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Published online by Cambridge University Press:  14 December 2011

Anthony O'Hear
Philosophy, University of Buckingham


In this paper I show how modern democratic states are likely to be inimical to traditional liberal education. Drawing on theoretical considerations and recent history I show how any attempt to promote traditional educational values through state interventions, such as national curricula or state regulation, is bound to be illusory. The preservation of liberal education will best be served by the wholesale removal of education from the progressive state and its bureaucracies.

Research Article
Copyright © Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation 2012

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1 Ezra Pound, The Cantos of Ezra Pound (New York: New Directions Books, 1996). Pound's dates were 1885–1972. An American by birth, he lived much of his life in Europe. In the first half of the twentieth century he was one of the most influential figures in literature throughout the world, both because of his own poetry and because of his assistance to and promotion of others (including T. S. Eliot, Ernest Hemingway and James Joyce). His Cantos were a lifelong sequence of poems: although the first group were only actually published in 1934, he maintained that he began them in 1904–1905, and he was still working on them when he died. The Cantos (117 of them plus fragments) are an attempt to bind up in poetic form our (or Pound's) debt to the past where it really matters, and where, for the most part, it has been forgotten. All of Pound's obsessions are there—his admiration for Confucius and John Adams, his love of the Malatesta Temple in Rimini and of the Odyssey, his hatred of usury as the enemy of generative love and fertility, his (qualified) support for Mussolini. This last led to him broadcasting for Mussolini during the war, after which he was incarcerated by the Americans in a cage outside Pisa, and subsequently (until 1958) in a lunatic asylum in Washington DC. The Pisan Cantos recount what led to his disastrous decision to broadcast, and in poetry of a very high order, his descent into hell in Pisa and of his re-connection while he was in the cage with the natural and human worlds.

2 The First Canto (appearing first in A Draft of XXX Cantos, originally published in 1934), is based on the 1538 (Latin) translation of the Odyssey by Andreas Divus Justinopolitanus, a copy of which Pound picked up in Paris around 1908, as he tells us.

3 John Dewey, Democracy and Education (1916) (New York: Free Press, 1997), see chap. 16.

4 John Dewey, “The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy,” in The Influence of Darwinism on Philosophy and Other Essays in Contemporary Thought (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 1951). In my analysis of Dewey, I have drawn on Bradley C. S. Watson, Living Constitution, Dying Faith (Wilmington, Delaware: ISI Books, 2009), chap. 3.

5 I am referring here to Thomas Kuhn's argument in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago: Chicago University Press, 1961), passim, that the core premises of ruling scientific models are never really refuted when the models in question are replaced, but only passed over and forgotten—with the possibility of being revived in new forms in the future.

6 John Henry Newman, The Idea of a University (1858) (Indiana: University of Notre Dame Press, 1982) esp. chap. 5.

7 J. S. Mill, On Liberty (1859) (as in Utilitarianism, ed., Mary Warnock, London: Collins/Fontana), chap. 5.

8 Ibid., 239–40.

9 John Dewey, The School and Society (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1907), 19.

10 England: because due to various constitutional complications, the National Curriculum voted on and approved by the UK Parliament, including MPs from Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, applies only to England.

11 Cf. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Emile or On Education, trans. Christopher Kelly and Allan Bloom (1762; Dartmouth: Dartmouth College, 2009).

12 Cf. Matthew Arnold, Culture and Anarchy (London: Smith Elder 1882).

13 An interesting test of this claim will be the current situation in England, where there is a government vigorously implementing what it believes to be a liberal education agenda. But if I am right, the outcome will do little more than embed yet more deeply the grip the state has on the system—to the ultimate detriment of the present government's aims.

14 The research for this paper was undertaken while the author was a Visiting Scholar at the Social Philosophy and Policy Center, Bowling Green State University.