Even though liberal education is much talked about and is widely valued in the world, the conception of liberal education is different in different people. Thus, for some people liberal education is just freedom of thought and is apolitical whereas for others, liberal education is mostly a political project. Taking the latter paradigm, many scholars and academicians have often drawn a link between democracy and liberal education.
The question that I have addressed in this essay is whether liberal education is compatible only in a democratic framework? To put it differently, is it possible to have liberal education in a country ruled by dictatorial government? I question liberal education is possible in all societies, whether ruled by a democratic government or by a dictatorial government. This is because liberal education, in its true form, is value-neutral and hence can be instilled on different societies founded upon different values.
In order to address this question it is essential that we first understand the true import of the term ‘liberal education’. Turning to the etymology of the word ‘liberal’, William Cronon concludes that freedom and growth are the values that lie at the core of liberal education. On the other hand, Leo Strauss sees liberal education, amongst other things, as consisting of constant intercourse with the greatest mind.
Robert Rhoades concedes that ones conceptions of society lie at the heart of how one perceives a particular mode of higher education. Thus he sees liberal education as falling within the framework of a democratic society. William Cronon answers the question ‘What it means to be a liberally educated person’ by providing a list of characteristics associated with these persons.
These are: (1) They listen and they hear (2) They read and they understand (3) They can talk with any one (4) They can write clearly and persuasively and movingly (5) They can solve a wide variety of problems and puzzles (6) They respect rigor not so much for its own sake but as a way of seeking truth (7) They practice humility, tolerance, and self-criticism (8) They understand how to get things done in the world (9) They nurture and empower the people around them and finally, and most importantly (10) they have the power, wisdom, generosity and the freedom to connect.
A perusal of the above check list enumerated by Cronon lead to conclude that liberal education can be achieved by any person situated in any part of the world. The ten characteristics of liberal education enumerated by Cronon are good human qualities which can be imparted on any human being, whether he is an American, Asian, or African. However, there might be practical issues in giving liberal education in a dictatorial state.
For instance, in a dictatorial state, the state gives education and it might organize its educational system in such a manner that the above enumerated qualities are deliberately overlooked. However, on a purely theoretical level, the characteristics enumerated by Cronon can be instilled anywhere because of the fact that they are value-neutral.