This is a response to a post by Disappointed Idealist, entitled The New Authoritarianism. If I have understood the post correctly, it is saying that everyone has different preferences with regards to education, and these should be respected; parents should be able to send their children to a school that’s not too extreme, students shouldn’t have to learn under draconian conditions; and teachers shouldn’t be dictated to, about how they teach. All of this is supported by a liberal, individualistic, relativistic philosophy, which itself holds that tolerance is an end in itself, there are no fixed moral values, and individuals should be able to live their lives however they like. If I have misunderstood, then firstly please correct me, and secondly I apologise for any criticisms I make that are based on this misunderstanding.
On the face of it, summed up as above, I don’t disagree too strongly with the first group of statements, but when you start digging, I think Disappointed Idealist and I would differ even on our interpretations of these. Overall though, it’s the liberalist philosophy that I reject, and so many of the points I’ll make in this blog are in relation to that. If the liberalist philosophy doesn’t hold water, than the claims based on it aren’t necessarily going to be valid.
So, I’ve addressed the issues with liberalism as a whole first, and then Disappointed Idealist’s specific comments and arguments in his post.
Before we go on, I think it’s important to define what I mean by the following terms in this writing. (Apologies if this is patronising, but it’s often a useful thing to do!)
- Objective morality: there are moral facts. Some things are intrinsically good and others are intrinsically bad. There is a standard of goodness/evil that is external to humans. We discover morality, rather than create it. Morality is not simply a matter of opinion or preference. Morality itself does not change over time (though our response to it or the way we put it into practice might).
- Subjective morality: morality does not exist in and of itself. Morality is a concept created by humans, and essentially it comes down to preference or opinion. What is ‘right’ is always relative to the individual, society, or period of history (relativism), and there are no hard-and-fast rules about what’s good and bad.
I hope you, the reader, don’t mind, but I’ve addressed the rest of this blog to Disappointed Idealist himself, rather than to you. It made it easier to write.
Disappointed Idealist, liberals such as you claim that they’re tolerant of behaviour they don’t like, rather than indifferent to it, but that’s very often not true. It might true of you personally (I don’t know, and would genuinely be interested to) but it’s not in general. The Christian who refuses to sign a marriage licence for a gay couple isn’t tolerated. The midwife who is anti-abortion isn’t tolerated. The hospice that refuses to perform euthanasia isn’t tolerated. Milo Yiannopoulos wasn’t tolerated. There was a petition calling for Trump not to be allowed to enter the UK. The professor who tweeted against PC views wasn’t tolerated. Demands or complaints about ‘safe spaces’ and ‘triggers’ and ‘cultural appropriation’ take the (illiberal-)liberal view to the Nth degree. (I can find sources for these too, if anyone would like.) I would like to emphasise that I am in no way aligning myself with the views of all the people listed above. I’m just using these examples to illustrate my point: liberalism so often in practice doesn’t live up to its own central claim, and that’s both philosophically weak and, in practice, very frustrating.
This hypocritical aspect of liberalism-in-practice aside, there are problems with it even if all liberals really were liberal, as it were. For one thing, they claim (or at least frequently strongly imply) that tolerance is an end in itself, but it’s not. We should surely seek truth, not tolerance, as an end. (Appropriate tolerance is a means to a harmonious society, but it’s still not as good as true love for all, which is what we should be espousing.) Tolerance for all ideas is clearly ridiculous. To explain: either you have to claim that tolerance is a good in itself, and therefore we should tolerate those who, for example, teach racist views (regardless of through which medium they choose to communicate), or we should acknowledge that some values/views are good, and some are bad, and that actually, that’s the discussion we should be having: which views and values are which. It feels as though liberals sort of claim to be tolerant of everyone, but really what they mean is simply, “I have different values to yours.” If we acknowledged that as our starting point, more fruitful discussions might be had (even if ultimately all we could achieve was only that we could at least agree to disagree; but at least then there wouldn’t be liberals claiming that they tolerate all views when in practice they don’t).
The second (many people would put it first, actually) problem with liberalism and relativism is that they claim that there are no objective moral facts, but the very heart of liberalism/relativism is making what tries to be an objective claim: “There are no moral facts (and that’s a fact!)” It creates a paradox.
I would also like to address what you really mean by authoritarianism. You seem to use it in two different ways, or perhaps you combine the two and assume they always go hand in hand; I’m not sure which? But there’s authoritarianism that basically seems (at the very least to an outsider, and probably on the inside too) to mean, “I love external discipline and draconian methods of education! I dislike immigrants, and want to be surrounded by people only like me! I’m maybe even pro-ethnostates! Tell immigrants and minorities to assimilate completely, or go home!” and then there are authoritarians who are essentially saying, “There are objective moral values, and there is an objective truth, and we should discover them, and live in accordance with them!” Unfortunately, in our current climate and media, these two types of views are almost always lumped together – completely unfairly, in my opinion. There are many people in the latter group who are most certainly not in the former. I would count myself as one of them, and would suggest that, for example, other Catholics are also in this group. (That’s not to say that no Catholics are racist etc; you unfortunately get unpleasant views held by people in every group of society. It’s just an example.) [As an aside, while writing this blog I have discovered that I guess I now have to accept a new label for myself: ‘authoritarian.’ I don’t like it at all because of the connotations, but if that’s what people are calling those who believe in objective morality, then I guess I’m in that box!]
So, if you are objecting only to the former group, then I’m with you 100%; but that doesn’t seem to be the case. You seem to imply that people have a choice between being an authoritarian (in the sense either of the first type of authoritarianism alone, or the first and second types together) and being a liberal – but there is another option, which is to be an authoritarian in the second sense alone: someone who believes in objective values and morality, and believes that those values include welcoming the stranger, looking after the oppressed, educating all students as well as we possibly can, creating a harmonious society with whomever wants to be a part of it, allowing everyone to flourish, and so on. What this type of authoritarian means by ‘educating as well as we possibly can’ might still look different in practice to what you think – I don’t know – but it would be helpful to at least acknowledge our existence as a group rather than writing us off by lumping us in with the other type of authoritarians, so that we can enter into dialogue about it. My hunch is that this type of authoritarian (the second type, I mean) would support a traditional Liberal Arts education of some variety, as they believe in objective values (perhaps including beauty), and so might assert that ‘high brow’ literature and music and art etc. should be studied in favour of popular culture because these things more accurately convey these values – but that’s a discussion to be had separately.
I would also like to note, though, one thing on which we agree very strongly, if I’ve understood you correctly: teachers shouldn’t be told precisely what style or methods they can use to teach with. It causes a great deal of frustration and stress, and unhappiness, and doesn’t result in better outcomes as far as I can make out. Where we probably part company though, is that I do think certain things that have been shown not to work should be openly discouraged, such as group or project work every lesson; VAK learning; skills-based lessons (devoid of content); FOFO lessons; and spending five minutes copying learning objective from the board every lesson. Equally, things that have been shown to work should be encouraged: at least some didactic teaching; scaffolding; etc. No hard and fast rules should be put in place (no checklists in lesson observations, please!!) but things should be encouraged/ discouraged by presenting staff with the arguments on both sides, through good training, opportunities for discussion of teaching and learning, and through providing teachers access if possible to edu-books and other resources. When this is done properly, it’s hard to argue that something like Brain Gym is a good idea, and teachers will naturally drop it – but no one has been forced to teach in a way that goes against their own style and will.
This has become rather a long post, but it’s a big issue, and your post itself was rather long so there’s a lot to say. I’ve addressed the general points now, but would also like to respond to quite a few of the specific things you say in your blog:
- “Only a fool assumes from their own personal experience that everyone else would turn out identically if only they had the same circumstances.”
- Well, much as I disagree with hard materialists and determinists like Daniel Dennett, I don’t think they are fools. (Perhaps you meant only the school setting being the same though, rather than all personal experience. I feel a little unfair nit-picking at this, to be honest.)
- “People are not uniform.”
- No, they’re absolutely not; I agree completely. We do, however, share a common human nature, and some things are good for all of us and bad for all of us. This needs to be taken into account in education too.
- “I’m tolerant of behaviours I don’t like, rather than just indifferent to behaviours I don’t care about.”
- I addressed the issue of tolerance above, but thought it was worth highlighting this sentence.
- “I am, in other words, appalled by the authoritarian movements currently in vogue which seek to impose their worldview on all of us.”
- Everyone has a worldview, and everyone tries to impose it on everyone else. Liberals try to impose their moral views on conservatives, just as much as it happens the other way round; see the examples above. This isn’t a bad thing in my opinion, because as I said, we should be seeking truth, and by entering into dialogue and considering other views, we’re more likely to discover, discern, or figure out the truth; but it’s a problem if some people claim to not be imposing their worldview on others, while trying to do exactly that.
- “And education policy is not immune to this upsurge of intolerant authoritarianism.”
- Education policy is also not immune to the extremes of liberalism. I, for example, am angered by the thought that my child is going to start school, and be taught about gender and sexual relationships from a young (unnecessarily young) age, and in a way that doesn’t at all fit with my values. To me, the values pushed currently in schools feel extremist, just as my values would probably be considered extremist by you. (I think all pornography is inherently evil, for example.) You talk at other points of having the right, essentially, to not have to send your child to an extremist school, but the current social values are heavily left-leaning, and those of us on the right don’t have any choice. (And I don’t see you fighting our corner on the grounds that we shouldn’t have to send our children to what we consider to be extremist schools?)
- “As a parent, my values are not necessarily the same as your values.”
- Yes, that’s true. However, I would argue that to an extent, they should be. Morality is objective and values should be universally acknowledged. All parents should care for the overall welfare of their child, and not only care about exam results. (I think you’d agree with that, actually?) I think that we are right to try and identify parents who don’t have their children’s overall welfare as a human being at heart, and we should find ways to encourage them to re-think their priorities and approach. We actually should all have the same values to an extent, even though they will be expressed in vastly different ways. There are some characteristics and values that benefit all people. There isn’t a person on the planet who wouldn’t be better if they were patient rather than impatient, or appropriately generous rather than selfish. (Yes, there are times when being selfish is justifiable; that’s not the point I’m making, and I hope you can see that!)
- “I would rather my children were not taught mindless obedience at school… I want them to question authority, not blindly obey it.”
- Talk about setting up straw men! You present a false choice: either have a school that cares for the whole student but doesn’t put a huge amount of emphasis on exam results, or opt for a school that prioritises exam results but has a draconian method of achieving them! What about a school that achieves high exam results by allowing students to become their true, full selves? This involves thinking, analysing, making up their own minds; not being blindly obedient. You even then say that this choice needn’t actually be a choice, but then, what’s your point? Why present it as if it is one?
- If you are simply saying that you would rather your child were not taught blind obedience as an end in itself, and you’re not implying that it’s an either/or choice at all, then I would agree with you though. I would not, even as an authoritarian (if that’s the box I really need to be put in at the moment), ever want this for my child.
- “I am appalled by collective chanting of slogans, which I associate with horrible dictatorships.”
- I addressed this above, with the point about the two types of authoritarianism. You imply that all authoritarians would agree with this kind of practice, but they wouldn’t. (Incidentally, just out of interest, would you count reciting prayers as chanting slogans?)
- “They may not be your values, but you need to respect my right to hold them.”
- Yes, I do respect that right, completely. But I also think that there should be discussion about values, rather than halting the discussion by some people saying, “These are my values and I’m sticking to them. Leave me alone and let me get on with them!” and others saying, “These people hold different values to me, but I’ll just let them get on with it, regardless of the consequences!” As it happens, I think that a person should be all of the things that you listed: “considerate/curious/self-reliant” and “respectful/obedient/well-mannered.” I don’t see why you see them as two opposing camps. Yes, if it were a choice between the two, I’d agree with you as it happens that I would rather my child fell into the first camp, but that’s actually irrelevant. The key point is that there are objective values and virtues, and those six things are (arguably) all virtues. And remember, a virtue is always a Golden Mean between two vices, so you can’t argue that, “Being obedient means blindly obeying even an evil person,” because that’s not what obedience, as a virtue, really is. As a virtue, it contains the idea of ‘appropriateness,’ so, it’s appropriate to obey a teacher who asks you to tuck your chair in at the end of a lesson, but inappropriate to obey orders to commit some evil act.
- “Yet respecting difference doesn’t come naturally to authoritarians, with their cast-iron certainties and self-righteousness.”
- All people who believe morality to be objective are not self-righteous. This is just insulting and unhelpful. I wanted to give some examples to illustrate this, but they’re all rather personal, so I’ve decided to remove them. But in general terms, let me put it this way: I believe that X is morally wrong. I have friends who have done X. My friends know my views. We are still very much friends. I am perfectly able, as are many other people like me, to respect difference. I also hope that I’m not self-righteous, but I guess that’s for others to say really.
- “I feel nothing but contempt for the sort of school or teacher who say “my way or the highway” to their local community, whether that be over behaviour policies, uniform, or academic achievement.”
- You have nothing but contempt for a school that has a school uniform, and requires students to adhere to it? That seems pretty…well, extreme, to me. It’s reasonable, surely, that a school should be allowed to say to students, “Dress appropriately, within these boundaries?” It’s not different to having to wear a uniform for work, which millions of people do (either formally, or semi-formally by being required, for example, to wear a navy or black suit or something). I can understand that people might be ideologically against a uniform because it hampers physical self-expression, but there are also plus-points, such as it preventing students from being judged on which brands they wear (or can afford) and so on. To assert that you have contempt for a school that implements a policy for this reason, for example, seems….unkind? unreasonable?
- “If my local school – the only one in my town – announced it was emulating Summerhill, abolishing timetables, lessons, discipline of any kind, then I would be appalled, because I don’t want that extreme environment for my children.”
- I would be appalled too, but not because it’s extreme; because it just generally doesn’t work. We shouldn’t be imposing or encouraging things that don’t work (as explained above). It might work for a select few, who come from homes that instill the relevant values, which then make this kind of schooling work, but it wouldn’t work for the majority.
- “…my rights as a parent would be equally denied, while those same authoritarians would simply sneer contemptuously at the denial of my right.”
- I don’t think this language is conducive to debate (but then, you do say that you’re writing to entertain, so maybe fair enough). You’re just pushing people further away though. I note that I am though, at the time I’m writing this, the only person of 31 to reply to your post with anything resembling, “I disagree with you.” If you want to be part of an echo-chamber then that’s fine, but it won’t lead to change or dialogue. (I’m not trying to be sarcastic; I can’t think of a way to phrase that, that doesn’t sound like that though!)
- “The argument is not really between “progressives” and “traditionalists” at all. The argument is between liberals and authoritarians.”
- This isn’t true, because many progressive ideas were forced upon schools in a fairly draconian way. In that case, weirdly, progressive (usually associated with liberal) and authoritarian were the same; so the argument is actually about teaching methods on the one hand, but also on the other it’s about universal/relative values and methods. I personally don’t like the liberal-authoritarian or traditionalist-progressive labels particularly, but we need some kinds of terms, and they’re useful as far as they go, I suppose.
- “Nor is it honest to portray all non-draconian schools as a homogenous mass.”
- Yes, I would agree. You do seem though, in this blogpost, to lump all authoritarians together into an homogenous mass. This seems equally wrong to me. (See above on the two types of authoritarians.)
- “If you only wish to serve those who share your values, approaches and beliefs, then fine. Set up a private school, and invite fellow-believers to send their children there. If you’re right that this is what most want, you’ll be so overwhelmed with entrants you’ll soon expand and can offer free places to the less affluent parents who subscribe to your particular brand of extremism.”
- Yeah, I have actually considered doing this. It’s a pipe dream…See my post on what I think grammar schools should really be, for more detail. (I say this tongue-in-cheek to an extent.)
- “The split appears to me to be more between an extreme authoritarian minority position which does not serve those parents and children with different values, and a reasonable majority position which seeks in a variety of different ways to serve all parents and children.”
- By this point in your post I was getting a bit frustrated. I was thinking, “Look, are you talking about values in general, or are you talking about discipline? If you’re just saying, “Most people don’t want draconian discipline in schools, so we shouldn’t have it in state schools,” then that’s one thing. If you’re saying, “Authoritarians have moral values different from the majority and therefore the majority values should be reflected in schooling,” then that’s an entirely different kettle of fish.” Could you clarify which it is? I think this comes back to lumping both types of authoritarians together.
- “It is, perhaps, unsurprising that those who prefer a more authoritarian teaching style are less tolerant not only of student non-conformity, but of the non-conformity of adult colleagues and institutions.”
- I continued to be slightly exasperated reading your post by this point. What do you mean by authoritarian? Strict discipline? Traditional material such as Shakespeare and Latin? Standing at the front and talking a lot? I’m strongly in favour of the latter two things, but am also in favour of non-confirmity; you seem to be setting up a false dichotomy?
- “My instinctive liberal reaction to authoritarian schools, for example, is to shrug and say, “well, if it works for the teachers who like that kind of thing, and those parents don’t mind their kids being treated like that, then fine.”
- This is at least consistent with what liberalism in general claims. I think it’s very dangerous though. Would you be happy with private schools explicitly teaching racism, if they weren’t funded by tax-payers and the parents were all happy with that? If so, at least you’re consistent, but I’d argue you’re wrong to hold that view. (I also doubt that you really hold that view.)
- “Everywhere, its characteristics are similar: proclaim certainty, assert “traditional” values, deride difference, dismiss opposition as “elite”, claim to represent “ordinary people.”
- Argh! Again! This is what drives me mad! Why are these things lumped together!
- “If those of us who subscribe to liberal tolerance have learned anything in 2016 it is surely this: we didn’t win the culture war, as we thought we had; liberalism is not safe; tolerance is not universally accepted; individual rights to equality are not respected by all.”
- No, and indeed, tolerance as an end in itself shouldn’t be achieved (as explained above), and neither should individual rights (because there are universal morals, and individuals don’t create their own morality). That doesn’t mean we ‘authoritarians’ are all bigoted, racist, self-righteous dictators though, as seems to be implied.
For anyone who managed to get to the end of this ridiculously long post: firstly, thank you for reading! And secondly, thank you to Disappointed Idealist for posting his writing, because I really enjoy entering into debate about these things. Thirdly, I thought it might be helpful to sum up what I’ve said:
- Liberals claim to be tolerant of all ideas, but often they’re not really, so it doesn’t work in practice.
- Those liberals who do tolerate all views and practices are consistent philosophically, but in practice they allow evil to occur. (There are some things that just shouldn’t be tolerated.)
- What being liberal actually seems to mean, in practice, is that you hold different values to ‘conservatives.’ We should have debates about these values.
- There are objective moral values, and we should try to find them and live by them.
- In terms of education:
- It’s all difficult! But let’s talk, rather than rant at each other.
- Some practices should be encouraged, and others discouraged, but all teachers should be allowed the freedom to teach in whatever style they like, as long as they’re covering the required material (e.g. a GCSE syllabus).
- It’s not helpful to decry ‘extremist’ schools because that terms means very different things to different people.