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Liberalism in Education

Article · July 2017


DOI: 10.1093/acrefore/9780190264093.013.49

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Liberalism in Education

Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education


Liberalism in Education  
Winston C. Thompson
Subject: Educational Theories and Philosophies, Education and Society
Online Publication Date: Jul 2017 DOI: 10.1093/acrefore/9780190264093.013.49

Summary and Keywords

The concept of liberalism has a wide influence on contemporary work within the field of
education. Given this breadth of effect, it is not surprising that liberalism can be invoked
in the service of multiple ends—many of which appear to be at odds with one another. As
such, this article will trace liberalism’s fundamental commitments of “equality” and
“liberty” in education in order to provide a general shape to the arguments that animate
its goals. Taken in tandem, these commitments provide access to the arguments that
populate various forms of liberalism in education, such that their careful study enables
educational researchers and practitioners to better position their understandings and
analyses in a conceptual context.

Keywords: liberalism, equality, liberty, opportunity, neoliberalism

Introduction
Few approaches to social and political life are as capacious as liberalism. Many, often
seemingly incommensurate, agendas declare liberalism as a guiding ethos in their
activities. It is perhaps due in part to this rich diversity of perspectives that liberalism has
become a dominant view within the impulses of and conversations about contemporary
social institutions. Unsurprisingly, education does not break from this pattern, as the
influence of liberalism is felt in multiple arguments for educational arrangements and
obligations.

In the service of providing an overview of liberalism’s footprints in education, this article


organizes an introduction to the topic by focusing upon the contemporary arguments that
prompt one or another variety or focus of liberalism within education.

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Though liberalism undoubtedly extends its far-ranging reach into the domain of
education, observing the intertwining and nearly omnipresent threads of liberalism
proves rather difficult without a sense of its general shape and occupations. To better
understand liberalism’s influence on education, a brief overview of its historical roots,
present commitments, and ambiguities is essential.

Though not named as such until the 1700s, the body of commitments that would become
liberalism arose in response to an increasing focus on the individual as the unit of social
analysis. That is to say, arguments in support of protected entitlements for (and the
fundamental freedoms and inalienable rights of) persons are the basis of the liberal
project. Although the meanings and attentions of these did and do continue to shift in the
time since liberalism’s beginning, a steady line can be drawn between liberalism’s
present occupations and its historical roots.

Indeed, a through line in the history of liberalism, without qualification or specific focus,
would necessarily include an account of the European Enlightenment, the period of
political revolutions that followed, and a careful treatment of the work of a range of
thinkers as diverse as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Adam Smith, Montesquieu, John
Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, and many others. These historical moments and thinkers
molded liberalism into the body of commitments that populate the contemporary context.

In keeping with the rich and complex history of the tradition, most general
understandings of liberalism, as it currently exists across multiple forms, identify a dual
occupation with the central aims of equality and liberty. Although not necessarily
described as such, these two tenets are differently prioritized and pursued by the various
species of liberalism such that a general account of liberalism in education can be
organized by appeals to either of the pair. This focus on both liberty and equality has, at
its base, an attention to questions of the legitimacy of political power and the ethical
organization of relative stability in the service of progress within a society. Liberalism’s
characteristic sense of progress suggests iteration toward greater human flourishing as
achieved through freedoms equally held. That said, the contradictions of liberalism’s
perceptions abound, as it has been championed as a bold approach to universal respect
while simultaneously critiqued for advancing distinctly Western values and aims (see also
the section “EXTERNAL CRITIQUES”).

In the West, liberalism’s concern with an abiding movement toward a more utopian future
is grounded in its aforementioned origins in the European Enlightenment. This
characteristic orientation of the intellectual period has manifested in a hope expressed
through multiple moments in liberalism’s trajectory across the interim centuries
(although its ideas are often read into the works of preliberal thinkers). This hope can be
understood as relatively optimistic about human nature under appropriate circumstances
of equality and liberty. Rather than asserting the necessity of a powerful authority to
govern or manage productive human conduct, adherents maintain hope in humanity’s
ability to serve its own interests by extending freedom to persons who may act as equals
in the creation of that future. A major thrust of liberalism in the later portion of the 20th

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century has been the proposal to conceive of a political version of liberalism, seeking a
purportedly neutral stance under conditions of diverse perspectives of value and aims in
order to realize liberalism’s goals.

Rather than catalogue education’s interactions with the various approaches to liberalism,
a survey of the persistent sociopolitical and economic drives serves to highlight a broad
view of liberalism within the domain of education. From this stance, it becomes easy to
see the degree to which liberalism houses many discussions and debates within
education. In order to discuss where limitations lie and where resources rest for
liberalism in education, it is necessary to focus on the two animating impulses of
liberalism’s projects. These drives can be read in liberalism’s foundational texts and are
sometimes better understood through contemporary liberalism’s sympathetic readings of
preliberal texts, which are taken to support the image of “the spontaneously growing,
improving society.” 1

Equality
Liberalism’s occupation with questions of equality has come to dominate discussions of
education, as that institution has, in the last half century, become a more explicit site of
contestation relative to resources and benefits within a social setting.2 Although previous
eras or non-Western perspectives may have presented many open questions of equality
and education, it is safe to state that contemporary Western perspectives demand that
education move toward equality in access to and quality of educational experiences (often
in the service of equality within other domains).

Despite this general agreement regarding the essential value of equality within
education, disputes definitely persist. These disagreements stem from a variety of
sources; chief among them are deliberations regarding whether or not equality is realized
in one or another set of circumstances. Popular memory of the famous Brown v. Board of
Education court case largely focuses upon whether separate educational facilities for
members of particular racial groups were (or ever could be) truly equal. Alongside
questions of whether the stated standards of equality are met under one or another set of
circumstances, heated discussions abound regarding what type of equality ought to be
prioritized. Here, competing claims of the priority of democratic citizenship, respect,
employability, and much more, are invoked.

Within the richness of these ways of conceiving of equality in education, a few large
category groups emerge: namely, a focus on rights, outcomes, opportunity, or adequacy,
as prioritized standards for best understanding the concept of equality in education. Each
category is explored in the sections below.

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Rights

The language of rights is often invoked to clarify any number of liberal arguments for
equality within education. The idea that every citizen may have a right to education is a
rather powerful and relatively contemporary notion, which is perhaps surprising to those
who currently examine education. In line with liberalism’s rise since the 18th century, the
idea of a right to education is popular enough that it is difficult to imagine a time in which
a declaration of that right would not have been prosaic. Nevertheless, the widespread
claim of a right to education, held equally by diverse persons, is a relatively new addition
to educational thinking.

Of course, arguments over what exactly may be included within a right to education
present interesting challenges for liberalism within education. What does the right to
education entail? Should a right to education imply that educational practices and
policies ought to mitigate the external factors and circumstances of one’s situation (see
also the section “OPPORTUNITIES”)? Should a right to education transcend local law or
custom? Should it guide allotments of primary, secondary, or tertiary education? There
are a number of ways in which the liberal view of equality can be understood and
explored as it intersects with rights language within education.

As described in this section, liberal views of equality may suggest that all persons hold an
equal right to education. This argument may be most fully represented in Article 26 of the
Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to education.”3 In this
view, the right to education ought not be limited due to, inter alia, one’s nationality, race,
gender, (dis)ability status or identity. One has right to an equal allotment of educational
resources or educational experiences of a quality equal to their peers.

This account of an equally held right to education tends to be most strictly regulative in
application to the more foundational levels of education, such that the right to primary
education tends to be enacted as a guarantee to be educated, while possession of an
equal right to higher education tends to be enacted as the guarantee to have access,
allocated on the basis of the demonstration of some meritorious past accomplishments, to
educational opportunities (see also the section “OPPORTUNITIES”). This interpretation of the
right to a guaranteed primary education presents tension for liberalism’s second tent
pole, liberty, as it results in the practice of compulsory schooling (which may seem to
some as a challenge to liberty). Defenders of compulsory schooling under the dictates of
liberalism largely argue that compelling students to attend school is justified as an
equalizing mechanism, undoing the disparity in their home and social environments that
may discourage them from attending school in the present or future.

Some liberal views of equality may also promote the right to become moral, social, or
political equals via education. Under this set of views, one’s right to equality with other
persons is pursued through education, such that education ought to be arranged to

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create a set of circumstances in which liberalism’s vision of a society of equals is


achieved. This view asserts a rather central role for education within the liberal
paradigm, as education is instrumental and essential for the core goals of liberalism.

Outcomes

Related to views of education as essential to the process of securing liberalism’s most


central aims, is the view that equality in education ought to be organized according to
these or other outcomes. These potential outcomes span a rather large spectrum and
support for them may be argued alongside the language of rights, in that they may seek
to achieve ends of social integration, political enfranchisement, or more. Political or social
equality may be the outcome of an educational project, but various other outcomes are
also asserted and defended on the grounds of equality.

Perhaps most straightforward in the domain of education is the view that liberalism’s
commitment to equality requires an equality of academic outcomes. Tests or other
measurements of academic skills, proficiencies, or competencies ought to be equal among
those who have received the appropriate arrangement of educational resources and
experiences. Perception of these outcomes may be complicated by preexisting aptitudes
possessed by students or complexities related to the tests employed to gauge ability or
performance. At its core this set of views of equality in education presses for equality of
measurable educational outcomes. A note should be made here in observation of the fact
that equality does not imply identicality under the liberal position. Although it may often
be assumed to do so, this error of equivocation loses some of the nuance of liberalism’s
attitude. To clarify, liberalism’s commitment to equality does not require that all students
hold identical combinations and configurations of academic (or other) outcomes. Two
students may have nonidentical educational outcomes, yet those outcomes may be equal
in that they demonstrate the hallmarks of a defensible educational experience. Dissimilar
educational experiences may result in dissimilar yet equally valuable outcomes relative to
future successes of the relevant sorts.

Many liberal views on equality within education focus upon outcomes for groups rather
than individuals. This approach holds that the necessary unit of analysis is the group—
group analyses often reveal troubling patterns of inequality. For example, consider an
educational system in which members of one racial/cultural/social/economic group have,
on average, lower educational outcomes (as measured by reliable tools of evaluation)
than members of another racial/cultural/social/economic group. Liberalism finds that
these sort of group trends probably indicate a pervasive inequality that needs to be
addressed, likely by restructuring circumstances such that comparisons of educational
outcomes between groups more closely hews toward equality.

Liberalism’s attention to equality of outcomes is partially tempered by its dedication to


liberty. Although equal educational outcomes seem attractive, liberalism aims to avoid
total compulsion in the domain of education (i.e., compulsion beyond a primary or

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foundational stage) as one’s freedom to make choices that resist particular or alternative
educational outcomes aligns with liberalism’s tenets. This problem of choice finds
liberalism in a difficult situation as it seeks to advance equality in education but wishes to
ensure that persons can pursue educational outcomes they value (regardless of whether
those educational outcomes are strictly equal to that of their peers).

Opportunities

One way of securing equality in education, while still taking one’s choices seriously, is to
arrange for an equality of educational opportunities rather than outcomes. By focusing on
educational opportunities, liberalism may avoid many elements of the choice problem that
would sacrifice its commitment to liberty. According to this argument, if members of an
identity group can be shown to have equal opportunities for educational goods or
benefits, any difference or disparity in their educational outcomes presents no problem to
liberalism. Of course, significant disagreement exists regarding whether or not an equal
opportunity exists in a given case.

Educational opportunities are generally understood by liberalism to be something of the


following: a person has opportunity to participate in a particular endeavor insofar as they
choose to take part in that particular endeavor and are allowed to take part in it.
Although this general definition of an opportunity may placate most positions on the
liberal spectrum, the issue of whether an opportunity exists or not has been shown to be
a complicated business, with some liberals ceding that equal outcomes may be the only
acceptable proof of equal opportunities in education.

Many liberal perspectives on equality of opportunity in education hold that one’s choice
to take a particular action ought to depend upon whether or not one has met a
precondition for choice, often demonstrated as the proper standard of merit. This merit,
which may be one’s previous academic achievements, tested aptitude, or the like, is
understood as a characteristic that suggests that a person deserves the opportunity.
There is considerable debate within (and beyond) liberalism regarding both how to
understand the question of equality relative to the access or resources necessary to
achieve conditions of merit and what makes a particular account of merit defensible.

Two ways of understanding equality of opportunity in education are the formal and
substantive accounts. The formal account adopts a negative approach to liberty in that all
persons ought to be equally free from formal structures (laws, rules, etc.) that prohibit
one from making the educational choices that one values. From this perspective, an
opportunity exists if there is no explicit or formally declared structure barring persons
from actions. For example, formal equality of educational opportunity is not compromised
in a system in which no persons are legally prohibited from attending a prestigious
school.

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The substantive approach to equality of opportunity in education favors a positive


approach to liberty in that persons must be equally free to make the educational choices
that one values. An opportunity only exists if one has the substantive ability to make the
choice in question. Arguments from this view often find that substantive equality of
educational opportunity is compromised in a system in which no persons are legally
prohibited from attending a prestigious school but many persons are, for example, unable
to pay the tuition or speak the language of instruction. Compensatory recommendations
to address these issues include some forms of positive discrimination or affirmative action
although there exists ample disagreement regarding what categories of factors (e.g.,
genetic, environmental, etc.) are relevant for such efforts.

Adequacy

Although “adequacy” of educational opportunity is often invoked as an alternative to


equality of educational opportunity, liberalism can lay claim to both standards—though
disagreements exist regarding the applicability of both within liberalism. Adequacy
arguments suggest that disparities in education are acceptable so long as a threshold of
adequate educational resources, experiences, or outcomes is achieved. Adequacy
arguments may press against equality of opportunity arguments, but they may also be
understood as another approach to liberalism’s tensions of equality and liberty in
education.

While differences may exist in, say, educational outcomes under adequacy systems,
liberalism’s impulse toward equality persists. Adequacy arguments seek to ensure that all
persons enjoy equal standing (i.e., beyond a minimal adequacy threshold), such that
whatever differences exist they present no challenge to the enduring equality of status.
For example, in an educational system in which a minimal score is necessary and
sufficient to access some cache of benefits, two students with vastly different scores
above that minimal standard would be equally entitled to the available resources. The
difference in their scores presents no compromise to their equality of status (i.e., relative
to the status of having cleared the threshold).

One popular application of the arguments from adequacy within liberalism is the idea of
education organized toward the goal of an equal status of liberty. As liberalism is
concerned with the recognition (and creation) of free and equal persons within a social/
political context, education’s role in achieving such a society is often foregrounded by
adequacy arguments.

For example, in the case of education within a democracy, adequacy arguments can be
marshaled in the service of realizing a public comprising persons educated to the
standards necessary for their participation as political equals. Even if considerable
differences exist in educational outcomes relative to these measures of the characteristics
or skills necessary for appropriate engagement within civic life, the adequacy view seeks

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to prioritize ensuring that the greatest number of persons clears the (minimal) threshold
for equal citizenship.

The adequacy argument in education can be employed beyond political issues such as
one’s status as a citizen. In some of these circumstances, adequacy arguments encounter
a problem with positional goods. These positional goods are those benefits or resources
that derive (at least some of their) value due to their position relative to similar
advantages held by others. While a simple adequacy argument does not betray its
foundations in liberalism by supporting a system of education in which resources are
arranged such that all persons have educational outcomes for securing meaningful
employment, the arguments must become more complex if the relevant hiring structures
respond to and prioritize differences in those educational outcomes. Here, one may
imagine a system in which a minimal educational outcome is necessary but not always
sufficient for limited employment opportunities distributed across a pool of competitors.
To some extent, adequacy arguments must respond to issues such as positional goods,
which challenge the very equality that these arguments seek to protect. Adequacy
arguments are most successful when bringing equality into a close and nuanced
relationship to liberty.

Liberty
Liberalism’s focus on liberty deserves special attention here, as education is often
invoked as an instrument in the service of realizing liberalism’s aims in this category.
Presently, it can be challenging to view education seriously without some attention to the
idea of liberty (also understood as freedom, autonomy, or any number of related terms
under this conceptual canopy). This connection to liberty is a good deal older than
education’s relatively recent focus on equality, but liberalism’s focus has undoubtedly
sharpened the arguments that support this attention.

In a historical context, liberalism has often prioritized educational concerns insofar as


education has been understood to serve the goals of liberty. Early and foundational
thinkers in the tradition of liberalism (either at the time of the writing or with retroactive
perspectives on these works) issued rather fulsome educational recommendations even if
these proposals had little to do, in an explicit manner, with schools or educational
institutions.

Of course, some elements of liberty are invoked in arguments that, on the surface, focus
primarily on equality, but there is a fulsome range of arguments that focus more fully
upon liberty as it relates to education. Within the wide scope of these ways of conceiving
of liberty in relation to education, two major trends—a focus on freedom in education and
a focus on freedom achieved through education—deserve focus in the service of better
understanding liberalism’s impact upon education. Both are explored below, alongside a

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brief discussion of one emerging yet rather contentious area of activity regarding liberty
and education.

Freedom in Education

Although liberalism’s accounts of liberty have many articulations, perhaps common to


most of them is the view that persons are, in their default state, entitled to make choices
about how they act and live in the world.4 Any circumstances that press against
recognition of this quality are taken to be antithetical to liberalism’s project. In asking
what the boundaries or limits of liberty may be for liberalism, it is sensible to ask what
may threaten the default state of liberty (in either a positive and negative sense).

Arguments for liberty within education can be understood to suggest that persons
(students, parents, teachers, etc.) ought to have sovereignty in determining what gets
taught and how so. These accounts have historically been organized around competing
conceptions of what could pedagogically benefit learners and/or what learners may have
a right to expect as free and equal members of a society. For example, though united in
their respective appeals to liberty in the educational experience, the psychological
picture of the learner under Maria Montessori’s method or Rudolph Steiner’s Waldorf
approach (as both are interpreted in the contemporary age), can differ quite significantly
from the radical democratic core of the many experiments related to the broad umbrella
of the free school movement.

Related to this drive to determine what gets taught (and how) is the notion that liberty in
education ought to press against the pervasive effects of indoctrination. Indoctrination in
this context is taken to be a perversion of education in that it coerces a person into a
particular mode of thinking or valuation without taking seriously their liberty to choose
whether or not to engage in an evaluation of what they should know or believe. This
version of liberty, as freedom from indoctrination, may primarily orient itself in one of two
ways: either as a response to the learning processes and practices of an educational
environment, or as a response to larger indoctrinating influences in a wider social
environment (family, community, etc.). The latter case envisions indoctrination as a social
problem that is countered by education, but the former case sees education as navigating
a narrow aisle through which educators must demonstrate careful tact and restraint in
the service of properly educating rather than inculcating through a process of
indoctrination.

In line with these themes of a resistance to indoctrination, liberalism’s focus on liberty is


central to the tradition of liberal (and “liberal arts”) education in the West. The critical
studies characteristic of the liberal educational model is justified through an appeal to the
humanity of the learner in ways that mirror liberalism’s stance on the default desirable
state of human person (i.e., as persons entitled to choose their actions). Of course, the
tradition of liberal education either pursues this image of humanity with the
understanding that this state is natural and thus must be protected through the

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appropriate educational processes, or that this desirable state must be cultivated through
educational efforts. Both approaches take seriously the idea that a liberal education
results in circumstances of self-ownership, self-possession, and self-mastery as a student.

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Freedom Through Education

Liberalism’s attention to liberty can be understood as a focus on the liberty that results
from educational experiences, such that education is instrumentally valuable in the
pursuit of one’s ability to determine one’s actions in a social, political, or economic
context. These arguments vary from nuanced philosophical positions to the general
public’s lay understandings of the power of education (particularly for class mobility or as
a “passport from poverty” for disadvantaged groups). Education is taken to serve as a
conduit for social outcomes that extend to both/either the individual person educated or
the wider community in which they (and similar others) live and interact. For example,
many of the democracy arguments invoked by liberalism in the domain of education seek
to recognize the impactful role that education may play in contributing to persons
appropriately prepared for the activities of civic life within a richly pluralistic democracy.

This preparation for life among others coheres with an argument for liberal education. As
liberal education cultivates a person who is self-aware and cosmopolitan in their outlook,
it may also be understood as doing so in the promotion of social outcomes (rather than for
the more narrowly understood educational aims pursued under some varieties of
liberalism’s focus on education). Liberal education may, under the frameworks of
liberalism, pursue liberty from undue governmental influence, establishing a check on
power. It is commonly understood to pursue progress toward a more socially, politically,
or economically just set of arrangements.

Aside from explicitly educational reasons to ensure that everyone in society receives an
education in line with goals of liberty, liberalism’s sense of the social possibilities for
liberty through educational processes presents further cause to compel education of a
particular sort. Although it may seem illiberal to employ authority in obliging educational
experiences, proponents of these views argue that these activities are a necessary step in
the pursuit of greater liberty for the person as well as the larger community.

Of course, after compulsory education, one may opt to continue into higher levels of
education. Arguments that focus upon the liberty gained through previous education see
this freedom to gain access to higher education as a liberty to enjoy a specific social/
economic good (i.e., higher education). For the purposes of these arguments, liberalism’s
focus on liberty requires that persons receive an education appropriate for their
possession of the liberty to attend higher educational institutions.

These arguments recognize higher education as a social good rather than an educational
one (though they may recognize primary education’s value in other ways), with significant
impacts on one’s standing and life chances. Through higher education, one is able to
enjoy liberties across multiple domains of social life. Not least among these domains is
the economic realm. Unsurprisingly, some arguments within liberalism’s attention to

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liberty for one’s economic outcomes find ready support in a growing trend in liberalism’s
interactions with education: neoliberalism.

Neoliberalism

One branch of liberalism, focused on the concept of liberty, deserves especially explicit
mention in the service of understanding the arguments that have been voiced to explain a
rise in the popularity of a particular set of approaches to education. This type of
liberalism, known as neoliberalism, is often regarded as an outlier in that it deviates from
some of the more social impulses present in most other branches of liberalism.
Neoliberalism takes an economic focus upon liberty in the market as a large portion of its
guiding aim. Free markets, with a removal of many formal restrictions (thereby
purportedly rendering market participants, in some sense, “equal” to one another), are
taken to productively reveal preferences and values. Neoliberalism is often read as
suggesting that public problems (that may appear to be social issues when interpreted by
other factions) are best solved by the laws and logic of the market. This market-based
approach to public and social life has been a ready source of attribution for a shift in
educational policy at the tail end of the 20th century, with strong evidence suggesting a
degree of intensity well into the 21st.

Although there is considerable disagreement regarding the degree to which neoliberalism


is connected to other varieties of liberalism in (particularly) North America and Europe,
this confusion does not extend to a descriptive uncertainty regarding whether it plays a
role in educational policy. Neoliberalism has extended its perspectives into education
such that a growing perspective on education as a market-based and justified activity has
spread to multiple areas of educational policy. Under neoliberal views, educational
progress (indexed to students and/or teachers) has increasingly been evaluated by
methods previously utilized in economic analyses of businesses on the market. Though
these perspectives enjoy widespread use and near universal adoption, heated debates
persist regarding whether these methods are desirable in an educational context.

Related to these methods of measuring education, neoliberalism has contributed to a


market-based approach to the management of educational institutions, valuing the
economic liberty central to privatizing education. Privatization finds educational
institutions that had previously been managed by public interests (e.g., public schools in
the United States) open for competition on the market and, to a growing extent, run by
private interests. Advocates of this approach to school management tend to explicitly
recognize two liberties in this trend. Firstly, a private company is understood as having a
right to choose to manage a school. This right need not treat schools as especially
important or useful institutions in a society; at its most minimal, this view need only
endorse the right of the private actor to exercise this liberty of management. Secondly,
the beneficiaries of schools (e.g., students, parents, etc.) are thought to be best served by
a free market system in which they can exercise the liberty of choice. The arguments in
support of this view largely find that choice in education (e.g., in selecting which school

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to attend) results in a competitive educational market under which inferior educational


institutions will naturally improve (by meeting the values and goals of students in order to
attract more of them) or collapse. This view need not (though it certainly may) endorse
the liberty of private groups to establish and manage schools, it need only perceive that
schools best realize their aims, to the ultimate good of students, parents, and
communities, through market freedoms.

Critiques of Liberalism

Internal Critiques

Though liberalism is a popular and extensive worldview that contains ample conceptual
space for varied perspectives and inclinations, a good degree of reasoned critique of
liberalism’s influence within education persists. In addition to the tensions that are
evidenced in the various explanations of liberalism’s arguments within education, a
number of sustained internal critiques have claimed particular centrality in the public
discourse.

Perhaps chief among these internal critiques is the criticism of neoliberal influences in
educational policy reform. Neoliberalism’s economic focus prompts sharp rebuke from
liberalism’s more social wing. Those who view education through this prosocial lens are
inclined to press against attempts to justify and pursue educational aims through the
prioritized logic of the market. Given the differences in foci, many social liberals view
neoliberalism as liberalism in name alone. They argue that the social benefits of
education (which include fostering a sense of community, pursuing a common good,
endorsing a democratic conception of life lived among others, etc.) are lost under an
increasingly neoliberal framework in which teachers’ efforts are incentivized via market
strategies, and qualitative student experiences are sacrificed in the name of bringing
schools in line with external ratings. As the neoliberal influence continues to expand its
reach in education, this stream of internal criticism will likely endure.

Another sustained critique leveled at liberalism in education is that the purportedly


liberal projects and initiatives currently employed in educational domains do not, in fact,
accomplish the goals of liberalism. This thread of critique does not find issue with the
ideas of liberalism in education but instead finds its reality lacking in securing these
goals. In a sense, liberalism critiques itself by arguing that it has made unnecessary
compromises that threaten its identity and aims. For example, the bounded liberalism of
the political realm may seem insufficient to a more encompassing liberalism as both
speculate on issues of education.

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External Critiques

Related to the internal critique of liberalism’s reality falling short of the rhetoric of its
aspirations is the argument that asserts that liberalism itself (rather than just its methods
of pursuit in the world) is flawed. Of these arguments, a number deserve direct mention.

Radical views (from the left or the right) tend to argue that liberalism misses the core of
educational provisions because of its inherent limitations. The listing of these limitations
certainly varies according to the worldview in which it is ensconced, but the underlying
critique remains. Some factions find that liberalism does not require enough in the
pursuit of providing educational resources, while some factions argue that liberalism
requires far too much.

For example, a family of libertarian views (which emphasize liberty but do not emphasize
equality to the extent liberalism does) may object to positive discrimination or affirmative
action policies in education. This body of views objects to efforts to control for systematic
inequality in education, especially when these efforts erode a sense of liberty (often,
though not always expressed as a loss to the relatively advantaged portion of the unequal
relationship). Popular accounts from this perspective find liberalism in education to
reward an absence of educational merit with a surplus of educational resources. These
views find fault with such activities either due to their role in unfairly distributing
educational resources or for their role in miseducating students by placing
underprepared students in unduly harsh circumstances or otherwise indirectly teaching
flawed lessons of dependency.

Perhaps, the most challenging of the external critiques is found among critical
perspectives on the circumstances of minority groups (relative to race, ethnicity, gender,
citizenship status, disability/ability, etc.) that find liberalism lacking in that it does not do
enough to secure the appropriate educational gains for these segments of the wider
population. They argue that given an inadequately acknowledged implied focus on
“majority” (i.e., white, Western, etc.) characteristics and identities, educational
circumstances for minority populations will only continue to remain inferior under
liberalism’s prioritized goals. This set of views pushes for a more direct claim to
educational goods for minority groups, even if these efforts run counter to liberalism’s
dual occupation with equality and liberty.

Conclusion

Liberalism covers a wide range of positions relative to education in the 21st century. It is
unlikely that this fact will change in the near future as liberalism captures most of the
popular lay understandings of the value of education (e.g., education’s role in creating
some or another sort of freedom or establishing a measure of equality among diverse

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peoples) while also providing a rich set of conceptual tools for advancing nuanced
educational arguments.

As liberalism is a flexible tradition of values and views, it will likely continue to expand its
reach even as it provides the conceptual tools for its own critique. New developments on
liberalism’s impact on education will likely have to reckon with the degree to which
liberalism’s arguments can be wielded toward supporting many diverse educational
practices and policies. It is only with a clear sense of liberalism’s commitments that these
efforts can be organized and more appropriately engaged by scholars, practitioners, and
citizens.

Acknowledgments
The author wishes to thank both Te-Hsin Chang for research assistance and the Edmond
J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University.

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Notes:

(1.) See Strauss, L., & Cropsey, J. (1987), History of Political Philosophy (Chicago:
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(2.) See Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).

(3.) See The United Nations. Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).

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Winston C. Thompson

University of New Hampshire

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