Home / Analysis / Objectives of Western Liberal education Pt 3

Objectives of Western Liberal education Pt 3

This is the thirs article in the Islamic Education Series. Click here to read part two.

It is imperative to differentiate the ‘aim of education’ from its intrinsic and extrinsic sense.  Intrinsic in the sense of pertaining to ‘education’ for the sake of education in contrast to the extrinsic educational aims that a politician or a Prime Minister may hold.  The latter will view education from an economic frame of mind and might think of education as the tool to deliver trained manpower. The ‘intrinsic’ sense of the term ‘aim of education’ will be used in this article.

The educationalists Hirst and Peters do not go into really defining what the aims of education are, but provide a philosophical insight into their formulations. They provide an example of what could possibly be taken as the aim of education in the case of an ‘educated man’ that he will possess ‘critical thinking, [knowledge of] specialized knowledge, autonomy, aesthetic sensitivity’.[1]  These aspects are not the prime focus of this series therefore only the general aims, though highly contested they are, of western liberal education will be briefly discussed.

Peters’ model of education contains two criteria – knowledge and understanding, and desirability; thus what is being implied is that those are the aims of education. The first criterion of Peters’ is that education implies the transmission of something worthwhile, thus it is to transmit something worthwhile.

Gregory suggests that the main aims of education are inseparable from the ideological stance of a particular society. Humans are born with ‘talents, dispositions, propensities, inclinations.’[2] It is the role of education to develop these potentialities in line with the underlying ideology of that society. Education should provide ‘…individuals a greater measure of control over their own lives’ and it is these aims that ‘shape curriculum content and pedagogy.’[3]

Gregory’s perception regarding the main ‘aim’ of ‘Liberal education’ can be said to be autonomy of the individual. He argues,

In freeing them of ignorance, in encouraging the use of critical rationality premised upon desire to understand more accurately what is going on and happening both to them and in the world, individuals will move towards autonomy.[4]

O’ Conner details his version of the ‘aim of education’ as[5]:
  1. To provide individuals with the minimum skills necessary for them to take their place in society and to carry of seeking further knowledge.
  2. To provide individuals with ‘vocational training’[6] that will enable them to be self-supporting.
  3. To awaken an interest in and taste for knowledge
  4. To induce the individual to be critical
  5. To put individuals in touch with and train them to appreciate the cultural and moral achievements of humankind.

Hamm takes a different stance in explaining the aims of education; for it depends upon the perspective of the questioner. If asked from an individual’s perspective, the aims of education could be employment, ‘prestige, escape from physical labour, high pay’.[7]  If answering a community then the aims could be: ‘good citizenship, social cohesiveness, social leveling, democratic practice, equality.’[8] If asked from a business perspective then education could be seen as ‘an instrument of training to keep the wheels of industry moving, to keep the economy going, to select and prepare young people for occupations and profession.’[9]

To conclude, it is difficult to specify any particular aims of education as these very aims are highly contested. Gregory (2002) did suggest autonomy; however, Hand (2006) dedicated an entire paper titled ‘Against autonomy as an educational aim’. The aims of education within this context could be perhaps better defined as the general aims of what a free liberal Western democratic society values, and those values perhaps might be the ultimate aims.  Nonetheless, the general understanding is that autonomy is the prime aim of the educational process.

The main aim of this article and the one preceding it was an attempt to highlight ‘Western liberal’ education and to briefly show how and why it is what it is in the present age. The previous article provided the background and contextual factors that resulted in the reformation Western Europe underwent. The Western world freed itself from the holds of the Church who governed and served as an authority in legislative matters. As a result of this newly acquired freedom, this civilization was liberated; most things were rewritten regarding the human beings conduct within society. Morals and ethical values were decided by man; how man would conduct his relationship with each other was redefined; reason and logic was given precedence over religion; things which were never questioned were explored and judged against the human reason and logic; a totally new way and outlook to life was created.  Many philosophers including the likes of Immanuel Kant and Voltaire were vocal in attacking the religious dominated Middle Ages. One could also say that the emergence of Darwin’s theory of evolution was the nail in the coffin regarding the concept of God and served to truly polarize the Church from the state.

Scientific knowledge began to progress and that aided the development of two myths that emerged (Hanson, 2003).  The first was that, ‘we are evolving on all fronts including our very natures[10] and the second was that ‘anything old was of no real use’[11]. Therefore the idea that education should solely transmit spiritual, cultural and religious values was fast fading away; the vision had been firmly fixed on the future.[12]

The next article will, if Allah wills, take a detailed look into the Islamic concept of education exploring the underlying philosophies viewing it in comparison with the liberal concept to highlight the main differences and the main objectives.


Notes: This is the third article in the Islamic Education Series. Click here to read part two.
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.

[1] p.27
[2] Gregory (2002), p.10
[3] ibid
[4] Ibid, p.14
[5] O’Conner (1957), p.8
[6] There is a great debate whether ‘vocational training’, or as it’s better known currently, ‘vocational education’ is actually education or merely training, i.e. acquiring certain hands-on skills. Writers such as O’Conner would tend to refer to it as ‘training’ because it was not classed as education as it did not ‘liberate’ the mind.
[7] Hamm (1989), p.52
[8] ibid
[9] ibid
[10] P.41
[11] ibid
[12] See: Phillips. M. (1996), All Must have Prizes. London: Warner Books.


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

Hamm, M C., (1989). 
Philosophical Issues in Education: An Introduction. UK: The Falmer Press. Hand, M., (2006). Against autonomy as an educational aim. Oxford Review of Education, 32 (4), 535-550. Hanson, Y., (2003). New Lamps for Old. In: Educating Your Child in Modern Times. California, USA: Alhambra Productions, Inc. Hirst, P H, Peters, R S. (1970). The Logic of Education. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd. O’Conner, D. (1957). ‘An Introduction to the Philosophy of Education’. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul Ltd.


About Faisal Siddique


  1. Very well written piece, minimising endless Islamic quotes, and sticking mainly to a non-religious analysis of the subject.
    I like especially the statement that as a result of newly acquired freedoms, moral and ethical values were decided by man. Reason and logic was given precedence over religion.

    I say that these things were decided by man before, in as much as the Christian, Jewish, Islamic and all other holy books were obviously written by man, but in my opinion, deluded men who believed in various Gods.

    Thank goodness that reason and logic is now given precedence over religion in most democratic countries. People are still free to follow their religious beliefs as far as they do not threaten the elected governments or break the democratically decided laws.

    Unfortunately there is an unremitting attempt by Muslims to reverse this logical, reasonable and fairly democratic system by demanding a parallel system of laws, which if granted to the different religions in Britain would result in chaos and conflict. It’s not a question of criminality, but of one law for all.

    Reason, sectarianism and logic should indeed maintain their precedence over all religions, if we don’t want to see the endless conflicts here that are the norm within Islamic societies, and used to be here.

  2. Awesome post.

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