Part I: Destroying Liberal Learning
There is no dearth of commentary on the contemporary American university and its clear hostility toward traditional American educational standards and values. A major drawback of this extensive commentary is the impression it might leave on the casual observer that the contemporary university’s critics are either anti-intellectual in the primitive sense or so openly hostile to modern society that they are unfit to offer any serious opinion regarding the role of education therein. In truth, a central part of any sustained critique of today’s university concerns its very lack of serious intellectual content or even engagement. As to the charge of being “antimodern,” the university’s critic should begin by pointing out that modernity is in fact merely a name attached to certain ideological trends within the university itself, trends that did not become dominant until after World War II and that only gained full sway on campuses over the last several decades.
In succeeding posts I will have something to say about the cultural fallout from the corruption of higher education. The results can be seen in an institution actively undermining the entrepreneurial spirit, objective standards of excellence, and the character of our young people. First, though, it seems necessary to point out the type of education that has been destroyed to make room for the contemporary university and why this development is so fraught with danger for our way of life.
The first and greatest victim of the contemporary university is liberal learning. Its demise has been intentional because necessary for the wider project of transforming society along technocratic lines. Liberal education is the development of the moral imagination through inculcation into the great achievements and central traditions of one’s culture and civilization. It involves the study of great books that have shaped the common mind and also of persons and events that have helped form the order of society and the order of institutions, traditions, and individual souls making up that society. Newman, Dawson, Kirk, and many others have laid out the nature and purpose of a liberal education. Their views, and until recently the reality, emphasized that liberal education develops the student’s relationship with his civilization, to the benefit of both the student and the civilization.
The contemporary university sometimes gives lip service to the term “liberal education.” But that which it presents as liberal education is, in fact, the very opposite. One telling example is provided by Brown University. Once a great center of liberal education, Brown now prides itself on its “critical” bona fides, by which one can only mean its hostility toward our civilization and the learning necessary to sustain it. From the Brown website: “Liberal Learning courses introduce students to the many ways of thinking and of approaching knowledge that comprise a liberal education.” That is, “liberal learning” is not about the society in which one lives but about how one thinks, and in particular how one critiques the world around him. Immediately following its introduction to “liberal learning,” Brown introduces its prime means of teaching in this vein: its “Diverse Perspectives” courses.
Brown’s open curriculum challenges students to open their perspective on the world by embracing new experiences, new ways of thinking, and new people. One way students can address this expectation is through challenging coursework. Diverse Perspectives in Liberal Learning (DPLL) courses offer students the means not only to understand the complex dynamics of social inequity, exclusion, and difference but also to do something with what they learn.
Through content, methodology, or pedagogy, DPLL courses seek to:
- Expose and critique the diverse historical and cultural forces that shape the construction of knowledge in all disciplines;
- Teach the arts of critical reflection: questioning thoughtfully, listening openly, and speaking cogently about differing points of view;
- Develop responsible citizens by examining the ways that power and privilege affect human lives and providing pathways to meaningful change.
Some DPLL courses may, through their content, focus on questions of race, nationality, ethnicity, sexuality, religion, gender, age, disability, or socio-economic status. Others may employ creative methods to investigate how knowledge is constructed and received in different contexts. Still others may feature community-based activities, encouraging students to become agents of change both locally and globally.
In other words, liberal learning has nothing to do with the liberal arts, with understanding the tradition that gave rise to our culture and civilization, or with acculturation to a way of life. It is indoctrination into radical politics. It is the study of various theories of oppression, the training of students to become political activists working toward a specific, radical political program to transform society. It is ideology of the most toxic type masquerading as learning. It is the death of liberal education by politics. It seeks to train students to become social justice warriors hostile to their traditions, delegitimizing, undermining, and replacing them with a regime in which various “oppressed groups” will look to the state to distribute justice, goods, and status according to the effectiveness of their own “community organizing” tactics and demands. This indoctrination is presented as “empowering” students to deal with buzzwords like “complexity” and “diversity.” The buzzwords succeed only in conveying, in an appropriately obscure and disingenuous fashion, the desire to indoctrinate students into contemporary ideological cant regarding the intrinsic injustice of Western civilization and those who helped make it.
This model is sold to the public on two grounds: first, that students’ minds will somehow be more subtle, sharp, and capable of “problem solving” when trained to critique everything around them and, second, that the old system of liberal education was merely a means of sustaining elite power and unjust social structures. The recent outpouring of crybully activism rooted in an incapacity among vast numbers of students to tolerate realities that do not mesh with their own ideology or self-flattery shows the falsehood of the first claim. As to the second, it is little more than resentment dressed up as radical politics—which, of course, is little more than a tautology characterizing the current academic orthodoxy.
A bit of history seems in order. Up to the late nineteenth century American universities were consistent in understanding their mission as that of immersing and acculturating those with the means and capacity for higher education into a learned tradition. They imparted knowledge of, respect for, and habits consistent with the civilization on which our intellectual, cultural, and even economic well-being rely to those who would take leading positions in various parts of society. Universities taught a significant proportion of those who would be in positions of power and who would influence the achievements of our tradition so that they would work to preserve rather than destroy it, to value it for itself rather than to use it for their own ends. In this way, through liberal education, universities also taught those who would take positions of leadership to value persons, communities, and ways of life as having their own dignity and right to exist—again for themselves, rather than as mere tools in the pursuit of some grand vision of a society of justice in the abstract and mean, authoritarian regulation in the concrete.
Human nature being flawed, any particular person’s liberal education was flawed, as were the characters of all those who received it. Abuse of power, arrogance, and mere selfishness existed, as they always exist, among even the best educated. But liberal education fined and refined the assumptions, prejudices, and instincts of students, training them to seek recognition in ways that reduced their capacity for evil and turned them, imperfectly, to the good by identifying themselves with something valuable, independent of their own self-image, and essential to the common good.
One of the complaints regarding liberal education was that it was not available to the vast majority of Americans. The claim is largely without merit because college was not the only path to success in America until quite recently. We were a freer and more open society, in which there was significantly greater upward mobility, before all of us were put into the straightjacket of false meritocracy that is today’s credential-driven economy. There also was room for the exceptional student of limited means to gain entry into college. As important, before all of education had to be dumbed-down in the name of equality, high school students were exposed to far more of their tradition than even college students are today. One need only look at the high school textbooks of the nineteenth and even early twentieth century to see how much more students were expected to learn about literature, rhetoric, and philosophy than in recent decades. A working class kid with only some high school knew more about who he was and why he had dignity than most college graduates today. And, yes, that “he” includes within it females and members of various minority groups.
Liberal learning is not for everyone. It especially is not for those who are motivated by resentment against the civilization that gave birth to our constitutional republic and who wish education to reinforce rather than challenge their own prejudices and self-conceptions. Only a relative few—far fewer than the majority of Americans who now spend at least some time in college—are suited for any serious liberal education. Thus, it should come as no surprise that the structures of liberal learning broke under the weight of mass matriculation after World War II. But the change had begun decades before, under (not coincidentally) the pressures of Progressive reformers like Woodrow Wilson, who sought to use the university for their own political ends, leveling society and transforming it with a civil religious zeal aimed at fundamental transformation of society itself.
The claim often is made that the importation of the German model of the university during the late nineteenth century marked the fundamental shift in American education. This model, first brought to the United States at Johns Hopkins University (where Wilson attended graduate school) brought with it separate graduate schools, greater focus on faculty research, and an emphasis on scientific methodologies that over time spread from the actual sciences to various “social sciences.” The result was a claim on the part of universities that they could produce knowledge with practical utility for the nation even while shaping students into right-thinking citizens.
In keeping with this German model, Progressive ideology emphasized supposedly practical, pragmatic goals of material progress tied to technocratic education. As Progressives quickly took the lead at universities, this meant not only increased emphasis on fields such as science and engineering but, more fundamentally, a transformation of the curriculum and even the teaching of “humane” subjects. By the time of the postwar flood into the universities, those institutions were already far along the path to technocracy. The mantras of “teach them how to teach themselves” and “we must have measurable outcomes” long predate today’s educratic factories; it was foisted upon the world by John Dewey and others who claimed to be setting students free by leaving them without knowledge of their patrimony and to be empowering students to think for themselves by tinkering with their mental habits rather than giving them actual material (historical, literary, and artistic) on which their minds might work.
Today it is all but impossible for a student to gain a liberal education at a university. A few liberal arts colleges on the margins of our educational system strive to continue the centuries-old tradition of liberal learning. But almost all universities force students to choose from a smorgasbord of courses in oppression studies, pseudoscientific manipulation of the most ephemeral types of human behavior, and technical courses themselves increasingly prey to “green” and other ideological mutations. The goal is to train students to have the “correct” attitudes regarding various political issues of the day while blinding them to moral and spiritual issues rooted in the nature of existence and giving them sufficient technical skills to prevent open revolt among those who pay the bills (parents, donors, and employers).
Transformation of the university began, and continues to be sold, as an attempt to make it “relevant” to contemporary issues and to transform it into a source of knowledge and expertise useful in promoting the people’s practical well-being. But the university setting is inappropriate for these endeavors. The university is isolated from the daily grind of work and commerce, its constitution is as a community of learning, and it brings together teacher and students in a relationship resting as much on respect as on overt power (students can leave any particular “relationship” without the risk to one’s livelihood suffered by, for example, a dissatisfied employee). These are not the makings of a technocratic workshop. And the attempt to transform the university into society’s intellectual workshop, proceeding from the cooking up of “social science” to various pedagogical fads and the notion of “student-centered learning,” have succeeded only in transforming it from an integral part of our civilization into a hothouse of hostility toward that civilization, in which students are taught to despise the traditions that made possible their own privileges and way of life.
Bruce P. Frohnen is Professor of Law at The Ohio Northern University Pettit College of Law.