The Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Education is now available via subscription. Visit About to learn more, meet the editorial board, or learn about the subscriber services.

Show Summary Details

Page of

 PRINTED FROM the OXFORD RESEARCH ENCYCLOPEDIA, EDUCATION ( (c) Oxford University Press USA, 2018. All Rights Reserved. Personal use only; commercial use is strictly prohibited (for details see Privacy Policy and Legal Notice).

Subscriber: null; date: 15 November 2018

Liberalism in Education

Summary and Keywords

The concept of liberalism has a wide influence on contemporary work within the field of education. Given this breadth of effect, it is not surprising that liberalism can be invoked in the service of multiple ends—many of which appear to be at odds with one another. As such, this article will trace liberalism’s fundamental commitments of “equality” and “liberty” in education in order to provide a general shape to the arguments that animate its goals. Taken in tandem, these commitments provide access to the arguments that populate various forms of liberalism in education, such that their careful study enables educational researchers and practitioners to better position their understandings and analyses in a conceptual context.

Keywords: liberalism, equality, liberty, opportunity, neoliberalism


Few approaches to social and political life are as capacious as liberalism. Many, often seemingly incommensurate, agendas declare liberalism as a guiding ethos in their activities. It is perhaps due in part to this rich diversity of perspectives that liberalism has become a dominant view within the impulses of and conversations about contemporary social institutions. Unsurprisingly, education does not break from this pattern, as the influence of liberalism is felt in multiple arguments for educational arrangements and obligations.

In the service of providing an overview of liberalism’s footprints in education, this article organizes an introduction to the topic by focusing upon the contemporary arguments that prompt one or another variety or focus of liberalism within education.

Though liberalism undoubtedly extends its far-ranging reach into the domain of education, observing the intertwining and nearly omnipresent threads of liberalism proves rather difficult without a sense of its general shape and occupations. To better understand liberalism’s influence on education, a brief overview of its historical roots, present commitments, and ambiguities is essential.

Though not named as such until the 1700s, the body of commitments that would become liberalism arose in response to an increasing focus on the individual as the unit of social analysis. That is to say, arguments in support of protected entitlements for (and the fundamental freedoms and inalienable rights of) persons are the basis of the liberal project. Although the meanings and attentions of these did and do continue to shift in the time since liberalism’s beginning, a steady line can be drawn between liberalism’s present occupations and its historical roots.

Indeed, a through line in the history of liberalism, without qualification or specific focus, would necessarily include an account of the European Enlightenment, the period of political revolutions that followed, and a careful treatment of the work of a range of thinkers as diverse as Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Adam Smith, Montesquieu, John Stuart Mill, Immanuel Kant, and many others. These historical moments and thinkers molded liberalism into the body of commitments that populate the contemporary context.

In keeping with the rich and complex history of the tradition, most general understandings of liberalism, as it currently exists across multiple forms, identify a dual occupation with the central aims of equality and liberty. Although not necessarily described as such, these two tenets are differently prioritized and pursued by the various species of liberalism such that a general account of liberalism in education can be organized by appeals to either of the pair. This focus on both liberty and equality has, at its base, an attention to questions of the legitimacy of political power and the ethical organization of relative stability in the service of progress within a society. Liberalism’s characteristic sense of progress suggests iteration toward greater human flourishing as achieved through freedoms equally held. That said, the contradictions of liberalism’s perceptions abound, as it has been championed as a bold approach to universal respect while simultaneously critiqued for advancing distinctly Western values and aims (see also the section “External Critiques”).

In the West, liberalism’s concern with an abiding movement toward a more utopian future is grounded in its aforementioned origins in the European Enlightenment. This characteristic orientation of the intellectual period has manifested in a hope expressed through multiple moments in liberalism’s trajectory across the interim centuries (although its ideas are often read into the works of preliberal thinkers). This hope can be understood as relatively optimistic about human nature under appropriate circumstances of equality and liberty. Rather than asserting the necessity of a powerful authority to govern or manage productive human conduct, adherents maintain hope in humanity’s ability to serve its own interests by extending freedom to persons who may act as equals in the creation of that future. A major thrust of liberalism in the later portion of the 20th century has been the proposal to conceive of a political version of liberalism, seeking a purportedly neutral stance under conditions of diverse perspectives of value and aims in order to realize liberalism’s goals.

Rather than catalogue education’s interactions with the various approaches to liberalism, a survey of the persistent sociopolitical and economic drives serves to highlight a broad view of liberalism within the domain of education. From this stance, it becomes easy to see the degree to which liberalism houses many discussions and debates within education. In order to discuss where limitations lie and where resources rest for liberalism in education, it is necessary to focus on the two animating impulses of liberalism’s projects. These drives can be read in liberalism’s foundational texts and are sometimes better understood through contemporary liberalism’s sympathetic readings of preliberal texts, which are taken to support the image of “the spontaneously growing, improving society.” 1


Liberalism’s occupation with questions of equality has come to dominate discussions of education, as that institution has, in the last half century, become a more explicit site of contestation relative to resources and benefits within a social setting.2 Although previous eras or non-Western perspectives may have presented many open questions of equality and education, it is safe to state that contemporary Western perspectives demand that education move toward equality in access to and quality of educational experiences (often in the service of equality within other domains).

Despite this general agreement regarding the essential value of equality within education, disputes definitely persist. These disagreements stem from a variety of sources; chief among them are deliberations regarding whether or not equality is realized in one or another set of circumstances. Popular memory of the famous Brown v. Board of Education court case largely focuses upon whether separate educational facilities for members of particular racial groups were (or ever could be) truly equal. Alongside questions of whether the stated standards of equality are met under one or another set of circumstances, heated discussions abound regarding what type of equality ought to be prioritized. Here, competing claims of the priority of democratic citizenship, respect, employability, and much more, are invoked.

Within the richness of these ways of conceiving of equality in education, a few large category groups emerge: namely, a focus on rights, outcomes, opportunity, or adequacy, as prioritized standards for best understanding the concept of equality in education. Each category is explored in the sections below.


The language of rights is often invoked to clarify any number of liberal arguments for equality within education. The idea that every citizen may have a right to education is a rather powerful and relatively contemporary notion, which is perhaps surprising to those who currently examine education. In line with liberalism’s rise since the 18th century, the idea of a right to education is popular enough that it is difficult to imagine a time in which a declaration of that right would not have been prosaic. Nevertheless, the widespread claim of a right to education, held equally by diverse persons, is a relatively new addition to educational thinking.

Of course, arguments over what exactly may be included within a right to education present interesting challenges for liberalism within education. What does the right to education entail? Should a right to education imply that educational practices and policies ought to mitigate the external factors and circumstances of one’s situation (see also the section “Opportunities”)? Should a right to education transcend local law or custom? Should it guide allotments of primary, secondary, or tertiary education? There are a number of ways in which the liberal view of equality can be understood and explored as it intersects with rights language within education.

As described in this section, liberal views of equality may suggest that all persons hold an equal right to education. This argument may be most fully represented in Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights: “Everyone has the right to education.”3 In this view, the right to education ought not be limited due to, inter alia, one’s nationality, race, gender, (dis)ability status or identity. One has right to an equal allotment of educational resources or educational experiences of a quality equal to their peers.

This account of an equally held right to education tends to be most strictly regulative in application to the more foundational levels of education, such that the right to primary education tends to be enacted as a guarantee to be educated, while possession of an equal right to higher education tends to be enacted as the guarantee to have access, allocated on the basis of the demonstration of some meritorious past accomplishments, to educational opportunities (see also the section “Opportunities”). This interpretation of the right to a guaranteed primary education presents tension for liberalism’s second tent pole, liberty, as it results in the practice of compulsory schooling (which may seem to some as a challenge to liberty). Defenders of compulsory schooling under the dictates of liberalism largely argue that compelling students to attend school is justified as an equalizing mechanism, undoing the disparity in their home and social environments that may discourage them from attending school in the present or future.

Some liberal views of equality may also promote the right to become moral, social, or political equals via education. Under this set of views, one’s right to equality with other persons is pursued through education, such that education ought to be arranged to create a set of circumstances in which liberalism’s vision of a society of equals is achieved. This view asserts a rather central role for education within the liberal paradigm, as education is instrumental and essential for the core goals of liberalism.


Related to views of education as essential to the process of securing liberalism’s most central aims, is the view that equality in education ought to be organized according to these or other outcomes. These potential outcomes span a rather large spectrum and support for them may be argued alongside the language of rights, in that they may seek to achieve ends of social integration, political enfranchisement, or more. Political or social equality may be the outcome of an educational project, but various other outcomes are also asserted and defended on the grounds of equality.

Perhaps most straightforward in the domain of education is the view that liberalism’s commitment to equality requires an equality of academic outcomes. Tests or other measurements of academic skills, proficiencies, or competencies ought to be equal among those who have received the appropriate arrangement of educational resources and experiences. Perception of these outcomes may be complicated by preexisting aptitudes possessed by students or complexities related to the tests employed to gauge ability or performance. At its core this set of views of equality in education presses for equality of measurable educational outcomes. A note should be made here in observation of the fact that equality does not imply identicality under the liberal position. Although it may often be assumed to do so, this error of equivocation loses some of the nuance of liberalism’s attitude. To clarify, liberalism’s commitment to equality does not require that all students hold identical combinations and configurations of academic (or other) outcomes. Two students may have nonidentical educational outcomes, yet those outcomes may be equal in that they demonstrate the hallmarks of a defensible educational experience. Dissimilar educational experiences may result in dissimilar yet equally valuable outcomes relative to future successes of the relevant sorts.

Many liberal views on equality within education focus upon outcomes for groups rather than individuals. This approach holds that the necessary unit of analysis is the group—group analyses often reveal troubling patterns of inequality. For example, consider an educational system in which members of one racial/cultural/social/economic group have, on average, lower educational outcomes (as measured by reliable tools of evaluation) than members of another racial/cultural/social/economic group. Liberalism finds that these sort of group trends probably indicate a pervasive inequality that needs to be addressed, likely by restructuring circumstances such that comparisons of educational outcomes between groups more closely hews toward equality.

Liberalism’s attention to equality of outcomes is partially tempered by its dedication to liberty. Although equal educational outcomes seem attractive, liberalism aims to avoid total compulsion in the domain of education (i.e., compulsion beyond a primary or foundational stage) as one’s freedom to make choices that resist particular or alternative educational outcomes aligns with liberalism’s tenets. This problem of choice finds liberalism in a difficult situation as it seeks to advance equality in education but wishes to ensure that persons can pursue educational outcomes they value (regardless of whether those educational outcomes are strictly equal to that of their peers).


One way of securing equality in education, while still taking one’s choices seriously, is to arrange for an equality of educational opportunities rather than outcomes. By focusing on educational opportunities, liberalism may avoid many elements of the choice problem that would sacrifice its commitment to liberty. According to this argument, if members of an identity group can be shown to have equal opportunities for educational goods or benefits, any difference or disparity in their educational outcomes presents no problem to liberalism. Of course, significant disagreement exists regarding whether or not an equal opportunity exists in a given case.

Educational opportunities are generally understood by liberalism to be something of the following: a person has opportunity to participate in a particular endeavor insofar as they choose to take part in that particular endeavor and are allowed to take part in it. Although this general definition of an opportunity may placate most positions on the liberal spectrum, the issue of whether an opportunity exists or not has been shown to be a complicated business, with some liberals ceding that equal outcomes may be the only acceptable proof of equal opportunities in education.

Many liberal perspectives on equality of opportunity in education hold that one’s choice to take a particular action ought to depend upon whether or not one has met a precondition for choice, often demonstrated as the proper standard of merit. This merit, which may be one’s previous academic achievements, tested aptitude, or the like, is understood as a characteristic that suggests that a person deserves the opportunity. There is considerable debate within (and beyond) liberalism regarding both how to understand the question of equality relative to the access or resources necessary to achieve conditions of merit and what makes a particular account of merit defensible.

Two ways of understanding equality of opportunity in education are the formal and substantive accounts. The formal account adopts a negative approach to liberty in that all persons ought to be equally free from formal structures (laws, rules, etc.) that prohibit one from making the educational choices that one values. From this perspective, an opportunity exists if there is no explicit or formally declared structure barring persons from actions. For example, formal equality of educational opportunity is not compromised in a system in which no persons are legally prohibited from attending a prestigious school.

The substantive approach to equality of opportunity in education favors a positive approach to liberty in that persons must be equally free to make the educational choices that one values. An opportunity only exists if one has the substantive ability to make the choice in question. Arguments from this view often find that substantive equality of educational opportunity is compromised in a system in which no persons are legally prohibited from attending a prestigious school but many persons are, for example, unable to pay the tuition or speak the language of instruction. Compensatory recommendations to address these issues include some forms of positive discrimination or affirmative action although there exists ample disagreement regarding what categories of factors (e.g., genetic, environmental, etc.) are relevant for such efforts.


Although “adequacy” of educational opportunity is often invoked as an alternative to equality of educational opportunity, liberalism can lay claim to both standards—though disagreements exist regarding the applicability of both within liberalism. Adequacy arguments suggest that disparities in education are acceptable so long as a threshold of adequate educational resources, experiences, or outcomes is achieved. Adequacy arguments may press against equality of opportunity arguments, but they may also be understood as another approach to liberalism’s tensions of equality and liberty in education.

While differences may exist in, say, educational outcomes under adequacy systems, liberalism’s impulse toward equality persists. Adequacy arguments seek to ensure that all persons enjoy equal standing (i.e., beyond a minimal adequacy threshold), such that whatever differences exist they present no challenge to the enduring equality of status. For example, in an educational system in which a minimal score is necessary and sufficient to access some cache of benefits, two students with vastly different scores above that minimal standard would be equally entitled to the available resources. The difference in their scores presents no compromise to their equality of status (i.e., relative to the status of having cleared the threshold).

One popular application of the arguments from adequacy within liberalism is the idea of education organized toward the goal of an equal status of liberty. As liberalism is concerned with the recognition (and creation) of free and equal persons within a social/political context, education’s role in achieving such a society is often foregrounded by adequacy arguments.

For example, in the case of education within a democracy, adequacy arguments can be marshaled in the service of realizing a public comprising persons educated to the standards necessary for their participation as political equals. Even if considerable differences exist in educational outcomes relative to these measures of the characteristics or skills necessary for appropriate engagement within civic life, the adequacy view seeks to prioritize ensuring that the greatest number of persons clears the (minimal) threshold for equal citizenship.

The adequacy argument in education can be employed beyond political issues such as one’s status as a citizen. In some of these circumstances, adequacy arguments encounter a problem with positional goods. These positional goods are those benefits or resources that derive (at least some of their) value due to their position relative to similar advantages held by others. While a simple adequacy argument does not betray its foundations in liberalism by supporting a system of education in which resources are arranged such that all persons have educational outcomes for securing meaningful employment, the arguments must become more complex if the relevant hiring structures respond to and prioritize differences in those educational outcomes. Here, one may imagine a system in which a minimal educational outcome is necessary but not always sufficient for limited employment opportunities distributed across a pool of competitors. To some extent, adequacy arguments must respond to issues such as positional goods, which challenge the very equality that these arguments seek to protect. Adequacy arguments are most successful when bringing equality into a close and nuanced relationship to liberty.


Liberalism’s focus on liberty deserves special attention here, as education is often invoked as an instrument in the service of realizing liberalism’s aims in this category. Presently, it can be challenging to view education seriously without some attention to the idea of liberty (also understood as freedom, autonomy, or any number of related terms under this conceptual canopy). This connection to liberty is a good deal older than education’s relatively recent focus on equality, but liberalism’s focus has undoubtedly sharpened the arguments that support this attention.

In a historical context, liberalism has often prioritized educational concerns insofar as education has been understood to serve the goals of liberty. Early and foundational thinkers in the tradition of liberalism (either at the time of the writing or with retroactive perspectives on these works) issued rather fulsome educational recommendations even if these proposals had little to do, in an explicit manner, with schools or educational institutions.

Of course, some elements of liberty are invoked in arguments that, on the surface, focus primarily on equality, but there is a fulsome range of arguments that focus more fully upon liberty as it relates to education. Within the wide scope of these ways of conceiving of liberty in relation to education, two major trends—a focus on freedom in education and a focus on freedom achieved through education—deserve focus in the service of better understanding liberalism’s impact upon education. Both are explored below, alongside a brief discussion of one emerging yet rather contentious area of activity regarding liberty and education.

Freedom in Education

Although liberalism’s accounts of liberty have many articulations, perhaps common to most of them is the view that persons are, in their default state, entitled to make choices about how they act and live in the world.4 Any circumstances that press against recognition of this quality are taken to be antithetical to liberalism’s project. In asking what the boundaries or limits of liberty may be for liberalism, it is sensible to ask what may threaten the default state of liberty (in either a positive and negative sense).

Arguments for liberty within education can be understood to suggest that persons (students, parents, teachers, etc.) ought to have sovereignty in determining what gets taught and how so. These accounts have historically been organized around competing conceptions of what could pedagogically benefit learners and/or what learners may have a right to expect as free and equal members of a society. For example, though united in their respective appeals to liberty in the educational experience, the psychological picture of the learner under Maria Montessori’s method or Rudolph Steiner’s Waldorf approach (as both are interpreted in the contemporary age), can differ quite significantly from the radical democratic core of the many experiments related to the broad umbrella of the free school movement.

Related to this drive to determine what gets taught (and how) is the notion that liberty in education ought to press against the pervasive effects of indoctrination. Indoctrination in this context is taken to be a perversion of education in that it coerces a person into a particular mode of thinking or valuation without taking seriously their liberty to choose whether or not to engage in an evaluation of what they should know or believe. This version of liberty, as freedom from indoctrination, may primarily orient itself in one of two ways: either as a response to the learning processes and practices of an educational environment, or as a response to larger indoctrinating influences in a wider social environment (family, community, etc.). The latter case envisions indoctrination as a social problem that is countered by education, but the former case sees education as navigating a narrow aisle through which educators must demonstrate careful tact and restraint in the service of properly educating rather than inculcating through a process of indoctrination.

In line with these themes of a resistance to indoctrination, liberalism’s focus on liberty is central to the tradition of liberal (and “liberal arts”) education in the West. The critical studies characteristic of the liberal educational model is justified through an appeal to the humanity of the learner in ways that mirror liberalism’s stance on the default desirable state of human person (i.e., as persons entitled to choose their actions). Of course, the tradition of liberal education either pursues this image of humanity with the understanding that this state is natural and thus must be protected through the appropriate educational processes, or that this desirable state must be cultivated through educational efforts. Both approaches take seriously the idea that a liberal education results in circumstances of self-ownership, self-possession, and self-mastery as a student.

Freedom Through Education

Liberalism’s attention to liberty can be understood as a focus on the liberty that results from educational experiences, such that education is instrumentally valuable in the pursuit of one’s ability to determine one’s actions in a social, political, or economic context. These arguments vary from nuanced philosophical positions to the general public’s lay understandings of the power of education (particularly for class mobility or as a “passport from poverty” for disadvantaged groups). Education is taken to serve as a conduit for social outcomes that extend to both/either the individual person educated or the wider community in which they (and similar others) live and interact. For example, many of the democracy arguments invoked by liberalism in the domain of education seek to recognize the impactful role that education may play in contributing to persons appropriately prepared for the activities of civic life within a richly pluralistic democracy.

This preparation for life among others coheres with an argument for liberal education. As liberal education cultivates a person who is self-aware and cosmopolitan in their outlook, it may also be understood as doing so in the promotion of social outcomes (rather than for the more narrowly understood educational aims pursued under some varieties of liberalism’s focus on education). Liberal education may, under the frameworks of liberalism, pursue liberty from undue governmental influence, establishing a check on power. It is commonly understood to pursue progress toward a more socially, politically, or economically just set of arrangements.

Aside from explicitly educational reasons to ensure that everyone in society receives an education in line with goals of liberty, liberalism’s sense of the social possibilities for liberty through educational processes presents further cause to compel education of a particular sort. Although it may seem illiberal to employ authority in obliging educational experiences, proponents of these views argue that these activities are a necessary step in the pursuit of greater liberty for the person as well as the larger community.

Of course, after compulsory education, one may opt to continue into higher levels of education. Arguments that focus upon the liberty gained through previous education see this freedom to gain access to higher education as a liberty to enjoy a specific social/economic good (i.e., higher education). For the purposes of these arguments, liberalism’s focus on liberty requires that persons receive an education appropriate for their possession of the liberty to attend higher educational institutions.

These arguments recognize higher education as a social good rather than an educational one (though they may recognize primary education’s value in other ways), with significant impacts on one’s standing and life chances. Through higher education, one is able to enjoy liberties across multiple domains of social life. Not least among these domains is the economic realm. Unsurprisingly, some arguments within liberalism’s attention to liberty for one’s economic outcomes find ready support in a growing trend in liberalism’s interactions with education: neoliberalism.


One branch of liberalism, focused on the concept of liberty, deserves especially explicit mention in the service of understanding the arguments that have been voiced to explain a rise in the popularity of a particular set of approaches to education. This type of liberalism, known as neoliberalism, is often regarded as an outlier in that it deviates from some of the more social impulses present in most other branches of liberalism. Neoliberalism takes an economic focus upon liberty in the market as a large portion of its guiding aim. Free markets, with a removal of many formal restrictions (thereby purportedly rendering market participants, in some sense, “equal” to one another), are taken to productively reveal preferences and values. Neoliberalism is often read as suggesting that public problems (that may appear to be social issues when interpreted by other factions) are best solved by the laws and logic of the market. This market-based approach to public and social life has been a ready source of attribution for a shift in educational policy at the tail end of the 20th century, with strong evidence suggesting a degree of intensity well into the 21st.

Although there is considerable disagreement regarding the degree to which neoliberalism is connected to other varieties of liberalism in (particularly) North America and Europe, this confusion does not extend to a descriptive uncertainty regarding whether it plays a role in educational policy. Neoliberalism has extended its perspectives into education such that a growing perspective on education as a market-based and justified activity has spread to multiple areas of educational policy. Under neoliberal views, educational progress (indexed to students and/or teachers) has increasingly been evaluated by methods previously utilized in economic analyses of businesses on the market. Though these perspectives enjoy widespread use and near universal adoption, heated debates persist regarding whether these methods are desirable in an educational context.

Related to these methods of measuring education, neoliberalism has contributed to a market-based approach to the management of educational institutions, valuing the economic liberty central to privatizing education. Privatization finds educational institutions that had previously been managed by public interests (e.g., public schools in the United States) open for competition on the market and, to a growing extent, run by private interests. Advocates of this approach to school management tend to explicitly recognize two liberties in this trend. Firstly, a private company is understood as having a right to choose to manage a school. This right need not treat schools as especially important or useful institutions in a society; at its most minimal, this view need only endorse the right of the private actor to exercise this liberty of management. Secondly, the beneficiaries of schools (e.g., students, parents, etc.) are thought to be best served by a free market system in which they can exercise the liberty of choice. The arguments in support of this view largely find that choice in education (e.g., in selecting which school to attend) results in a competitive educational market under which inferior educational institutions will naturally improve (by meeting the values and goals of students in order to attract more of them) or collapse. This view need not (though it certainly may) endorse the liberty of private groups to establish and manage schools, it need only perceive that schools best realize their aims, to the ultimate good of students, parents, and communities, through market freedoms.

Critiques of Liberalism

Internal Critiques

Though liberalism is a popular and extensive worldview that contains ample conceptual space for varied perspectives and inclinations, a good degree of reasoned critique of liberalism’s influence within education persists. In addition to the tensions that are evidenced in the various explanations of liberalism’s arguments within education, a number of sustained internal critiques have claimed particular centrality in the public discourse.

Perhaps chief among these internal critiques is the criticism of neoliberal influences in educational policy reform. Neoliberalism’s economic focus prompts sharp rebuke from liberalism’s more social wing. Those who view education through this prosocial lens are inclined to press against attempts to justify and pursue educational aims through the prioritized logic of the market. Given the differences in foci, many social liberals view neoliberalism as liberalism in name alone. They argue that the social benefits of education (which include fostering a sense of community, pursuing a common good, endorsing a democratic conception of life lived among others, etc.) are lost under an increasingly neoliberal framework in which teachers’ efforts are incentivized via market strategies, and qualitative student experiences are sacrificed in the name of bringing schools in line with external ratings. As the neoliberal influence continues to expand its reach in education, this stream of internal criticism will likely endure.

Another sustained critique leveled at liberalism in education is that the purportedly liberal projects and initiatives currently employed in educational domains do not, in fact, accomplish the goals of liberalism. This thread of critique does not find issue with the ideas of liberalism in education but instead finds its reality lacking in securing these goals. In a sense, liberalism critiques itself by arguing that it has made unnecessary compromises that threaten its identity and aims. For example, the bounded liberalism of the political realm may seem insufficient to a more encompassing liberalism as both speculate on issues of education.

External Critiques

Related to the internal critique of liberalism’s reality falling short of the rhetoric of its aspirations is the argument that asserts that liberalism itself (rather than just its methods of pursuit in the world) is flawed. Of these arguments, a number deserve direct mention.

Radical views (from the left or the right) tend to argue that liberalism misses the core of educational provisions because of its inherent limitations. The listing of these limitations certainly varies according to the worldview in which it is ensconced, but the underlying critique remains. Some factions find that liberalism does not require enough in the pursuit of providing educational resources, while some factions argue that liberalism requires far too much.

For example, a family of libertarian views (which emphasize liberty but do not emphasize equality to the extent liberalism does) may object to positive discrimination or affirmative action policies in education. This body of views objects to efforts to control for systematic inequality in education, especially when these efforts erode a sense of liberty (often, though not always expressed as a loss to the relatively advantaged portion of the unequal relationship). Popular accounts from this perspective find liberalism in education to reward an absence of educational merit with a surplus of educational resources. These views find fault with such activities either due to their role in unfairly distributing educational resources or for their role in miseducating students by placing underprepared students in unduly harsh circumstances or otherwise indirectly teaching flawed lessons of dependency.

Perhaps, the most challenging of the external critiques is found among critical perspectives on the circumstances of minority groups (relative to race, ethnicity, gender, citizenship status, disability/ability, etc.) that find liberalism lacking in that it does not do enough to secure the appropriate educational gains for these segments of the wider population. They argue that given an inadequately acknowledged implied focus on “majority” (i.e., white, Western, etc.) characteristics and identities, educational circumstances for minority populations will only continue to remain inferior under liberalism’s prioritized goals. This set of views pushes for a more direct claim to educational goods for minority groups, even if these efforts run counter to liberalism’s dual occupation with equality and liberty.


Liberalism covers a wide range of positions relative to education in the 21st century. It is unlikely that this fact will change in the near future as liberalism captures most of the popular lay understandings of the value of education (e.g., education’s role in creating some or another sort of freedom or establishing a measure of equality among diverse peoples) while also providing a rich set of conceptual tools for advancing nuanced educational arguments.

As liberalism is a flexible tradition of values and views, it will likely continue to expand its reach even as it provides the conceptual tools for its own critique. New developments on liberalism’s impact on education will likely have to reckon with the degree to which liberalism’s arguments can be wielded toward supporting many diverse educational practices and policies. It is only with a clear sense of liberalism’s commitments that these efforts can be organized and more appropriately engaged by scholars, practitioners, and citizens.


The author wishes to thank both Te-Hsin Chang for research assistance and the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University.


Ambrosio, J. (2013). Changing the subject: Neoliberalism and accountability in public education. Educational Studies, 49(4), 316–333.Find this resource:

    Anderson, E. (2007). Fair opportunity in education: A democratic equality perspective. Ethics, 117(4), 595–622.Find this resource:

      Anderson, E. (2010). The imperative of integration. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Find this resource:

        Blacker, D. (1996). Political liberalism, technology, and schooling. Educational Foundations, 10(4), 13–20.Find this resource:

          Blacker, D. J. (2013). The falling rate of learning and the neoliberal endgame. London: Zero Books.Find this resource:

            Boyd, D. (2011). Learning to leave liberalism . . . and live with complicity, conundrum and moral chagrin. Journal of Moral Education, 40(3), 329–337.Find this resource:

              Brighouse, H., & Swift, A. (2003). Defending liberalism in education theory. Journal of Education Policy, 18(4), 355–373.Find this resource:

                Brighouse, H., & Swift, A. (2009). Educational equality versus educational adequacy: A critique of Anderson and Satz, Journal Of Applied Philosophy, 26(2), 117–128.Find this resource:

                  Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).Find this resource:

                    Burtonwood, N. (2003). Isaiah Berlin, diversity liberalism, and education. Educational Review, 55(3), 323–331.Find this resource:

                      Callan, E. (2004). Creating citizens: Political education and liberal democracy. Oxford: Clarendon.Find this resource:

                        Callan, P., & Immerwahr, J. (2008). What colleges must do to keep the public's good will. Chronicle of Higher Education, 54(18), A56.Find this resource:

                          Castagno, A. E. (2009). Commonsense understandings of equality and social change: A critical race theory analysis of liberalism at spruce middle school. International Journal of Qualitative Studies in Education 22(6), 755–768.Find this resource:

                            Claassen, R. (2013). Public goods, mutual benefits, and majority rule. Journal of Social Philosophy, 44(3), 270–290.Find this resource:

                              Colby, A., Beaumont, E., Ehrlich, T., & Corngold, J. (2007). Educating for democracy: Preparing undergraduates for responsible political engagement. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.Find this resource:

                                Cooley, A. (2009). Liberalism: Notes on a concept for educators and educational researchers. Educational Research Quarterly, 32(4), 3–16.Find this resource:

                                  Costa, M. Victoria. (2010). Rawls, citizenship, and education. London: Routledge.Find this resource:

                                    Curren, R. (1993). Justice, instruction, and the good: The case for public education in Aristotle and Plato's laws, II: Why education is important enough to merit the legislator's attention. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 12(2), 103–126.Find this resource:

                                      Dagovitz, A. (2004). When choice does not matter: Political liberalism, religion and the faith school debate. Journal of Philosophy of Education, 38(2), 165–180.Find this resource:

                                        Davis, G., & Neufeld, B. (2007). Political liberalism, civic education, and educational choice. Social Theory and Practice, 33(1), 47–74.Find this resource:

                                          Davis, A., Winch, C., & Lum, G. (2015). Educational Assessment on Trial. London: Bloomsbury Press.Find this resource:

                                            Enslin, P. & Hedge, N. (2010). International students, export earnings and the demands of global justice, Ethics and Education, 3(2), 107–119.Find this resource:

                                              Fawcett, E. (2014). Liberalism: The life of an idea. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.Find this resource:

                                                Fernandez, C. & Sundstrom, M. (2010). Citizenship education and liberalism: A state of the debate analysis 1990–2010. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 30(4), 363–384.Find this resource:

                                                  Flathman, R. (1996). Liberal versus civic, republican, democratic, and other vocational educations: Liberalism and institutionalized education. Political Theory, 24(1), 4–32.Find this resource:

                                                    Fowler, T. (2011). The limits of civic education: The divergent implications of political and comprehensive liberalism. Theory and Research in Education, 9(1), 87–100.Find this resource:

                                                      Gintis, H., & Bowles, S. (2011). Schooling in capitalist America: Educational reform and the contradictions of economic life. Chicago: Haymarket.Find this resource:

                                                        Gray, J. (2002). Liberalism: Two faces of liberalism. New York: New Press.Find this resource:

                                                          Hand, M. (2006). Against autonomy as an educational aim. Oxford Review of Education, 32(4), 535–550.Find this resource:

                                                            Hensley, B., Galilee-Belfer, M., & Lee, J. J. (2013). What is the greater good? The discourse on public and private roles of higher education in the new economy. Journal of Higher Education Policy and Management, 35(5), 553–567.Find this resource:

                                                              Hostetler, K. (2003). The common good and public education. Educational Theory, 53(3), 347–361.Find this resource:

                                                                Howe, K. (1989). In defense of outcomes-based conceptions of equal educational opportunity. Educational Theory, 39(4), 317–336.Find this resource:

                                                                  Jencks, C. (1988). Whom must we treat equally for educational opportunity to be equal? Ethics, 98(3), 518–533.Find this resource:

                                                                    Johnson, L. B. (1965). Remarks on Signing the Higher Education Act of 1965. Lyndon Baines Johnson Museum of San Marcos.

                                                                    Johnston, J. S. (2007). Right and goods: Procedural liberalism and educational policy. Educational Theory, 57(4), 469–488.Find this resource:

                                                                      Jonathan, R. (1997). Illusory freedoms: Liberalism, education and the market. Chichester, U.K.: Wiley.Find this resource:

                                                                        Jonsson, O. P. (2012). Desert, liberalism and justice in democratic education. Education, Citizenship and Social Justice, 7(2), 103–115.Find this resource:

                                                                          Kimball, B. (2010). The liberal arts tradition: A Documentary History. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.Find this resource:

                                                                            Knight-Abowitz, K. (2014). Publics for public schools: Legitimacy, democracy, and leadership. Paradigm.Find this resource:

                                                                              Kober, N. (2007). Why we still need public schools: Public education for the common good. Washington, DC: Center on Education Policy.Find this resource:

                                                                                Koski, W. S., & Reich, R. (2007). When ‘adequate’ isn't: The retreat from equity in educational law and policy and why it matters. Emory Law Journal, 56(3), 38–42.Find this resource:

                                                                                  Kymlicka, W. (2002). Contemporary political philosophy: An introduction (2d ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                    La Falce, D., & Gomez, S. P. (2007). Political attitudes in the classroom: Is academia the last bastion of liberalism? Journal of Political Science Education, 3(1), 1–20.Find this resource:

                                                                                      Lalik, R., & Hinchman, K. A. (2001). Critical issues: Examining constructions of race in literacy research: Beyond silence and other oppressions of white liberalism. Journal of Literacy Research, 33(3), 529–561.Find this resource:

                                                                                        Levinson, M. (1999). The demands of liberal education. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                          Levinson, M. (2011). Democracy, accountability, and education. Theory and Research in Education, 9(2), 125–144.Find this resource:

                                                                                            Limond, D. (2010). Towards a for-profit university in Dublin: Another brick in the wall of neo-liberalism? Higher Education Review, 43(1), 38–56.Find this resource:

                                                                                              Lynch, K. (2006). Neo-liberalism and marketisation: The implications for higher education. European Educational Research Journal, 5(1), 1–17.Find this resource:

                                                                                                Marshall, T. H. (1950). Citizenship and social class: And other essays. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                  McLaughlin, T. (2008). Liberalism, education and schooling: Essays by T.M. McLaughlin. Charlottesville, VA: Imprint Academic.Find this resource:

                                                                                                    Mill, J. S. (1869). On Liberty. London: Longman, Roberts & Green.Find this resource:

                                                                                                      Mitchell, K. (2001). Education for democratic citizenship: Transnationalism, multiculturalism, and the limits of liberalism. Harvard Educational Review, 71(1), 51–79.Find this resource:

                                                                                                        Montessori, M. (1912). The Montessori method: Scientific pedagogy as applied to child education in the children’s houses. New York: Stokes.Find this resource:

                                                                                                          Morton, J. (2011). The non-cognitive challenge to a liberal egalitarian education. Theory and Research in Education, 9(3), 233–250.Find this resource:

                                                                                                            Neill, A. S. (1995). Summerhill school: A new view of childhood. New York: St. Martin’s Griffin.Find this resource:

                                                                                                              Nozick, R. (1996). Life is not a race. In L. P. Pojman & R. Westmoreland (Eds.), Equality: Selected readings (Ch. 17). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                Nussbaum, M. (1997). Cultivating humanity: A classical defense of reform in liberal education. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                  Oelkers, J. (2000). Democracy and education: About the future of a problem. Studies in Philosophy and Education, 19(1), 3–19.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                    Olssen, M. (2000). Ethical liberalism, education and the ‘New Right’. Journal of Education Policy, 15(5), 481–508.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                      Peristein, D. (2000). Imagined authority: Blackboard Jungle and the project of educational liberalism. Paedagogica Historica: International Journal of the History of Education, 36(1), 407–424.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                        Rawls, J. (1996). Political liberalism. New York: Columbia University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                          Rawls, J. (1999). A theory of justice (Rev. ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                            Reese, W. (1988). Public schools and the common good. Educational Theory, 38(4), 431–440.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                              Rogers, J. (2013). Dewey's liberalisms: Depression-era insights for the Great Recession. International Studies in Sociology of Education, 23(3), 204–223.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                Rousseau, J. J. (1979). Emile, or On Education. New York: Basic Books.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                  Satz, D. (2007). Equality, adequacy, and education for citizenship. Ethics, 117(4), 623–648.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                    Steiner, R. (1996). The education of the child: And early lectures on education. Barrington, MA: Anthroposophic.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                      Strauss, L., & Cropsey, J. (1987). History of political philosophy. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                        Swift, A. (2007). Political Philosophy. Malden, MA: Polity Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                          Torres, C. A. (2002). Comparative education: Requiem for liberalism? Comparative Education Review 46(4), iii–xi.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                            Weinstein, J. R. (2013). Adam Smith’s pluralism: Rationality, education, and the moral sentiments. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                              Wiborg. S. (2013). Neo-liberalism and universal state education: the cases of Denmark, Norway and Sweden 1980–2011. Comparative Education, 49(4), 407–423.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                Willett, C. (1998). Theorizing multiculturalism: A guide to the current debate. Oxford: Blackwell.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                  Williams, B. (1962). The idea of equality. In P. Laslett and W. G. Runciman (Eds.), Philosophy, politics, and society, second series. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.Find this resource:

                                                                                                                                                    Wolff, J. (2006). An introduction to political philosophy (Rev. ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.Find this resource:


                                                                                                                                                      (1.) See Strauss, L., & Cropsey, J. (1987), History of Political Philosophy (Chicago: University of Chicago Press), 717.

                                                                                                                                                      (2.) See Brown v. Board of Education, 347 U.S. 483 (1954).

                                                                                                                                                      (3.) See The United Nations. Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).

                                                                                                                                                      (4.) See Mill, J. S. (1869), On Liberty (London: Longman, Roberts & Green).