The Learned Society

Why there is no substitute for a liberal education.

It was Plato who first set forth a systematic theory of education and articulated the symbiotic relationship that holds between politics and education. He revealed how alterations to the political order must necessarily affect the education of the citizenry and vice versa. Hence, when a state alters its educational aims, political changes of the first order are bound to follow; and, in similar fashion, when the political order changes, so too must the educational system. Hitler’s first legislative act was to shut down teacher training facilities.

Plato further understood the centrality of education for human well-being and flourishing. He established a curriculum he believed was best suited for free men, what we now call a liberal arts education. A modern commentator in Liberal Education, Civic Education and the Canadian Regime: Past Principles and Present Challenges, edited by David W. Livingstone, summarizes the aims of a liberal education:

Its final objective is the formation of thoughtful and civilized human beings. A genuine liberal education should make you a different person, by giving you new perspectives on the questions that ultimately define our humanity. And it should give you a lifelong taste for the beautiful, the noble, the true, and the good.

Yet it is symptomatic of our age that we use “education” as broadly synonymous with job or career preparation, such that we are rapidly losing sight of the very idea of education, as something distinct from preparing students for the workforce. This conflation of terms is encountered at every level, whether debating the latest curriculum proposal for schoolchildren or discussing the aims of higher education. Moreover, to an unprecedented degree, the language of education has become infested with vocabulary and terms taken from the corporate and business worlds. Such vocabulary distorts our thinking, and so fundamentally distorts the educative engagement. In the brave new university, students become “clients,” teachers are rendered as “service providers” and institutions of higher learning are constantly told that they need to cater (if not pander) to the needs of their clientele, just like any other business. Suffice to say that whatever the relationship that holds between a service provider and his or her clients is manifestly different from the ethical commitment that binds a teacher to students.

In brief, we are currently witnessing a rapid and wholesale transformation of our universities, one in which ancient institutions of higher learning are rapidly becoming professional and technical schools, pure and simple, whose sole remit is to train students for the global technological–industrial society.

When auditing present-day discussions about higher education, one finds it difficult to avoid the conclusion that something has gone profoundly wrong in our educational conversations, and that what is being debated has, in fact, little to do with education, and everything to do with making universities and colleges more responsive to the needs of business and industry. Conspicuously absent from our discussions is any acknowledgement of a conception of education that speaks to human needs, desires and aspirations or that suggests that education—as distinct from vocational training—might be about the uniquely human mind and uniquely human achievements, rather than those pragmatic and utilitarian considerations necessary to fuel the needs of the corporate state.

One of the many merits of this impressive volume is that its contributors take seriously Plato’s insights and contextualize them in a Canadian setting. The editor, David Livingstone, is University-College Professor of Liberal Studies and Political Studies at Vancouver Island University. He soon provides the theme that unites these essays: “approached correctly, political history that begins from what is close at hand, namely the regime in which one finds oneself, broadens out into liberal education.” Livingstone, in addition to eleven other contributors, provides the reader with a thorough immersion in Canadian political philosophy of education, as well as a rigorous defence of liberal learning as the education best suited to the citizens of a free and democratic country. Taken together, these essays show Canadians what is at stake in educational theorizing and, by extension, what we are at risk of losing.

If I might be permitted an autobiographical aside: As a graduate student in education, I was fortunate to be immersed in what might be termed the great books approach to the study of education. We read Plato, Rousseau, Dewey, Oakeshott, et al. As intellectually stimulating as this was, I was nevertheless frustrated by the dearth of books that addressed the political history and reality of schooling and education in this country. This frustration was shared by many of my peers. The names of great Canadian educators—of say, Egerton Ryerson, or Hilda Neatby—were wholly absent from our curriculum. At best, they were footnotes, or names we would stumble upon through our own research. This book fills a huge void in curriculum studies in this country. Its vantage point, firmly rooted in Canadian political history, provides a perspective from which to adjudicate our own times and act as a source of stimulation to our thinking about the role of education in the Canadian polity. In short, this is the book I wished for in grad school.

In his introduction, Livingstone tells of a similar lacuna in his own education. Studying political science at the University of Dallas, he was struck by the earnestness with which his American professors insisted that students study core texts taken from the western tradition of thought. The guiding principle of his professors was that “American citizens, to truly understand the principles of their own regime, genuinely need to know not only the story of their particular founding but also its relationship to the great tradition of political thought that preceded and informed it.” Americans, he discovered, were in constant conversation not only with their American forebears, the likes of Jefferson, Franklin, Jay and Madison, but also with the long line of thinkers, both ancient and modern, who informed them: Plato, Aristotle, Cicero, Bacon, Hobbes, Locke, Hume, Rousseau, Montesquieu, Sidney, Burke and so on. Americans, he discovered, are engaged in an ongoing and vigorous dialogue—a “dialectical enquiry” to use Thomas Pangle’s phrase—concerning the long tradition of political thought that ushered in our modern civilization.

The point of any dialectical enquiry, of course, is not to agree or disagree with any given thinker, but to “join this conversation at the highest possible level with every resource at our command.” Livingstone wanted to know: Is there any such tradition in Canada? Where are the speeches of our predecessors who argued for and against Confederation? Why do Canadians have such little appreciation of their own political history, and its indebtedness to prior traditions of political thought? Is it possible, he wondered, that the decline of liberal education in Canadian universities is “at least partly the result of a mode of history practised in Canada that has obscured the links between our Constitution and the tradition of political thought?”

The eminent constitutional scholar Janet Ajzenstat answers this last question in the affirmative. In a chapter entitled “When Canadians Rewrote Their History: Discarding ‘Liberty’ and Embracing ‘Community’,” she argues that since the 1960s, Canadian historians have created a “strikingly new story about Canada’s origins,” one that focuses on society and culture and largely ignores the older histories that concentrated on public life and political institutions. But Ajzenstat stresses that we ignore our institutional and political history at our peril. For example, she argues that the great constitutional scholar Peter Russell is simply wrong to assert that “[at] Canada’s founding its people were not sovereign.” But by way of exculpation she notes that in making such an error, Russell “did not have before him the ratifying debates. He was betrayed by the failures of two generations of scholars to consult and discuss our founding debates. We were all betrayed.” She concludes her chapter by noting that although “many things have changed in this country since Confederation … Canada is still a federal regime governed by parliamentary institutions. Its foundations are rooted in the political philosophy of the European Enlightenment, and Locke’s philosophy of liberty. What we have in common is that precious heritage of equal liberty and consent.” For Ajzenstat, Canadians should be proud of the vigour with which early figures in Canadian history, arguing from first principles, asserted the sovereignty of the people, self-government and the unalienable rights of man.

Yet our institutional and political history is either downplayed or ignored entirely. What is more, students are sometimes actively encouraged to neglect Canadian political history altogether, in the name of a global “internationalism,” which purposefully downplays national attachments and achievements in favour of an amorphous, progressive cosmopolitanism. As Dickens’s Mrs. Jellyby focused on those far away rather than on those close by, the remote and abstract is favoured over the near and concrete. As John von Heyking notes, “Canadian higher education has been significantly influenced by Hegelian notions of progress … to the point that the young in Canada seem not to be able to think in terms of anything other than progress.” The result is that many Canadian students believe that Canada was created as “a mere framework—as an empty shell waiting to be filled with whatever political content Canadians chose.”1

This ahistoricism finds its analogue in faculties of education, where there is a widespread pedagogical assumption that teaching and education are best conceived in terms of generic, skills-based activities, which can easily be abstracted and removed from time and space, or from the history of a particular people. This generic mindset renders the content of what is to be learned irrelevant, the educational ideal being to ensure that the learner is equipped with whatever intellectual skills are deemed necessary to navigate life. Contemporary education is filled with slogans such as “learning how to learn,” “experiential learning” or inculcating “critical thinking skills.” These and other such catchphrases underscore the notion that the content of what one learns is unimportant; what counts is the mastery of the procedures of learning. Students, adrift on a sea of generic processes, are thus divorced from the realities and histories of their own place.

Here is not the place to debate whether such an educational ideal is even coherent, but such a process-driven pedagogy stands in stark contrast with traditional ideas of what students needed to learn, and the specific kinds of intellectual virtues required in order to maintain and cultivate the habits of self-government. In a fascinating chapter on George Bourinot, “Canada’s first political scientist,” von Heyking remarks that “this problematic habit is not merely an intellectual one, but also a political one … [because] … these abstract habits of thought prepare [students] to be passive, not active citizens accustomed to spirited political action.” For Bourinot, “responsible government depends on the virtues and habits embodied by classical and modern models of oratory.” A country such as Canada, which has achieved independence, further requires “independence of mind,” and a citizenry fully alive to its duties and responsibilities. As Bourinot succinctly put it: “No amount of so-called ‘practical experience’ can compensate a man for ignorance of the elementary principles of political science, and of the origin, development and methods of his own government.”

It was refreshing to see, in contrast to so many contemporary texts, an acknowledgement that the Christian intellectual tradition, in both its Protestant and Catholic manifestations, has played an essential role in establishing the Canadian intellectual tradition. Yet both Protestant and Catholic traditions of thought have been on the decline, and a great many Christian educational institutions have been subsumed by secular ones. Grant Havers, following Marshall McLuhan and George Grant, singles out Protestant “anti-intellectualism” as among the reasons for the waning influence that classical learning and Catholic thought have had in the western world, and in Canada in particular. Ryan Topping argues that “the decline of Catholic universities deprives Canadian civic culture of ready access to a tradition of thought capable of promoting a good that is central to a democratic conception of justice.” He writes: “Insofar as Canadians wish to maintain a rights regime that is ordered by a conception of natural justice, loss of contact with the Catholic tradition of moral reasoning is likely to correspond with a flagging capacity to articulate the reasons why human life is sacred.”

Leah Bradshaw asks what constitutes citizenship in a globalized world. Following Aristotle, she argues that citizenship is a form of friendship. Hence, contrary to proponents of “global citizenship,” she maintains that there is a pronounced difference in our obligations to our fellow citizens, and our obligations to non-citizens. However, she is quick to caution that “friendship toward those one ‘knows’ and with whom one shares a common fate need not be hostile to strangers.”

In “The Supreme Court of Canada as Moral Tutor: Religious Freedom, Civil Society and Charter Values,” Thomas Bateman examines the Byzantine intersection of civic culture, charter values, the courts and education. He asks, “what if the courts consider themselves not just legal decision-makers, but moral tutors, setting and enforcing the standards for Canadians’ civic education?” He answers his own question: “the development of this newer, thicker liberal democracy is apparent across a number of areas of Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms jurisprudence.” Accordingly, the courts have significantly extended the reach of the Charter, and judges have given themselves enormous freedoms in deciding on the Charter’s fundamental values.

Limitations of space prevent me from addressing other significant issues raised in this wonderfully instructive collection. But if there is one thought that unites all contributors it is this: Canadians cannot take for granted the freedoms and enlightened government that have been bequeathed to us. The maintenance of good government is fundamentally an educative task, one that demands that we provide the next generation with the requisite tools, understandings and intellectual and civic virtues required for a self-governing people. Insofar as we are providing these goods, then well and fine, but insofar as we note deficiencies in our task, such as many of the authors in this collection point to, then perhaps we should return to first principles in our educational deliberations and examine that Platonic intersection of politics, education and civic culture. For any such undertaking, this volume provides us with a very good starting place.


  1. This view of Canada as an empty shell is hardly confined to Canadian students. One meets it everywhere, even among those who should know better. I once encountered a sociologist, a recent immigrant, who was haughtily dismissive of the idea that Canadians had any sort of political legacy or identity worth preserving. She was of the view that Canada, as a “young country,” is an inviting tabula rasa on which we can all write what we will. I felt for her students.