What’s the Real Threat to Liberal Education?

I’ve long believed that the main threat to liberal education—real higher education, in my view—is our tendency to judge the success of academics in technical terms. Too often, social critics attack tenured humanities professors for their inefficiency and poor productivity. Though they think they’re saving higher education, these pundits are harming higher-ed more than political correctness ever could.

Consider recent trends in the academy. The number of tenured professors is growing much more slowly than college and university enrollments, while the number of temporary and adjunct instructors, as well as administrators, soars. The technical mindset, it seems, is turning our universities into institutions that rely on instructional workers who cheaply and reliably generate credit hours by following scripts designed by others.  The art of teaching is becoming a technology defined by skills, competencies, machine-based grading, “smart” classrooms, rubrics, and expert-generated “best practices.”  As one instructor operating on a year-to-year contract complained:  “The main difference between my work and that of tenured professors is that it’s more boring and less personal.”

Relatedly, scholarly careerism—which demands narrow specialization from graduate students—is growing. As a result, scholars are defined by their research focus and often lack the wherewithal and the passion required to teach “big picture” liberal arts courses. Those who teach in liberal arts colleges consider themselves as failures.

These trends culminate in the recent interest in “digital humanities” research, which uses sophisticated computer techniques to develop evidence on the genealogy of texts.  The goal is to overcome the so-called “myth of genius” by understanding humanities scholarship as the product of collaboration—in other words, as no different than technical research in the behavioral or natural sciences.

Two Bad Approaches to the Humanities

The humanities are oscillating between the extremes of relativism and scientism.  Relativism discredits texts by depriving them of the possibility of being authoritative sources of truth that transcend the confines of time and place.  And so it allows professors to carelessly judge them according to their trendy and ill-considered ideas of what constitutes justice.

Scientistic professors hold that all human phenomena can be explained along the lines developed by the natural sciences, and therefore that humanities research should use the appropriate technology and experimental methodology.  That means that even in the humanities the proper mode of engaged teaching is “undergraduate research.”  The hope is that the social sciences and the humanities can become as impersonally rigorous as the natural sciences.

Scientism fills the void opened up through relativism.  What disappears, of course, is philosophy, literature, history, and so forth as modes of knowing and especially of addressing the “existential” questions concerning who we are and what we must do to live well.  In this conception, professors have no concern with their students’ “souls” or virtues.  The goal, instead, is to engage them is scientific research.

Forgetting the Humanities’ Purpose

What’s the result? Tenured professors lose interest in the content of liberal or general education at their institutions.  They’re so specialized that they can’t speak with each other about what all educated men and women should know.  The resulting void is filled in by the techno-vocationalists—administrators, accreditors, educational experts—who speak unironically about general education as a set of skills and competencies.  The tenured professors, absorbed in their own little worlds, lack the spirit and the wisdom to resist.  They surrender control over the curriculum and the mission of their institutions, and they don’t say much about the drift toward adjuncting out as many credit hours as possible—so long as it doesn’t affect their jobs.

To be sure, the problem isn’t tenure.  Without it, the problem might well be worse, as old-fashioned professors who eschew specialization would probably disappear.  These professors are already considered suckers because they emphasize teaching over trendy niche scholarship and publication. Moreover, they have no professional mobility, and they fall victim to salary compression.  Tenure allows them to fight the reactionary fight in their own classrooms.

One thought on “What’s the Real Threat to Liberal Education?”

  1. Excellent essay. I like the point about how tenure allows some professors to defend a broader liberal education. However, I don’t see much hope for the future. Tenure lines are disappearing fast, and adjuncts are nearly powerless. I fear that your second paragraph will be the accurate portrait of the future of college teaching.

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