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Classical Liberalism Versus Instrumentalism

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    Until the shake-up of the Higher Education system in Britain, which started in the sixties with the expansion of Higher Education and which culminated in the early 1990s in the transformation of the former polytechnics into universities, the educational aim at universities had been firmly rooted within a liberal philosophy of education. The key pillars of this philosophy are the pursuit of knowledge and rational autonomy; the development of the individual student towards independence of mind applied within the confines of a body of knowledge established as ‘truth’ in order to advance the discipline. These classical Enlightenment ideals were emancipatory - both for the individual in his striving for betterment, and for society, although this emancipation served particularly the emerging middle-classes in the 19th century where the discourse of rational argument and cultural discourse were developed in the coffee-houses in England as part of an oppositional stance to the absolutism of a hierarchical society (Eagleton, 1984: 9-12).

    The traditional liberal paradigm, with its notion of ‘promoting the general powers of the mind’ (Robbins (1963), quoted by Dearing, 1997: 71), has come under attack from several angles. One of these criticisms relates to the exclusivity of Higher Education towards certain groups in society. This is also an issue of concern addressed by Dearing (1997) in his report. This concern may now seem superfluous since, in the last 20 years or so, the university system has undergone a huge increase in the number of school leavers going to university. Whether this mass expansion was due to an instrumentalist neo-liberal response to the need for flexible labour markets or out of a liberal concern with equality is of course debatable. Nevertheless, the traditional Russell Group of universities still admit a proportionally higher number of students from middle-class backgrounds in comparison to the so-called ‘teaching universities’. Criticisms have also been directed at the philosophical underpinnings of the traditional liberal humanist paradigm. Its notion of emphasizing individuality, rather than seeing individuals as being rooted in society, and its notion of the pursuit of ‘truth’ is one which does not fit in a post-modern era. Jonathan (1995: 75-91) points out that modern liberalism has become free from the social baggage and the emancipatory idiom of its classical origins and argues for an examination of the ontological and ethical questions which are central to the development of consciousness and to the relation between the individual and the social. She points to the theoretical inadequacies of a paradigm which aims to develop maximal individual autonomy of each, for the eventual social benefit of all. The causal connection between these (individual autonomy and a socially better world) remain unexplained within liberalism, Jonathan says, and do not provide a theoretical position to reconcile the ‘twin contemporary pulls of illegitimate value imposition and incoherent relativism’. She argues for reconstructing the theory of liberal education within a social theory; reconstructing the concept of autonomy as a socially located value. The key issue which Jonathan points out regarding the apparent conflict of the development of the individual within the society is one that is also relevant for language teachers. A concern with the individual finds resonance in a new development within language teaching where pedagogies are shifting attention from a fixed authoritative curriculum to a focus on learners’ identities and subjectivities (cf. Phipps, 2007; Fenhoulhet and Ros i Solé, 2010 and 2013; Quist, 2013).

    As Apple (1990) points out, theories, policies and, practices involved in education are inherently political in nature. Changes within the educational system thus rarely, if ever, come only from philosophical considerations, but are politically motivated. This was certainly the case in the 1980s when a huge paradigm shift occurred in education. At many universities, education came to be seen in terms of a market philosophy: education as responding to economic needs. Education in the 21st century is now not solely described in terms of the development of the individual and rational autonomy. Instead, the need to fit in with the demands of a fast-changing world and the importance of the global economy have started to define curricula. Dearing (1997) emphasized the need to extend the - what he saw as still relevant - liberal aim of ‘training the power of the mind’ to include the needs of the world at large. The paradigm shift from a liberal towards an instrumental view of education has been particularly pronounced within language teaching at universities. The rationale for language teaching has therefore changed from a view of increasing knowledge about culture and developing one’s critical and analytical ability to one which is couched in a discourse which emulates such values as the need to regain a competitive edge, overcoming a shortage of skills, not losing business to competitors abroad and so on.

    The impact of the instrumental philosophy on language teaching has been phenomenal, but not always in a beneficial way. In the next section, I discuss the language teaching approaches at university within these two paradigms and evaluate their contribution to the educational aim of developing critical language users. I will look at their strengths and weaknesses and suggest that the implementation of communicative approaches - in their extreme form - have contributed to the lack of status of language teaching. I discuss the approaches in their most ‘pure’ form although, naturally, one could expect that teachers ‘borrow’ from either paradigm.

    This page titled Classical Liberalism Versus Instrumentalism is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Gerdi Quist (Ubiquity Press) .

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