Sunday, 10 September 2017

Modern Liberal Education Contains the Seeds of its own Destruction

Does the modern Liberal Education which makes “the liberal elite” feel assured in their superiority contain the seeds of its own destruction?

One of the things that defines what has been variously branded the Liberal Elite, the comfortable Urban Metropolitans, the “Ins” or, as David Goodhart would have it, the “Anywheres” (supported and encouraged by a broadcast media also perceived to be liberal in its outlook) is their educational status. They are assured of being well-educated and when, for example, they point to what they consider political disasters such as Brexit or the election of Donald Trump it is difficult for them (as they find it embarrassing) to resist explaining such disasters as being the “fault” of the lack of understanding of those who are less well educated than them and who have, therefore, made very bad choices indeed. In such discussions the one thing that is assumed to be unchallengeable is the status and validity of the education of which they see themselves to be the beneficiaries. This is a given that no one in their right mind would challenge. The intellectual adjuncts to such education are the background radiation to our lives.

However, one does not have to scratch far beneath the surface of modern education and the intellectual ideas and assumptions on which it is based to find that much of it is suspect and that the vast ideological superstructure which rests on it less than stable. Indeed, when it is thus examined the bog standard common sense of the average “left Behind”, “Out,” “Somewhere” or non-liberal placed alongside it may scrub up rather well. The wit of the building site or the football ground may prove to be quicker-witted than the liberal’s wit and the latter’s assumption of superiority emerge, perhaps, to be no more than a form of scornful arrogance.

I have two grown-up children, in the final year of, or recently emerged from, University. Being a language teacher of long experience who can generally recognise a well-written sentence they have sometimes sent me their essays to be edited for grammar, punctuation etc. In helping them with this I have not been able to help reading the content of their essays. My son, training to be a nurse, writes an essay, supporting his assertions regularly with references to the appropriate studies, that it has been discovered by research that if nurses treat human patients as though they are both persons and diseased bodies at the same time the outcome for the patient may be better than that attained if they are treated merely as diseased bodies occupying beds. My daughter, studying Business, puts forward the proposition that “toxic” leaders in companies who exhibit high levels of narcissism, selfishness and disdain towards their staff tend to lead companies that do less well than those led by leaders exhibiting the opposite virtues to these vices. I don’t blame my children for writing such essays – they are simply doing what their tutors and the requirements of their degree assessment process ask of them. If they didn’t write them they would not obtain the qualifications for which they are paying a royal premium and which will enable them to gain good employment afterwards. However, were one to travel back a few decades before such academic research “discovered” the truth for us in this way, and were one to question a regular pre-degree times nurse or a regular company employee as to whether it was sensible and desirable to treat patients as human persons or to have unselfish and respectful leaders at the head of companies (they might have been perfectly capable of pronouncing on each other’s discipline) they would have certainly been well-equipped enough to answer unhesitatingly in the affirmative. They would have been equipped with bog standard common sense which precedes the formal scientific enquiry through whose mediation “truth” is deemed now to be solely attainable. These two ways of arriving at the truth set nicely alongside each other, for means of comparison, the nature of common sense and modern education.

I will list a number of such questionable assumptions and even fallacies which underpin modern education of the sort that is disseminated as the default position in most schools and universities. In this list I will include those described in the paragraph above.

• A setting above common sense and human subjectivity of a scientific rationalism which, nevertheless, depends on the pre-existence of human presence and common sense for its own existence. Areas which do not easily lend themselves to proper objective scientific scrutiny such as human subjectivity, emotion, morality and aesthetic experience (some of the most important things in human life) are wrongly assumed to be studiable by and subjected to Social Sciences and Psychology. Such “Humanities” are wrongly “scientised.”
• The consequent sense that nothing aspires to the status of truth unless it has been mediated through a scientific study. There are no moral or aesthetic truths that cannot be subjected to this method.
• A lack of interest in the moral as it does not conveniently fit into any scientific category.
• The myth of progress to a Promised Land that will be afforded by more and more science. A sense that the present is a privileged platform along this way from which we can look down on the past.
• French Marxist post-modernism fuelling grievance narratives, identity politics and political correctness which assumes that everything is just a social construct serving the ends of oppressive ruling classes and conspiracies. The replacement of nature and beginning givens and essentials in the human condition with the idea of a self-creating and God-like existentialism.
• An excessive emphasis on purely monetary value in education as a measure of effectiveness other values which used to prevail in educational establishments having left the field open. Education as commodity.

All of the above are points of view but they are not the background radiation of incontestable Gospel truth which they have become and can certainly be challenged by very respectable alternative points of view. They do not have the force or solidity of unassailable tablets of stone.

If I am correct in my assumption that many or all of the above stanchions on which modern education is built are faulty then, under test, the edifice may well fall down and throw us back on the common sense and gut feeling on which the non-liberals depend. This may explain why there has been a move against expertise. One only has to look at how well Economic or Political “Science,” both operating in the field of human social studies, did in predicting the economic crash of 2008 or countless political events that have taken place in the last few years to see why such skepticism might prevail.

It is also instructive to witness the limitations of the liberal mindset for such limitations certainly exist. If the commonly held articles of faith, such as the predominance of scientific rationalism, are contested the liberal is swiftly brought to the borders of their imagination and intellect. At this point that mindset will enter into a kind of meltdown where things do not compute and an algorithmical process will begin which ends with any opponent foolhardy enough to challenge such central tenets being designated or even denounced as either insane or morally corrupt and dangerous. This, in itself, to use a term taken from Psychology, is a form of cognitive dissonance and suggests a lack of intellectual confidence in the overall project of liberalism. A failure to compute boils over into anger and denunciation and, ironically, rationality is abandoned.

This intellectual edifice, that scorns the sense of the Common Man and Woman, is visibly embodied in our modern universities where too may young people pursue useless and suspect subjects largely because they are considered to be bums on seats in an enterprise that is largely commercial. Much of it could easily and profitably (to the students not the universities) be swept away as redundant in terms of its intellectual substance, usefulness and relevance and of the employability it affords. It has become a choreographed dance which resembles what universities used to be from the outside (in ways which science can measure) but in no way resembles them from the inside (in the more important and vital ways which science cannot measure).

If the whole edifice were to topple so that we were thrown back on the sense of the Common Man and Woman would it be such a loss and what does this mean for the assessments made by the Common Man in recent political choices he or she has made?

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