The Fading of Liberal Education

The best ranking of undergraduate institutions by their general education is ACTA’s What Will They Learn? project. The evaluation looks at seven core subjects (composition, literature, foreign languages, U.S. government or history, economics, math, and science) and tallies whether schools require all students to show sufficient knowledge and proficiency in each one. The ACTA approach goes straight to the heart of learning, the content of the curriculum. Not the applicant size and selectivity, not diversity, not faculty research or Federal dollars, but only the courses students have to take in core subjects. ACTA has reviewed the requirements of 1,098 schools and scored each one on the standard A to F scale.

The degree to which higher education in America has abandoned the mission of liberal education may be measured by the number of schools that made ACTA’s A List. Today, fully 43 percent of all grades given in college are A grades, a bizarre leap from the 15 percent rate in 1960. But ACTA gave only 22 schools its highest score, or really only 21 if we combine St. John’s Annapolis with St. John’s Santa Fe. That makes for a rate of less than 2 percent.

How are we to square this meager commitment to general education with the findings of Academically Adrift, the opinions employers have of the knowledge and skills of recent graduates, and the rising cost of tuition?

There is something else worth noticing in the A List, apart from its microscopic size. We have 21 schools. Three of them are military: West Point, Air Force Academy, and the Coast Guard Academy. Interestingly, the most represented state is Georgia, with Clark Atlanta, Morehouse, Kennesaw State, Georgia Southern, and University of Georgia. Most noteworthy of all is that ten schools, nearly half of the list, are religious colleges:

Bluefield College

Clark Atlanta University

Colorado Christian University

Gardner-Webb University

Pepperdine University

Regent University

Southwest Baptist University

Thomas Aquinas College

Thomas More College of Liberal Arts

University of Dallas

My secular colleagues at research universities might be surprised by this commitment to breadth at religious institutions. In the eyes of many, higher education means thinking your way out of parochial perspectives—and religion IS parochial. When Thomas Aquinas on its home page casts the goal of “A Liberating Education” as preparing youths “to live well the life of the free citizen and of the Christian,” it can only strike secularists as a narrowing process, not a broadening one. Bluefield designs the curriculum as the creation of a “Christian academic community,” a term the irreverent professors regard as oxymoronic. Academia and Christianity don’t go together. Does Southwest Baptist have a vibrant queer theory collective?

But here we have evidence of the opposite, religious schools demanding more history, languages, and science than do their worldly competitors. The number of religious institutions on the list suggests another conclusion: that religious understanding is an opening, not a closure—indeed, that the secular departure from religious aims in the curriculum counts as a constraint, not a freedom.


  • 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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7 thoughts on “The Fading of Liberal Education

  1. We…this Country and Society..are reaping, the proverbial “Whirlwind’, from the concept of the ‘Liberal Education’….

    doesn’t ANYONE feel, we have had enough of it ?

  2. Any student who is paying part or all of her education has less freedom to pursue a non vocationally oriented degree.

    It’s sad that the costs of administrators, sports programs, amenities have starting turning college into a job training enterprise due to the costs they load onto students.

  3. Mark, face it — most students and most faculty do not want the idea of “liberal education” being propounded by the likes of ACTA. The University of Chicago finally learned that when it amended its “core” undergrad program, and promptly found that it was getting far more applications from much better students.

    1. Chicago abandoned its principles, and transformed its college into a wildly successful cash cow. Everybody and his brother wants to go there. And pay full price to boot!

      The students Chicago enrolls today may be “better,” to use your characterization, but the curriculum is inferior. (And I rather doubt the students studying there today are “better” than the students who attended 40 years ago when I did. But I’ll wager they are much closer in values and temperament to the typical Dartmouth or Brown student. And I don’t consider that to be an upgrade.)

  4. If Clark Atlanta is on the list, someone is not telling the truth about something.

    It is a failed institution, fraught with financial corruption decade after decade despite massive financial support, with extremely low graduation and standardized test scores, a highly politicized education, and institutionalized racism against white employees — racism that is so bad, it actually wins lawsuits in Atlanta courts.

  5. Mark, A quicknote about a niece-a recent grad of “Enormous Stater U” She didn’t get into the (one) law school to which she applied,so she’s working part time at a trendy store as a sales clerk.Sh’e s a nice young lady and pretty bright,but her course load was a reiteration ofone easy class after another.No languages,no science,no math-but good grades. Decades ago,my father talked of “trust fund majors”-but they should be avoided by students who don’t have trusts

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