Creative Empowerment and
Liberal Education: Rights and Advocacies
Speech delivered by Siegfried Herzog at the first Philippine
Open Education Forum, Pasay City, 23 April 2008
When talking about education, we need to realize that this is not
a technical issue, but one that is shaped by our political and religious
preferences. Socialists, conservatives and liberals have different
views of what education is and what it should achieve, and the same
goes for Catholics, Muslims and atheists.
In the name of intellectual honesty, I would like to make my
preferences explicit. I will look at the issue from the perspective
of Liberalism, the political philosophy that has decisively shaped
our modern institutions. Liberalism believes in a society that
is made up of free individuals who bind themselves by a social
contract to be ruled on the basis of laws. It delegates power
to the government only for a time. Government is legitimized by
a formal election process in which all citizens are given an equal
vote. Its economy is based on the market mechanism, where people
can freely engage in economic activities of their choice and resources
are allocated on the basis of supply and demand —- subject
to reasonable constraints. It places individual liberty at the
center of its value system. It affirms equality, but this means
equality of access and equality before the law, not equality of
Individual liberty means being allowed to make choices. Society
will work better the more these choices are rational. The market
mechanism works on the assumption that people are, by and large,
able to make rational choices. So does democracy. Crucially, this
implies that we have to accept that some people sometimes make
bad choices, harming themselves. The alternative, namely having
the state baby-sit the whole population, has much worse side effects.
The state is not a neutral nanny, but a political organization
controlled by a political coalition. It will tend to act in the
political interest of that coalition. Why should we let it make
decisions that we could make on our own?
Education therefore has some clear objectives in a liberal context.
It has to enable people to make rational choices because that
ability is what society is based on. From this will flow a distinct
set of tasks for a liberal education system. Note that authoritarian
societies do not think this should be stressed.
Second, there is the objective to empower people. Education has
been, and is today even more, the most effective instrument of
social mobility. Education thus has to enable all citizens to
tap their full human potential, to be able to earn a living, provide
for their family and realize their dreams. Liberalism believes
in equal access and opportunity, and education is the best instrument
to mitigate the inequality of one’s birth, the disadvantage
people from poor or dysfunctional families have. This implies
specific tasks for a liberal education system. Again, we note
that societies that value inherited status will tend to neglect
Third, there is the utilitarian objective of providing skills
needed by the economy. Most people realize that the product of
education is human capital, and that human capital is an important
ingredient in economic development. This is what almost all societies
can agree on.
Therefore we look at distinct sets of things that education has
to deliver: First and foremost are the basic skills: numeracy,
literacy, basic knowledge about physical and social sciences and
foreign languages. This is the basic toolbox, so to speak, and
it is indispensable for all three objectives outlined above. As
these skills are formed in the first years of schooling, special
emphasis should be laid there. The reality, sadly, is very often
Second, education has to develop the ability to find, judge and
process information. This is often called learning to learn. This
is much more important than in ages past because the stock of
human knowledge is not just rising, it’s exploding. It’s
devaluing a lot of old knowledge in the process. People need to
be able to keep up with the flow of information in their field,
and the requirements can change drastically. My cousins went to
nine years basic schooling and vocational training to become skilled
mechanics. When they did that the skills needed to be a mechanic
had not changed all that much in the preceding 50 years. However
in their professional lives, it did. They had to learn the use
of computers. These came with manuals in English, which they hadn’t
really studied in school. They also had to travel the globe for
their companies and train people from Malaysia and China. This
rapid expansion of new knowledge will accelerate, and we have
to prepare people for this. Again, this is needed for all three
objectives, but not always provided in the education system.
Third, education should enable us to acquire a critical mindset.
With all kinds of information at our fingertips, we need to be
able to assess it critically, to separate substantive analysis
and facts from propaganda, lies and tall tales. This skill is
exceedingly important both in our professional and in our political
lives. A banker needs it to assess and weigh credit risks; a businessman
to assess investment opportunities; a policeman to assess a crime
scene and the suspects and a soldier to assess a battlefield situation.
Everyone needs it to plan his personal finances wisely. Voters
need it to make wise choices at the ballot booth and to decide
if they should support various causes. The pope reminds us that
this mindset is also needed to develop our spirituality. However,
many governments and many societies are uncomfortable with this.
Governments don’t like citizens that question their actions
and get involved in politics. Societies that stress obedience
and respect don’t like young people questioning their elders.
Here we have a genuine conflict of interests. Liberalism thinks
a critical mindset is indispensable and accepts that this often
tends to undermine social stability to some extent. We might understand
this at the rational level; see that the only thing that is constant
is change. Yet, as human beings, we crave stability because our
DNA, our emotional operating system, was formed in an age where
noticeable technological and social change did not happen over
the span of one lifetime.
Fourth, education should develop values and sensibilities. The
human condition is not remade by the information age. As I mentioned,
our DNA program comes from the Stone Age; hence, insights into
human nature do not lose value. Our artistic and aesthetic sensibilities
also change much more slowly, which is why art and literature
from ages long past can still move us and teach us something valuable.
Human beings need a sense of the wider human culture, and education
should develop that sensibility. The big temptation is to impose
a specific set of values and an appreciation of only one’s
own culture. This is a grave danger. In the age of nationalism,
nation after nation, Germany included, has misused education to
do nation-building. They try to imprint government-approved version
of a nation’s culture and history on young minds by suppressing
native languages, inconvenient historical facts and minority cultures
in the schools. Liberalism, by contrast, would demand that these
values and sensibilities stay wedded to the critical mindset and
the constant learning process, avoiding false certainties and
instead stressing the ability to appreciate.
What role can open education play in this context? Open education
is a growing worldwide movement to develop free educational content
and tools to be used by everyone. It promises to revolutionize
education by providing teachers and students with more information
and learning instruments. By doing that, education will also partly
migrate from the fixed classroom concept into cyberspace. It can
be of special importance to poor countries where governments do
not have the resources to produce teaching materials for state
schools in sufficient quality and quantity. It would also potentially
enable or strengthen new forms of schooling like home-schooling.
Before we look at this in light of the liberal education objectives,
let me just say a few words of caution. How human beings learn
is a complex process and is probably different to some degree
with each individual. But for most people, a teacher has been,
and will probably remain, a vital figure. Human beings are social
animals, and we usually like to learn by observing and questioning.
The human interaction-model of student-teacher is so widespread
across cultures and time that it is reasonable to assume that
it cannot be fully replaced by technology. At the university level,
the cluster of great minds that enables interaction and networking
between intellectual peers arose in the middle ages and has survived
to the present for a good reason. E-mailing and videoconferencing
will enable larger networks, but they probably cannot replace
personal interaction. When we discuss open education, we have
to see it in this context. It is not a magical cure for all problems
in the education system, and the quality of teachers will remain
a critical variable.
Compared to that, the technical problems seem less crucial. The
way the Internet and connectivity have spread, it is reasonable
to assume that the digital divide will be overcome rather quickly
in terms of physical facilities.
What, then, is the real advantage of open education? If we look
at the four products that we want from a liberal education system,
it certainly can help in the acquisition of basic skills. It gives
teachers and students vastly more access to information than was
previously available. It makes the job of the teacher easier by
helping him better structure his lessons, provide more examples
and employ novel teaching methods. Students can learn more autonomously,
explore the subject on their own – IF they like, a big if
– and they can be taught to do research early on. So on
one level, it lowers costs and expands opportunities to achieve
the objectives of the education system.
It is also a great tool in learning to learn. Open education
demonstrates to the teacher that there is a need for him to provide
further learning, and there are other ways to do the job. Students
learn to search for and process information — accessing
open education resources is already part of that process. It also
teaches students that the lesson in the classroom is not the last
word on any given subject. There are many different unexplored
aspects out there, and new knowledge is constantly added.
It also helps to develop a critical mindset. Students get sensitized
early on that not only is there a lot of information out there,
it is often contradictory. They have to assess the credibility
of their sources. They have to make a judgement on what to trust,
and they realize that facts are less hard than we would like to
Open education can also help in developing values and sensibilities.
Not only does it give a better access to important philosophical,
spiritual and literary texts as well as pictures of artworks and
loads of music data, it also enables students to access information
on how others feel and have felt about these issues. Students
can compare reactions to ideas and to art over time and across
In order to achieve these objectives with the help of open education,
the quality of the teacher remains important. He should direct
students where to find information, how to search for more and
not to forget to look at opposing points of view. He should also
teach the students how to assess the credibility of sources, how
to cross-check information and how to arrive at a reasoned judgement.
The teacher will also be needed to keep the students to their
tasks, as the Internet offers countless diversions that tend to
be very attractive.
When we look at lifelong learning, open education is also important
to adults that need or want to learn more about a given subject.
They do not really need a teacher to show them the way if they
acquired the learning skills and a critical judgement in their
school days. They can benefit from open education for their professional
work and for making more informed choices, from investments to
voting to spiritual growth. They can also interact with people
from around the globe who share a similar passion, even if it
is for a computer game, experiencing a wider humanity in the process.
If we look at the wider political context, open education has
great advantages from the liberal point of view. It breaks the
monopoly of information that governments often exercise on teaching
content. It thus makes nationalistic projects all the more difficult
to pursue in schools. It will give students access to information
which they need to question things happening around them, and
will thus enable them to become more active and more critical
citizens. Crucially, open education is part and parcel of the
right to information, which is becoming more and more crucial
as a fundamental right in a free society.
As in all human endeavours, there are dangers. Open education
might widen disparities if access is not equally spread; some
people worry that open education will undermine value formation
and foster an anything-goes mentality. It might empower the intellectually
curious and leave the more practical-minded behind.
These are real concerns, but liberals tend to accept them as
a legitimate price to pay. Nothing in human progress is ever unequivocally
good; we always pay some price. But much of what can be said against
open education will be said against the Internet as such. Students
will access it, one way or another. It is far better to let them
access it first with the help of a teacher who teaches them how
to make optimal use of it. Not everyone will use that opportunity,
or use it wisely. That’s the price we pay for freedom. But
on balance, the positive effects of greater empowerment far outweigh
the risks. Remember, knowledge is power. Whenever access to knowledge
is restricted, there is an issue of power behind it –- a
ruling elite will control knowledge in order to maintain power.
If we truly believe that power should be vested in people, not
in elites, anything that increases access to knowledge and deepening
of knowledge is welcome. Open education is thus not just a nifty
tool to enhance skills. It is a way to build a freer society.