Robert Rhoads points out in his essay that, “Conceptions of society lie at the heart of how we envision particular views of higher education. In an authoritarian state, for example, higher education presumably would reinforce the state interests by constructing hierarchical relationships between students and knowledge, with students mostly acting as silent consumers of state-supported definitions of the true and the good”. This is where the question addressed in this essay gains significance.
Thus, in a dictatorial government or monarchical government, the conception of society may be the subornation of the citizens to the dictator and the value that is sought to be promoted is the unquestioning obedience to the ruler. In such a society, providing liberal education might become impossible. For, liberal education provides students with a range of intellectual and academic experiences that promote civic mindedness which might not be appreciated by the authoritarian governments.
Thus, protesting against the government’s new energy policy which is detrimental to the environment or demanding accountability from civil servants are examples of civic mindedness which are appreciated in a democratic system, but clamped down in authoritarian systems. Both Leo Strauss and Robert Rhoads agree that the purpose of liberal education is to achieve true democracy. Even traditionally, liberal education has been seen as the primary vehicle for fostering learned, democratic citizens.
Thus if the purpose of liberal education is seen as a means to promote democracy , then the logical corollary of such a view is that liberal education is incompatible with other forms of government like dictatorship. But this begs the question of whether liberal education is actually liberal. Leo Strauss maintains liberal education is education in culture and traditionally it has been education in western culture. Thus if, while imparting liberal education, what is actually being imparted are those values which are recognized and respected in the West, then in reality it is another form of dogmatic teaching.
As Leo Strauss points out, western culture is just one of the many cultures existing in this world. This is where the characteristics of a liberally educated person enumerated by Cronon gain significance. Not associating liberal education with any particular value like democracy, Cronon’s characteristics of a liberally educated person are value neutral. Leo Strauss and Robert Rhoads assume the goodness of the democracy and take the view that liberal education is possible only in democratic societies. Strauss especially sees liberal education as a counter poison to the present mass culture.
Strauss says how democracy as practiced now is now is very different from ‘ideal of democracy’. He says democracy is not mass rule, but mass culture. By mass culture, he means “a culture which can be appropriated by the meanest capacities without any intellectual and moral effort whatsoever and at a very low monetary price. ” Thus “Liberal education is the counter-poison to mass culture, to the corroding effects of mass culture, to its inherent tendency to produce nothing but "specialists without spirit or vision and voluptuaries without heart.
" Cronon presents his 10 qualities in which can be achieved in any societies irrespective of the system of government that particular society is governed by. Liberal education imbibes people with qualities that help people to understand and relate to people who are different from others. While in democracy, liberal education helps to realize that democracy is just one form of governance and that there might be other people who believe in other forms of governance.
When people who are governed by other forms of governance (like dictatorship) gains liberal education, they will also realize that their form of governance is not the only form of governance and will appreciate other governance systems like democracy. Hence, the answer to the question whether liberal education is compatible only with democracy depends upon one’s perception of liberal education. If one sees liberal education as the ability to connect with people (as Cronon does), then liberal education can be achieved in all societies and not just democracies.
However, if one sees liberal education as a tool to enhance civic engagement of the citizens (as Rhoads does) or as a ladder to ascend to true democracy (as Strauss does), then liberal education will be possible only in democratic societies. Thus liberal education will help people around the world to live in perfect harmony and with unity in diversity. Therefore, liberal education is not about having a democratic government; there is no necessary connection between the two.