Introduction: Liberal Democratic Education: A Paradigm in Crisis

In: Liberal Democratic Education: A Paradigm in Crisis
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It has often been observed that liberal democracies are currently facing a serious political crisis (e.g. Runciman, 2018; Forst, 2019). The rise of right- and left-wing populist movements in Europe and across the globe, as well as the election of expressly anti-liberal politicians to state parliaments and legislative houses, indicates that a democratic consensus concerning basic liberal principles cannot be taken for granted anymore (if it ever could). Additionally, authoritarian forms of government both inside and outside Western societies have emerged alongside skepticism concerning whether liberal democracies can successfully deal with the many societal challenges we currently face (Brennan, 2016).

These political developments have not only placed immense strain on the existing structures of public education; they have also undermined public confidence in liberal conceptions of democratic education. Waning public trust in government institutions like the public school (Miner, 2020; Wilson, 2020; Stitzlein, 2020; Calderon et al., 2017; cf. Rauh, 2020; Macdonald, 2019), sustained attacks on liberal and democratic values from populist politicians and organizations (Brown, 2019), and political polarization and ‘sectarianism’ (Finkel et al., 2020; Iyengar et al., 2019) within the digital public sphere (Sunstein, 2017) each pose significant challenges for the theory and practice of liberal democratic education.

A common reaction to these challenges is to call more vigorously for various forms of ‘liberal democratic education.’ While there is a broad variety of different approaches that can be grouped under this heading, ranging from politically liberal to liberal perfectionist conceptions, they nevertheless share certain common features. Approaches to liberal democratic education all rely on core liberal and democratic principles or values to identify the normative conditions and aims of democratic education. Despite different interpretations of and justifications for these core principles and values, theorists agree that autonomy, liberty, equality, and toleration play a central role in any truly liberal form of democratic education. They also agree that pluralism is unavoidable in light of the different conceptions of the good that pervade liberal societies, and they all provide ways to deal with the different conflicts that result from this pluralism.

One potential problem with this kind of response to the contemporary challenges that liberal democracies face concerns what might be called the ‘standard narrative of liberal democratic education,’ which many of the aforementioned conceptions implicitly depend upon. This narrative can be summarized in a simple linear formula: more and better liberal democratic education equals more and better transmission of liberal democratic capacities, dispositions and virtues, which equals more and better liberal democracies. The plausibility of this formula, as well as its theoretical, normative and empirical implications, have been increasingly contested in contemporary debates about the role of democratic education in liberal societies, however.

Critics of ‘liberal democratic education’ argue, for example, that liberal theories of democratic education provide little normative guidance for interpreting and evaluating real-world sociopolitical and educational problems and therefore also cannot be expected to provide realistic practical solutions. On the contrary, it is argued that the way democratic education is practiced in the school systems of liberal democracies has in fact contributed to the genesis of the current political situation. Moreover, proponents of radical democratic education, for instance, have maintained that liberal democratic theories ultimately seek to erase conflict, and as such, miss out on opportunities to appreciate the advantages of political agonism and the productivity of dissent (e.g. Ruitenberg, 2009; Todd, 2010; Tryggvason, 2017; Knight-Abowitz, 2018).

Critics of the paradigm of liberal democratic education also argue that it does not sufficiently take into account the huge discrepancy between its tendency to ‘lofty discourse’ about the ideal educational aims of democratic education and the empirical realities and effects of its actual practice (e.g. Brennan, 2016; Merry, 2018; 2020). Instead, it relies on highly abstract rhetoric and elitist conceptions and ideals (e.g., of the democratic person or character as aims of education), which reflect the class consciousness and political interests of an economically well-situated privileged few. The education system itself, according to this critique, does not play the benign political role attributed to it by many political philosophers of education. By ignoring structural inequalities in and outside of schools and universities, it itself produces and reproduces the political power dynamics and injustices that ‘liberal democratic education’ is meant to counteract.

In order to adequately grapple with these critiques as well as the special challenges to liberal democracy in the 21st century, defenders of the liberal paradigm of democratic education need to rethink its theoretical and methodological foundations. Each of the contributions to this volume focuses on different aspects of the current liberal educational paradigm in the context of the current crises of liberal democracy.

Harry Brighouse’s contribution concerns the civic educational task of universities and colleges in the US. He first rebuts the argument of former Dean at University of Illinois-Chicago Stanley Fish that colleges should not engage in shaping civic identities, because this would conflict with the academic mission of an undergraduate education. While agreeing that certain approaches to civic education may conflict with the academic mission, Brighouse argues that this does not mean that all approaches to civic education conflict with the academic mission or that, when conflicts do arise, the academic mission should always trump the civic education mission. After considering the habits, practices and resources that are needed for liberal democratic institutions to succeed, he contends that universities and colleges, through their undergraduate programs, are well placed to foster deliberative responsibility and by doing so, to help address some of the challenges that American democratic institutions are currently facing. After explaining how colleges and universities in the US are particularly well-equipped to address and mitigate failures of deliberative responsibility, he sketches how higher education institutions could foster this civic aim through the formal academic program and the extra-curriculum.

In their chapter, Anniina Leiviskä and Christopher Martin point to pessimism in scholarly and public discourse about the ability of liberal educational institutions to advance liberal ideals of freedom and equality, and pessimism about the persuasive appeal of liberalism as a political ethos worthy of recognition by a diverse community. To address this pessimism, they argue that political liberals would need to come to terms with some difficult questions concerning the problem of political authority in relation to educational institutions: how the liberal state is responsible for educating the very citizens that give legitimating consent to a liberal regime. Proponents of liberal democracy have typically argued that the legitimacy of the authority of the state over citizens is protected when liberal democratic education promotes liberal values in tandem with personal autonomy. Leiviska and Martin argue, however, that promoting citizens’ capacity to give rational consent to liberal values alone is not enough. Liberal pessimism is at least in part a result of citizens’ dissatisfaction with not experiencing the improvements to the quality of their lives that they had expected in return for their consent to state authority. Thus, the liberal state should also attend to the provision of basic education in such a way that citizens also experience the benefits that the state promises to its citizens in exchange for that consent.

Christina Easton analyses the current British values policy, which was adopted in order to create resilience against extremism and promote respect and tolerance amongst citizens, from the perspective of the two main positions in contemporary liberal theory: comprehensive liberalism and political liberalism. She first highlights in what ways comprehensive and political liberal defences of this policy are unsatisfactory. As the comprehensive liberal approach believes it possible for the state to identify true values, for example, it risks pushing these values onto those with less power. She then sketches a possible alternative position – ‘thin comprehensive liberalism’ – and discusses its potential for justifying a substantive education in liberal values. Finally, Easton exemplifies how her thin comprehensive perspective can help to amend the British values policy so that it aligns better with the liberal ideal.

Johannes Giesinger’s contribution deals with the educational dimension of the epistocratic critique of democracy as developed by Jason Brennan in his recent book Against Democracy (2016). According to one variant of this critique democratic procedures of decisionmaking often have inappropriate results, because many citizens are politically uninterested and uninformed, they have strong partisan or ideological views, or they consume information in a biased way. The alternative Brennan proposes is epistocracy, the rule of the knowers, and thus of the educated. Giesinger’s critique of the epistocratic critique considers different ways of justifying democracy in relation to the problem of democratic education and the challenge from epistocracy. He argues that since any epistocratic system heavily relies on education, considerations of educational justice should be relevant in an epistocratic system committed to basic liberal values. Finally, he engages with the question of whether educational inequalities also touch on the legitimacy of the epistocratic system.

Bryan Warnick argues that our inability to address global warming and the COVID-19 pandemic indicates a failure of liberal democracy and of civic education, science education, and liberal education. He argues that the technical nature of these social problems necessitates trust in scientific and medical experts, and that this trust requires a degree of intellectual humility on the part of democratic citizenry. He then discusses the term epistemic humility to conceive of a desirable relationship between internal and external authority, between individual autonomy and deference to others, and between epistemic confidence and epistemic self-effacement. While the effects of school tend to be small, and promoting epistemic humility and other dispositions alone is insufficient to solve our social problems, he argues that fostering epistemic humility should be a central part of civic and academic education. After delineating key facets of epistemic humility, Warnick offers several suggestions about how teachers might serve as a model for epistemic humility.

Krassimir Stojanov’s contribution deals with the concept of ideology critique, which used to be a central category of social theory in the 20th century until the 1980s, but in the following decades virtually disappeared from the philosophical and sociological discourse. While in the least years we can witness a kind of revival in attempts to re-purpose the concept of ideology critique, according to Stojanov, this re-purposing needs to be sufficiently elaborated in order to be able to adequately deal with the current educational challenges to liberal democracies, most importantly with new forms of populist ideologies. He develops a Neo-Hegelian perspective on the concept of populism, which he uses for a reconstruction of how education policy in Germany frames certain identity categories such as the category of ‘students with an immigration background.’ His analysis shows that this identity category is a typical populist construct which naturalizes the concerned students by reducing them to their biological origin, and in this way ultimately contributes to their educational othering and exclusion.

Ole Hilbrich engages with the contemporary debate about the crisis of democracy as it is conceived in the context of the liberal paradigm of political philosophy and of democratic education. Drawing on the work of Chantal Mouffe and other defenders of agonist conceptions of democracy and democratic education, he argues that within the liberal paradigm the nature of the current crisis of democracy as well as its educational implications are misinterpreted. The aim of his paper is to highlight the differences between the agonistic and liberal paradigms in the various dimensions of democratic education and to explain how the agonistic response to the crisis of democracy is different from the one defended by liberal philosophers. Based on this analysis he develops a political plea in favour of the agonistic perspective, which, according to him, is to be preferred in view of the current challenges to democracy.

Prakash Iyer and Dolashree Mysoore engage with the crisis of liberal democracy in India. They especially focus on the role that different interpretations of the Indian constitution should play in the context of political education. They argue that political education in India presents the politics of the nation in a univocal manner by maintaining a liberal interpretation of the constitutional values and paying short shrift to controversial issues, which are rife in political discourse. While imparting political education, the constitution, according to Iyer and Mysoore, must be treated as a palimpsest that is overlaid with interpretations from historical and present day discourses. Political Education should treat the constitution as a contested discursive document. Therefore, they argue that the focus of political education should be to develop constitutional consciousness that provides a common vocabulary in order to deal with contestations over politics in India.

The final contribution by Rupert Wegerif develops a critique of a particular ideal of democracy and corresponding conception of democratic education. This ideal is based on the ontological assumption that ultimate authority lies with individual humans and it assumes that democracy is inextricable from the practice of voting. As an alternative to this ideal he argues that education should promote dialogue both as an ideal and as a practice. Although dialogue is often associated with democracy, it is in fact different. Real dialogue, according to Wegerif, puts all ontological preconceptions to one side in order to open a dialogic space including all relevant voices such that the voice of that which is most true and most right in the situation can be heard. Dialogic education creates subjectivities that are able to discern that voice and willing to follow its authority. The paper ends with a brief sketch of how educational design with new technology might contribute towards creating a more dialogic and therefore more collaborative and more peaceful planet in the future.

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