Flat White

Populism, prejudice, and what’s left of liberal education

12 April 2018

7:32 AM

12 April 2018

7:32 AM

One of the most intellectually disabling of modern prejudices is the idea that you can be free from prejudice. Prejudice is what we are born and raised into. The attempt to try and prevent violent or immoral social action by an enforced posture of open-mindedness (based on an axiom of cultural relativism), as Allan Bloom showed in The Closing of the American Mind, has the effect of removing the impetus to any kind of education at all. If you know in advance that no culture is better than any other – then there is no need to examine and compare them so as to decide what ideas and practices yield the best outcomes for humanity.

As Bloom points out, and as Socrates knew, reason doesn’t operate in a vacuum. It needs something to work on – and prejudice is what it starts working on. Being unashamed and open about our unexamined beliefs is the starting point for revising and refining them.

But as Bloom also knew, prejudice serves another function in upholding the regime. Successful regimes require their peoples to hold such beliefs as justify the legitimacy of those regimes – whether they be monarchies, aristocracies, fascist regimes, or civic republics. When people cease to believe in the rightness of a way of life, that way of life will soon fall.

Therefore, one of the central tenets of the Australian educational system should be the inculcation of the kinds of prejudices conducive to the flourishing of a liberal democracy. Not everyone has time, ability, luxury, or patience to examine all their prejudices – which makes it essential that we try to make sure that the unexamined beliefs we do teach are damn good ones.

The Australian political system is predicated on a strong belief in the goodness of civic involvement – that’s why we must vote. The ordinary person of decent sense moderates the influence of Looney Tunes extremists Right and Left. And if we have the confidence to compel people to vote, we must have the confidence to compel our young to a certain level of civic education and appreciation for Western values.

But what are such values? Ibn Warraq tells us:

The great ideas of the West – rationalism, self-criticism, the disinterested search for truth, the separation of church and state, the rule of law, equality before the law, freedom of conscience and expression, human rights, liberal democracy – together constitute quite an achievement, surely, for any civilization. This set of principles remains the best and perhaps the only means for all people, no matter what race or creed, to live in freedom and reach their full potential … When Western values have been adopted by other societies, such as Japan or South Korea, their citizens have reaped benefits.


The paucity of our current civic education in primary and secondary schools means that many can’t justify to themselves much less to one another why our political system works; why it’s better than the alternatives. And what responsibilities citizens must shoulder to ensure the continuation of our system.

As Leo Strauss comments:

There is no need to make a case for literacy; every voter knows that modern democracy stands or falls by literacy. In order to understand this need we must reflect on modern democracy. What is modern democracy? It was once said that democracy is the regime that stands or falls by virtue: a democracy is a regime in which all or most adults have developed their reason to a high degree, or the rational society.

Australia, like Britain and the United States, doesn’t go in whole hog for the democracy business. We are a representative democracy, and the voice of the people is balanced against the rights of the individual. But the people need to be wise enough to decide who is wise enough to lead them.

Some people believe that democracy works best not when the people are wise but when the people are thick; that the hoi polloi are best left wallowing in their mass culture while an elite guides the business of the country undisturbed.

It is this attitude that the modern populist rightly rejects. Not the idea that there are some better qualified to lead, but a rejection of the notion that there are some entitled to lead without heeding the people’s concerns.

But if populism is the feeling of being left behind by a political and cultural elite, then that is the fault of the people, too. The people must demand greatness from their leaders. An apathetic majority must still be led – and will be – but likely by leaders with no competence and no vision.

Better civic education is the best way of addressing the desires of populism. We need a citizenry better predisposed to participate in the rigours of civic involvement. That means firstly the inculcation of strong liberal democratic prejudices in the people. And for those who aspire to public office and leadership, we should demand more often that they be armed with a properly liberal education – the kind that equips them with the thoughtfulness and political virtues necessary for leading a great country. As Strauss says:

Liberal education is the counterpoison 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.” Liberal education is the ladder by which we try to ascend from mass democracy to democracy as originally meant. Liberal education is the necessary endeavour to found an aristocracy within democratic mass society. Liberal education reminds those members of a mass democracy who have ears to hear, of human greatness.

Both the people and their leaders must be elevated. Paradoxical as it might seem, populism in liberal democratic societies shouldn’t be separated from civic and cultural refinement – but rather joined at the hip.

In a recent interview in The Spectator Steve Bannon was asked by his interviewer whether throwing classical allusions at his audience was perhaps expecting too much of them:

That’s quite a highbrow allusion, I say: isn’t citing Roman history way above everyone’s heads? ‘Why? No, you see here’s the problem. You want to talk down. This is what’s happening to us. I want to raise the bar and get back to classical allusions because I come from a blue-collar family that reads Plutarch.’

That’s an attitude with which I’m inclined to agree.

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