There is much at stake in how liberal education addresses the situation of political polarization in countries that have liberal education as its key cornerstone. Has liberal education been a necessary condition to the rise of polarization, and if so, how could it also possibly contribute to the remedy of polarization? The project itself seems fallacious.
In the Winter edition of the New Statesman, Mathew Rose of the Berkeley Institute contextualized the state of the university as a place where: “Debate is to be shunned; identities are beyond criticism; and freedom is found in self-expression.” He presents two cross-pressured positions of freedom that have existed in tension ever since the modern era. First, he takes the context as a repudiation of a much older tradition of liberal education which was meant to create a very different context. He writes, “[liberal education] envisions a different kind of community: one constituted by free rational inquiry.” He bases this understanding of the person as grounded in the rational pursuit of truth, which, for Rose, is the advance on standard conservative arguments against criticisms of nationalism and other older forms of political organization. It is an appeal for liberal education to ground itself on Aristotelian excellence as its bulwark, but toward truth.
Second, his argument attempts to buttress a conservative response to the illiberal state of polarization and identity expression in our contemporary universities. By grounding it in a version of human excellence necessarily informed by truth, Rose imports the march of Progress that is meant to undergird what might be called rational inquiry. But the other position of freedom that Rose advocates is Alisdair MacIntyre’s understanding of cultivating the virtuous character of the individual as the goal of liberal education – and this is to combat the individual’s weaker instincts, which Rose (along with Aristotle) identifies as the pursuit of profit. Rose interprets this identification of weakness for profit as one key point that launches the liberally educated person into a different type of community – an intellectual community that is worried about higher and better forms of life. However, presented this way, Rose positions the two positions (the intellectual and the this-worldly) as polarized, and thus feeds the polarization: The educated liberal elite, and “truth”-focused conservatives.
Instead, let’s consider the conditions of a society that peacefully argues about issues that matter is in fact the bulwark to polarization. It wouldn’t be so much the “truth” that grounds the good life, but the argument itself, and our relational experience that contextualizes it. The purposes of liberal education exactly mirror the purpose of a liberal society. And this requires that we work against the illiberal forces of technocratically rational society which has capitalized in our distrust of the metanarrative of truth and has instead placed the pursuit of profit as the cornerstone of a process of atomized individuation that has exacerbated polarization, rather than easing it. Perhaps the structure of liberal education ought to be preserved to, in fact, counter the illiberal forces that degrade life. A story from a place that is thoroughly corrupted by the pursuit of wealth will help to illustrate this.
My brother recently went on a project to Uganda to help show woodworking skills to workers not accustomed to building things out of wood. In the process of his trip he encountered a woman named Namarome Manjeri, who is founding a school that has great financial need. During his trip, he came to understand that in the pursuit of education, every interaction was infected with the pursuit of the desire for money, and a profit that could sustain each individual engaged with the school. The financial needs of the school as a whole, and each individual within the school community, were central to the project itself. From a Western perspective, this may seem to be “same old, same old”. However, couched within this story is the context of a colonial history that has eroded the markedly “free-from-the-pursuit-of-profit” identity of the village life of people in Uganda. Colonial structures had eroded the community and relational life of its members to such an extent that they have a generation of people leading lives of quiet desperation. Is this better than village life’s frequently conflictual but materially sufficient structure? However, once the colonial forces eroded the structures of the village life that sustained the life of its members, the pursuit of profit became the essential characteristic of anything that might be called education. And the pursuit to get an education is thus couched in a kind of violence against its members. The students come to school hungry. Teachers have side gigs and can only teach on a rotational basis because the salaries are not enough to sustain them.
Immediately you will notice how this resembles North American education now. We too are suffering similar conditions, except at a larger scale. Once the motive of individual profit has supplanted communal sources of resilience and sustainability, the whole system is susceptible to totalitarian control. In Uganda, it is ruthless government forces. In North America, it is technocratic control by large corporations first, and perhaps worse later on. And so we return to Rose’s assertion that the purpose of liberal education is to welcome members into an intellectual community as if this is a higher form of life. Instead, we should recognize that this very desire is indeed founded on control by status to get us to some future state of a more truly liberated society. Instead, the purposes of liberal education are not to be understood as a stepping-stone to some future utopian ideal. Instead, the purposes of liberal education are to completely repudiate the centrality of reward motivation. Liberal education is indeed the exact structure of a political and social reality where we must engage in the argument for the relational reasons of the village. The non-violent, but argumentative, ideal of liberal education is not the suddenly arrived-at point of a nonpolarized liberal society. Instead, the purpose of liberal education is the iterative practice of a non-violent but argumentative society. And this is the real bulwark of such a place: the refinement of individual virtue of which her authentic and individual agency is the central interest.
 Matthew Rose, The Liberal Education for Freedom, in The New Statesman. Vol. 54, Winter 2023. https://www.nationalaffairs.com/publications/detail/liberal-education-for-freedom, retrieved February 8, 2023.
 See my “Technocratic Rationality…” (https://idealsandidentities.com/2023/02/03/technocratic-rationality-value-and-how-accounting-undercuts-hr/), and my Educated Agency in the University: from Mastery to Authenticity, in Follow the Leader, vol. 2, issue 4 (https://www.canva.com/design/DAFL4KadN5I/G7DC5R8oOIlZUXnryYjm_A/view?utm_content=DAFL4KadN5I&utm_campaign=designshare&utm_medium=link2&utm_source=sharebutton#1).