Liberal values in an illiberal age

By Keith Budge, Headmaster, Bedales Schools

Who could have guessed that ‘post-truth’ would be declared as the Oxford Dictionaries word of the year? ‘Post-truth’ is defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” I certainly didn’t think I would be standing before the Bedales students at an assembly, as I was last night, giving a talk under that title and with the political background that we are currently adjusting to.

It all takes some explaining, which is what I was trying to do.  Where do you start?  Here are some reasonable questions that any sentient Bedales teenager might be thinking:

  • If that former education minister, Michael Gove, tells us that “the people in this country have had enough of experts” and the views of experts, such as judges, are widely decried on the front page of the Daily Mail, what’s the point of education, which is, after all, about becoming more expert?
  • Likewise, if what matters is that governments listen to the people and the views of experts such as MPs are being pushed to one side, why should I worry about voting – here in Petersfield for example?
  • What about the so-called liberal elite? Aren’t our teachers people who are part of that group? I think our headmaster would certainly like to think he is. I thought that it was a good thing to be a liberally minded person.
  • What about our school’s values? We are asked to live by values such as tolerance, kindness, respect for each other’s feelings – aren’t these being downgraded?

It is with this kind of background that teachers – perhaps headteachers in particular – need to assert the value of a liberal education. By that I mean liberal in these two senses: the promotion of values such as tolerance, kindness and respect for others’ feelings; and the willingness to respect and accept the opinions that are different from our own and an openness to new ideas.

In this post-truth world, sadly we need to be vigorous in asserting the value of knowledge over opinion. Our business is to help educate young people to be kind, humane, inquisitive people who love learning and want to keep learning. The world needs plenty of people like this – people who are fuelled by the idea of becoming experts and want to make the world a better place.

There is also a less characteristic call to arms, which is to exhort our students to become much more engaged in the big political debates. People of my generation who have known nothing other than the success of Western liberal democracy and ideals – especially from the moment of the Berlin Wall’s fall in 1989 onwards – it is a rude shock to find these certainties challenged as they are at the moment. In transmitting our shock and dismay we can help alert our students to the dangers in what is going on.

Political engagement might have seemed like something for others – now it is something for us. The values that underpin a liberal education need to be more urgently and, even (uncharacteristically maybe) stridently voiced.