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Illiberal Views and The Case of Public Education

Michele Bocchiola
Università degli Studi di Pavia
Michele Bocchiola
Università degli Studi di Pavia
Open Panel

Abstract

Most liberals agree on the fact that the state should provide public education. Nevertheless they disagree on what ideal should govern the education system, whether the liberal idea of a multicultural pedagogy or the respect for one’s religious beliefs and traditions. Education is a problematic aspect of a society because, among other things, it can convey and promote a particular lifestyle. For instance, the liberal idea of teaching subjects such as ‘civics’ or ‘sex education’ might be considered as a threat to religious integrity. In this paper I take on the case of public provision of education, and on the reasons for tolerating denominational schools from a liberal perspective. The case of education is particularly interesting from the liberal point of view: if exposing students to different ideals and conceptions of good life is fundamental for liberals, not imposing a particular view (including liberalism) onto others is a basic liberal tenet. How could liberals, then, take side in the argument for a liberal education without self-contradictions? I argue that notwithstanding a liberal state should not interfere with religious affairs in matter of education, teaching of religious practices violating certain liberal principles should never be permitted. The plausibility of this move depends upon the possibility to ban or modify illiberal practices without affecting the culture underpinning those practices. As I try to show in this paper, this is possible if one distinguishes between cultural practices – the symbols and rituals required by cultural membership – and culture – the beliefs making cultural practices meaningful.