April 11, 2013

Are Conservatives (or Libertarians) Ruining Liberal Education?

By Peter Augustine Lawler

Plenty of liberals--and not just liberal professors--think there is a conservative conspiracy to use online education and MOOCs, to destroy genuinely higher education in this country. I see no organized conspiracy, and much of the liberal paranoia amounts to whining about the results of legitimate political defeats. Nonetheless, there is something to the thought that hostility to higher education as it now exists in our country is growing, and opposition to political liberals has gotten mixed up with hostility to "liberal education."

However, I would call that hostility less conservative than libertarian. Plenty of conservatives are all for the beautiful, seemingly useless, and deeply truthful tradition of liberal education. And so we conservatives often finding ourselves allying with liberals against the libertarians who want to deconstruct the parts of that tradition that do not prepare us for the rigors of the global marketplace of the 21st century. We conservatives find ourselves allying with anyone who doesn't want to reduce higher education to technology.

Make Way for Trendy Theory

Conservatives (such as me) agree with many libertarians in not thinking much of the way the humanities are often (although not always) taught in our country.  Respect for texts is replaced by trendy theory; the open-mindedness of philosophy is replaced by strident ideology; disciplined reflection is replaced by angry activis; the guidance of tradition is replaced by the relentless liberation from oppression. And there's more: the search for God and the good are replaced by dogmatic relativism; scientific inquiry (and an appreciation of its limits in grasping the whole truth about who we are) is replaced by scientism (or a proper appreciation of scientific truth is replaced by blather about Western logocentrism); and human dignity is replaced by the class-based struggle for self-esteem and power of identity politics.  To the extent that liberal education becomes captured by a conventionally liberal or "radical" political agenda it becomes vulnerable, with good reason, to criticism by those who have a different, but not necessarily less reasonable or "liberal" in the precise sense, political agenda.

Having said all that, it remains the case that when we conservatives read about libertarian think-tanks that are concerned with the affordability and productivity of higher education, we fear that those two concerns are their only educational goals.  Republican governors in southern states, such as Texas, are all focused on delivering students degrees at the lowest possible cost.  And they want to apportion education resources according to the single standard of salaries offered to graduates, aiming to starve not only "gender studies" but philosophy majors and professors.  For some of our most libertarian governors, the disruptive thought is that our colleges should become discount job-training centers.  That means, of course, most of the requisite skills and competencies can be more efficiently acquired online.  And the "conversational" and bookish romance of liberal education does little more than support unproductive illusions that generate an inefficient use of resources.  Those self-indulgent illusions, our libertarians believe, are a main cause of the outrageously unsustainable higher-education "bubble."

What Tocqueville Saw

From the perspective of us conservatives, the exclusively middle-class perspective that generates too single-minded a concern with affordability and productivity is hostile to genuinely higher education as such.  We conservatives, of course, are especially moved by Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, the best book ever written on democracy and the best book ever written on America.  Tocqueville observed that America is a pretty much exclusively middle-class country, and that "middling" orientation affects every feature of American lives.  One result, he claims, is that he couldn't find any higher education in America.

The good news about being middle-class, of course, is that everyone is free.  Nobody is compelled to work for someone else.  The bad news is that everyone has to work for himself; nobody is given the aristocratic leisure that comes through relying on the work of others.  The most unfriendly way of putting this is that the Americans are free like aristocrats to work like slaves. Another way of putting it is that everyone is a being with interests.  Nobody is above and nobody is below pursuing his or her self-interest rightly understood.

That means that everyone is interested in education to secure the skills and competencies required to flourish in the competitive world of work.  So, Tocqueville marveled, literacy is more or less universal in America.  And we conservatives don't deny for a moment the justice of this practical orientation; everyone really does have the personal responsibility to work effectively to secure himself and his (or her) family.  So we agree with the libertarians that we should be concerned when our educational system fails to help people acquire the skills they need to find a productive place in the competitive marketplace that is a free economy.

But, for Tocqueville, that middle-class vocational education shouldn't be confused with higher education.  Higher education is for those who are more than beings with interests.  It is for those who are restlessly impelled to know the truth about who we are and what we're supposed to do as beings with souls.  So for us conservatives the big downside of democracy is, as Tocqueville says, metaphysics and theology--and art, literature, and theoretical physics--lose ground to the pervasive techno-orientation of democratic life.  Our problem with democratic education and democratic language is that understand us as less than they really are.

What Doesn't Hold Up Today

When I teach Tocqueville, I ask students what parts of his descriptions of American life just don't hold up that well today.  They point, of course, to his praise of the exemplary chastity of the American woman, as well as the close American connection between love and the almost unbreakable bond of marriage.  They also say that he was very wrong on the absence of higher education in America.  Look at how many of our young people are in college today!  But it not so hard for me to point out that what we call college Tocqueville would call training in the competencies required to flourish in the middle-class world of work.  I can even add that what there is of liberal or higher education is in America is withering away.  Look at what's happened to our "general education" programs!  The number of students choosing "traditional" majors in the arts and sciences continues to drop steadily.  Also dropping steadily is the number of residential colleges proudly displaying the "liberal arts brand."  And some of those who are keeping the "brand" (or the brochure and website) are dispensing with the liberal arts substance.

So it's actually easy to convince students that most of what goes on in our colleges and universities isn't higher education.  If it's about textbooks, PowerPoint, online this or that, MOOCs, multiple-choice texts, and assessable competencies, it isn't higher education.  And we think that our libertarians, in their laudable efforts to secure the skills and competencies against political correctness and ideological self-indulgence, are ready to scuttle properly higher education as luxury we just can't afford anymore.  Even worse, they sometimes suggest that philosophy, literature, theology and so forth are just preferences or hobbies that students shouldn't be scammed into paying big bucks for.

Too Vocational or Not Vocational Enough?

So we conservatives think of the countercultural agenda of higher education as an indispensable correction to the reductionist excesses that accompany thinking of ourselves as too exclusively a middle-class people.  Countercultural doesn't mean, of course, some variant of Sixties' self-indulgence.  It means, among other things, orthodox theology and Socratic philosophy.  It has to do with kinds of disciplines that you can't pick up "on the street" in a free and democratic country.  A worthwhile human life, it's true, is rarely complete without the satisfactions of meaningful and productive work.  But it's also true, as Allan Bloom reminded us, that each is meant to be more than a clever, competent specialist.  To be human, to live "in the truth" about who we are and what we're supposed to do, is most of all to live well, to live responsibly in love and with death.

So one obvious difference between conservative and libertarian descriptions of our colleges is that we conservatives say they've become too vocational or too exclusively middle class.  But the libertarians say that they're not vocational enough.  There's truth to both criticisms.  Too much of what goes on is neither vocational education nor higher education.  We could dwell here over gender studies and various other "studies" majors.  And I've already mentioned the various trendy and self-indulgent innovations throughout the social sciences and humanities.  I could even add how worthless the business major has become--not enough math and careful writing and too much pseudo-psychology and "working in teams"--as a way of preparing for being an entrepreneur or a corporate leader.  Don't get me started on "service learning" and "civic engagement" as ways of giving college credit for being charitable or being an indignant activist.

Having said all that, we conservatives still say, on balance, that the middle-class, "vocational" impetus is stronger than ever and stronger than it need be. And so we defend genuinely liberal or higher education as having a place--even if not the dominant place--in our colleges.


Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor in the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College, Georgia.


Comments (6)


The question is ill posed:

The '68 generation, which has taken over the institutions of lower and higher learning, has made a hash of it. Except in fields that require thought and effort, so there is hope.

It is understandable that people of various stripes question the institutions. Rightly so, as those have got taken over so easily. But, there has been no semblance of resistance, including from the intended beneficiaries.

Robin Capehart:

Professor Lawler has set forth an outstanding summary of the challenges we face at public institutions in regard to balancing a broad-based liberal arts background that includes an emphasis on basic skills and providing the specific skills that are in demand by most policy makers and opinion leaders.

Yevgeniy Feyman:

Dr. Lawler,

I respectfully disagree with your characterization of the libertarian objection to the modern liberal arts education.

First, I'm not quite sure how you can characterize that education is too "vocational", especially when you yourself acknowledge the move towards a new highly relativist way of teaching. It seems that this indicates a move away from vocationally oriented education. On top of that, vocationally-oriented programs would see graduates gainfully employed and earning a decent living -- we're seeing that this isn't the case.

But second, it seems that you also mischaracterize the primary libertarian objection to the state of higher-ed today -- government involvement. If a kid from a wealthy family wants to spend $20k/year studying philosophy, or 18th-century French literature -- and pay for it himself (or with his family money) -- that's terrific. More power to him. However, when taxpayer money is used to subsidize that field of study (by definition, at the expense of spending that money for other government functions) then we should absolutely demand some return on our collective investment. The best measure we have for ROI on a college degree is lifetime earnings of the degree holders -- and for liberal arts degrees, that ROI is abysmally low. There are also important positive externalities of students studying STEM fields -- for those who go into pharmaceutical research for instance, the social value of an innovative drug can be in the billions of dollars.

If you believe that liberal arts programs deserve as much subsidy as STEM programs I'd love to hear your reasoning.


Peter, I appreciate your thoughts and agree with a lot of what you've said. However, I think you've left out a critical piece of the puzzle: grade inflation and the softening of academic standards in the humanities.

It's not accurate to say, as the libertarians you refer to do, that liberal-arts skills aren't useful or valuable in the marketplace. A liberal-arts education is at least nominally intended to teach students a set of skills--clear and effective writing, the ability to understand and explain new ideas, critical thinking, and the ability to discuss ideas in public--that the marketplace values highly, especially in a service economy. The problem is that students who get liberal-arts degrees usually aren't actually learning those skills. It's too easy to get through an English major at most universities without having read or written anything challenging or of consequence, simply because the academic standards are so low. I was an English major at a well-ranked private university and was always blown away by the number of people in my classes who didn't do the assigned reading, contributed nothing to class discussions, wrote poorly, and somehow ended up with a B-plus.

If humanities departments required more out of their students--if everyone knew that getting a history degree required the same level of work and engagement as getting an engineering degree--I think we'd see a change in perception regarding the value of a liberal-arts education. That's not to say there aren't other problems to fix, or that this problem is easy to fix, but I think it's an important part of the puzzle that shouldn't be overlooked.

spes man:

Prof. Lawler presents a thoughtful and spirited defense of the continuing relevance of liberal arts education in 21st century America. We should probably also appreciate at this time the great moderation of the American public when compared to, say, the Athenian democracy which sentenced Socrates to death for trying to provide its most prominent young men with something like a liberal education. I mean, compared to that, it's pretty mild that moms and dads are now telling their kids 'if you take that B.A. in philosophy, we won't be co-signing the loan. Moreover, it may very well be true that, from the standpoint of the secular taxpayer, there is no good reason to provide our students with a subsidized liberal arts education. STEM majors help to ensure the progress of technology in the coming generations, while liberal arts majors seem either to resent being asked to participate in the endeavors of modern science or, worse, to question its utility. It may be that the death of the liberal arts has actually been a slow one going on for the greater part of the past 300 years or so. But it could also be that, as public officials turn up the heat on the humanities, and liberal arts colleges are forced to come to terms with a host of challenges, that the liberal arts receive their most articulate and visible defense and support not from the state or its training ground, the secular university, but from religious institutions of higher learning which are able to speak more meaningfully about the deep unities which bind together the various arts and sciences. At its best, the liberal arts educations speaks to, shapes, informs, cultivates what is highest in man. And I, for one, am not persuaded that the highest things in man can be effectively suppressed or destroyed for long.

Tom G.:

I agree with Feyman's post; as a libertarian my objection is not that students have the ability to choose to study liberal arts, it's that I have to pay for it with tax subsidies and government-loan guarantees.

If one wants to lead an enlightened life, it's your own responsibility to educate yourself, you shouldn't need to rely on an institution to do it for you.

Additionally, a college degree has become a prerequisite for a middle-class lifestyle for many people (or at least it is perceived that way), so it only makes sense that if it will be used as a vocational requirement, it should be measured that way as well.

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