Is Liberal Education the Key to Defeating Radical Islam?

In an insightful op-ed for the British paper The Independent, Dads Unlimited founder Nav Mirza explained some of the reasons why the ideology of radical Islamist terror can be particularly dangerous in the lives of European Muslims. He addressed parenting as the central solution to the problem, but some of his reasoning got me thinking about liberal education.

“We must end the ghettoisation of towns and cities that starve young people of the contact needed to make rational, informed choices that lead to harmony, integration and balance,” Mirza wrote. “Ultimately, we must ensure that no one is raised under a needlessly isolating doctrine when the benefits from all those who have happily integrated are so clear to see.”

Mirza argued that many Muslim parents take an extremely conservative approach to parenting, “using often potentially fabricated Islamic rules to control and resist a more integrated Western lifestyle for their children.” He noted that his “parents strove to keep us Eastern — even to the detriment of our mental health, family life and happiness.”

His message was subtle and easy to miss — many Muslim parents actually twisted Islam to prevent cultural integration. Mirza is himself a committed Muslim, and he decried the recent terror attacks in Manchester, on London Bridge, and in Barcelona. “I find myself looking, with increasing glumness, at my religion,” he wrote, addressing the “ever-shifting battle for Islam.”

As a Christian, I resonated with his words, to some extent. Conservative Christians struggle to preserve the clear teachings of the Bible in a pluralistic culture — often needing to fight for their rights to teach their kids clear biblical lessons like the goodness of human beings being male and female.

Christians struggle to reconcile faith and science, with many camps battling over subjects like the age of the earth and evolution. While Christianity arguably formed the bedrock for science to be born, the ideology of scientism — that science can address spiritual concerns, even disprove the existence of God — has caused a stir in modern culture.

This gets to the heart of the matter. At Hillsdale College, I studied what it means to have a liberal education. One of the most formative works on that subject is John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University, in which Newman explains how a college should teach students.

Liberal education, Newman wrote, entails “a process of training, by which the intellect, instead of being formed or sacrificed to some particular or accidental purpose, some specific trade or profession, or study or science, is disciplined for its own sake.”

“A cultivated intellect, because it is good in itself, brings with it a power and a grace to every work and occupation which it undertakes, and enables us to be more useful,” Newman argued. In addition to raising “the intellectual tone of society,” such an education ends up being “a gift which serves [a person] in public, and supports him in retirement, without which good fortune is but vulgar, and with which failure and disappointment have a charm.”

This educational training would bring together learning from different disciplines — history, philosophy, science, literature, and others — to give the student a rigorous mental challenge and a diverse understanding, not just of one particular “Major,” but of a broad selection of human knowledge.

Modern universities do not follow this model. Many enable a narrow specialization that ends up stunting students’ educational growth in other areas. Others have so focused on the power narratives of feminism, race studies, and colonialism that they have forgotten to pursue truth for its own sake, choosing instead to present contrasting “narratives.”

Newman’s idea demolishes these petty pursuits, calling schools to break students out of their comfort zones and force them to study uncomfortable ideas in the name of discerning the truth. This may be difficult, but it is what universities were founded to achieve, and universities are a central cultural bedrock for western civilization.

As a conservative Christian, I can attest to the power of liberal education in training my mind to discern the foundational truths of my faith. Studying at Hillsdale College enabled me to understand the historical context of the Bible, the different literary genres used in the Bible, and the tumultuous path of church history.

I learned that the great Christian teacher St. Augustine did not take Genesis 1 as a scientific text. I learned that Galileo Galilei was not tortured for his scientific positions, and that he actually taught that Christianity and science are fully compatible. I learned that science arguably grew from Christian ideas, even though as a pursuit of truth it can be practiced by people of all faiths.

I also learned that people disagree with me for reasons other than “hate” or “bigotry.” My ideas did not go unchallenged, and I reveled in the opportunity to read the actual words of Confederate soldiers, early progressives like Woodrow Wilson, and Karl Marx. (Would that Left-wing colleges told students to read conservative thinkers as Hillsdale had me read liberal ones!)

Liberal education helped form me into the kind of conservative Christian who can hold to his beliefs in the midst of a secular culture. My mind has been tested, trained, and strengthened, and my faith is stronger than ever.

Not being a Muslim, I cannot say for certain whether this kind of education would have a similar effect on practitioners of Islam. I do know, however, that educated Western Muslims like M. Zuhdi Jasser and Maajid Nawaz have integrated with Western society, have thought deeply about various issues and have struggled to come to the truth, and they are not only Muslim but powerful advocates for Islamic reform.

In his article, Nav Mirza called on Muslim fathers and mothers — and the Western Islamic community — to avoid the strict rules imposed by many Muslim parents, to open the community to Western ideas, and to engage the culture in a search to find the best of Islam and the best of the modern West.

This call resonates with the very purpose of liberal education: to struggle with ideas, to test the waters, and to discern the truth, whatever the cost. Pursuing truth for its own sake it not anti-Muslim or anti-Christian, it is a key to unlock human flourishing.

The purpose of a liberal education is not to combat radical Islamic terrorism — or any kind of close-minded bigotry which might lead to terrorism — but to train the mind to discover truth for its own sake. But in doing so, a proper liberal education should inoculate young people from the kind of extremism that promotes terror, and empower them to live out their faith in a pluralistic society.

Liberal education may not be a magic bullet to knock out radical Islamist terrorism, but it is a fundamentally important weapon in the arsenal of ideas. At the end of the day, Mirza is correct that parenting is the most important issue, but education — true education teaching students how to think rather than what to think — is a close second.