All Commentary
Wednesday, October 1, 1997

Education and the Free Society

Those of Us Concerned with Preserving Individual Freedom Face a Formidable Challenge

Linda C. Raeder is a doctoral candidate in political theory at the Catholic University of America and associate editor of Humanitas.

The classical-liberal philosophy of limited government and the rule of law is in danger of being consigned to oblivion. Enemies of the free society have successfully appropriated the time-honored “liberal” name and transformed it into the pseudo-liberalism of contemporary statism.

Part of the responsibility for that transformation undoubtedly belongs to the defenders of liberal constitutionalism. We have obviously failed to “make the case,” either rationally or imaginatively, for the free society as traditionally understood in the West. Hence we are in danger of losing not only our understanding of the relationship between limited government and human flourishing, but also of the very meaning of constitutional government. Nor have we sufficiently attended to the formative role of culture in the maintenance of the constitutional ethos. It is imperative, however, that the classical understanding of liberal order remain a living understanding, particularly within the academy. Yet it is well known that many academics are hostile not only to the classical-liberal order but also to the moral and philosophical heritage of Western civilization which produced that order. Those of us who would preserve the free society must not abandon the scholarly forum.

The abandonment of the modern university to the enemies of the free society is, moreover, bound up with the transformation of the meaning not only of “liberalism” but of all the major concepts through which we articulate our political, social, and moral self-understanding. The notions of freedom, law, rights, democracy, constitutionalism, and morality have all been distorted in service of limitless government. Even well-meaning people, for instance, no longer seem to understand that the American framers did not establish a “democracy,” but rather a constitutional government, one characterized by limited power and the rule of law.

Today, however, “democracy” is often touted as if it were equivalent to liberal constitutionalism and the free society; any distinction has been largely lost. In a similar manner, the traditional notion of right has undergone a pernicious transformation. A right, as historically conceived in the West, did not refer to a positive entitlement to government services but to a largely “negative” protection against arbitrary governmental interference with one’s beliefs and activities.

Moral standards have also been significantly redefined. Traditional Western morality was concerned with personal motives and actions, not with social outcomes, emotional pleas for collective “compassion,” or commitment to a chimerical “social justice” to be achieved through organized political coercion, as it often is today.

The ongoing destruction of the free society has long been abetted by those who bear responsibility for the transmission of our cultural heritage—university professors and others involved in higher education. To preserve the traditional Western understanding of freedom-under-law, we must redress that imbalance, first, by restoring the classical-liberal philosophy of limited government as a focus of scholarship, and, second, by becoming exemplars of its ethos. Moreover, and perhaps even more importantly, we must counter the prevailing trend toward the politicization of the academy.

Perhaps it is not coincidental that both the free society and higher education stand at present in such a precarious state. From Aristotle to modernity, liberal education has been one of the chief foundations of civilized order in the West. Such an education, or “drawing forth,” aims to cultivate a mind disposed to the pursuit of truth, a process that depends upon the active assimilation of culture, conceived as an integrated body of knowledge unified by reference to the comprehensive whole of reality. Professional specialization was conceived to be an outgrowth of, not a replacement for, such an assimilation. Moreover, liberal education was sharply contrasted with mere technical or practical training in service of utilitarian ends; the personal comprehension, character, and existential orientation produced by a truly liberal education was long regarded as its own reward.

A liberally educated person is more than superficially familiar with the great contributions in various fields. He is especially well acquainted with history, a knowledge which supplements his own necessarily limited experience of human events and widens his necessarily limited cultural perspective. Release from the parochialism of the present, however, is not the only beneficent effect of a traditional liberal education. Such an education is intimately bound up with the transmission of the culture and thus with the maintenance and advancement of civilization.

Ignorance of our heritage returns us to the level of primitives ceaselessly reinventing the wheel, particularly in political and moral matters. Or else it fosters the emergence of that quintessentially modern character, the arrogant rationalist proudly proclaiming the sovereignty of his fictitious “autonomous” reason. As both Burke and Hayek so eloquently warned, however, the rationalistic hubris of such persons, which leads them cavalierly to dismiss the “wisdom of the ages,” is a grave threat to the preservation of civilization, which crucially depends upon the preservation of the suprarational knowledge embodied in tradition.

The political order of any society is a reflection of the values, beliefs, and character of the persons who compose it; modern Western society, no less than the polis, is man writ large. The constitutional order that is the free society aims to permit its members freedom to pursue their self-chosen ends, in the belief that such freedom is indispensable to the realization of human potential. No society can endure, let alone flourish, without a certain degree of order. Since a free society seeks to minimize governmental coercion, and thus the external imposition of order, its order must come from within. A free society thus places special demands on its members: they must be both internally self-governing and willing to observe those moral and political rules that alone permit the common good to prevail over partisan and special interest. Moreover, since a free society encourages people to pursue their own ends, the quality and tone of such a society are utterly dependent upon the quality of its members’ aims.

All of these factors point toward the crucial significance of education to both the preservation and tenor of a free society. Freedom has proved so fragile historically because the demands it makes on human beings are so severe. Freedom requires a large measure of self-restraint: freedom demands that we do not violate our neighbors, either individually or through the collective process that is politics. Without the willingness to pursue our ends within moral and legal bounds, to defer to the higher moral and political law that is the substance of constitutionalism, freedom-under-law degenerates into license, politics into the war of all-against-all. Although it goes against the grain of the prevailing “modern liberal” ideology, one cannot escape the fact that the formation of character through moral education, a process in which family, religion, formal study, imitation, practice, and mystery all play significant roles, is the sine qua non of the free society.

In conclusion, those of us who are concerned with preserving the hard-won fruit of individual freedom face a formidable challenge. We must make that tradition come alive again. And the only way to do so is through persuasion and personal witness, the only means suitable to the education of a free people.