By Peter Augustine Lawler
A big divide is showing up between conservative and libertarian criticisms of higher education. Conservatives--and I am among them--argue that higher-ed has become too vocational and libertarians say it is not vocational enough.
Professor Michael Hepner of the University of Dubuque, part of an influential and cutting-edge effort to think through the causes of the withering away of "general education" programs, drew recent attention by arguing that conservatives are obviously right. "It is no secret," he wrote, "that American higher education is becoming more and more technical." Colleges are reducing the quantity and quality of general ed requirements so that students can get to their technical majors more quickly and easily.
I would add the observation that technical majors expand as general ed programs contract. Complicated techno-lite vocational majors like music marketing and sports broadcasting often require huge numbers of courses. The student, after all, has to master both music and marketing! And then there are the alleged imperatives of the various specialized accrediting programs for education, business, chemistry, nursing, and so forth. How could anyone possibly expect to get a job without a professionally accredited major? English, literature, history, and philosophy and other "liberal arts" majors remain modest in size. Those majors, of course, don't really claim to prepare technically competent students for some specialized job. They don't have any vocational or professional reason to gloat.
A Sorry Defense
One reason general education as liberal education is fading fast is that professors in the social sciences and humanities do a pathetic job defending its indispensable perennial relevance. The Association of American Colleges and Universities is a case in point. Their first claim is that liberal education gives students "a sense of social responsibility." Libertarians respond, not without reason, that such a pro-social attitude is what you might pick up from your parents or at church or by being involved in your local community. They add, of course, that being socially responsible ought to be up to the individual. It's based on a feeling--empathy--that might be more screwed up than helped by the narcissistic environment of today's self-indulgent humanities professors. The libertarians are perfectly right that it's not worth giving up lots of time and treasure (and especially "borrowing treasure") to acquire a sense--an attitude-- that might not be anything more than buying into the trendiest form of professorial political correctness.
The real claim of liberal education, I think, is that its social or civic function is what is sometimes called "cultural transmission." A student learns what it means to be part of a political community in a particular place and at a particular time. The student learns what it means to inherit a tradition of thought, love, and action. You have to understand yourself as more than an "abstract individual" before you can really know what your responsibilities as a relational being are.
From this view, liberal education isn't a mere feeling or sense. It's to be filled with human content. Or better, it's to be filled with the content that allows a human being to be all he or she is meant to be. There's no way someone could be socially or politically responsible without, for example, knowing the purposes and limits of our government as found in our history and in our best political writing. There's no way someone could be socially or politically responsible without the prudence and moderation that comes through reflection on the enduring lessons of our political experience.
The Seductive Charm of Technical Competence
From this view, gen education can't help but mean an education all American students should share in common. It includes, of course, more than knowledge of our country in particular, given that our country is part of a larger tradition and a larger world. From a technical view, it's pretty much always the case that our ingenious inventions have freed us from having to depend on the limitations of the less enlightened past. But that "progressive" insight doesn't really apply as readily--or sometimes at all--to our moral, political, and religious lives.
One point of "liberal education" is to chasten the vanity that is one seductive charm of technical competence. Today it, among other things, should be an antidote to the "autonomous" pretensions of the creeping and sometimes creepy libertarianism of the morally challenged "displacement" of our self-important "cognitive elite."
The other part of the AACU's lame defense of general education as liberal education is that it can be the source of skills that are "transferable" to our techno-world of work, such as critical thinking, analytical reading, effective communication, and problem solving. That, of course, is not really an argument for the study of history in particular. Surely those skills could be picked up without all that annoying historical "content."
Not only that, it's not an argument for "general education," because any history course or any philosophy course could be the source of the "competency." Students don't have to know any content in common, because what's important is the "how" or technique and not the "what," "who," and "why" that liberal education, in particular, claims to address.
The AACU, by subordinating liberal education to the production of technical skills and prosocial attitudes, has no standpoint by which to resist the trivialization of gen ed. There's no reason that the skills and attitudes can't be picked up in a very user-friendly form. So history and literature can be delivered in courses dealing with pop culture, burning (and typically ephemeral) contemporary issues, or sexuality.
Trivial Gen-Ed Courses Fail
There's a place for such courses, no doubt, but not as general education. They're not about essential "cultural transmission," about discovering who you are and what you're supposed to do. Students can't be fooled into thinking that they're a serious--much less indispensable--part of their higher education. They contribute to their perception that all real education is technical education. And so it's no wonder that studies show that trivial gen-ed courses even fail in inculcating students with the relevant marketable skills and responsible attitudes. When their "learning outcomes" don't have to do with "cultural transmission," they don't achieve any learning outcomes at all.
Relativism, as many have said, is one cause of "the suicide of the humanities." But another is the understandable but futile effort by their proponents to justify their contribution to general education on technical terms in an increasingly technical/vocational environment. It's a pretty open secret that the phrase "critical thinking" is pretty fuzzy. If it's not critical, after all, it's not really thinking! The least our defenders of general education liberal education should begin to do is to explain that thinking is not only about the "how"--as technicians (or sophists) believe--but about the "what" and the "who" and the "why."
Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor in the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College.