Liberal Education, Civic Education, and the Canadian Regime: Past Principles and Present Challenges

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Liberal Education, Civic Education, and the Canadian Regime: Past Principles and Present Challenges. David W. Livingstone, ed.. Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2015.


Every few years a slew of books appear decrying the demise of liberal education in the United States. The latest bunch includes Fareed Zakaria’s In Defense of a Liberal Education, Michael S. Roth’s Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep, Andrew Delbanco’s College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be, Martha C. Nussbaum’s Not For Profit, and Mark William Roche’s Why Choose the Liberal Arts? These books, along with numerous others, warn about the apocalyptic fate that awaits America if liberal education disappears and, to starve off this outcome, make various arguments about need and value of liberal education for American democracy. But what about the state of liberal education in other countries, especially in those liberal democracies that share similar social, economic, and political characteristics of America? What, for example, does a country like Canada have to tell us about the state of liberal education there?

David W. Livingstone’s Liberal Education, Civic Education, and the Canadian Regime answers these questions with an account of liberal education in Canada: its origins, development, and relationship to civic education and politics. The book illuminates how Canadian liberal education is part of the tradition of political thought that stretches back to Socrates, and how this tradition helped formed the Canadian Constitution and its understanding of citizenship. The dangers of the recent decline of liberal education in Canada is a neglect of the country’s political history that negatively affects its citizenship where politics is perceived only as techniques to obtain power rather than to act according to principles. Livingstone and his contributors call for a rejuvenation of liberal education in Canada in the hope that students will return to study the regime’s founding principles and thereby revitalize civic education and a sense of citizenship that sees itself as part of the larger tradition of political thought.

The volume itself consists of an introduction, twelve chapters, and an index that examines liberal education and its relationship to the Canadian Constitution, civic education and contemporary politics. In the introduction, Livingstone describes the crisis of liberal education that confronts Canadian universities where it is either neglected or defended on utilitarian grounds. The result is that Canadians have forgotten the principles of their Constitution, viewing it as a hollow shell that can be filled with whatever content they choose. Recognizing that a tension between liberal and civic education is inevitable, Livingstone nevertheless contends that a return to liberal education will have a partly curative effect for the regime and its citizens. Liberal education consequently does only provide economic utility to its students but also a public duty: an understanding of citizenship that is anchored in the history of political thought, which is vital for the health and maintenance of any regime.

In the first chapter, “When Canadians Rewrote Their History: Discarding ‘Liberty’ and Embracing ‘Community,'” Janet Ajzenstat examines how liberal education, civic education, and the Canadian regime intersect. Since the 1960s, Canadian historians have neglected the statesmen, documents, and institutions that founded the Canadian regime in favor of cultural explanations. Ajzenstat corrects this deficiency by showing how first principles, like unalienable rights and popular sovereignty, were essential in the founding of the regime. This rehabilitative task is continued in the third and fourth chapters where two Canadian founders are examined. In “Constituting Canadians: George Brown’s Confederation Address,” Geoffrey Kellow focuses on the speech George Brown gave in defense of Confederation, a speech not republished in its entirely in Canada since 1882. In his speech, Brown not only defends the Quebec Resolutions and appeals to his fellow Canadians to adopt them but also identifies the principles that undergird the Resolutions that forms a new national identity. In chapter four, “Thomas D’Arcy McGee’s Civic Paideia for Canada,” Livingstone shows how another father of the Confederation learned through liberal education about the potential dangers to the new regime. Through his study of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, McGee concludes that democracy favors equality at the cost of liberty which in turn impedes the advancement of merit and talent. To protect liberty, McGee believes that a liberal education for its citizens was the best remedy against democratic egalitarianism: citizens would learn about the fundamental principles of human nature and politics and thereby would be willing to accept and defend a regime rooted in liberty.

Other prominent Canadian thinkers after the founders also are examined. In the second chapter, “Liberal Education Embedded in Civic Education for Responsible Government: The Case of John George Bourinot,” John von Heyking shows how the ideas of Canada’s first political scientist could reinvigorate democratic citizenship in Canada today. The notions of self-government and responsible citizenship as explained in his textbooks are crucial for a democracy to function in any age. In the fifth chapter, “Canadian Guardians: The Educational Statesmanship of Egerton Ryerson,” Colin Pearce reviews Ryerson’s public education project of teaching teachers who would be forming and guiding Canada’s political and intellectual culture. Drawing upon both classical Greek philosophy and Christian theology, Ryerson calls for a moral formation grounded in both sources to defend liberal democratic principles, like representative government.

The theme of religion is continued in the next two chapters. In “Marshall McLuhan, George Grant, and the Ancient-Modern-Protestant Quarrel in Canada,”Grant Havers analyzes the thought of these two Canadian theorists. For Havers, both McLuhan and Grant confuse Protestantism with modernity as being responsible for the waning influence of liberal and Catholic education in Canada. Rather than being anti-intellectual, Protestants have sound reasons to question the validity of a synthesis of classical philosophy and Christian theology, and, by doing so, may offer a lesson in moderating our pride today, especially our faith in technology where we may become unwilling slaves to it. But the prospectus of a contemporary religious revival is doubtful, as Ryan Topping argues in “Catholic Education and the Culture of Life.” The continual retreat of Catholic institutions in Canadian higher education since the 1960s – from fifty-seven colleges and universities outside of Quebec to nineteen today – is not just a loss of liberal education but a tradition of natural justice and moral reasoning in the public square. The absence of any alternative to the state leaves only a conception of human dignity and rights that the state can both confer and deny as it chooses.

The invocation of Tocqueville to examine Canadian liberal education is the theme of the next two chapters: Richard Myers’s “Liberal Education and the Democratic Soul: Lessons from Alexis de Tocqueville” and Luigi Bradizza’s “Democracy in Canada: What Tocqueville Can Teach Canadians.” In his chapter, Myers illustrates the effects that democratic egalitarianism has on education where it becomes seen only in utilitarian terms. This utilitarian or “corporatized” account of education leaves little room for liberal education which is perceived as useless in equipping students to make money. However, following Tocqueville’s recommendation, Myers suggest that the role of the teacher is to correct this democratic egalitarianism by having students study the classical tradition so they can recognize the disparity between them and the greatest writers and thinkers of the ages. For Bradizza, Tocqueville also is relevant to understand the Canadian regime in spite of the author’s focus on America. Given the key similarities between the United States and Canada, Tocqueville is useful in understanding how a democratic people’s love of equality at the expense of liberty can lead to the administrative state. Citizenship is no longer understood as an active participation in politics but as being a passive subject managed by experts. According to Bradizza, Canada is further along this path than the United States with its more “compassionate” values of universal health care, welfare, and equality of results.

One of Tocqueville’s preventive prescriptions to the administrative state is civil society. Although she looks at Aristotle rather than Tocqueville in her chapter, “Ties of Friendship and Citizenship in a Globalized World,” Leah Bradshaw shows how Aristotelian friendship is a preferable form of civil society than globalized accounts. Bradshaw contrasts Aristotle’s understanding of citizenship, where citizens share a common understanding of justice, with global theorists’ definitions, where there is no difference in obligation between one’s citizen (friend) and one’s stranger. For the contemporary Canadian regime, the state must be able to provide an account of justice in order to integrate its citizens, especially immigrants, if it truly wants to be a political community. What exactly this account is and how should it be accomplished is a matter of public debate for Bradshaw.

Unfortunately for Canadians, this debate has not been among citizens but dictated to them by their Court. In his chapter, “The Supreme Court of Canada as Moral Tutor: Religious Freedom, Civil Society, and Charter Values,” Thomas Bateman argues that the Court instead of citizens have taken up the task of civic education in extending the reach of the Charter. The Charter originally was understood as protecting individuals from government encroachment on their fundamental freedoms. But now the Court views the Charter as a guide for the growth of government according to progressive values. Bateman explores these issues within the context of the Charter’s freedom of religion provisions, illuminating how the assumptions that guide the Court’s development of Charter values are not consistent either with the Constitution or the Charter itself.

The final chapter, “The Hobbesian Foundations of a Modern Illiberal Education,” is Travis D. Smith’s analysis of how the Canadian regime, particularly in its education, is partially modeled after Hobbesian political hedonism. With material concerns preeminent and any education that would awaken higher ones contrary to the regime, universities must fall within the supervision of the state and vocational and utilitarian-driven education must replace liberal ones. The Hobbesian politics of recognition, where potential crimes of “hatred” must be dealt with by the state, manifests itself in human rights tribunals and university classes on “sensitivity.” Although Smith acknowledges that Canada is not wholly founded on Hobbesian principles, he sees enough parallels between the two that makes liberal education difficult, if not outright impossible in Canada.

The neglect of the founding documents, statesmen, and principles of the regime; the collapse of religion and their institutions in Canadian life; and the democratic love of equality and materialist passion for utility all have contributed to a decline in liberal education in Canada. To fill this void is a weightless civic education, unmoored as Canadians have lost touch with their own past and the principles that had formed them. This volume hopefully is the first step on the road of recovery of this history that ultimately will revitalize liberal and civic education not only in Canada but in all western liberal democracies. For those interested in the collapse of liberal and civic education and how to recover it, Liberal Education, Civic Education, and the Canadian Regime: Past Principles and Present Challenges is a must read.


Also see Paul Corey’s review of the same book here.

This was originally published with the same title in Perspectives on Political Science 46:1 (2017): 79-81. 

Lee Trepanier

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Lee Trepanier is a Professor of Political Science, Department Chair, and University Pre-Law Advisor at Saginaw Valley State University in Michigan. He is author and editor of several books and also is the editor of VoegelinView (2016-present) and editor of Lexington Books series Politics, Literature, and Film (2013-present).