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August 2, 2004

teaching the teachers

I'm just back from Washington College in Chestertown, MD (a classic liberal arts college), where I taught social studies teachers a little about liberalism and classic republicanism--a standard topic in political theory. I presented liberalism as the combination of the following five ideas:

1. "Individualism," meaning (specifically) that each and every government institution must make every individual better off than he or she would be otherwise, or else it is oppressive.
2. Politics is a necessary evil, the price of living in a community.
3. The private realm can be clearly distinguished from the public realm, and only the latter may be regulated.
4. The state should not make people good, nor do we need good people to have a good government. A decent polity can instead be preserved through checks-and-balances and other constitutional mechanisms.
5. The government should be neutral with respect to various ways of life, unless those ways of life involve one person violating the rights of another.

Civic republicanism is then a particular criticism of liberalism that says:

1. Political communities have intrinsic value, and are not merely "cooperative venture[s] for mutual advantage (John Rawls).
2. Politics is desirable and advantageous, because it's the only place where people can exhibit certain excellences, such as public spiritedness, eloquence, and patriotism.
3. The so-called private realm is often a legitimate public concern. For example, the state should support educational institutions that (to some degree) shape private opinions and beliefs.
4. A good government can only exist where citizens are fairly virtuous; and promoting virtues is an appopriate role for the state.
5. The government should favor certain ways of life over others. Above all, the state should honor lives of public service and civic engagement.

Although almost everyone feels some affinity for both sets of propositions, it's much harder to make civic republicanism plausible for an American audience than to persuade them of liberalism.

August 2, 2004 9:47 PM | category: advocating civic education | Comments


Are you talking about "classical liberalism"? Because very little of what you're talking about in your liberalism section seems to be advocated by the present Democratic party. In fact, the "civic republicanism" sounds much more like the current position of the Democratic party, except that the current Democratic party various moral positions held by the Christian Right (homosexuality, no-fault divorce, out-of-wedlock birth)

August 3, 2004 12:50 PM | Comments (2) | posted by niq

Terminology is a total nightmare. Political theorists around the world use the word "liberalism" roughly as I have here. But if you use that word with US students, they will naturally think of the policies advocated on the left side of the American spectrum. Therefore, in the textbook* that these teachers use, the alternative to republicanism is called "The Natural Rights Philosophy." But natural rights is not really the heart of the matter. "Classical liberalism" may be a better phrase, but to me it connotes libertarianism, or belief in minimal government. That's misleading, since you can have liberal views (as I've defined "liberalism" here) and yet favor a lot of government. John Rawls is as much a liberal as John Locke.

I shared these terminological problems with the teachers. I wanted them to understand the word that political scientists use (so that they would have access to the professional literature), but I also warned them that "liberalism" can be misunderstood. In their own classes, they may choose to avoid it.

By the way, it isn't clear to me that the Democrats are consistently more or less "liberal" (in the philosophical sense) than the Republicans are.

-- Peter

*"We the People," from the Center for Civic Education

August 3, 2004 3:38 PM | Comments (2) | posted by Peter Levine

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