‘Liberal values in an illiberal age’ by Keith Budge

Posted on 07th December 2016

In a recent blog on the HMC (the Headmasters’ & Headmistresses’ Conference) website, Keith Budge reflects on the tenor of the recent American election, and reflects on how schools might best respond to what he sees as a concerted threat to liberalism. The answer, he suggests, lies in teachers being politically engaged and encouraging the same in their students.

The UK’s national life since the conclusion of World War II has been one of liberal advancement, he suggests, with plenty of schools politically conscious and welcoming of liberal change. Liberal values run through most school lives as if through the proverbial stick of Blackpool rock.

Keith explains: “In English Literature, a rite of passage for most Year 10s in the English speaking world is to study a combination of Lord of the FliesTo Kill a Mockingbird and Romeo and Juliet. Subsequent analysis will inevitably circle around liberal consensus and variants on the importance of following Atticus Finch’s sage advice: ‘You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view…until you climb into his skin and walk around in it.’ Definitely out are such things as ganging up, intolerance, sexism, insularity and chauvinism. In History almost all of our children will study the rise of fascism: beware populism, we counsel, and people saying that they are going to make your country great again.”

The vital assumption that the adults in school know what they are doing and are worth listening to is also under threat, he says, with educators struggling both against the so-called post-truth, post-expert norm and against the increasingly coarse and nasty tone of public discourse. He concludes: “The liberal approach has been one of discourse that is rational and even-tempered and of fighting shy of political engagement. However, it is becoming increasingly clear that such an approach has been overtaken by events and that we as teachers need both to engage politically ourselves and also that we need to encourage our students to do so.  If we sit on our hands and assume that the tide of history is going to resume its liberal amble in due course, we are living in la-la land.”

Keith Budge blogs regularly during term-time. See his articles here. You can read more about Keith here.