The word, ‘liberal’, is both a chameleon and a paradox. In Australia, it is the name given to the major right-of-centre political party, yet in the U.S. it is a term often used to describe those on the political left, which particularly jars when discussing those who promote illiberal speech codes and cancel culture. In the U.K. the word ‘liberal’ is associated with the Liberal Democrats – an eccentric grouping with no obvious stance other than a love for the European Union.
And yet I would describe myself as a liberal. This is because I believe that people should generally be free to do as they wish as long as this does not impinge upon the right of others to do the same. Clearly, this is complex and we have to work out the specifics of applying such a principle. We need to limit the choices of children who have not yet developed a full understanding of the world. Drinking alcohol may be fine if you are an adult, but drinking and driving is a problem because it affects others. What about lighting fireworks in your garden? You might want to consider your neighbours and their pets.
There is always some give and take because it is pretty hard to do anything without affecting others. When I lived in Watford, England, the family a few doors down held a huge wedding that blocked the street and made it hard for the rest of us to park our cars. So they brought us all some chicken biryani and we wished them congratulations and everyone was happy.
A small-l liberal approach may strike some as a quaint, possibly old-fashioned way of organising the social and political world. Instead, arguments are now often framed around rights. Yesterday, I tweeted the following poll, the results of which are perhaps predictable:
Who are these 3% of respondents who do not agree? I suspect they are mostly trying to disrupt the poll. However, it is just possible that some of them hold a more sophisticated view. Perhaps they object to the framing of the question as being about a ‘right’ because rights crash into each other and, when they do, they result in a problem that cannot easily be solved.
Take, for instance, those who sincerely believe that all children have a right to be included in a regular classroom. Do these people also believe that all children have a right to the best possible education? Do they believe that teachers have a right to be safe at work? Do they believe all children have a right to be safe at school? Do they believe that parents have a right to decide what is best for their child?
Any and all of these rights may collide, depending on the situation, and so the simple repetition of them does not really help. That’s where a liberal model may be better. What we need – and what we are distinctly lacking – is a more practical and perhaps less principled discussion. That’s what Rebecca Urban opened up in the detailed and informative article she wrote for yesterday’s edition of The Australian. We need a little less magical thinking.
For instance, let’s examine the claim that, “If inclusive education is not working, it’s not inclusive education.” Where do we go with that? Such a claim allows for no possibility that inclusion may ever fail. It is essentially a profession of faith in inclusion, not an evidence-based position. In fact, due to its unfalsifiability, it can never an evidence-based position.
In New Brunswick, Canada, a highly inclusive approach to inclusion has been adopted. And yet this system is far from perfect, with some schools apparently putting in place informal arrangements where children with particular difficulties are sent home early. It is not good enough to just assert rights in this situation. New Brunswick is being heralded as a model to be followed across the world and so advocates need to focus on practical strategies: what they want teachers and schools to actually do. This is not the same as lecturing them on what not to do.
By instinct, I suspect most teachers are small-l liberal. They are in the job because they want to make a positive change in the world but they are pragmatic about what this involves. If campaigners want to help, they should rely on a little less hectoring and a little more chicken biryani.