Isaiah Berlin and the Liberal Dilemma of Education

Below is the introduction to my paper ‘Isaiah Berlin and the Liberal Dilemma of Education’ (unpublished).

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Liberal-democratic societies are often faced with a dilemma regarding educational policy. While inclined to proclaim individual autonomy and critical thinking to be vital educational aims in its public schools, and as necessary conditions for running private schools, liberal democracies often incorporate cultural or religious minorities that will feel threatened by such aims. These groups might claim that such an education threaten the values, perhaps even survival, of their community. Hence they might demand that, in the name of tolerance and diversity, exemptions must by made for their children from certain parts of the curriculum: the teaching of evolution theory, for instance, or of education in sexual matters. Some groups might demand separate schooling of the children of their community: a withdrawal from the wider society, the mixing with which they see as at odds with their fundamental values or deep religious convictions.

How should liberals respond to groups or parents making demands such as these? The basic liberal commitment is to let people live their lives as they themselves see fit. Hence, the explicit will of some group of individuals to live in a certain way cannot easily be dismissed. Yet, the same commitment make liberals favour an education that give children the capacity for critical thinking, an ability to deliberate on normative issues and on one’s own identity and life plan; in short, an education that aim at individual autonomy and self-direction. But these very ambitions and ideals, the dissenting group now claim, constrain a legitimate way of life: the non-autonomous life of deep moral convictions and group belonging.

The present paper will approach this liberal dilemma of education by investigating the political thought of Isaiah Berlin. Being one of the foremost liberal thinkers of the twentieth century, one may hope to find in his writings some valuable insight pertaining to the dilemma at hand. Not least since Berlin was a liberal unusually alive to the tension between individual liberty and the human need for belonging, and his political thought in general is permeated by the insight of the necessity of clashes and conflict between genuine human goods and ways of life.

Since William Galston’s influential paper ‘Two Concepts of Liberalism’ (1995) debates on this kind of issues are often framed in terms of a tension between two branches of liberalism; branches that stem, as it were, from different historical roots. On the one hand, we have a type of liberalism that finds its roots in the Reformation, the religious wars, and consequently focus on toleration and peaceful co-existence of dissenting groups and religious communities. This toleration-liberalism,[1] which has John Locke as its most prominent figure, is always on alert against the power of the state, rejecting the claims for state intervention however benevolent its ambitions may be. On the other hand we have the kind of liberalism that stems from the Enlightenment concern for the autonomy of the individual, in the face of not only the state but also of oppressive cultural practices, ignorance and clerical authority. This autonomy-liberalism finds it inspiration in John Stuart Mill and Immanuel Kant.

When it comes to schooling these variants inevitably clash. Galston’s paper was in fact prompted by considerations on educational policy, namely on the famous case of Wisconsin v. Yoder. Galston supported the verdict in favour of the Amish family Yoder to withdraw their children from public education, thus agreeing with the court’s ruling that the mandatory school attendance law constituted a violation of the Yoder parents’ religious freedom. According to Galston, a liberal state must, in order to protect diversity, allow “wide parental rights” and have a “non-autonomy-based system of public education, supplemented by private education” (Galston 1995: 529). From the view of Reformation liberalism, to give the final authority over education to the state is certainly illiberal, a measure doomed to disrupt the civil peace. As the family, on this Lockean view, “function as the last, best obstacle to the complete politicization of life,” parental control over education must be extensive (Ruderman and Godwin 2000: 527). And hence, communal or religious groups have the right to educate its young members according to the values they cherish, without being subjected to restrictions and conditions of state-sponsored liberal virtues.

But is it not — the Enlightenment liberal might reply — the obligation of society to intervene on behalf of the weak as against the strong? And if so, what if the weak are weak simply because they are not yet adults? Should then not the process of them becoming so be guaranteed against the strong, against the-already-adults, as it were, in whose interest it may be to inculcate them into obedience, to believing certain religious dogmas about the sinfulness of this or that, or into unduly deference to authoritarian community leaders, into a narrow identity of clan or tribe, or acceptance of confined and oppressive gender roles? This line of thought can be said to have prevailed in the almost equally famous case of Mozert v. Hawkins County Board of Education. Here the court ruled in favour of the authorities, against the parents’ complaint and demand for exemption for their children from a set of textbooks used in their children’s school. The Mozert parents claimed that the books were offensive to their religious beliefs and community by depicting girls and boys in gender roles at odds with their traditional values, by teaching the theory of evolution, and by implying the notion that salvation was possible for believers of different faiths.

Even though the rulings of Mozert and Yoder go in opposite directions, liberals have applauded both. This is revealing, notes Kevin McDonough and Walter Feinberg, editors of the book Citizenship Education in Liberal-Democratic Societies, of the continued battle between the Reformation and the Enlightenment: “Public education in virtually every Western country is in the cross hairs of this internal conflict within liberalism” (McDonough and Feinberg 2003: 8). There are difficult cases where the two kinds of liberalism clash, and the “distinctions, exceptions, and priorities that are needed to anticipate and resolve these cases are in the process of being created” (2003: 8).

This paper constitute a reading of Berlin’s writings on liberty[2] with this conflict in mind. Is it possible to find in Berlin a case for a certain set of “priorities”? I will attempt to answer this question by discussing the Yoder case. This is a well-discussed and contested case, and so could constitute a good background for a consideration of Berlin’s thoughts on education. In explaining the liberal dilemma in the Yoder case I will present William Galston’s arguments for his stance. And Galston will continue to be relevant throughout the essay, as presenting a view that I will contrast and compare Berlin to. My presentation of Galston is primarily based on his (1995) article, which discussed Yoder as the background for explaining his version of liberalism. But since then he has come to support his version of liberalism by invoking Isaiah Berlin’s notion value pluralism (2002, 2005). Though these later books will mostly be outside the scope of my paper, this fact of course makes Galston of additional interest as theorist to compare Berlin with.

There are two major passages of Berlin that my discussion will focus on. The first is expressing a very marked emphasis on the children and their future as free individuals. The second passage is in the same vein, though it also contains an interesting viewpoint on education in general, emphasizing that to educate mean by necessity to force and to ‘mould’ the young. On what basis can such a phenomenon be justified at all? Here I will make the suggestion that autonomy, viewed as a species of positive liberty, must be a legitimate condition for education. I will argue against Neil Burtonwood, a theorist who has written plenty on Berlin and education, who suggests that Berlin is bound to a position much closer to that of Galston. The point I wish to make here is that schools are institutions of a special character, with implications for how we adjudicate between autonomy and other values. Taken together, the picture that emerges from these passages is that Berlin is committed to educational ideals of making children capable of free choice and self-direction.

The structure of the essay is the following. Section 2 introduces the dilemma posed by the Yoder case, as well as the theoretical reasoning used by Galston to support the verdict. Section 3 briefly covers the key concepts in Berlin’s thought as they are expressed in ‘Two Concepts of Liberty’. Section 4 then turn to Berlin’s explicit views on education, and here I will venture to draw out the implications of these. The concluding section 5 will briefly summarize the main points of the preceding arguments, and indicate where Berlin stand in relation to the divide between Reformation and Enlightenment ideals in these educational issues.

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[1] Galston calls it ’diversity liberalism’, but toleration-liberalism has become the more established term.

[2] The volume Liberty (2002) comprise the original four essays on liberty together with two other longer essays and a number of shorter texts.


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  • Burtonwood, Neil (2003), ’Isaiah Berlin, Diversity Liberalism, and Education’, Educational Review, Vol. 55, No. 3, pp. 323–331.
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  • Cherniss, Joshua L. (2007), ’Berlin’s Early Political Thought’, i Crowder & Hardy (2007).
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  • Galston, William (2005), The Practise of Liberal Pluralism (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press).
  • Lilla, Mark, Ronald Dworkin and Robert B. Silvers (eds) (2001) The Legacy of Isaiah Berlin (New York: New York Review of Books).
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  • Müller, Jan-Werner (2008), ’Fear and Freedom: On ’Cold War Liberalism’’, European Journal of Political Theory, Vol. 7, No. 1, pp. 45–64.
  • Ruderman, Richard, and Kenneth Godwin (2000), ’Liberalism and Parental Control of Education’, The Review of Politics, Vol. 62, No. 3, pp. 503–529.
  • Wisconsin v. Yoder, 406 U.S. 205 (1972).

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2 reaktioner på ”Isaiah Berlin and the Liberal Dilemma of Education”

  1. Hi,
    I very much enjoyed reading this article so far. Is the complete article available? If so, could you please email me the reference?
    Many thanks,


    1. Hi Neeti,

      I glad you have found an interest in the article. It is not published anywhere.

      I am currently traveling, but I will email the article to you on monday when I get back.




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