<< The Body Politic

Is liberal education civic education?

Friday, August 10th, 2012

Over at his “Rightly Understood” blog at Big Think, Peter Lawler, a professor of government at Berry College, takes a look at what a liberal education means for citizenship. Though his focus is on education in colleges and universities, his points  are equally applicable in understanding the civic aim of primary and secondary schools.

He writes:

Liberal education, in one view, is for citizens. Those free men are to be distinguished from women, servants or slaves, and others excluded from political life. For the latter, technical education—such as household management—would be sufficient. Ancient Athens called itself a democracy but functioned as a kind of aristocracy. Its theory was that citizens should know enough to deliberate about the laws required for the flourishing of free men. That meant, as Aristotle said, that “political science” in this sense included at least some knowledge about the whole human good—which includes, of course, ethics, politics, and science. It also includes, of course,  detailed and critical knowledge of the customs, traditions, and so forth that distinguish the Athenian way of life—the way of life of a particular people occupying a particular place in the world—from the way of life followed by other peoples in other places.


The American view, of course, is all about universal citizenship. As our friendly critic G.K. Chesterton observed, America has been, from its beginning, “a home for the homeless,” because any and all of the displaced people in the world can find a political home here. America is “a nation with the soul of the church,” because anyone who accepts our Declaration’s dogmatic claims about human equality and the rights shared by us all can, in principle, be an American. So America—the political community—is like a church in the sense that anyone—regardless of race, class, gender, cultural background, and religion—can belong.

That means, of course, in America everyone is to be educated to be a free person or citizen. Part of our understanding of freedom does involve the self-sufficiency that comes from being able to work effectively for oneself. But a citizen—a free person—does more than work. Deliberating about who we are as a people must involve knowledge of our history, political life, common morality, and shared philosophy and religious assumptions. In America, everyone works, and so no one has the right to claim some kind of leisurely freedom from the requirements of being productive. In America, everyone has the right and duty to be educated to be more than a productivity machine, to be able to use one’s freedom well. […]

Liberal education, to repeat, is education for freedom.  It’s what citizens need to know to rule and be ruled in turn. It’s not mainly education concerning the technical components of some contemporary public policy controversy. It’s thoughtful consideration of the fundamental moral and political controversies that animate our way of life. Those controversies are embodied in the Declaration of Independence, The Federalist, the Anti-Federalists, the major speeches of our most profound statesmen and stateswomen and political commentators (such as Frederick Douglass and Jane Addams), and our key Court opinions.

Lawler concludes with a look at how a citizen’s personal autonomy is developed, writing that one’s freedom isn’t something that comes automatically or simply from the “removal of judgmental social stigmatizing,” but rather depends “on the formation of character.” He continues: “Admittedly, that formation probably shouldn’t be the job of higher education. It was a job once reserved mainly to the family, local community, church, and even military service. But also admit that lots of young people come to college pretty clueless about who they are and what they’re supposed to do. To win their own freedom, they need intellectual, cultural, and literary resources that are often absent from our increasingly libertarian or permissive world. Liberal education in a democracy surely has some responsibility along these lines.”

This tension in educating citizens for freedom is one that Rita Koganzon explores in the Program’s latest policy brief: “Educating for liberty? The shortcomings of contemporary civic education theories.” She notes that as liberal theorists have strived to develop a theory of civic education that respects the diverse opinions of individuals but is not so open-ended that it promotes illiberal ideas, they risk going too far in promoting their own opinions to school children over and against those of the children’s parents–and especially those of religious parents. Read Koganzon’s article in full here.