Liberalism: Notes on a Concept for Educators and Educational Researchers

By Cooley, Aaron | Educational Research Quarterly, June 2009 | Go to article overview

Liberalism: Notes on a Concept for Educators and Educational Researchers


Cooley, Aaron, Educational Research Quarterly


This paper investigates the history and concept of liberalism from its first uses to its most modern incarnations. The paper aims to serve as a primer for educators and educational researchers to better understand liberalism and its place as a foundational and controversial discourse in politics, social science, and education. Through reference to diverse sources, the essay inquires into the origins, nature, and usage of the term in multiple contexts. The paper concludes by speculating on the future use and applicability of this term.

Liberalism has become a controversial term in large part because its meaning can vary so much depending on its use and context. Its most common usage at present is as a term of derision in American political debates. In the current politicai environment of the United States, conservatives often try to tarnish Democratic candidates by calling them "liberal." The implication is that "liberal" is a political epithet; it implies that the Democratic candidate has a "bleeding heart" and believes in the excesses of "60s era liberalism." The use of liberalism in this context (however deplorable) is not the primary concern of this essay. Further, dus essay is not particularly concerned with liberalism's former use in British politics per se, even though the present Conservative Party in the British government formerly went by the moniker of the "Liberal Party."

The concern of this paper is to give the history of what is more accurately described as political liberalism. The context, in which I wish to proceed to describe liberalism, is in the field of political theory. The paper moves forward in the following sections: 1) basic definitions and underiying concepts of the term; 2) definitions from reference sources in political theory and political philosophy literature; 3) historical and recent works that address or critique the concept of liberalism; and 4) speculation on the future^of the idea of liberalism in the United States and the world.

The OED: Where Else Could One Start in Defining Liberalism?

The first task in better understanding liberalism is to define the word and then to look at its etymology. Obviously, the first place to look is die Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Unfortunately, the OED's definition of liberalism is not particularly enlightening. The OED states that liberalism is: "The holding of liberal opinions in politics or dieology; the political tenets characteristic of a Liberal" (OED, 1989a, para. 1). The first use of die term was in 1819; during this period, the term was most commonly employed in religious and political conflicts.

Clearly, to better understand liberalism, one must take die next step and investigate, at least briefly, die definition of the term "liberal." In this case, the OED explodes with its usual assortment of definitions, etymologies, quotations, and timelines. The term, liberal, was first used around 1375, over 400 years before the term, liberalism, was first used in print In these early references, die meaning of liberal was associated with a certain societal position and its reflection in education. The OED defines it as:

Originally, the distinctive epithet of those 'arts' or 'sciences' (see ART T) that were considered Nvorthy of a &ee man'; opposed to servile or mechanical. In later use, of condition, pursuits, occupations: Pertaining to or suitable to persons of superior social station; 'becoming a gendeman' 0.). Now rare, exc. of education, culture, etc., with mixture of senses 3 and 4: Directed to general intellectual enlargement and refinement; not narrowly restricted to the requirements of technical or professional training. Freq. in uberai arts. (OED, 1989, para. 2)

The earliest entries for this definition come to us in Old English, making their meaning more difficult to discern. One of the first clear uses of the word comes in die late 170Os from Burke and appropriately illustrates the hierarchal history of the term: "1757 BURKE Abridgm. …

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