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The Good Society 14.3 (2005) 29-37

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Liberal Education and Liberalism in Modern Society

Preparation of this article was prompted by what I regarded as somewhat inadequate discussions of both Liberalism and Liberal Education published in The Good Society Vol. 13, No. 3. My main complaints were, I suppose, that the articles failed to adequately discuss the goals of education, let alone liberal education, what lies at the heart of liberalism, the nature of the huge deficits in civic competence (and in particular the inadequacy of widely shared beliefs about how society works and the role of the citizen within it) which are undermining our society, the deficits in public management arrangements which typically result in public provision failing to deliver the benefits which most people want from it (and most often delivering its opposite – the most important being the sustainability of our society), the competencies that are required to develop societal management arrangements which will overcome these deficits, or how these competencies are to be nurtured in educational institutions. By and large, subject-oriented (viz. content-oriented) views of education dominated the discussions and the conventional wisdom's great lies and myths about education – such as the myth that current forms of education significantly enhance occupational competence – seemed to be accepted without question.

How to justify such a sweeping criticism and to provide at least some insights into an alternative perspective?

The problem that I have is that any attempt to summarise our work in this area1 tends to result in an article that comes across as both dogmatic and crazy. This is not only because so many common assumptions, myths, and preoccupations have to be challenged before one can make much progress. It is also because new thinking in any one area (such as in relation to educational goals) has implications for thought and practice in other areas (such as assessment and public management). At the heart of the societal problem we face lies the need to think in more systemic terms about how society works, how societal (even individual) behaviour is determined, and how these things are to be influenced. In essence, it is necessary to map the complex interactions and feedback loops between different components of both our educational and societal management systems in a manner analogous to the ways in which the interacting forces which control the movements of the planets were mapped or, more precisely, in the manner in which the interactions and feedback loops that control the functioning and evolution of an ecological habitat can, with great difficulty, be mapped.2

So the best I can do is offer a few provocative remarks which just might whet some readers' appetites sufficiently to motivate them to refer back to the publications on which they are based. The article will follow a somewhat discursive, cyclical, path moving from discussions of education to public management and back again, largely taking the same course as the evolution of our research.

Cycle Number I

So let us start where we began – with education. Over the years, my colleagues and I have reviewed the writings of educational philosophers, studies of the effects that the development of different patterns of competence (including within that concept such things as perceptions of society, how it works, and one's own role within it3 ) have on people's lives, the organisations they work for, and the societies in which they live.4 For the purposes of this article, it is most convenient to hint at the conclusions emerging from this work by very briefly summarising – and thus necessarily over-stating – some results from our surveys of the opinions of parents, teachers, and children.

The overwhelming majority of those we interviewed thought that the main goals of education are "To develop the confidence and initiative required to introduce change", to nurture, and give people recognition for the diverse, often idiosyncratic, talents they possess, and, while recognising that mastering the formal knowledge on which they are based is a waste of time, to help people acquire the credentials that appear to control...


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