False Liberalism and Adler’s Educational Prophecy

Mortimer Adler argued that certain trends in education were emerging back in the late 1930s and 40s. He argued that there was a distinct difference between true liberalism that he advocated for from what he called ‘false-liberalism.’ In addition to arguing at length about those differences, he set out certain consequences that he thought would follow.

If you’ve studied education and philosophy, you’ve likely come across the name John Dewey. Adler was a critic of Dewey’s educational program. What is interesting for us, living in 2019, is that Dewey won the popularity contest, for the soul of education. There are probably a few pockets in the U.S. that favor Adler, but it is the minority. In this context, it is very informative to see what Adler was on about all those years ago because Dewey’s ilk has become the regnant influencers in education.

So, what did Adler say?

He distinguished true liberalism from liberalism by showing that true liberalism cultivates the authority of reason, whereas false liberalism cultivates reverence for the State. Where the dignity of man is placed above the State, the false-liberal encourages humans to be used as means of the State (rather than ends). The true liberal believes in objective truths that unify and transcend our differences, but the false liberal reduces the student to ‘might makes right’ since the authority of reason is subordinate to that of the Super-moral State (or even absent).

According to Adler, true liberalism fights two types of tyranny: the tyranny of the passions over rationality, and the tyranny of the State over its citizens. Through disciplining the mind to criticize all things, even the authority of the State, its purpose and purview, a properly liberal education frees men from the shackles of emotional bondage: they can think carefully, logically, and not be overwhelmed by fallacious reasoning, with subjective appeals by tyrants that stoke envy, fear, and false promises. Therefore, true liberalism is about freedom, and the freeing of the mind from irrational, as well as being able to morally resist the growth of political tyranny.

The reason why should be obvious: a citizenry in full command of their rational faculties is not swayed by emotional-laden appeals, full of false promises, and invalid arguments.

This, of course, is not all to do with politics though. Living a happy life is a very different aim than being a ‘productive citizen.’ A free person may oppose the government, leave the country, or challenge the views of the colleges. A truly liberal educator would only inquire if the reasoning was well-founded and valid though, not inquire whether it fit with a party narrative.

In sum, a truly liberal education serves its students in a robust sense, their very thriving conditions (eudaimonia, or ‘happiness’ in an objective sense of ‘flourishing). It dangerous substitute claims to be liberal but is actually a counterfeit: it promises freedom but delivers the bondage of emotions over the self, and the State over its ‘subjects’ (though the word citizen might still be used). The false-liberal society may change the definitions of words (see 1984). Additionally, the false-liberal society will applaud the mastery of social problems –not by developing mastery over the emotions–but by the chemical evasion from the discomforts of cognitive dissonance and malaise (see Brave New World).

  • What type of education will you favor?
  • Did education’s shift from liberalism to false-liberalism engender the twin tyranny of emotions and the State?

What do you think?

For a more complete discussion on this, see Adler’s book on Reforming Education.

Some short articles on Mortimer Adler can found here:

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