Sunday, 29 December 2013

Liberal Idea #3 - Education is the Key to Progress

Since, according to Liberalism, there is nothing intrinsically prone to wickedness in human nature and since we are essentially rational beings, social ills must caused by ignorance and dysfunctional social institutions. It is these bad institutions and social structures which lead people to do bad things. Poverty, inequality, and injustice (the first 2 being aspects of the 3rd) are the real engines of crime, conflict, and misery. Eradicate poverty and inequality and improve justice and we will become better people. There will be no crime because people will have what they need and as inequality is reduced, envy of others and the desire to steal from them will reduce too.

In order to solve social ills people must be educated to use their rational faculties to understand the causes of social problems and to acquire the means to solve them. They must become part of the solution instead of being part of the problem. Liberal education which aims to break down prejudice and discrimination is essential to this effort. People must learn to respect each other, whatever their differences, and this will foster peaceful and productive societies.

Upon these foundations of human plasticity, rationality and the external source of social ills Liberalism bases one of its most tantalising features: historical optimism. Since there is nothing intrinsic to human nature which leads to wickedness and since the means to improve the social institutions can be rationally deduced and spread through education, we can expect there to be a gradual improvement in the condition of mankind. Hence we can expect the future to be better than the present. This is historical optimism. In fact, so optimistic is this outlook that many have foreseen humanity eventually attaining perfection. Consider this from the Marquis de Condorcet,
The aim of the book that I have undertaken to write, and what it will prove, is than man by using reason and facts will attain perfection...Nature has set no limits to the perfection of the human faculties. The perfectibility of mankind is truly indefinite; and the progress of the perfectibility, henceforth to be free of all hindrances, will last as long as the globe on which nature has placed us. (Outline of the Progress of the Human Mind)
Similar sentiments were echoed by the Americans for Democratic Action in 1962:
...the goals of liberalism are affirmative: not only the fulfilment of the free individual in a just and responsible society at home but a world where all people may share the freedom, abundance, and opportunity which lie within the reach of mankind - a world marked by mutual respect, and by peace. [my emphasis]
If only people will behave rationally and adopt the liberal ideology and programme these are the results that can be expected.

This is a solution-oriented creed; the belief that for any social problem there can be found a rational solution. William Beveridge in his planning for the British welfare state identified five giant evils: Squalor, Ignorance, Idleness, Want, and Disease. These, and many others besides, are the problems that liberalism has sought to remedy. (The Beveridge Report 1942) The provisions of the report set out plans for overcoming these evils. Thus was instituted a welfare system that can claim many victories but which, as of 2013, also claims a massive proportion of Britain's national income (with no end in sight for the massive spending or the elimination of the problems which at times appear to be Hydra-headed). Nevertheless, the historical optimism of liberals springs ever-hopeful. In fact, to be a hope-filled person is to be among the good and the just as far as liberals are concerned. Anyone who thinks differently is just a crabby curmudgeon.

Without education none of the above is possible. Education not just of the young but of everyone. Education to teach people of the benefits of rationality and the solutions that reason reveals to us.

The two concepts of an infinitely malleable human nature and the power of education and social reform enable liberals to discard the evidence of thousands of years of human history and the less optimistic picture that it presents. Having cast this evidence aside they can then argue that once social institutions have been perfected, discrimination and inequality abolished, that human nature (as we call it) will lose its noxious aspects. This is a human nature conjured out of ideas, not the one rooted in the visceral reality of semi-animals vying for survival and advantage and greater control over their environment - an environment that in each individual case includes all other people.

Of course we are not only beings with an individual nature, we also exist as members of larger wholes: relationships, families, communities, companies, nations and other collective entities. We are partially dependent on these collectives and both served and constrained by them. We are engaged in a constant process of balancing an urge towards greater individual autonomy against both our need and desire to be accepted as members of these larger wholes. This is our inescapable condition.

The science and reason that Liberalism originally advocated have both taught us a great deal - including a great deal about human nature. But many of those calling themselves liberals today still cling to the false notion of human nature of early liberalism in what is a wholly irrational manner. They do this because they fear the consequences of changing their views in case their utopian ideals also require modification. But that is a very irrational position to take and is largely antithetical to the original doctrines and aspirations of Liberalism. To adopt a rational, scientific approach but refuse to change your theory in light of the evidence is a pretence of rationality. Naturally, it is a very human thing to do, one arising from our nature, an example of feeling overriding reason.

Our groupishness is one of the major obstacles to our rationality. Because we depend on our groups for so much we are very reluctant to jeopardise our position within them. For a liberal to acknowledge that our nature is not wholly plastic and changeable is to show disloyalty to his/her reference group. The liberal position has thus become yet one more dogma instead of a working hypothesis.

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