How (Not) to Promote Human Dignity through Higher Education

The Western liberal educational system preaches diversity and freedom, but it does not show students how to live them. It mass-produces people who lack the tools to appreciate the dignity of human beings in all their rich variety.

During my graduate studies in Switzerland, I had to get used to another country, another culture, and another way of teaching. Because I was researching cultural diversity and human rights, my personal experience complemented my academic work well.

My experience also helped me recognize a paradox in contemporary Western higher education: although today’s universities claim to value diversity and non-discrimination, in fact they privilege one very specific and narrow-minded vision of humanity: the contemporary liberal view that promotes individualism, secularism, and autonomy. If you want to be taken seriously and succeed in school—to become “well-educated”—you are often expected to become a modern liberal individual. This may mean transforming your previous cultural expectations, a conversion that is especially challenging for people who come from non-liberal or more communitarian cultures, whether from Western or non-Western nations.

The Lack of Tolerance in Contemporary Western Education

The standards of autonomous individualism permeate the curriculum, objectives, and teaching methods of contemporary universities. They focus one’s attention on one’s own desires, grades, and professional achievements above everything and everyone else. Any obstacle in the way of “success” must be removed. In this individualistic world, the law of the strong prevails, and everyone is on his own.

In my program, I saw many classmates struggle to learn a foreign language and new concepts of international law, but no one would dedicate even a few hours of time to help them. They also struggled to adapt to the Western system’s individualistic teaching methodology, which can estrange professors from students. Here, students are expected to be self-motivated, to study independently, and to work on their dissertations with almost no help from their supervisors. Some of my classmates had emotional breakdowns because they did not know how to conduct a research project totally alone. Their professors and other students were not willing to dedicate time and patience to help them.

By focusing the student on himself, individualism puts him in a problematic situation, because learning is a deeply communitarian activity. Learning, open-mindedness, and respect for viewpoint diversity by definition require that we put aside our ideas. We must try to understand others’ perspectives, especially those that might seem alien and strange, by treating each other’s mistakes and doubts gently and being humble enough to admit our own mistakes.


The secularist aspect of contemporary liberalism also has a hard time dealing with real diversity, specifically in religion. Contrary to the popular assumption that non-religious people are more tolerant than religious people, non-religious professors often appear open only to people who share their own position. They frequently present religion as an irrational force that promotes violence and ignorance, implying that believers are less intelligent than non-believers. In one of my classes, for example, a professor compared the Catechism of the Catholic Church to terrorist propaganda for indoctrination. Many times, they outright mocked religion, especially Christianity. How can a student understand and respect a religious peer if his teachers engrain in him a prejudice against religion? How can professors expect students to try to understand other cultures, traditions, and religions, if they teach students to despise religious people?

Secularist instruction has made many students religiously illiterate. They cannot understand the religious perspective or the history of religion because religion is totally alien to their cultural outlook. Often, students from different religions can understand and respect each other and their respective traditions better than secularist students can, who have been taught that their religious peers are ignorant and irrational. Instead of promoting dialogue, liberal education has created cultural barriers that impede tolerance.

A truly open-minded liberal would learn to respect non-liberal lifestyles and ideas, including communitarian, religious, and duty-based views of the human condition. People who defend sexual, racial, and ethnic diversity do not really defend freedom if they mean that we must accept people that look different, but not those who think differently. Pluralism requires debate and dialogue.


Real Open-Mindedness Comes from Education in Virtue

People do not learn to respect others’ dignity and freedom just by hearing professors preach about them; they must actively develop certain attitudes, or virtues, like humility, prudence, and patience. But all virtues require us to quit our selfishness. To do that, we must become aware of our prejudices and faults: “know thyself,” as the old Greek adage says. Virtue is intrinsically relational and founded on humility. Liberal individualism can hinder virtue, both because we need the help of friends, family, and colleagues to know ourselves, and because virtue means that we put the needs, concerns, and the good of other people before our own.

Virtues also can only be learned through experience. They require real models of virtuous living to which people can aspire—like professors who are committed to the good of the students, show an interest in them, and exemplify prudence and wisdom. If professors do not demonstrate in their own lives what it means to be tolerant, open-minded, and humble, students are missing something essential. The liberal model of education downplays these truths. It tells professors to be concerned only with giving information to “train” students, not to educate them in the full sense.

These characteristics of the current educational system become especially problematic when one tries to teach human rights. Respect for human dignity is at odds with liberal individualism. Like the other virtues, it requires that we give up egoism and go out to meet the other in his otherness. Treating another human being with dignity requires acknowledging that he is rational, that he can disagree with my ideas, and that he can teach me something I might not know. It requires that I be humble. Only in a society that privileges humility are the most vulnerable treated as persons with ontological value.


Most People Cannot Be and Do Not Want to Be Liberal Individualists

The liberal cultural environment promotes equality and freedom for “enlightened egoists,” rewarding those who are willing and able to adapt to individualism, secularism, and autonomy. But not everyone can be an enlightened egoist, as Mary Ann Glendon and others note. The intellectual and financial situation of many does not permit them to acquire a degree without help and support from others. Most people (except in the wealthiest parts of Western societies) in fact live in situations of interdependence and want to do so. They cherish their family relations, religious communities, and other social bonds, and believe that these enrich their lives rather than constrain their freedom.

Can a liberal human rights activist understand and defend the dignity of people who choose to live a communitarian, religious, and duty-oriented life? Can he appreciate the beauty and value of these other ways of understanding the human condition? It is difficult to think how he could defend the rights of others if, like many current activists, he self-righteously despises their beliefs and way of life. Liberal human rights education cannot promote empathy and tolerance toward other, non-Western lifestyles as long as it discourages engagement with other points of view.

The liberal educational system preaches diversity and freedom, but it does not show students how to live them. It mass-produces people who lack the tools to appreciate the dignity of human beings in all their rich variety. By training students to judge others in reference to themselves, higher education denies the value of the human lives it pretends to respect. In the case of human rights education, this approach undermines the discipline’s noble mission: it teaches students not to serve others but to impose on them the students’ own prejudices about what it means to lead a dignified life.

The human rights project and higher education are in a crisis of their own creation. They must correct their understanding of humanity if they are to be saved.

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