In recent years the stakes for entrance to the nation’s most prestigious colleges and universities have risen to absurd heights, with students (or, their families) not only now paying significant sums for private school tuitions (or the entry cost into good school districts, namely expensive housing), SAT training, and coaching for application writing, but increasingly specialized services such as student “branding” – in which students (or, their families) hire “branding” professionals to develop a marketing strategy for “selling” a student to the top universities – and even such morally damnable practices as anonymously informing schools about the reprehensible qualities of competitors who apply to the same university. Clearly things have gotten out of control, but there are very few people – whether inside or outside the university system – who are willing or even desire to rock the boat by pointing out the absurdity of the current state of affairs.
The reason for this conspiracy of silence is that the current system benefits those who are best positioned to take advantage of the root causes for these absurdities: namely, families with the background, wherewithal and education to know how to “game” the system, and the elite colleges and universities whose denizens benefit in all sorts of financial and professional ways from their placement at these exceedingly small number of desirable schools. A confluence of interest bonds these financial and cultural elites in their ambition to maintain the current arrangement, namely a desperation on the parts of the families to put their children in a position to succeed, and the desperation on the parts of these elite institutions to be the exclusive grantors of the imprimatur for such success. In our profoundly competitive world order, in which increasingly few people can hope to emerge as the “winners” in a system that ruthlessly winnows out those who will not join the small club of the international elite – financial, political and cultural – all stops must be removed, all measures pursued, all efforts expended.
In compensation for their success, students are privileged to join an elite group of similarly-situated peers who harbor the same ambitions of worldly success and achievement. They are simultaneously thrown together as colleagues and competitors, a condition that will continue to define their relationships throughout their college years and beyond. The elite institutions are populated by star professors and a steady stream of noteworthy dignitaries, intellectuals, artists, public intellectuals, and so on: exposure to this class – as well as to the future incarnation of these winners in the form of their classmates – constitutes a considerable share of the education that takes place on today’s campuses, namely a socialization in success, the learned capacity to emulate their predecessors who have successfully navigated the shoals of hyper-competitive globalization and emerged as its leaders and beneficiaries.
All the while, universities strive mightily to stoke this arrangement – prominently announcing their high placement on the U.S. News and World Report rankings while tut-tutting the flawed nature of the measurement, declaring that what matters more is a kind of excellence that cannot be defined nor measured. One major contributor to that ranking is the percentage of rejected applicants, which leads elite colleges and universities to advertise their high ranking, publicize the success of their students, and trumpet the huge numbers of annual applicants, all in the effort to stoke more demand, and thus more rejection, resulting in the retention of a high ranking that in turn ensures huge numbers of applicants. Thus an unbreakable cycle is engendered that ensures a permanently high ranking. Admissions personnel decry the manipulation that is evident on every page of every application they receive, announcing that they will strive to grant admission to “authentic” students who occasionally misspell a word or betray some naivete – thus knowingly prompting the creation of a new industry devoted to fostering the image of authenticity among college applicants. Administrators worry endlessly about how they should “brand” their product, how they can continue to stoke demand, how they can increase their pool of applicants increasingly by looking overseas for a new and large pool of potential competitors in the global sweepstakes. The universities appear to exist to maintain (or achieve) prestige, an aim that comports with the ambitions of America’s most talented and well-placed students to collect various marks of approval.
Our current universities no longer undertake what they were designed to achieve, and hence have become largely dysfunctional institutions whose activity – classical liberal education – exists in profound tension with their role – conveyors in the global meritocratic marketplace. It should be recognized that a vast chasm has arisen between what today’s colleges and universities are for – the bestowal of credentials – and what they were designed to achieve – a liberal education. The truth is that our colleges and universities are palimpsests – a helpful word that describes a kind of recycled medieval parchment, so rare that it was used and re-used, with old writing often being removed for new and more updated text. Our institutions of higher education are most visibly palimpsests in their buildings: the ancient gothic structures recall a form of education that stressed religious training and vocation, just as the names of the offices of the university – professors (those who “profess faith”), deans (short for “deacon”) and provosts (once, a high-ranking church official) – point to the older roles that were once religious and traditional. It is easy to deceive oneself that the universities have not fundamentally changed when one concentrates on the remnants of an eviscerated culture, but the truth is that the old writing has been erased and a new text determines the course of modern education.
Traditionalists and conservatives may decry the decline of liberal education at the heart of the modern university – and its replacement by a Left-wing agenda – but the deeper truth is that liberal education has been more fundamentally and powerfully displaced by demands of global competition. While traditionalists and conservatives might wish to apportion blame to the vast Left-wing conspiracy – particularly those increasingly irrelevant faculty whose postmodernism has become a form of stale institutional orthodoxy – the truth is that the rise of the Left faculty was a response to conditions that were already making liberal education irrelevant, a sort of pathetic and ultimately self-destructive effort to make the humanities relevant and “up to date.” These purported radicals – mostly bourgeois middle-class former hippies – were not agents of liberation, but a deeper reflection of the reality of the irrelevance and neglect of the liberal arts in a dawning new age of global competition.
Still, it should be acknowledged that their initial instincts were not altogether damnable. The first student protests of the 1960s arose in response to Clark Kerr’s 1963 Godkin Lectures – eventually expanded and published as The Uses of the University – in which Kerr declared that the old ideal of liberal education within the college or university was officially defunct and was in the process of being replaced by a new form of the “multiversity.” The aim of the new “multiversity” was to advance the great Baconian project of human dominion over the world. He declared that “the multiversity was central to the further industrialization of the nation, to spectacular increases in productivity with affluence following, to the substantial extension of human life, and to worldwide military and scientific supremacy” (199). The first student protests on the Berkeley campus – often forgotten – were in response to these lectures and its implications for the neglect of undergraduate education in the name of research and “the creation of knowledge.” Allan Bloom acknowledged his initial sympathy with the protesters in an overlooked passage of The Closing of the American Mind, though he rightly noted that the protests quickly morphed into a general anti-authoritarian sentiment defined by the ambition for personal liberation. Worth noting is that both Kerr and the liberationist protesters – antecedents of the modern Right and the modern Left – agreed on the fundamental point that what was desirable was the dismantling of the classical liberal arts tradition. Both ultimately came to share the belief that the object of the university was human liberation from old restraints – whether material (to be solved through science and modern economics) or moral (to be overthrown by Left campus radicals). Today’s university faculties are largely populated by denizens of the liberationist Left in the form of the faculty, while the administration remains dominated by technocratic professionals who largely evince allegiance to Kerr’s declared ambition to pursue the aims of the multiversity. An unholy alliance exists in which both sides pursue their agendas separately but utterly compatibly, both in profound agreement that what is most fundamentally undesired is a return to liberal education. For both, a liberal education represents a restriction on the aims of the modern university. Both seek liberation, but on terms that would be unrecognizable to the original definition of “liberal” in the term “liberal education.”
A liberal education – most often pursued in the context of a religiously-affiliated college or land-grant university – was originally an education in self-governance, moral restraint, and acknowledgment of the limits of human power and preparation for life in a family and a community. When we think of “liberal arts” more concretely, we rightly picture a numerous variety of different institutions, most (at least once) religiously-affiliated and variously situated. Most were formed with some relationship to the communities in which they were formed – whether their religious traditions, attentiveness to the sorts of career prospects that the local economy would sustain, a close connection to the “elders” of the locality, a strong identification with place and the likelihood of a student body drawn from nearby. Most understood liberal education not as the effort to liberate its students from place and the traditions that a student brought from home (this is the implicit aim of the modern devotion to the teaching of “critical thinking”), but that in fact educated them deeply in the tradition from which they came, deepening their knowledge of the sources of their beliefs, confirming – not confronting – their faith, and seeking to return them to the communities from which they were drawn where it was expected they would contribute to its future well-being and continuity.
Above all, liberal education did not so much “liberate” students from the limits of their backgrounds as it reinforced a basic teaching embedded deeply within their own cultural tradition, namely an education in limits. Often this conception of limits – conceived most often as based in morality or virtue – was drawn from the religious traditions of the particular institution. Most classical liberal arts institutions founded within a religious tradition required not only knowledge of the great texts of the tradition – including and especially the Bible – but corresponding behavior that constituted a kind of “habituation” in the virtues learned in the classroom. Compulsory attendance at chapel or Mass, parietal rules, adult-supervised extra-curricular activities, and required courses in moral philosophy (often taught by the president of the respective college) sought to integrate the humanistic and religious studies of the classroom with the daily lives of the students.
Such a form of “liberal education” would be objectionable across the board in today’s society – by faculty, administrators, students and even parents. To the extent that it would neglect the education in success – the formation of a character that is capable of living anywhere and doing nearly anything demanded by the competitive global marketplace (even economically eviscerating the very sorts of communities from which a student originally came), it would fail to provide the sort of result that is demanded by the global society and by the consumers and providers within the elite institutions. A school that insisted that the mark of success would be achieved by students who returned to their home communities where they sought to contribute the benefits of their education, or who understood that a good life was constituted by the formation of sound families in settled communities, would certainly be regarded as some kind of fantastical and risible institution. Students at the schools where I have taught – Princeton and Georgetown – uniformly have absorbed the belief that a mark of failure would be to return to their home State or town upon graduation (unless that happened to be one of five or so large American or international cities). Almost certainly demand would decrease, jeopardizing a school’s rankings and all the attendant benefits that come from such prestige.
Debates over the “culture wars” – whether or not there should be more conservative or traditionalist professors on the faculty, whether one or several core courses should be required, whether great books are being assigned – are ultimately of little relevance in light of the more fundamental structural forces that have redefined the university for the past half-century (if not more). Unless conservatives and traditionalists – and, for that matter, intelligent critics on the Left – are able to articulate and develop a persuasive critique of these deeper and more profound forces, there is very little prospect for a revival of the liberal arts, and every reason to believe that they will continue to fall into irrelevance and neglect. The one thing needful in our time – an education in self-restraint, limits and tradition, the lessons our colleges and universities were designed to reinforce – is the one thing that our great universities are no longer well-designed to provide since our elders generally agree such an education is undesirable. We need great readers of palimpsests to draw to the surface the older writings and recall the purpose of the buildings, the names and roles of the university’s officers, and the great teachings and goals of the university tradition. How such a forgotten art will be restored, however, is a problem without a good or easy solution.