‘Liberal education is countercultural’

That sounds like a slogan of progressives, who often justify their critique of the United States, organized religion, patriotism, Western civilization, and other traditional institutions on the grounds that the purpose of higher education is to instill critical thinking about prevailing norms and beliefs.  But the phrase above actually comes from a blog post by a conservative, Peter Lawler, professor of government at Berry College, who cites it in a brief discussion of my book The Dumbest Generation.  He makes that claim his concluding point, maintaining in fact that liberal education is countercultural “Everywhere and all times.”

The assertion likely strikes conservatives as one of those self-congratulatory phrases liberal professors voice about their labors, as if they were principled dissenters speaking truth to power, risking the wrath of an anti-intellectual public as they pursue the bold profession of criticism and truth-telling.  It recalls the older neoconservative analysis of adversarial culture (for instance, Irving Kristol’s essays “The Adversary Culture of Intellectuals” and “Countercultures”).  But while it is important to point out the hollowness of social and political opposition carried out in the elite, expensive enclaves of the campus, the progressive’s (and Lawler’s) premise shouldn’t be rejected.  On the contrary, conservatives should embrace it as fully as Lawler says.

The reason is historical.  Whereas the counterculture of the 1950s and 60s proved a destructive and dead-end movement, one that lost its ideals and romantic rebelliousness quickly and sank into cheap irony and symbolic defiance, it nonetheless won the culture at large, sweeping the art world, publishing, entertainment media, higher and lower education, and journalism in a fast and total conquest over traditional authorities.  “Father Knows Best” became a joke, patriotism was represented by Archie Bunker, and juvenile delinquents (as they were called) were turned into heroes.  Great Books went from being a means for scaling the class ladder (those Partisan Review socialists were votaries of High Culture) to a repressive institution that embarrassed campus administrators.

In other words, adversarial culture became mainstream culture, especially in the elite sanctuaries.  This is today’s condition, and it means that traditionalist outlooks and adversarial outlooks have changed places.  What could be more countercultural today than readings from Irving Babbitt in a Cultural Studies course; or E. D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy in an education course; or a natural law theorist in a Women’s Studies course . . . ?  And yet, this is where the countercultural position takes us.  What was countercultural in 1959 is altogether normative today, and vice versa.  So, when progressives talk about the necessity of dissent, we should agree wholeheartedly, and then we should pull out their syllabi and note just how routine and unitary they are, and demand that they live up to their countercultural axioms and add Hayek, T. S. Eliot, Burke, . . .


  • Mark Bauerlein

    Mark Bauerlein is a professor emeritus of English at Emory University and an editor at First Things, where he hosts a podcast twice a week. He is the author of five books, including The Dumbest Generation Grows Up: From Stupefied Youth to Dangerous Adults.

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