Commentary Magazine

Liberalism versus Liberal Education

My title will strike many readers as paradoxical, even absurd. Liberalism, far from being the enemy of a liberal education, is widely regarded as being the product of it. For better or worse, the liberal creed has been nurtured and propagated on the college campuses, and though not all students become its disciples, almost all are affected by it, and some dramatically so.

At one level that is all true enough. We know that those who are college-educated are the most tolerant of unpopular opinions, are most prepared to endorse measures to advance civil liberties and civil rights, and are least willing to support anti-democratic regimes. Indeed, one of the watershed discoveries of political sociologists writing in the 1950′s was that democratic values were least secure among the working class and most secure among the college-educated upper-middle class. That finding was sharply challenged, though never successfully disproved, by those few scholars who retained during the 1950′s and early 1960′s the conviction that the upper-middle class was characterized not by civic virtue but by the ambition for power and animated not by democratic values but by economic ones. Yet even those who offered a radical critique of society found their allies and followers, not among the workers, but among fellow college students and college graduates. Dissent, in this country as in all countries, in this era as in almost all eras, has been chiefly the province of the intelligentsia.

Among the intelligentsia, it has been those who have studied the liberal arts—especially the social sciences and the humanities—who have displayed the most “liberal” attitudes. Students of engineering, of applied sciences, and of agriculture are all much more conservative. And as Seymour Martin Lipset has shown, not only do the liberal arts stimulate liberal views, but the most able, distinguished, productive, and (presumably) highest-paid professors of the liberal arts are the most “liberal” in their orientation. In short, higher education stimulates the liberal impulse, a liberal-arts higher education stimulates it even more, and the “best” (or at least the most expensive and prestigious) liberal-arts higher education stimulates it most of all.

How, then, can I suggest that a liberal education is at all inconsistent with liberalism? I suggest it, quite simply, by pointing to the fact that it is within higher education that one finds today many but not all of the most serious threats to certain liberal values—the harassment of unpopular views, the use of force to prevent certain persons from speaking, the adoption of quota systems either to reduce the admissions of certain kinds of students or enhance the admissions of other kinds, and the politicization of the university to make it an arena for the exchange of manifestoes rather than a forum for the discussion of ideas.

The liberal values that have become precarious in the very institution that once defended them are those of civility, free speech, equality of opportunity, and the maintenance of a realm of privacy and intimacy safe from the constant assaults of the political and the societal. These are not, as I shall point out, the only elements of the liberal faith, but they are important ones and they are very much in jeopardy. I realize that the vast majority of faculty and students do not approve of acts which jeopardize these values; from time to time they even say, quietly, that they deplore them; yet the vast majority also have created a communal setting and institutional culture that permits such acts to continue. The imperiled values have not been repudiated so much as they have been subjected to benign neglect.

The evidence that such a state of affairs exists is not as readily available as my confident generalizations might lead one to suppose. There is, for some reason, no organization that monitors the state of freedom on the campus, or none having the resources and persistence with which, for example, the American Civil Liberties Union monitors attacks on civil liberties off the campus. But if one works at or visits a major university, one will find the history of that sorry procession of episodes which has produced not mounting horror but wordless acquiescence and weary resignation.

During my adult life I have been part of five institutions—the Catholic Church, the University of Redlands, the United States Navy, the University of Chicago, and Harvard University. If I were required to rank them by the extent to which free and uninhibited discussion was possible within them, I am very much afraid that the Harvard of 1972 would not rank near the top. In the last two or three years, the list of subjects that cannot be publicly discussed there in a free and open forum has grown steadily, and now includes the war in Vietnam, public policy toward urban ghettos, the relationship between intelligence and heredity, and the role of American corporations in certain overseas regimes. To be sure, certain points of view about each of these matters can be, and are, discussed, but a serious discussion of all sides of these issues is risky, if not impossible. To be specific: a spokesman for South Vietnam, a critic of liberal policies toward the ghettos, a scientist who claimed that intelligence is largely inherited, and a corporate executive who denied that his firm was morally responsible for the regime in South Africa have all been harassed and in some cases forcibly denied an opportunity to speak.

Some of those who have not been able to speak at all, or to speak only under mental and social duress, have views I disagree with; others have views I agree with; still others have views that I have not made up my mind about. Regarding the last, it is not clear that I am going to have a chance to make up my mind for it is not clear whether the speakers involved are going to feel that the personal costs of public statements are worth the gains in educating me and others.

These problems have not been unique to my university and their emergence has been frequently deplored. I am not here interested in adding any rhetorical flourishes to this discussion: the matter is too important for either declamation or recrimination. I do wish to dispute, however, the view that because the organized New Left has lost stature and influence of late, the problem has ceased to exist. The tumult has subsided a bit (though, as I write, the President’s office at Harvard is occupied by demonstrators and the Center for International Affairs has recently been sacked) and a mood of “business as usual” is now displayed by most faculty and students. But a decline in tumult and a return to self-interest are hardly equivalent to a reaffirmation of liberal values, or of any other values for that matter. The legacy of the campus flirtation with authoritarian politics is still very much with us, not in the continuance of militant action but in the absence of democratic convictions. The New Left may have repudiated itself by its extremism but it also weakened the institution that gave birth to it by casting doubt on the legitimacy of the university and of the principles of free discussion that support it.

My thesis is that the atmosphere that nurtures certain kinds of illiberality is in part a product of liberal education itself. This is not to say that a liberal education teaches disdain for civil liberties or tolerance for violence; quite the contrary. Nor is it to say that only a liberal education contributes to this attitude; certain persons by family origin and the political socialization it provides are more likely to display both liberality and illiberality than others. It is to say that among the consequences of a liberal education is a set of sympathies which lead many, though not all, persons in a university to acquiesce in the uncivil acts of a small minority.



It is time I offered some definitions. By “liberalism” I mean a loose set of values that emphasizes the protection of civil liberties, the support of equal political and economic opportunity, the melioration of the lot of the disadvantaged, and the enhancement of the area of personal self-expression. Liberalism, thus defined, is a tendency that both liberalizes and liberates; that is, it calls both for generosity and openhandedness in the treatment of others and for a minimum of restraint or bondage on the actions of one’s self. The modern father of liberalism remains John Stuart Mill: as he explained it, the polity should be organized both to insure the liberty of the citizens and the liberality of the government; the social principle should be the greatest good of the greatest number and the legal principle should be the greatest freedom of an individual consistent with the freedom of others.

A “liberal education” is thought to mean schooling in subjects that broaden one’s cultural and historical sensibilities and strengthen one’s critical faculties. The purpose of a liberal education is to induct a student, however partially and briefly, into the world of the intellectual. That world, in turn, is one which places a high value on the exercise of criticism, the display of originality, and the understanding of what is unfamiliar, ancient, distant, and problematic. The application of critical faculties to political and social practices means displaying suspicion toward what is formally and conventionally thought to be true in favor of what the initiated believe is actually and informally true, challenging beliefs about the purposes and legitimacy of institutions, and comparing existing practices with real or imagined alternatives. The critical thrust of liberal-arts education is invariably directed against the “conventional wisdom,” and as new conventions succeed old ones, the process of criticism is repeated ad infinitum. The object is to acquire new and esoteric knowledge to replace popular or conventional opinion. The criteria for what constitutes “knowledge” are often not clear, being sometimes the outcome of the “scientific method” and sometimes merely the ability to be original, daring, or shocking. For example, the critical faculties when applied to American government would emphasize not constitutions but “power structures,” not public opinion but the social determinants of opinion, not official statements and legal enactments but bureaucratic empire-building and legislative special interests.

The other part of the world of the intellectual is that which enlarges the perceived range of conduct, thought, and opinion by the sympathetic portrayal of what is remote, forgotten, unusual, deprived, obscure, or precarious. This aspect of the intellectual world stresses the development, not of criticism, but of cosmopolitanism. The variety of aesthetic, political, and cultural experiences is portrayed and, by being portrayed in neutral or even sympathetic tones, that variety is made to seem, if not desirable, then at least legitimate. This aspect of liberal education is directed not so much against conventional opinion as against conventional morality, which is to say, against bourgeois morality. We learn from this experience to know and appreciate the secret worlds and despised habits of those persons who, before we began our liberal education, were beyond our ken or unpalatable to our taste. For example, we are led to read sympathetically the works of authors and poets who have stood outside the main cultural stream; we are informed of the life and plight of those who have been disadvantaged in the prevailing distribution of political or economic resources; and we encounter the different life styles of other tribes, cultures, and epochs.

Now there is obviously a close relationship between liberalism and liberal education. The exercise of the critical spirit requires the maintenance of political and intellectual freedom. An interest in deprived or despised groups leads to a concern for them, and this in turn tends to imply public and political generosity toward them. It is no surprise that liberal-arts students and professors should become liberals.

How, then, can a liberal education ever be the adversary of liberalism? The answer, I think, is that while the critical faculty requires the existence of civil liberties, it also erodes the bases of authority and legitimacy of those institutions that define and defend those liberties. Criticism is relentless and accepts no bounds; it may prosper when discourse is free and unconstrained but the price paid for that intellectual prosperity is the unceasing assault on those political and legal practices that have produced such freedom. And in the case of Herbert Marcuse, the critical faculty even comes to doubt the value of the freedom itself. Freedom exists because there first existed a certain kind of social order maintained and defined by laws, governments, and authority. Freedom cannot exist outside some system of order, yet no system of order is immune from intellectual assault.

Intellectual criticism would have bounds if there were a widely-accepted principle of authority or theory of human nature on which certain political institutions could rest immune from eroding questions. At various times there have been. Jefferson believed, or wrote as if he believed, that political and civil liberty were among the natural rights of men. But the concept of “natural rights,” I need hardly add, has been among the first principles to be criticized, for it implies by its use of the term “natural” that something exists beyond man’s invention and thus beyond man’s revision. Reinhold Niebuhr offered a different defense of democracy: man’s nature is good enough to make it possible but bad enough to make it necessary. Stated differently, we grant civil liberty because we cannot trust anyone to decide the truth. But that notion is no better suited to resist the critical impulse; it also is based on a theory of human nature and thus implies that there are aspects to our lives that are beyond the capacity of society to understand or to alter. Finally, there is the theory of consent: we have freedoms because we have agreed to have them. But if we have agreed to have freedom, we might also agree not to have freedom. Consent is a weak theory of legitimacy, and intellectuals sense it: their own privileges, if granted simply by democratic vote, could be revoked by democratic vote, and from time to time the society has been inclined to do just that.



When one presses an intellectual to supply a defense of liberty, he tends to give some variant of a single argument: utility. Liberty is good because it is useful: it enables society to discover the truth or to find, by discussion, the best policies or the wisest leaders. Under ordinary circumstances, that defense is probably good enough: liberty is useful, or at least more useful than the alternatives. But in extraordinary times, such as the present, the argument is not decisive. Persons who feel strongly that an injustice should be corrected or a condition alleviated are likely to be impatient with, and even actively hostile toward, those who wish to say that the injustice does not exist or the social problem is the fault, not of society, but of those who display the symptoms. Efforts will be made to silence such persons. The majority will not participate in such efforts, but if they believe the doctrine being silenced is sufficiently odious, they will take no active steps to oppose the censorship. They will be all the more reluctant to oppose it if it is being imposed by members of the community they value and on whose esteem they substantially depend.

It is here that the cosmopolitan aspect of liberal education becomes important. When one has cultivated an especially keen regard for the plight of some group, one is especially reluctant to continue a critical discussion of the merits of the case. The commitment to the object of concern ought to be expressed. The ways in which that priority is stated are familiar enough: “Following rules ought not to interfere with doing what is right,” or “It is wrong to prefer form over substance.”



Let me state in more grandiose terms what I am suggesting. Liberalism, at least as it is conveyed by higher education, is less a theory of justice than a theory of benevolence. By “justice” I mean, roughly, treating equals equally and by rules known in advance and applicable to all. By “benevolence” I mean a disposition to treat someone in a generous way, to serve his or her perceived interests and desires. Liberalism imparts a commitment to certain rules and practices that are very much a part of a theory of justice—the rule of law, equality of opportunity, democratic voting—but these rules and practices, being abstract and justified on grounds of utility, cannot easily or for long withstand an aroused sense of benevolence. Benevolence, after all, is motivated by sentiments of compassion and a belief in the worthiness of some person or group. A natural, or at least easily-stimulated, sentiment will usually be more powerful than a belief in a rule or practice.

It is sometimes suggested that students are “idealists” and that it is this that explains much of their political behavior. If the view I have developed here is correct, the word “idealist” is not the proper one, for it implies a conception of an ideal world, or the existence of an ideology, or an attachment to the importance of ideas. None of these connotations has been, in my experience, descriptive of the behavior being explained. A more accurate account would stress the fact that students, and young persons generally, have a larger and more active sense of compassion and a more easily aroused instinct of benevolence. The emotions of the young lie close to the surface; they are quickly stimulated and highly volatile. The current style that favors “coolness” should not blind us to this fact. The best evidence for it is found in the personal relationships that characterize the young: sudden attachments, romantic love, a concern for “sincerity” and openness. The communal tendencies of students have been far more visible and will probably be far more enduring than their ideological ones.

What a liberal education does is to provide a new or enlarged range of objects for those sentiments: the poor, the black, the ancient, the aesthetic, the distant, the natural. And a liberal education supplies a set of reasons for the neglect or disadvantage which these favored objects must bear. That reason is, in its most general version, the callousness of spirit, selfishness of interest, and the smallness of mind of society, its governing institutions, and, above all, its dominant class. At least in the modern period, a liberal education has tended, with varying degrees of success, to challenge the values of prevailing society and to set students apart from it. What Lionel Trilling has found to be true of modern literature is true of modern education generally:

Any historian of the literature of the modern age will take virtually for granted the adversary intention, the actual subversive intention, that characterizes modern writing—he will perceive its clear purpose of detaching the reader from the habits of thought and feeling that the larger culture imposes, of giving him a ground and a vantage point from which to judge and condemn, and perhaps revise, the culture that has produced him.

In its extreme form, the concern with authenticity as opposed to conventionality leads to a preoccupation with pure emotion, the unconscious, and even the occult and supernatural. “Authenticity,” to quote Trilling again, is an object of almost obsessive concern both “as a quality of the personal life and as a criterion of art.” In its extreme form, this concern may be new, but at root it is as old as man. It once was called “sincerity” or “passion,” and it has always characterized the social world of the young. Today, the young are no longer simply a biological category, they are virtually a social class, at least insofar as they are college students, and thus their concerns have become ours.

The personal concern for sincerity, feeling, and authenticity becomes, when displaced onto society, a concern for benevolence and compassion. That this displacement should occur in the way it does is a consequence of modernity; that is, it is a consequence of the fact that we now live in a secular society. Religion and God once served as objects for passion; to a limited degree, they may be returning; but in general only society can today supply the extra-personal object for passion and benevolence. The decline of religion as a focus for emotion has been underway for decades, but it became dramatically evident in the early years of the last decade. During the 1950′s, theology emphasized the depravity, corruption, and imperfection of human nature and the consequent need for social restraint and legal authority as a way of preventing political and social fanaticism. But by the 1960′s, as Daniel Bell has noted, an astonishing reversal had occurred: God was dead, society rather than man was the problem, social restraint was insufferable, and activism was the only form of purity. Barth, Tillich, and Niebuhr were replaced by Altizer, Vahanian, and Cox. A secular theology became a fervent ally of political liberalism.

Thus, almost the only source of ultimate value that could maintain a sense of justice against the rush of benevolence gave way. The delicate balance that must be maintained between form and substance, between rule and action, was seriously disturbed. Liberating oneself, and aiding in the liberation of deserving others, became the single end. How this was done was less important than the fact that it was done.



But benevolence can never be the sole principle of human action. At a superficial level, benevolence often tends to be perceived by its objects as busybodyness, even paternalism. At a more profound level, benevolence risks rejection or failure: what if those aided do not improve, or if for some reason personal efforts are not followed by institutional commitments? Benevolence, when frustrated, often turns to rage and those who once celebrated the virtues of compassion may come to indulge sentiments of hatred.

In 1962, an organization of students produced a document that read in part as follows:

We regard men as infinitely precious and possessed of unfulfilled capacities for reason, freedom, and love. . . . Men have unrealized potential for self-cultivation, self-direction, self-understanding, and creativity. . . . The goals of men and society should be human independence: a concern with . . . finding a meaning of life that is personally authentic, . . . one which has full, spontaneous access to present and past experiences. Human relationships should involve fraternity and honesty.

Within a few years, this organization, including many of those who signed this statement at Port Huron, were attacking universities, harassing those who disagreed with them, demanding political obedience, and engaging in deliberate terrorism. Nothing could have been more liberal than the 1962 statement of the SDS; nothing could have been less liberal than its subsequent history.

For most of us, choices are never this stark. There is a sense of balance that almost always asserts itself so that neither the stern and unyielding principles of justice nor the heedless sense of compassion dominates our actions. A liberal education is at its best when it strikes this balance: when it makes one aware that principles must ultimately be justified by something more than mere utility, that liberty is as worth preserving when it is attacked by a group one admires as it is when assaulted by a group one detests, and that the bonds of civility upon which the maintenance of society depends are more fragile than we often admit.

When properly conducted, there is an inevitable and desirable tension in a liberal education: developing only the critical faculties produces universal skepticism, even about those new worlds of the mind that are discovered in a college, while heightening one’s sensibilities and enlarging one’s powers of compassion tend to suppress the exercise of criticism. Among the best students and teachers, that tension is evident: they are educated up to that delicate point where they can be neither true believers nor utter skeptics.

And so it should be with liberalism, or indeed with any other political faith. The commitment to fair rules and procedures often inhibits the solution of certain problems, just as the commitment to social action can subvert the maintenance of those rules. Living with such partially incompatible goals requires, ultimately, the preservation within oneself of a realm of inner privacy into which neither politics nor society can reach and where quietude and imagination do gentle battle for the loyalty of our spirit.



About the Author

James Q. Wilson, a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY, is the Ronald Reagan professor of public policy at Pepperdine University in California.