K-12 and the call for liberal education

my Trade Tripper column for the 1-2 May 2015 issue of BusinessWorld:

Perhaps the phrase that best captures today’s zeitgeist is “be yourself.” Which is usually meant to underline another boomer principle: “As long as it feels good, do it.” But ultimately, such exclamations are confused. And it begs the question: What is your “self”? What is meant by “self”? One can be clever and invoke various philosophers (or, more likely nowadays, that would be “new age” gurus or “free thinkers”) to describe what that “self” is. Which is all fine and good, but it usually forgets that the choice of self has real world consequences.

This was actually homed in on me a few weeks ago when a prominent legal mind told me, in quite aghast tones (if I may add), that “even in judges’ seminars and courses, the sessions that take up crucial and foundational issues” (i.e., that seek to determine the meaning, history and context of concepts like “justice,” “equality,” “fairness” and “common good”) are dismissed by the judicial participants as “irrelevant.” Instead, what is relevant for them are technical law-school level questions: “How do you deal with a petition for quo warranto?” “How do you enforce a foreign arbitral award?” But, as stated by my friend, “issues that actually address what it is that justice demands are considered as non-issues by the very people who administer justice. Pathetic.”

Josef Ratzinger once insightfully pointed out: “Man is more than just a biological entity; he is composed also of intellect, language, history, community.” Unfortunately, today’s dominant attitude is to disregard any effort leading to a proper understanding of the self and an objective standard for that self (i.e., the natural law). Under the guise of “pluralism” and “tolerance,” society today has ironically decided to turn its back not only on traditional values but also on reason itself, deeming such to be oppressive and -- with even greater irony -- baseless.

Today, more than ever, liberal education is of great importance. It remains to be seen whether the K to 12 shift would effectively remove any semblance of classical liberal education from our system. I say “classical” because liberal education today has mostly become a farce: becoming instead a platform for anti-religion, anti-American, anti-reason, or anti-whatever type of ideological bias.

Progressives or the Left have much to be blamed for this. As Thomas Sowell puts it: “Liberal professors have trashed the liberal arts, by converting so many liberal-arts courses into indoctrination centers for left-wing causes and fads, instead of courses where students learn how to weigh conflicting views of the world for themselves.”

And this depreciation of the importance of critical thinking has been further damaged by the Left’s ruthless and relentless push for political correctness. Robert George writes: “At campuses across the country, traditional ideals of freedom of expression and the right to dissent have been deeply compromised or even abandoned as college and university faculties and administrators have capitulated to demands for language and even thought policing. Academic freedom, once understood to be vitally necessary to the truth-seeking mission of institutions of higher learning, has been pushed to the back of the bus in an age of ‘trigger warnings, micro-aggressions, mandatory sensitivity training, and grievance politics.’”

And a further twist on the progressives’ twisting of reality: the charge that religions (particularly the Catholic Church and “Catholic” educational institutions that honestly teach proper doctrine) impose absolute homogeneity of thought. Which is rubbish.

If it’s true that the Catholic Church or universities that teach Catholic doctrine properly were indeed brainwashing the faithful or students, respectively, then clearly they’re not doing a very good job at it. Anecdotal evidence or proper surveys would very likely show a healthy variety of opinions among the faithful and of the said students on the different issues confronting the country today.

Compare that to the faculty and students of the more “progressively Catholic” or secular universities where the opinions are practically homogenous and an expression of a contrary opinion (like supporting traditional families or that gender differences are not social constructs) would be met by apoplectic reactions that look like epileptic seizures.

The latter is not liberal education. It is leftist indoctrination. True liberal education is best expressed by Princeton’s recently declared policy on academic freedom: “Education should not be intended to make people comfortable, it is meant to make them think. Universities should be expected to provide the conditions within which hard thought, and therefore strong disagreement, independent judgment, and the questioning of stubborn assumptions, can flourish in an environment of the greatest freedom.”

Finally, in a society where emotionally troubled schoolchildren are on the rise, children who are simply unable to handle stress or the ordinary demands of life, a true liberal education has a profoundly important thing to offer that those pushing for K to 12 (which emphasizes science, technology, economics and math; all leading towards better employability) may want to consider: self-mastery.