Are Conservatives (or Libertarians) Ruining Liberal Education?


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.”

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

(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.

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

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.

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.

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.

for Tocqueville, that middle-class vocational
education shouldn’t be confused with higher
.  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

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.


6 thoughts on “Are Conservatives (or Libertarians) Ruining Liberal Education?

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  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.

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