Liberalism and Higher Education


Sometimes a defense of shared liberal values can become the partisan promotion of one of liberalism's strands.

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Recently, I gave my final lecture in a “Contemporary Moral Problems” course. Over the past sixteen weeks, we had covered a wide range of issues: welfare, civil disobedience, racism, sexism, affirmative action, hate crimes, pornography, immigration—plus the standard range of bioethical issues such as abortion, euthanasia, cloning, and so on. I chose, in my final lecture, however, to return to a claim made by Amy Gutmann in an essay on education that we had read earlier in the semester. Speaking specifically of higher education, Gutmann wrote:

Higher education is a gateway to the professions in modern democracies and it is also an institution that serves as a bulwark against ideological repression by the state and other powerful political forces who are all too often motivated to repress ideas that are unpopular or offensive (or both).

Having just covered nearly the entire range of disputed ideas over which there could conceivably be an effort at “ideological repression,” I was somewhat amused. Gutmann’s claims, particularly the second, struck me as rather self-congratulatory: look what a brave group we academics are, protecting our students from the powerful political forces seeking to illicitly mold their minds. But beyond that, her claims seemed to overlook both the level of ideological agreement that shapes the academic world together with the culture of Western liberal democracy more generally, and the more specific forms of disagreement that take place within that overarching framework of agreement—forms of disagreement that often do separate academics from at least many of their fellow citizens. These forms of agreement and disagreement do have implications for how we should think of at least one purpose of higher education, but they are more modest than the freedom-fighter conclusion reached by Gutmann.

What is the overarching form of agreement that shapes almost everyone in the United States—academics, students, and the general populace? It is surely a commitment to the most basic ideas of liberalism, broadly understood. Few in the West are likely to disagree with a liberalism whose core values revolve around an understanding of the human person as a being who is, or is to be, free, equal, and independent. The idea that domination and inequality are acceptable or desirable is outside the pale of Western cultural life. Nor is any powerful political force in the West seriously committed to repressing such liberal ideals. There are threats, no doubt, but they are not internal.

Yet that broad form of agreement does paper over very significant and divisive disagreements about the content of each of these core ideas of liberalism. Consider first the idea of freedom. Among some classical liberals and many contemporary “traditionally minded” religious persons and humanists, the first, though not the only, understanding of freedom for liberalism is metaphysical. Human beings are, in a deep sense, capable of making free choices, choices not governed by the laws of natural causality. This capacity, along with the equally “free-making” capacity to reason, has struck many thinkers as the ground for claims of human specialness and dignity. And it is our dignity that grounds, in turn, many of our other rights and responsibilities.

Contemporary metaphysical naturalists, however, are committed to a rejection of any special ontological pleading on behalf of human beings. We are on all fours, so to speak, with the rest of the animal kingdom—a claim with radical consequences for the treatment of both animals and human beings, as well as for the notion of dignity, a notion derided by some naturalists as “stupid.” So liberals divide significantly over the metaphysics of freedom.

Still, they coalesce once more under the rubric of political freedom. All liberals, both those holding a traditional understanding of freedom and those of a more naturalistic bent, recognize political liberty as a value to be realized both in the institutions of our common life and in the individual lives of citizens. Yet here again various strong disagreements permeate our common life: What precisely are the core liberties that must be preserved for a free people? How are those liberties to be specified? And how are they to be checked, if at all, by other values and norms? Is government, religion, or any other authority a threat to liberty as such, or can these also play a positive or even necessary role in the establishment of political freedom?

These questions point to an even deeper disagreement over liberty, for contemporary liberalism has frequently turned in the direction of an “autonomist” strain of thinking about freedom. On this view, it is sufficient for the rightness of an action, whether moral or merely political, that it have been freely or autonomously chosen, so long as it does not interfere with the freedom of another. External forms of authority and objective moral norms are both challenges to the possibility of freedom on such a view. By contrast, the view that freedom is possible only in truth sees adherence to moral truth as a necessary condition for any freedom worth having.

Such disagreements can be seen most clearly in cases involving sexual and reproductive liberties. Disputes over dualism and the merely experiential value of sex reflect the metaphysical disputes over freedom; disputes over the political importance of the family for the preservation of crucial freedoms reflect the second set of questions; and disputes over whether “reproductive choice” is a self-standing value or one governed by objective norms about marital love and procreation reflect the third. But all three disputes are, clearly, intertwined in ways that my very brief caricature cannot do justice to.

And these disputes are mirrored by further disputes over the remaining two values, equality and independence. Many of those thinkers who find the core idea of freedom to be a metaphysical notion believe also that the essential equality identified by liberalism is the equality of all human beings. Political societies have not always recognized just how broad the circle of equality must be drawn, and the positive gains of liberalism can often be framed as success stories in enlarging boundaries that had arbitrarily kept some human beings out. Similarly, current failures, such as those surrounding human embryos and fetuses, represent ways in which liberalism has failed on its own terms to honor basic human equality.

Yet other contemporary thinkers who are certainly also to be considered “liberals” in a broad sense divide the category of the human into those who are “persons” and those who are not. My students in Contemporary Moral Problems, for example, read an essay by the philosopher Jeff McMahan in which he advocated a two-tiered morality, a morality of persons (called by some “personism”) in which all persons were to be treated equally, and morality of those non-person beings who nevertheless have “interests” which determine the degree of consideration they are owed. Because, for example, severely cognitively impaired human beings are not persons, on this account, but have interests much like those of many non-human animals, McMahan draws the conclusion that “severely retarded human beings who lack [the] capacities that distinguish persons from animals cannot be entitled, by virtue of their intrinsic natures, to the moral protections enjoyed by persons.” Similar claims can be found in recent literature about those in a permanent coma or a so-called persistent vegetative state. Thus equality, though a value endorsed broadly in our society, is nevertheless subject to radically differing interpretations with radically different moral consequences.

Some critics of liberalism, such as Michael Sandel and Alasdair MacIntyre, have charged the liberal tradition with emphasizing, in unrealistic and sometimes dangerous ways, the “independence” of the human person. This claim overlaps with some already mentioned here: Radical claims to independence can lead human beings to reject any moral tradition or authority on which one might be dependent. Similarly radical claims can lead to a rejection of those human beings who are profoundly dependent—such as fetuses, neonates, and the profoundly retarded—as outside the boundaries of moral equality. At the level of moral obligation, emphasis on independence and autonomy together can lead to the idea that there are no obligations save those that have been voluntarily accepted. And the emphasis on independence can lead to a world in which the social structures necessary for human flourishing are dismantled, competitive and consumerist values rule, and everyone bowls alone.

Yet again, we are all liberals in some sense. Even the most trenchant critics of the liberal ideal of independence still recognize the value for children in being brought, through education, to an ability to recognize for themselves moral truth and to critically think for themselves about what they have been taught. No critic of liberalism advocates a life of practical deliberation by proxy. And all recognize that those human beings who are more or less constantly in a state of radical dependence should nevertheless be encouraged to have what opportunities for independence they may be capable of. So again, agreement and disagreement shape the intellectual and cultural landscape of liberalism with regard to this core value.

So if Gutmann’s educational bulwark against ideological repression is seen as establishing a firewall between defenders of liberalism and its core values of freedom, equality and independence, and repressive forces outside the academy but within the West, then, it should be seen as protecting against largely fictional enemies and achieving mostly specious victories.

But perhaps Gutmann meant not that liberalism should be defended within academia against the forces of darkness outside, but rather that a specific interpretation of liberalism should be? For it cannot be denied that most of the essays my students read, and most of the positions held by their professors here and at other institutions of higher education, coalesce around one particular and more or less coherent understanding of freedom, equality, and independence, a largely naturalistic, political, personistic, and individualistic form of liberalism. Could it be the mission of higher education to protect this form of liberalism against competing interpretations, perhaps even by mislabeling such interpretations as illiberal and repressive?

It is not possible here for me to argue adequately for a competing vision. Rather, I will merely suggest one. One task of higher education is precisely to make students aware of, and to initiate them intelligently and fairly into, the disputes within liberalism that I have at most only outlined here, and into the ensuing moral and political debates and controversies that follow from these core disagreements. Such an initiation would enable students both to better understand themselves and their social world, and to participate more intelligently and critically in that world’s controversies and crises—those over, for example, embryo research and abortion, euthanasia and assisted suicide, the nature of marriage, or immigration and health care reform. While recognizing real and substantive disagreement, this approach would not see academics as primarily an “us” versus an unenlightened “them” with whom we share no fundamental liberal values, but rather as participants in an ongoing set of arguments. Initiating students into the arguments within liberalism is perhaps a more modest task than that envisaged by Gutmann, but it is not, for all that, an easy or insignificant one.

Christopher O. Tollefsen is Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and a senior fellow of the Witherspoon Institute. His latest book, co-authored with Robert P. George, is Embryo: A Defense of Human Life (Doubleday, 2008). Tollefsen sits on the editorial board of Public Discourse.

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