Global Education Reform or Global Education Messianism? Talmon & ‘The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy’

J.L.Talmon’s ‘The Origins of Totalitarian Democracy’ (Secker & Warburg, 1952) celebrates its 60th anniversary this year.

Talmon became a Professor of History but not before doing his PhD at the London School of Economics (LSE) in the UK, and, interestingly for UK readers of our blog, among other people in the Preface to this book that Talmon thanks, he thanks Ralph Miliband father to the current UK Labour Party leader, Ed, and former UK Foreign Sec, David.

Talmon’s fascinating study has been essential to our understanding of fascist and Marxist political regimes ever since and fully deserves its classic status, and in particular it is its opening two or three pages (p.1-3) of the Introduction and the section entitled ‘ The Two Types of Democracy, Liberal and Totalitarian’ that tell us what the book is about.

You may be wondering why we are celebrating a work of political non-fiction but what makes these first few pages so powerful is that we cannot help thinking how relevant Talmon’s words are for education today. This is because we think they say so much that could have quite easily been written in the 21st century about another such all-encompassing Messianic movement i.e. the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM).

To save you all the trouble of hunting down this book, what then follows below is, with a few creative changes, Talmon’s original text:

The liberal approach assumes education to be a matter of trial and error, and regards educational systems as pragmatic contrivances of human ingenuity and spontaneity. It also recognizes a variety of levels of personal and collective endeavour, which are altogether outside the sphere of education.

GERM, on the other hand, is based upon the assumption of a sole and exclusive truth in education. It may be called educational Messianism in the sense that it postulates a preordained, harmonious and perfect scheme of things, to which pupils and teachers are irresistibly driven, and at which they are bound to arrive. It recognises ultimately only one plane of existence, the educational. It widens the scope of education to embrace the whole of human existence. It treats all human thought and action as having social significance, and therefore as falling within the orbit of educational action. Its educational ideas are not a set of pragmatic precepts or a body of devices applicable to a special branch of human endeavour. They are an integral part of an all-embracing and coherent philosophy. Education is defined as the art of applying this philosophy to the organisation of society, and the final purpose of education is only achieved when this philosophy reigns supreme over all fields of life.

Both…affirm the supreme value of liberty. But whereas one finds the essence of freedom in spontaneity and the absence of coercion, the other believes it to be realised only in the pursuit and attainment of an absolute collective purpose…the final aims of liberal democracy have not the same concrete character. They are conceived in rather negative terms, and the use of force for their realization is considered as an evil. Liberal democrats believe that in the absence of coercion men and society may one day reach through a process of trial and error a state of ideal harmony. In the case of GERM, this state is precisely defined, and is treated as a matter of immediate urgency, a challenge for direct action, an imminent event.

The problem that arises for GERM…may be called the paradox of freedom. Is human freedom compatible with an exclusive pattern of social existence, even if this pattern aims at the maximum of social justice and security? The paradox of GERM is in its insistence that they are compatible…From the difficulty of reconciling freedom with the idea of an absolute purpose spring all the particular problems and antinomies of GERM.

This difficulty could only be resolved by thinking not in terms of pupils and teachers as they are, but as they were meant to be, and would be, given the proper conditions. In so far as they are at variance with the absolute ideal they can be ignored, coerced or intimidated into conforming , without any real violation of the democratic principle being involved. In the proper conditions, it is held, the conflict between spontaneity and duty would disappear, and with it the need for coercion. The practical question is, of course, whether constraint will disappear because all have learned to act in harmony, or because all opponents have been eliminated.

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