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Fall 2012

The State of American Liberal Education These Days

Peter Augustine Lawler

What are the ends of education? We mean, of course, the ends for us, for us democratic Americans.

So we begin with the best book ever written on democracy and the best book ever written on America—Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America.

America, Tocqueville noticed, is an overwhelmingly middle-class country. To be middle class, of course, is to be stuck in the middle—somewhere in between aristocrats and slaves. We rightly think that there’s something realistic—something truthful—about seeing ourselves in the middle, in not thinking too little or too much of ourselves.

The good news is that we’re free like aristocrats. We can live as we please. Nobody has the right to tell free persons what to do.

The bad news is that, unlike aristocrats, we have to work if we want to eat. So we’re free like aristocrats to work like slaves. Well, not exactly like slaves, because we work not for others but for ourselves and our own.

We’re very judgmental about work—we think everyone should have to do it. Everyone has interests, everyone needs money, and so everyone should act accordingly. Unlike aristocrats, we take pride in our work, and we measure ourselves by our productivity. More than ever, we middle-class Americans are proud to live in a meritocracy defined by productivity.

Our understanding of education, Tocqueville also noticed, tends to be middle-class. Everyone needs to have basic literacy and technical skills. You can’t succeed in the world of work otherwise. So democracy, unlike aristocracy, is about educating everyone to flourish on his or her own. Our country is remarkably free of the paternalism that produces the degrading illusion that someone will always take care of you. We have no servants who are dependent on masters, and we have no women who are dependent on men. Our technical education is for personal freedom.

But Tocqueville hurt our feelings by adding that there’s no higher education in America. Our first impulse is to say that’s not true: Many or most twenty-year olds in our country are in college, and we call college higher education—just read The Chronicle of Higher Education.

By higher education Tocqueville meant reading the great books of our tradition in their original languages and being accomplished in the high culture of art and music and so forth—the higher education of, say, Thomas Jefferson. He also meant being on the cutting edge of theoretical science—particularly theoretical physics—which Jefferson also surely was.

Tocqueville didn’t mean reading textbooks, taking multiple-choice tests, doing problem-identification group projects, absorbing PowerPoint presentations, being edified by self-helpy TED talks, or for getting squishy credit for internships or being civically engaged or picking up technical or entrepreneurial skills through random life experiences.

You have to admit: From Tocqueville’s point of view, there might be less higher education in America than ever. Fewer than 10 percent of students are majoring in the traditional liberal arts or theoretical science. Fewer and fewer of our colleges brand themselves liberal arts colleges, and some that still do aren’t really mostly liberal arts colleges anymore.

Not only that: Our general education programs—the education we believe all college students should share in common—have shrunk in size and been emptied of real content.

What remains of genuinely higher education is America is under relentless attack from a middle-class point of view. If education is unproductive—if it doesn’t make a contribution to working effectively or making money or being healthy, comfortable, or safe—it’s worthless, a waste of valuable time.

So we read that higher education is way too expensive and takes too long. What students really acquire from it that they can use can be delivered more quickly and efficiently by for-profit colleges. The arbitrary category “college credit” is starting to be displaced by the “measurable competency.” Skills and competencies could in many cases be delivered more cheaply and productively online than in person. Mastering a skill, after all, doesn’t require the personal touch. The touch might help, but it’s not worth the big money.

The president of my college, with the best of intentions, told us that liberal education doesn’t sell these days as philosophy or history or literature. But it can be sold as a way of picking up competencies—such as analytical reasoning, critical thinking, and problem identification—that are surely valuable for many or most areas of high-level work. Redefined in this way the ends of liberal education can become “measurable outcomes”—and so justified by the end of productivity.

One problem among many with this approach, of course, is that there are surely quicker and more reliable ways of picking up those competencies—which aren’t to be confused with excellences—than the leisurely pursuit of liberal education. The competency approach surely discredits much of what goes on at residential brick-and-mortar colleges such as Kenyon and Oberlin, the kind of slow and even feckless voyage to personal discovery through obsessing on a few large and life-transforming books celebrated in the indie film about Kenyon, Liberal Arts.

So cutting-edge PayPal and Facebook billionaire Peter Thiel makes good sense when he offers highly capable students scholarships to skip college and get right to the business of becoming entrepreneurs. You can read books and listen to music and all that in your free time—and for free. You can’t learn in college what you most need to know to flourish in a techno-productive society such as ours.

So far my story is that the requirements of being middle class—of living in a meritocracy based on productivity—gradually destroys liberal education in America.

I’m not saying, of course, that most Americans shouldn’t pursue technical education. Even Tocqueville admits that most middle-class Americans would be restlessly dissatisfied if their education were too liberal—too oriented, for example, around the lives of the great Greeks and Romans. It’s just that if American education becomes nothing more than technical education, there will be no one to look out for the quality of our language. So, as Tocqueville says, those words that reflect metaphysical and theological reality will slowly lose ground. Who can deny that today ordinary language is becoming more technical and therapeutic? More than ever we seem to lack the words that correspond to our true experiences about who we are. One reason people are more angry and lonely than ever is that their language—the natural capability that allows us to be relational beings—has become so impoverished.

But even or especially for Tocqueville, my story so far is not the whole American story. Our country has at least two countercultures that take higher education—education of the soul—seriously. There are our Christians—beginning with our Puritans—from who we learn that we’re more than beings with interests, we’re creatures with souls. And then we have our aristocrats, who once flourished in the south (even or especially after the Civil War—see “Southern literature”) and were prominent among our founders.

It’s from some combination of Christian egalitarianism and aristocratic pride that we get the opinion that drives American liberal education. America should be an aristocracy of everyone, some combination of democratic justice and aristocratic greatness.

The idea that liberal education is for everyone might seem to blind us to inconvenient facts we can all see about great differences in human talents and inclinations. Well, it does to some extent. Still, there’s another way of looking at the fact that we’re all middle class: We’re all, as Tocqueville puts it, beasts with angels in us. And no one can live well without coming to terms with the truth about both the beast and the angel.

Maybe that’s why Tocqueville begins by emphasizing the enduring influence of our first founders—the Puritans. They too were all about universal education, but not for the technical, money-making reasons that drive the middle class. For them, the point of democratic education is mainly that everyone be able to read the Bible for themselves and not be seduced by satanic deceivers such as priests about what the Good Book says.

The Puritans agreed with the middle-class opinion that no one is exempt from work, from the consequences of sin. But no one is made for work and nothing more. That why they were so puritanical about nobody working on Sunday. The civilized enjoyment that comes from leisurely reflecting on your origin and destiny, on the high responsibilities given to the beings made in God image, is for us all.

The neo-Puritan novelist Marilynne Robinson points to Oberlin in Ohio, founded in the early 1830s by the spiritual descendants of our Puritan founders, as the model American college. There, everyone, including faculty, had to work. But there liberal education of high quality was also available to everyone, including blacks and women. The Oberlin education was animated by a noncondescending egalitarianism that flows from the insight that true inwardness and true openness to the truth about who we are is given to us all.

Even or especially today, liberal education is best preserved in our country in the diverse colleges that remain genuinely religious—as religious as Oberlin was in 1840—not, of course, Oberlin today: not the clueless Oberlin education in film studies so instructively mocked on the HBO series Girls. The best great books college (given the highest possible rating by The Princeton Review) is Thomas Aquinas of California, the best large great-books general education program—staffed mainly by Catholics—is at Baptist Baylor in Texas, and so forth. And it’s very possible to get a fine liberal education at our two most prominent and richest religious universities—BYU and Notre Dame—although in both cases you don’t really have to.

A threat to our educational diversity—a diversity not found in European countries or anywhere government has a near-monopoly on higher education—is of course the standardizing pressures coming from schools of education, schoolmarmish government bureaucrats, accrediting associations, administrative bloat and bloated administrators, politically correct experts, and big-spending entrepreneurial libertarians on our private religious institutions. But those pressures, truth to tell, are not yet all that severe. It’s still quite possible for American colleges to educate students as beings with souls with singular and deep longings and unique and irreplaceable personal destinies.

We can even say that American higher education is not and never was as flat-souled as Allan Bloom (in The Closing of the American Mind) thought. He didn’t take into account the best of our Christian colleges, including many located in the sticks.

The other American counterculture we can call Stoic. Its members believe that education in philosophy and literature is the source of knowing who we are and what we’re supposed to do as rational, relational, and responsible men and women. Stoic education is not about the one-dimensional liberation that is the close and constant encounter with death as personal extinction that Bloom describes as the philosophic experience. It’s not about either whiny or complacent existentialism. It’s a moral code—a kind of honor code—for ladies and gentlemen.

Residues of this kind of this noble secular humanism we can still find at some southern colleges—at both Hampden-Sydney and Morehouse, for example. It’s the kind of education praised as genuine liberation in novelist Tom Wolfe’s A Man in Full and I Am Charlotte Simmons, as well as in the autobiographical reflections of the singular American hero Admiral James Stockdale. It’s the education that results from taking Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus or even Aristotle as your guide for living, your guide on, for example, to how to treat women or take responsibility for the unfortunate (see Atticus Finch) or remain morally free all alone in a maximum security prison or a POW camp.

The Stoic view, of course, is that the middle class have a very incomplete and rather miserable view of personal freedom. It fails them when they most need to rely on it. For the Stoic, freedom is independence from fashionable conformism, moral self-indulgence, and vulgar philistinism. It is freedom from those qualities sometimes mistaken for virtue displayed by our increasingly libertarian “bourgeois bohemian” elite these days.

Here’s what the deepest Americans—such as the Catholic and southern philosophic artists Walker Percy and Flannery O’Connor—have thought: American higher education at its best is all about learning to be more than middle class, about learning that the fundamental human choice is really between being a Christian or being a Stoic, although it might even be kind of reasonable and quite livable to be some of both.

The real point of higher education in America is learning how to live well with the leisure—and the heightened self-consciousness and restlessness—we’ve been given by all our technical productivity and political freedom. Making money is easy. Learning what to do with it—which includes practicing the Stoic virtue of generosity and the Christian virtue of charity—is hard.

Liberal education fades when humanities professors lose the confidence that what they teach is all about the art of living responsibly in light of the truth we can’t help but know about who we are as wonderers and wanderers born to love and die. Absent that confidence, true education—or education worth anything at all—really is nothing more than technical education, education based on the false premise that each of us is a being with interests and nothing more.  

Peter Augustine Lawler teaches at Berry College.

Posted: December 9, 2012 in Essays.

The conservative believes that the individual is foolish, although the species is wise; therefore, unlike the confident intellectual, he declines to undertake the reconstruction of society and human nature.

Russell Kirk

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