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Islamic Ed. Series Pt2: The basis of Western Liberal Education

This is the second article in the Islamic Education Series. Click here to read part 1. It needs to be understood that there are perhaps two general understandings of the word ‘liberal’ in the term ‘liberal education’. The first is an understanding that ‘liberal’ education is an educational process which results in the liberation of the mind where an individual acquires knowledge for the sake of knowledge as opposed to acquiring knowledge for the sake of employment or any other utilitarian purpose.  The second understanding of ‘liberal’ education is the type of education provided within the Western post-reformation period which finds its roots in a secularist perspective.  This article understands liberalism in the sense of freedom from the constraints of the Church which the Western world was under during the pre-Reformation period.

Christian doctrines that constrained the individual from thinking critically and exercising freedom of thought were prevalent during the Middle Ages. Earlier, the Greeks believed that intellectual freedom would result in rational behaviour as their main concern was to free the mind from error. It is within this context that education is a ‘liberating agent’ as it aims ultimately for individuals to make free choices.

The Renaissance was a time of general growth and prosperity for Western Europe. The Renaissance brought about the rediscovery of the Greek classics, and objectivity about the world, and the emphasis upon the importance of individualism. During the Renaissance, Europe emerged from the economic decline of the Middle Ages and witnessed financial growth. Most associations with past values or traditions were being broken and a rewrite of all aspects of life were being carried out. Western Europe had freed itself from the hold of the religious institutes, it was free and liberated. This was the premise of liberalism which led to the creation of democracy, man self-appointed himself to legislate using his own intellect and rationality; and as a result education was rewritten with new aims and objectives, to produce individuals who would carry on this newly founded legacy of liberalism into the future.

John Locke, a key Enlightenment thinker and father of Liberalism argued ‘that the government can only be considered legitimate insofar as it has popular consent’.[1] He attached a condition to the ‘consent’ as respect for individual freedom as long as freedom is not bigotry and that the state should protect ‘the most important liberties of faith and conscience’.  Carr highlights that his perspective can raise serious questions regarding the rational criteria that is used for judgement. The governing body pertaining to this newly constructed philosophy of liberalism was known as, ‘a liberal democracy, by its very nature, enshrines the values of political liberty and equality’.[2] The liberal state views itself as a standing neutral referee between various conflicting ideologies and values, allowing each ideology to equality; however it is important to note that this neutral referee will not tolerate an ideology which undermines its own fundamental basis.[3] Liberalism assumes individuals to be as sane and responsible adults and respects their decisions because they are taken to be such. However this perspective becomes problematic when it comes to children. Are these children the property of their parents? How should a child be raised in order for it to become a ‘rational self choosing adult’?[4]

Characteristics of Liberal Education

Gregory (2002) states that liberal education has an intrinsic individualistic feature; it appears to be centred on the freedom and the rights of the individual and how this individual via these freedoms can attain some level of happiness. Emphasis is laid upon the ‘primacy and worth of the individual’.[5] They are responsible for the direction that they choose for their own lives and also have a collective responsibility to recognise the rights of others. The state does not hold any responsibility in promoting a certain distinct lifestyle, or ideology which affects others. The promotion of autonomy can be seen as the primary goal and is a substantial part of the underlying ideology. The educational system is therefore required to provide the relevant knowledge and means that will enable the individual to be autonomous. Individuals are equipped with tools which encourage them to use their ‘critical rationality premised upon the desire to understand more accurately what is going on and happening both to them and the world’.[6]

Gregory states that,

‘the successful pursuit of knowledge and better understanding equips individuals with the wherewithal to make a better sense of their lives’.[7]

The interesting part of this statement is the term ‘better sense’ since it begs the question, what does Gregory really mean by it? Against which criteria are we meant to judge what is ‘better’ and what is not? Does it imply a financial, spiritual, moral, academic betterment? It can be understood that these are some of the profound ambiguities regarding the ideology behind the ‘liberal’ way of life. Alternatively it can be argued that it is exactly this that provides the richness to the ‘liberal’ school of thought.  However, these questions will be answered later when the concept of education is investigated.

Carr elaborates upon his understanding regarding the purpose of education as,

The main task of education is to prepare young people for adult, personal and social functioning: a little more precisely, to equip individuals with the knowledge, understanding and skills apt for a personally satisfying, socially responsible and economically productive life.[8]

Descartes, the accepted father of modern philosophy, performed a U-turn when he proposed man as the starting point rather than God. He asserted the ability of human reason to find certainty and the ultimate meaning of reality. Faith was being pushed into a corner.  Emphasis was placed on the capacity of the rational mind. The transformation was under way from God-centered to man-centered thinking giving way to the Age of Reason.  At the same time the birth of the Scientific Age was also being witnessed with the help of Newton. This resulted in a mechanistic view of the world emerging. An understanding developed that implied God the great clock maker ran the world by His fixed laws but was isolated from His creation.9


Notes: This is the second article in the Islamic Education Series. Click here to read part 1.
Sources: www.islam21c.com
Islam21c requests all the readers of this article, and others, to share it on your facebook, twitter, and other platforms to further spread our efforts.Bibliography:

Carr, D. (2003). Making Sense of Education: 
An introduction to the philosophy and theory of education and teaching. London & New York: Routledge Falmer

Gregory, I. (2002). The Aims of Education In: I Davies, I Gregory, N McGuinn (ed.) Key Debates I n Education, London & New York: Continuum, 1-24.

Morley, P. (1997). Understanding the Postmodern Era. [Online Journal article ]http://www.maninthemirror.org/alm/alm39.htm (assessed 8th August 2007)

Winch. C, Gingell. J. (2004). ‘Philosophy & Educational Policy’. Oxfordshire: RoutledgeFalmer. 

[1] Carr, 2003, p.173
[2] Winch and Gingell, 2004 p.140
[3] Ibid
[4] Ibid p.141
[5] Gregory 2002, p.14
[6] Ibid
[7] Ibid
[8] Carr 2003, p.7
[9] Morley, 1997


About Faisal Siddique

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