Front Page Titles (by Subject) III.: EDUCATION AND SOCIETY - The Liberal Mind
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III.: EDUCATION AND SOCIETY - Kenneth Minogue, The Liberal Mind 
The Liberal Mind, (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2000).
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EDUCATION AND SOCIETY
The liberal conception of society is, then, determined by the moral and political policies of modern liberalism. It has only a tenuous connection with sociological description (though sociologists themselves often adopt it). The ends of this policy are described, usually in the abstract singular, as “social purpose.” The means or necessary conditions of the policy are “social needs,” and the barriers to it are “social problems.” It is an ambitious policy which aims at nothing less than the transformation of human life. So ambitious a project necessarily takes a great interest in education, for like all movements, it is eager to recruit the young. In liberal terms, education, like everything else, is a means towards something else, and once this instrumental character has been established, then outside manipulation is not far away. For it is inevitable that “that of which it is an instrument” (viz. “society”12 ) will begin to apply its own criteria of efficient functioning. The only way in which we can expose this kind of attempt to reduce education to a socially dependent role is by making some remarks about education as an independent tradition.
Education depends upon what we may call, with a maximum of vagueness, the impulse towards understanding. Sometimes this impulse is said to be produced by curiosity; sometimes it is even elevated into an instinct or natural disposition of human nature. Men have exhibited this impulse under a great variety of circumstances, and in western civilization it has generated a tradition of immense complexity and significance. It is an impulse which may clearly be distinguished from the meliorist conception of a search for knowledge to promote the satisfaction of desires. For, however the impulse towards understanding may begin, it is capable of freeing itself from practical considerations.
The distinction between the academic and vocational pursuit of knowledge may be developed into an ethical argument. The pursuit of knowledge for its own sake has often been taken as a good; as something distinguished from other kinds of pursuit by the ethical quality of goodness. A man dominated by the mood of philosophical enquiry has been thought to be one who has stepped aside from the blinkered confusion of everyday life, and who alone is fully conscious of himself in the world. Those who pursue other kinds of desire necessarily limit themselves; they have eyes only for what is relevant to the object of their pursuit. They are liable to frustration, hope, fear, disappointment, even hysteria—all emotions capable of precipitating evil acts. The pursuit of most desires necessarily promotes illusions—sometimes facts must be ignored or distorted, but always transient objects and satisfactions are allowed an importance which other moods will find disproportionate. The philosopher, this argument continues, is therefore the model of the good man, and the disinterested pursuit of truth is a good activity. This argument is Greek in origin; further it is one which does not involve exhortation. It does not lead to the command: Pursue knowledge. For as a matter of fact, men will pursue truth, though intermittently. Exhortation, or the command to pursue knowledge, would in fact defeat this purpose, for it would subject truth-seeking to a policy.
We may therefore adopt this conventional distinction between vocational and academic pursuit of knowledge, though we should be careful not to vulgarize it into a distinction between practice and theory. All societies make some provision for vocational training; but not all have strong and independent traditions of academic investigation of the world. And while it is rather pointless to struggle over the possession of a word, we may note that “education” has traditionally referred primarily to the academic pursuit of knowledge, and the preparations for it.
Arguments asserting the autonomy of freedom of enquiry have always had a prominent place in the liberal tradition. Areopagitica and the Essay on Liberty are both passionate defenses of the social tradition of enquiry; but they are both expressed in individualist terms, and in each there is a tendency to support freedom of enquiry because of the incidental utilities which accrue to a political system in which it is untrammelled. But defenses of free enquiry are only as strong as their weakest argument; and any defense which points to the outside interests which free enquiry may serve is a hostage to fortune: it may have to submit when the balance of utility turns against it. If philosophy is for the greater glory of God, there may come a time when those entrusted with the earthly affairs of the Deity decide that it no longer glorifies Him. At the present time, liberalism is weakened in its defense of free enquiry by the meliorist question: Knowledge for what?
Free enquiry, like any social activity, has to fight for its existence in a hostile environment. The most obvious hazard is orthodoxy. An orthodoxy which asserts geocentricity of the universe as a truth on the same level as that of transubstantiation is likely to be understandably flustered when men start building telescopes and toying with Copernican ideas; and one which asserts the inferiority of certain races will wish to keep a strong grip on its social scientists. These, of course, are merely the dramatic examples; what they dramatize is the constant and ceaseless pressure upon enquiry to arrive at required conclusions. The first antagonist of the educational tradition is dogma, which limits the free play of enquiry. People have been burned, shot, hanged, imprisoned and exiled for the questioning of politically established dogmas, those which are thought necessary to the stability of the régime. In a free society, the consequences of contesting any particular dogma are not fatal.
The tradition of free enquiry has developed institutions, and institutions very quickly develop their own momentum. In particular, questions of status, comfort and respectability begin to arise, and play a powerful role in the minds of those who are officially custodians of the tradition. We have noted as a general psychological principle that any act will be determined not by a single motive but by a cluster of motives, and the holding of an opinion is an act. The participants in controversies will often include among their motives not only that of understanding the issue, but also those of self-esteem, ambition, security, or fear of giving offence. All manner of ideological motives are likely to force their way into academic life. These dangers are often more insidious than the dramatic force of threatened persecution, and they are inevitably part of the milieu within which enquiry must operate. Where the tradition is strong, these motives will themselves be criticized and exposed; at other times they will encompass the slow strangulation of the tradition. When that happens, free enquiry may languish, or, alternatively, it may simply move outside the universities, as it did during the seventeenth century, when modern science and philosophy were most vigorously carried on by a network of communicating private individuals.
What has primarily burdened the tradition of education over the last century or so is the weight of hopes and expectations which have rested upon it. For the Enlightenment, education was the instrument which would bring us out of the darkness of superstition. Then, more significantly, in the nineteenth century, education became an indispensable instrument of industrial advance. It was the pressure of industrial demand which was the necessary and sufficient condition of the spread of literacy and instruction towards the end of that century. The very usefulness of universities meant from that period on that government and industry were ready to employ the products of their training. And very soon, universities began to receive public money. In earlier times, they had managed to subsist off private support, at the cost of only intermittent attempts to influence the content of what was taught and thought. In the early stage of public support for universities, no question arose of universities meeting “national needs.” The universities of Britain were dominated, and to a large extent still are dominated, by wily men who know perfectly well how to deal with ideological encroachments of that kind. In any case, given the political policies of the last half century—by which large private accumulations of wealth were systematically mopped up by the central Treasury—universities faced the alternative of public support or total collapse. But having been forced into this position, they were bound to face demagogic criticism framed in terms of: What are the taxpayers getting for their money?
But above the demagogic hustle more profound-sounding themes are persuasively broached. What is the true purpose of a university? What are the values of education? Where should it lead? Here the ideologist approaches on tiptoe, often himself unaware of his role. And here the only full response to such questions is a comprehensive understanding of social life. Otherwise the disputants flounder around looking for points which will clinch the argument. Some answers to these questions are readily rejected. Few people at the moment could be induced to believe that a university ought to produce unshakable patriots, men who will never accept the view that any act of their country is wrong. Nor would many people believe that a university exists simply to state the dogma of the one true religious belief. On the other hand, those who have not considered the matter closely (and some who have) might agree with any number of vague formulae: that universities exist to promote self-realization, to express the values of society, to play a vital social role, to educate the whole man, or to investigate the purpose of life. Exactly what meanings lurk in ambush behind these mellifluous phrases is difficult to detect. Sometimes they are as vapid as they sound; sometimes they are not. Frequently they are the innocuous source of a whole range of prescriptions demanding reform of curricula, different directions of university interest, or a more “committed” attitude on the part of academics. In other words, they are “criteria,” or determining policies, which once established are to be used to adjudicate conflicts of interest within universities, or between universities on the one hand and the State or any other social institution on the other. For this reason, they cannot be ignored.
In beginning this section with some brief remarks on the tradition of enquiry and education, we have implicitly established one possible answer to these questions; namely, that universities were created and sustained by the activity of free enquiry. There is a sense in which free enquiry is their “purpose.”
For various reasons which are only imperfectly understood, traditions and activities are liable to a decline, and sometimes this decline may take place even though the institutions remain powerful and perhaps even continue to exhibit a glittering and impressive appearance. Traditions can lose their flexibility and inventiveness and degenerate into dogmas. The French army, for example, spent vast resources upon elaborating the assumptions which it considered had brought success in the First World War. The motives lying behind this hardening would seem to have been fear resulting from the shock of that earlier victory. And it is possible that fear always lies behind the defensiveness that results in a tradition hardening into a set of dogma.
It is probably some realization of this kind which leads to the universities being criticized for resistance to innovation—with “not keeping up with the times.” But here the complexity of ideological battles becomes very evident; for those who make the criticism are often seeking to impose their own demands, indeed their own kind of hardening, upon the institutions they criticize. And whilst fashion is a fatal influence on most activities it is peculiarly dangerous to artistic and academic traditions. It amounts to importing all the currently fashionable slogans into the work of free enquiry. If the latter is in a vigorous condition, it will proceed to criticize these slogans, to lay bare, in particular, the simplifications and illusions involved in modern thinking. Such criticism is likely to be as unwelcome to very strong interests in the State as was Socratic criticism to the Athenian orthodoxies.
The social pressure resisting criticism is very strong, but it must not be seen as an outside pressure working upon the universities, for the simple reason that it exists within. University teachers, in so far as they are involved in social life, are themselves resistant to criticism. The result is that the controversy over the “role” of universities is a highly confused struggle, in which some of the external criticisms are true. In the twentieth century, universities have gained greatly in self-importance, and the pronouncements of their members are attended to with gravity by the authorities of other institutions. In realizing this very condition, university teachers are liable to a peculiar feeling of self-consciousness; in particular, they are liable to be especially receptive to the ethic of social responsibility. If issues of great State importance depend upon them, they are forced into the role of being politicians. And when the discussion turns upon the question of responsibility, they are forced into working out just what they are responsible to. Is it the State? Is it to “morality”? Is it to universities as institutions? Is it to the spirit of free enquiry? And, as we argued earlier in discussing policies, there can be no determinate answer to questions of this kind. Each answer which is implicitly or explicitly given registers the social character of the people involved.
We have noted that problems arise in the context of policies. Now what is a problem in terms of one policy may not be a problem in terms of another. The problems of the balance of trade, for example, may be of little intellectual significance to economists; the theoretical elements can be laid bare. But the problem as it exists for the Treasury is of a different kind. The economist who accepts the Treasury view of the problem is doing something different from advancing economics. It is doubtful whether the problem of juvenile delinquency in the social sciences has a sufficient intellectual unity to mark it off from other forms of social behavior; the fact that it is a problem to police forces does not necessarily mean that it is the same sort of problem to social scientists. On the other hand, the problem of what causes cancer happens to be one of great importance for a number of policies. But here again, the intellectual problem of causation may well be solved whilst other difficulties prevent the establishment of a cure for the condition.
None of this, of course, is to argue that people ought not to work on so-called practical problems. People obviously will. But they will not necessarily be doing work of much intellectual significance. The point is indeed a rather obvious one, yet its importance for the social sciences is immense. What claims individuals may legitimately make upon governments is a question of very little intellectual significance. The answer does not allow us to understand politics any better; yet just this concern has immensely influenced politics over the last century and more—indeed is one of the reasons why political theory is generally so drearily unilluminating. Again, what mechanical adjustments to a constitution will make the country safe for democracy is intellectually a banal and irrelevant question, yet thinkers write many books upon it—books which are thus intellectually sterile and, because of their abstract generality, of no use to politicians.
The damage done by this—in fact meliorist—confusion does not lie simply in the diversion of attention. It lies partly in the fact that such preoccupations are capable of imposing “commonsense” upon the conceptualization of a subject. And, as we pointed out in discussing trend-persuasion, given that the investigators of a subject are saddled with a set of “practical” categories, the use of statistics and similar devices is now so extensive that results which are in some sense meaningful can be squeezed out of a barren subject for a very long time. Further damage is done to a subject by the fact that the defense of already unacademic procedures maneuvers its protagonists further away from the tradition of academic understanding. Such people are forced into elaborating the duties of the scholar to the State, the community, society, the well-being of mankind or various other vague conceptions.
The awareness of this question that does exist has often protected the universities from the cruder forms of outside pressure. Both governments and private foundations are often careful to insist that the money they donate shall be used for academic purposes and not devoted to the trivia of everyday life. The fault to a surprising extent lies within the universities themselves—in the empire-building of professors and the kind of research which is done. The most useful defense of academic immunity against outside pressures has been the argument that if scholars and scientists are allowed to carry on in their own way, they are likely to produce some useful by-products in the course of their academic work. Developments in science and mathematics are an excellent illustration that such things have happened. A constant flow of scientific wonders has so far kept the utilitarian pack of critics from baying too hard at ivory towers. A more serious threat comes from contemporary ideologists of national purpose, who would subject the universities to the changing demands of competitive nationalism.13
To defend education by pointing to its incidental utilities is unsound. Academic enquiry is not strictly useful to society, for, as we have argued, society in this sense is meaningless. But it is indispensable to the continuance of a number of civilized traditions which are still very strong, and which would be threatened by the wholesale barbarization implicit in the program of making universities practically useful. In these interests, the universities are likely to find a number of dependable allies in the immediate future.
[12. ]“Society” is sometimes used in conjunction with another logically similar term, “the economy.” Thus John Vaizey (Britain in the Sixties, Penguin Special, 1962) has a chapter entitled “The New Society and the New Economy,” which begins: “It is worth spending money on education because it assists the economy . . . in the last ten years Britain’s national income has risen less sharply than those of other countries in Europe, and this failure in growth is associated with a profound shift in the country’s international position” (my italics). This passage, with its propagandist transition from “risen less sharply” to “this failure of growth,” is part of the heavy fall of Snow which has followed the Rede Lecture of 1959. It is an example of trend-persuasion as it affiects education.
[13. ]“I think we are lacking, clearly, in effiective leadership: I mean, a leadership in getting things done, a leadership in terms of a sense of national purpose”—Anthony Crosland, in a broadcast discussion, printed in The Listener, 5.7.62. And Professor McRae, in the same discussion, remarks: “I believe that if we are going to get out of our stagnation over the next generation, the heart of this lies with doing something about education—not with just adjusting the educational system but actually with thinking education out anew.”