Lockdowns and the Death of Liberal Education

5 January 2021

by Dr David McGrogan

Of all the tragic, unnecessary and shameful consequences of the 2020 lockdowns, school closures may be the worst. A healthy society prioritises its young; we have sacrificed their life chances to ameliorate the terrors of the old. But the educational consequences of our collective reaction to this virus are more far-reaching than ‘just’ the closure of schools. Indeed, it is my fear that the death of liberal education is happening right in front of our eyes.

This is a strong statement and requires some explanation.

Thoughtful liberals have always recognised that education is the very foundation of liberalism itself. (And here, it is important to make clear that in using the word ‘liberalism’ I am not referring to the soft-left progressivism which is sometimes meant by that term. Rather, I am referring to classical liberalism – the political philosophy that, in a nutshell, considers it foundational that the power of the State ought to be legally constrained by a system of individual rights, such as those to property, freedom of association, freedom of expression, and so on.) This is because, contrary to how its adherents are often caricatured, they have long recognised that there is nothing inevitable about liberalism. Indeed, liberalism rather goes against the grain of innate human characteristics. It sits uncomfortably alongside democracy in particular, because human beings have the tendency to use democracy for illiberal ends. Occasionally, of course, this has manifested itself in outright fascism, as in the first half of the 20th century, but much more frequently those illiberal ends are ostensibly benevolent rather than racist or hateful. The danger is not that mass democracy will usher in dictatorship. It is that it will usher in what Kant called “the worst form of despotism” – an all-encompassing, paternalistic kindness that utterly smothers freedom.

The most eloquent warning on this point came from Alexis de Tocqueville. Writing in the first half of the 19th century, Tocqueville recognised that, as a society becomes more prosperous, healthy, equal and safe, its people begin to prioritise the procurement of comfort and safety over freedom. They convince themselves that they are free because every so often they hold elections, but the type of government they elect is always one that leans towards the paternal – a caring, kind, all-powerful and all-knowing parent whose entire aim is to protect and nurture the well-being population. Writing in terms that in 2020 seem alarmingly prescient, he described the type of government that they will tend to elect as:

[A]n immense and tutelary power, which takes upon itself alone to secure [the population’s] gratifications, and to watch over their fate…absolute, minute, regular, provident, and mild. [L]ike the authority of a parent [who] seeks… to keep them in perpetual childhood: it is well content that the people should rejoice, provided they think of nothing but rejoicing.

(Watching my neighbours standing outside their houses throughout April and May, banging their pots and pans, I was often struck by that last phrase in particular.) The danger, of course, is evident: it is that if a government takes on the authority of a parent who seeks to keep the population in perpetual childhood, they will never grow into adults. Such a government will “cover the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform”, which will ensure that even the most creative and intelligent people will be unable to “rise above” the crowd; it will not “shatter” their will but rather “soften” and “bend” it:

[M]en are seldom forced by it to act, but they are constantly restrained from acting: such a power does not destroy, but it prevents existence; it does not tyrannize, but it compresses, enervates, extinguishes, and stupefies a people, till each nation is reduced to be nothing better than a flock of timid and industrious animals, of which the government is the shepherd.

The danger for liberalism, in other words, is that mass democracy may end up, by ushering in this “soft despotism” of all-encompassing paternal kindness, destroying the free agency of the people and rendering them unfit for the demands of liberalism – unable to look after themselves, to take responsibility for their own lives and those around them, to judge risks, to deal with problems, to act capably and positively in the economy and society. Looking always to the State to save them from even the slightest risk of harm or danger, and lacking in all initiative or motivation to behave like masters of their own fate. Not, in other words, true individuals, but what Michael Oakeshott referred to as “individual manqués” (or “failed individuals”).

Oakeshott thought that one of its most important consequences of modernity was that people were released, whether they wanted it or not, from the strict ties of family, community and caste that had characterised medieval society. Freedom was, in effect, thrust upon them. And this remains true. Growing up in a modern society, everybody must confront the fact that they are free. Some, those who Oakeshott called “individuals”, embrace this. They view freedom as an opportunity, and life as an adventure; they accept risk and danger as the necessary consequence of their agency, and prefer the authenticity of freedom of choice even if it means that they may fail in some or all of their endeavours. Others, who Oakeshott called “individual manqués”, take the opposite view. Thinking of freedom as a burden, they shrink away from it. They prefer safety, comfort, and the meeting of substantive wants. Not for them a life of risk or adventure. Rather, the “warm servility” of the “conscript assured of his dinner” – relieved of the requirement to take responsibility for their own conduct, and happy to have choice and risk taken away in return for security.

The point, of course, is that whereas the individual is suited for life as the citizen of a liberal democracy – one which respects freedom and expects of its populace that they become responsible adults – the individual manqué is not. The latter much prefers the idea of a government that will take unwanted freedom away, and give security and comfort in return; he rather likes the image that Tocqueville paints. In short, he thinks that a government of all-encompassing paternal kindness is just the ticket. And the crucial point is that he will vote for it.

Liberalism, then, needs a special kind of education to combat this tendency, because if it does not, the individual manqué will proliferate, and if he does, the mechanism of democracy will inevitably usher in his preferences. Children do not naturally become liberal citizens. They need to be brought up into a life of freedom. They need to be taught to be courageous, competent, capable, responsible, and independent – to, in other words, to be the kind of grown-ups who do not need the paternal State to run every facet of their lives. William Galston, writing in the early 1990s, attempted to draw up a list of the virtues that liberal citizenship require. These included, for instance, self-restraint so as not to allow freedom to turn into irresponsibility, a strong work ethic, a commitment to civic duty, a commitment to excellence, reliability and civility at work, and so on. He also advocated presumptive support for the nuclear family, and for, if not patriotism, then at least a respect for moral views “rooted in [one’s nation’s] cultural heritage”. This is easily lampooned, and critics have often pointed out that it all, in its own way, sounds rather authoritarian, prescriptive and, dare one say it, illiberal. But the point, of course, is that ‘liberal’ ought not to equate to unbridled permissiveness – that freedom and responsibility are intertwined, and that without the latter, the former descends into mere laxness and ultimately total dependence on the State.

Anybody who pays attention to these matters will know that we, collectively – schools, parents, extended families, local communities – have been doing an atrocious job of giving our children a liberal education in recent decades. Young people in all too many cases grow up to be anxious, risk-averse, terrified of failure, and lacking in courage and initiative. But in 2020, it is hard to come to any conclusion other than that the last vestiges of liberal education are in danger of being swept away. School closures and the harms to life chances that they cause are bad enough. But much worse is the way children are now in many cases being raised. Frightened of the world. Anxious about going out. Worried about interacting with strangers. Looking always to parents or authoritarian teachers for guidance about how to act. Lacking opportunities for unsupervised play with their peers. And, above all, thinking always about their relationship with the State and what the State permits them to do. Not free, but safe.

What is needed in the aftermath of Covid is a course correction, on this topic as in many others. Those of us who are parents, or for that matter who have children in their extended families, and those of us who work in education, need to get serious about how we set about fighting back against the future which is being pressed upon our young people in the modern age. We cannot let their basic life skills be sacrificed in a vain attempt to ‘control’ a virus, but more importantly than that, we cannot allow them to grow up into anything other than the kind of individual on which a healthy society is founded: brave, competent, independent, responsible, proactive in their local community, and never simply willing to rely on the State to solve each and every problem for them.

Dr David McGrogan is Associate Professor of Law at Northumbria Law School.

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