A Contest of Ideas: Teaching Politics in Australia

House of Representatives in Action [Parliament of Australia, CC BY-NC-ND 3.0]

One of the most challenging aspects of teaching politics in Australia today is the rate of change in societal attitudes that appears to be out-pacing our political institutions. But Westminster-based liberal democracies, supported by the liberal arts tradition, have evolved and proven to be resilient over historical periods of great upheaval. I argue that we should not give up on a liberal education just yet.

Underpinning my views on teaching politics are some classic texts, including Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan, John Locke's Two Treatises on Government and A Letter on Toleration, Jean-Jacques Rousseau's The Social Contract, John Stuart Mill's On Liberty, and C.B. MacPherson's Life and Times of Liberal Democracy. Each of these texts presents different ideas that have been incorporated into our political system over time.

While prevailing senses of manners, etiquette, and ethics have changed, liberal democracy has been the greatest engine room of ideas in human history. The results include higher standards of living, increased longevity, and greater choice for individuals.

Most importantly, within this system, individual citizens have rights and responsibilities that are central to the system's survival. Balance is achieved not by mandates, but by what former Prime Minister John Howard referred to as "a contest of ideas" that are freely expressed in the public sphere. As John Stuart Mill argued, even bad ideas should be allowed to be aired so that these ideas can be determined to be bad by the body politic. To prevent bad ideas from being aired only enables these ideas to fester and take on a life of their own.

Free speech in a liberal democracy, just like free, fair, and regular elections, provides a safety valve for citizens to let off steam: a form of bloodless revolution if you will. But to understand our rights and responsibilities is not something that suddenly appears from a happy accident. It requires a liberal education. For me, teaching politics in Australia is about teaching students how to think, not what to think. 

Teaching students how to think relies on a long tradition. Much like Sir Isaac Newton standing "on the shoulders of giants", our students will be given a better vantage point to grapple with current and future problems if they embrace this tradition. Even the most radical teacher began at the beginning - while happy accidents can and do benefit our society, it is too speculative an approach to leave our common good to mere chance.

In The Great Conversation, Robert M. Hutchins argued that the great upheaval of the first fifty years of the twentieth century did not invalidate nor make irrelevant the tradition of a liberal arts education. In a liberal democracy, that tradition is still relevant today.

Nonetheless, one of the major challenges to our liberal democracy is not from outside the citadel, but from within. Contemporary politics is awash with calls to silence opposition as if the contest of ideas should be limited to the ideas chosen by one side or the other. In the United States and New Zealand, incumbent political leaders are suggesting that democracy itself is under threat from the contest of ideas that is the very stuff of liberal democracies.

In my own pedagogical approach, teaching students how to think means that I have to overcome my own inherent political biases. I have to step back from the contest of ideas and find a way for citizens to make their own sense of the world we live in. That is no easy task. But as teachers, we ought not to think our students are simple sponges that soak up what we say.

Students bring to their studies their own inherent biases, their experiences, and the ideas they have been exposed to prior to their education. A liberal education challenges those ideas as a matter of course.

I often say to my students that a liberal education is a choice, but a choice between the red and the blue pill as in the movie The Matrix. Take the blue pill and one can live in ignorance, for ignorance is bliss. Or take the red pill, and be exposed to the unsettling and transformative "truth".  For one can never go back once a liberal education begins.

That transformative, life-changing power of a liberal education brings together the best of tradition with the best of the present. By presenting the methods of comparative politics, we bring into sharp relief differences between societies that help us to see beyond our own limited experiences. Bring in the scientific method, and we have an opportunity to remove our biases. Study political history and philosophy, and we can understand ways to live a good life, and so on.

These are just some of the ways that I approach the teaching of politics in Australia. I do not suggest that my approach is the right way, but I hope my words here contribute to the conversation and that some of my more provocative writing contributes to the contest of ideas. 

My slides from the presentation are available below.