of the liberal regime. For some readers, the directions proposed by many of the essays will seem as musty and frayed as the old books that grace the cover of this volume. Such a criticism is not entirely fair, since none of the authors is proposing a simple “return to the past.” But it is also true that most of the authors do not fully confront the sheer diversity of contemporary Canada, and the immense difficulties of trying to tie such diverse peoples together by appealing to the Canadian past.
Leah Bradshaw’s essay is, if not quite a dissenting argument, the one that deviates most significantly from the others. She asserts the “incontrovertible facts about contemporary Canada” – that “we are the most multicultural country in the world,” that our economy is “dependent upon immigration, mostly from non-western, non-Christian countries,” and that “we do not have a single history that is embraced by our legally recognized communities of French Canadians and Aboriginal peoples.” Given these facts on the ground, Bradshaw does not believe that “invigorating founding stories is going to consolidate a sense of citizenship in us.” Furthermore, she is skeptical about whether “Lockean principles of liberty, grounded as they are in the unassailable dominance of private property rights, and the embrace of acquisition, can rescue citizens in any western democracy from disintegrating into atomism” (224).
Finally, Bradshaw is critical (as are most of the authors in this book) of any attempt to revive “citizenship” by appealing to “transpolitical” notions of universal human rights (since these are too abstract), or “subpolitical” appeals to ethnic, religious, or sexual “identities” (since these are too divisive) (220). Instead, Bradshaw argues that citizenship in contemporary liberal democracies can be enhanced through the Aristotelean notion of “civic friendship,” which encourages citizens to move beyond their tribes and identities, and into “a sphere of shared concerns” (217) – concrete concerns which are less abstract than notions of universal human rights because citizens in a country live in proximity to each other. Politics in the highest and most proper sense is the effort to realize the common good with like-minded citizens. But such “like-mindedness,” at the political level, is not best realized through religion (since there are so many), or through the promotion of acquisition (which leads to atomization and unhindered consumerism), or through reinvigorating foundation stories (since such stories are not shared by everyone and are often contested).  It is realized, rather, by creating a “substantive basis for trust and friendship among Canadians” (225). This trust will not be created unless the vast majority of Canadians from a plurality of backgrounds feel that their institutions are looking out for them, providing basic justice and security.   And all citizens, most especially immigrants, need to be integrated into the Canadian economy and society, but not in a way that “assimilates” them so that they are forced to relinquish their distinctiveness. Of course, there are limits to multicultural tolerance (violent cultural practices, terrorism, and so on) but pluralism is an existential fact that must be accepted by any reasonably just society.
To some extent, Bradshaw is reinforcing the collectivistic “peace, order and good government” interpretation of Canada – elevating “community” over “liberty” – that Ajzenstat says distorted the history of the Canadian founding. Bradshaw does not contest Ajzenstat’s account of Canada’s Lockean roots, but she doubts it is enough to re-energize Canadian citizenship. Bradshaw agrees with Ajzenstat that we need to bolster “allegiance to the political institutions and laws of Canada” established by the founders (225). However, instead of celebrating Lockean individualism, Bradshaw prefers Jonathan Sacks’ injunction that we see differences as “gifts we bring to the common good,” which means we need to have a sense of the common good and a feeling of “collective belonging.” In this way, a citizen from a specific “tribe” can share in political rule with citizens from other tribes, and trust “that the common bond of citizenship will afford him or her a better life than one lived as a ‘solitary piece of chess,’ always tense in the suspicion of attack” (226-227).
This is directly related to liberal arts education. If liberal politics means the participation of many voices trying to realize a practical common good, liberal education means the inclusion of many voices (both in the curriculum and in the actual classroom) to consider what is true, just and good for human beings in general. Open and free discussions can only occur in forums where there is good will and friendship on some level. Such forums are not culturally “neutral”; they undoubtedly emerge from Western models of politics and education. At the same time, they allow for a great plurality of voices – greater than most of the contributors to this volume seem willing to acknowledge. This includes non-Western voices, or voices of other Canadians who were traditionally excluded.
Though the authors speak of diversity, most do not go far enough in considering how this diversity can be properly integrated with the “past principles” evoked by the subtitle. Telling Muslim immigrants that we need to revive Protestant and Catholic traditions, or embrace Locke’s philosophy of liberty, are non-starters. Working to integrate (but not assimilate) Muslim immigrants into Canada’s parliamentary institutions and liberal arts universities, where there is “civic friendship” and where common interests are at stake, has more potential.
Most of the authors seem to lament Canada’s official “multiculturalism” insofar as it promotes identity politics, “political correctness,” and soft relativism. But the authors could better spell out the difference between “relativism” and “pluralism,” something that the philosopher Richard Bernstein has tried to articulate in some of his works.[2] Truly liberal politics and liberal education, according to Bernstein, avoid both sides of the absolutist/relativist coin. Absolutists claim there is a single objective truth – an unblemished perception of “nature” and “essences” – that they can perceive, articulate and politically realize. Relativists claim that truth and goodness are relative to the person or culture, but there is no truth or goodness that measures these different value claims.
Bernstein’s “engaged pluralism,” in true Aristotelian fashion, is in-between these two extremes. It acknowledges the plurality of backgrounds and viewpoints, but allows for public spaces in which questions of value, truth, and justice can be debated openly and critically, leading to persuasion or compromise. In this way, common goods and truths are recognized and realized, but they are always subject to re-evaluation and self-correction, since there is no absolute Truth or Goodness that fallible humans can know, articulate, or realize in this life. Bernstein calls this “pragmatic fallibilism,” by which he means the acute awareness of human imperfection combined with pragmatic considerations about the common good. This gets to the essence of Livingstone’s excellent point regarding the moderating influence of liberal education – that we are less prone to political or religious extremism once we are acquainted with the sheer difficulty of arriving at “final conclusions” given the variety of answers. At the same time, a true critically-engaged pluralism ought not to lead to skepticism, since there are better and worse answers to our questions, which suggests a measure.
Unfortunately, it seems that public spaces in Western democracies – both in politics and education – are being encroached upon by forces of extremism and vulgarity. The very existence of reasonable public forums in our parliaments and universities is threatened. Furthermore, our current global situation – characterized by war, terrorism, environmental concerns, social instability, moral uncertainty, economic volatility, and the flood of refugees into the West – is putting our democracies under immense stress, which in turn is only enhancing the forces of illiberal extremism. The flowers of liberal democracy and liberal education are vulnerable and need to be enhanced and protected. Unfortunately, the prescriptions offered by some of the authors in this admirable volume may not be enough.


[1] This is not to say there is no concern about the fate of liberal education. Readers of Voegelinview are advised to read Ron Srigley’s “Dear Parents: Everything You Need to Know About Your Son and Daughter’s University But Don’t” (Los Angeles Review of Books, December 9, 2015), which received a strong response.
[2] See Bernstein’s The Abuse of Evil: The Corruption of Politics and Religion since 9/11 (Cambridge, UK: Polity Press, 2005), and The Pragmatic Turn (Cambridge UK: Polity Press, 2010).

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