All posts by Peter Augustine Lawler

Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor in the Department of Government and International Studies at Berry College.

The Withering Away of the College Professor

An excerpt from the book American Heresies and Higher Education

Some conservatives say that the main cost-control issue in American higher education today is tenured faculty who don’t teach enough. It would be better if their lazy self-indulgence could be better controlled by more accountable administrators. Tenure, from this view, is a kind of union, and “faculty governance” is collective bargaining.

It would be better if administrators could be empowered by the “right-to-fire” situation found in our more entrepreneurial states. What the union-taming governor wants, he doesn’t understand that the administrators have already been achieving. In the industrial world, the war against unions is suddenly becoming more aggressive and more effective because unions can’t deliver the goods anyway, given the dynamic realities of the twenty-first century’s globally competitive marketplace.

No Need to Fight Tenure

The same is true of the war against tenure. Tenure is withering away, and astute administrators know better than to launch a frontal assault that would result in really bad public relations and many unnecessary casualties.

The truth is that the number of tenured faculty is rapidly diminishing as a percentage—the tenured and those on a “tenure track” now are a still fairly unoppressed and, I admit, often fairly clueless minority—of the “instructional workforce.” There are doubtless good reasons why, at some places, tenured and tenure-track faculty should teach more. It would be better if more students had their “personal touch,” just as it would be better if they graded their students’ papers themselves at research institutions.

 Teach More, or Teach Less?

But, given how cheap adjuncts are, it’s a big mistake to believe that tenured professors taking on an additional class or two would be a significant saving. It’s often even the case that administrators would rather they not teach more.

At some places, at least, the situation seems to be that the administrations are buying off tenured faculty with low teaching loads and various research perks. That incentivizes them to be compliant with the transfer of instruction to adjuncts and other temporary faculty.

There Goes Content

It also allows them to accept the emptying out of the content of “general education” as requirements focused on the content and methods of the academic disciplines—such as history, literature and philosophy—are replaced by those based on abstract and empty (or content-free) competencies.

Tenured and tenure-track faculty often come from highly specialized research programs where, even in history and literature, the tendency is to know more and more about less and less. There are also allegedly cutting-edge approaches, such as neuroscience, “digital humanities,” rational-choice theory, and so forth, that take the researcher away from being attentive to the content that’s been the core of undergraduate instruction.

And then there’s the pretension of “undergraduate research” (which originated in the hard sciences and makes a lot more sense there) that it’s best for students to bypass the bookish acquisition of content about the perennial fundamental human issues and questions and get right down to making some cutting-edge marginal contribution.

All in all, it’s often not so hard to convince specialists to surrender concern for merely general education. Or at least to convince them that the imperatives of the marketplace and the increasingly intrusive accreditation process demand that the value of their disciplinary contributions is reconfigured in terms of competencies. That way, they’re led to believe, they’ll be able to hang on to their curricular “turf.”

The study of history (or philosophy or whatever) can be justified, after all, as deploying the skills of critical thinking, effective communication, and so forth. One problem, of course, is that those skills can be acquired more easily other ways, ways that aren’t saddled with all that historical or philosophical content.

And when the disciplines of liberal education are displaced by competencies, institutions tend to surrender the content-based distinctiveness that formed most of their educational mission.

Philosophy and Theology

The biggest outrage in higher education right now, for example, is not this or that report of students or administrators whining about microaggressions or being insufficiently trigger-warned. It’s that Notre Dame might be on the road to surrendering its requirement of courses in philosophy and theology for all students for competency-based goals. What distinguishes or ought to distinguish Notre Dame is the seriousness by which it treats philosophy and theology as disciplines indispensable for all highly literate Catholic men and women, or not primarily by its provision of a Catholic lifestyle.

As institutions surrender their liberal arts substance (while sometimes retaining their classy liberal arts brand), they become pretty much identical in terms of their educational goals. Lists of competencies always seem to me vague and rather random, but they still seem to turn out about the same everywhere. Their measurability usually depends on multiple-choice questions and the sham exactitude of points distributed on rubrics. And, in general, the data gets its veneer of objectivity through the intention to aim at sometimes stunningly low and only seemingly solid goals. It’s easy to mock the earnest redundancy of the competency phrases themselves. “Critical thinking”—well, if it wasn’t critical, it wouldn’t be thinking. “Effective communication”—well, if it wasn’t effective, it wouldn’t be communication.

What Is Being Communicated

In any case, the thought being surrendered is that the dignity of thinking and communicating must have something to do with what is being thought or communicated. It’s just not true that the same methods of thought and communication can be applied in all circumstances. Thinking about what or who is a man or woman is way different from figuring out how to rotate your tires or even maximize your productivity.

Communicating information is different from “winning friends and influencing people” (or persuasion and manipulation) and from communicating the truth through irony or humor or esoteric indirection— through the parables of the Bible or the dialogues of Plato. The forms of communication that distinguish the great or even good books that provide most of the content of liberal education elude measurable outcomes, and it’s not immediately obvious that they have much value in the marketplace.

Actually, the kind of insight they provide can be invaluable in marketing, as anyone knows who’s watched an episode of Mad Men or read one of those eerie, philosophical, uncannily effective pitches of Don Draper. But the administrators would reply, “Well, sure that Don’s a genius, but he’s so damn unreliable. We don’t want professors like that!”

As the low but seemingly solid goal of competency becomes about the same everywhere, the delivery of education can become less personal or quirky and standardized according to quantitatively validated best practices. Courses can become more scripted, and then delivery can be increasingly open to the use of the screen.

So the “intellectual labor” of college administrators—the number of which is “bloating” and the perks of which (at the highest level) are coming to resemble those of corporate CEOs—is directed in much the same way as it is in other sectors of the economy. What’s going on, for example, in the Amazon warehouse or in large chains such as Panera Bread, is occurring on our campuses.

A Class-Based Agenda

The idea of “competency” being enforced by the accrediting agencies—basically run by administrators and following a “class-based” administrative agenda—serves the goal of disciplining instruction through measurable outcomes and then displacing actual instructors, as much as possible, by education delivered on the screen.

The Bubble at Middlebury

Photo: The Rutland Herald

I’m surprised there hasn’t been more outrage about the somewhat violent silencing of Charles Murray at Middlebury.

I feel more than a little threatened by the fact that a political scientist was actually injured in the line of duty. I thought I had prudently chosen a profession where that just couldn’t happen. As C. C. Pecknold points out, these demonstrations are a kind of ritualized playacting of the privileged, those who think they are somehow reenacting the idealism of the Sixties. The script today is that the threat to our country is now anti-gay white nationalism, and Murray’s work has to be made to fit that script.

But Murray, of course, is a libertarian who refused to support the nationalist Trump. And he’s all about letting people live as they please so long as they productively take responsibility for themselves and their own. Murray often distinguishes, following Hayek, being libertarian and being conservative.

Consider that Murray came to Middlebury to talk about his book Coming Apart as one way of understanding the outcome of our recent election. Well, let me be courageous enough to say I’ve deployed parts of that book in my classes for that very purpose. It contains a lot of outstanding sociology, most of which is both pathbreaking and not really very controversial.

Murray’s least controversial observation, in my view, is that sophisticated and highly productive Americans now inhabit an increasingly impervious bubble. They live in their own zip codes, have their own schools, have developed their own set of values, have seceded from the various civic experiences (such as military service and socioeconomically diverse public schools) that used to bring diverse Americans together, and relate to those not of their kind in a distant, condescending, and manipulative manner.  Our elite colleges — despite their official commitment to diversity — are pretty much all part of the bubble.

Related: Middlebury Will Either Defend Democratic Norms or Capitulate

And Middlebury students and faculty could have benefited from Murray’s incisive yet lighthearted description of all their bubble’s distinctive prejudices. They could have gotten more than a bit ironic about themselves. There’s little in Murray’s description of the complacency of the privileged few that wouldn’t benefit Sanders voters as much as or more than it would Trump enthusiasts. It might help Clinton supporters even more in seeing why ordinary Americans, including “skilled labor,” thought of their candidate as lacking in real virtue and indifferent to their struggles.

Who can deny that the basic experiences of ordinary life for Trump voters and Clinton voters are now so different that it makes sense to talk of two alternative realities or bubbles? And that each bubble can be incisively criticized from the perspective of the other. And that each bubble is so protective that Americans are in some way less ironic than ever about their class-based limitations. It’s hard to admit that ours is not so much a middle-class country any longer.

Murray observes that our meritocracy based on productivity typically talks Sixties liberationism and social justice and might even join in demonstrations and other forms of activism in college. But its members’ actual ways of living after college are pretty bourgeois. They develop the habits of highly effective people, including child-centered marriage and assiduous health-and-safety regimens.

There really is a lot to admire in the way they live, even if they’re weak in connecting their privileges to civic responsibilities and living in the whole truth about who each of us is. Their education serves them well on one front, but not on others. Murray also notices that the habits of worthwhile work and healthy living are disappearing from the bottom 50 percent of Americans. He’s right on that. He’s wrong, I think, that they can be restored to middle-class responsibility through the removal of welfare dependency.

The problem is much more complicated than that. It has to do, in part, with the real disappearance of jobs that provide the secure wherewithal to live with dignified relational responsibility and that provide the satisfaction that comes with worthwhile work well done. There might have been a great debate at Middlebury between Bernie supporters and libertarians over that issue, an issue over which reasonable people can disagree. And that debate might have allowed the bubble men and women at Middlebury really to think as citizens about what’s best for all Americans.

Related: Charles Murray on Why He Was Silenced at Middlebury

All in all, Middlebury seems unreasonably resistant to the kind of liberal education that comes with questioning one’s own cherished opinions and forms of pride or self-esteem. That comes with curbing anger through really reading with an open mind the serious and well-intentioned books of those not of their kind. Let me add: I don’t deny that the students’ idealism is a real, if misguided, attempt to find meaning on campus in the only way that seems available. It’s just that they’re ending up reinforcing rather than disrupting or even popping their bubble.

As William Deresiewicz wrote in The American Scholar: “Unlike the campus protesters of the 1960s, today’s student activists are not expressing countercultural views. They are expressing the exact views of the culture in which they find themselves (a reason that administrators prove so ready to accede to their demands). If you want to find the counterculture on today’s elite college campuses, you need to look for the conservative students.”

Reprinted with permission from National Review’s Online blog, The Corner

Conservative vs. Liberal, Plato vs. Descartes

Conservatives are climbing aboard Jonathan Haidt’s “viewpoint diversity” train, pushing for more variety of opinions and attitudes on what many call our monocultural campuses. They are, of course, admirably trying to spin the hugely successful and wonderfully diaphanous brand “diversity” for their own purposes.

Haidt is not a conservative. He’s a self-described moderate, but his moderation is the product of compromising the clash of opposites rooted in human nature.

He’s become America’s most influential social psychologist by being able to explain so clearly who each of us is according to our nature. We have conflicting impulses, one we now call liberal and the other we now call conservative.

Related: A Conversation with Jonathan Haidt

Each of us is hardwired to be a social animal, oriented around preserving and enhancing our species by living according to our social instincts. We’re happiest when we devote ourselves to family, community, and country, and we’re alive to the costs various forms of disruptive innovations have on our relational lives.

Conservatism, from this view, is social conservatism, favoring patriotism over cosmopolitanism and thinking of ourselves as parents and children more than liberated individuals. Conservatives are also inclined, of course, to be religious, seeing how institutional religion supports social bonding and “family values,” especially as a countercultural antidote to the excesses of modern individualism.

Each of us, however, is also, by nature, self-conscious. We’re the dominant species because we’re very social and having singularly huge brains. The result is that we’ve become self-conscious, able to distinguish our own personal good from those of the social groups of which we are a part. Self-consciousness doesn’t merely generate the selfishness that produces the joyless pursuit of happiness at the experience of the real happiness of parents, citizens, friends, and so forth.  It also produces just criticism—on behalf of universal principles—of the narrowness or exclusivity of various forms of human tribalism.

Related: The New Age of Orthodoxy Overtakes the Campus

Self-consciousness, ironically, can both lock each of us up into our puny selves and open us to the cosmopolitan truth about what we share in common. From this view, the social danger posed by self-consciousness is its extremism, producing two forms of being displaced or abstracted from the social embeddedness required for the flourishing of animals such as ourselves.

From this view, the combination of individualism—or maximum conceivable autonomy—and cosmopolitanism that animates those around today who are most proudly self-conscious at the expense of real social responsibility.

Now the reason Haidt so clearly lays out the socially instinctual and self-conscious parts of human nature is that he was an undergraduate major in philosophy. He knows that the insights of evolutionary psychology are most deeply articulated by the philosophers. From this view, the fundamental alternatives are really Plato and Descartes. Plato presents a utopia in which human beings are completely socialized to care for nothing but what the good citizens share in common.

The result (as Socrates ironically suggests) is the impossible and undesirable effort to suppress the forms of human Eros that are mixed up with self-consciousness and produce the most wonderful (and often dangerous) human achievements.

Descartes, by contrast, thinks of being human as an isolated consciousness located in an alien machine or body. And so the point of human life is to liberate oneself through doubt from being suckered by the call of instinct. The point of life becomes to keep me around as long as possible and simply to overcome all the limitations—including the natural guidance—of being embodied. Descartes seems to forget that even being conscious is “knowing with,” and so he unrealistically minimizes what’s required for all forms of human happiness.

For Descartes, the human good is autonomy, and that means defining for oneself one’s own personal identity independently of all exterior authority. Even religion, in this view, becomes the religion of me. And even justice becomes what’s best for me, as “human rights” become pretty much keeping the persons around right now alive for as long as possible and as free (or unconstrained by natural or social imperatives) as possible.

Too Much Success for Descartes?

Plato and Descartes present polemical alternatives, attractive partial visions to achieve desirable social reform. Plato wanted the liberated self-consciousness represented by Socrates harnessed by the invincible imperatives of social and political life. Descartes wanted self-consciousness liberated from repressive religious moralism to achieve whatever reform is possible through technological innovation.

In our time, we need Plato—and other forms of pre-modern or highly social and relational thought—to counter what might be called the excessive success of Cartesianism, just as we can see all the good for justice and individual liberation that Cartesianism has achieved.

According to philosophically informed evolutionary psychology, the job of higher education is to take the student beyond the partial truth dominant in his or her particular time. The truth about who we are remains the same, but seeing all of it always required a countercultural educational effort. As Alexis de Tocqueville, the author of the best book ever written on democracy and America, said, had he lived in Descartes time, he would have joined him in getting people’s eyes off heaven onto what they can do for themselves.

But in a techno-democracy, the task is to get them to take the soul and its needs seriously by arousing the social instincts through various educational means that habitual Democratic or Cartesian skepticism are bound to slight.  They include local government, organized religion, and reading the great books of the Greeks and Romans, if possible in their original languages.

That’s why Haidt founded his “Heterodoxy Academy.”  The truth is that our colleges and universities are dominated by a rather uniform set of opinions characteristic of a proudly liberated elite. They think history has surpassed the wisdom of pre-Cartesian thought, and that we have achieved unprecedented insights when it comes to marriage, personal responsibility, citizenship, God, and personal identity. So they think they have nothing to learn from conservative opposition to their agenda, both found among today’s social conservatives—religious and otherwise—and old books with unfashionable points of view.

Today’s Orthodoxy: Dissing Orthodoxies

Being “heterodox” means being unfashionable, nonconformist, and not orthodox. The irony is today’s orthodoxy is all about dissing orthodoxies. Here’s the orthodox assertion: Question authority?  Here’s the heterodox response:  Why? Explain to me how people can get by without taking anything at all on trust. And today’s orthodoxy really is a kind of political expertise that dismisses the truth and authenticity of the personal experiences of ordinary people—reducing them to racism, xenophobia, and so forth.  It’s not that such accusations of uncritical tribalism have no truth in them; it’s just that they’re far from the whole truth. Today’s orthodoxy amounts to:  Trust the experts and their studies.

The defense of heterodoxy by the evolutionary psychologist is, let me emphasize, quite different from the liberal or libertarian who puts all his faith in the free marketplace of ideas. That faith, which has its origin in the liberalism of John Stuart Mill is that just as the unimpeded marketplace leads us to the shortest route to economic progress, the free clash of ideas leads us to progress in the direction of the truth.

The problem, more or less, is that what economic progress is pretty clear, but the history of thought is constantly ambivalent, with gains in some areas producing losses or forgetfulness in others. Our libertarians too often believe that progress in the moral libertarian of the individual has been won with no cost at all to truth and morality, with no forgetfulness about who we are: social or relational animals.

For thinkers such as Haidt (or Tocqueville), thinking—or higher education—is always a return to the beginning for the particular person born to know, love, and die. Making the whole truth available to that person requires an aggressive assault on the fashionable opinions of our time, on the thought that history has some right side which has superseded the moral wisdom of the past and the wisdom still shared by those attached to deep social, political, and religious lives in some particular place.  We live in a time when genuine orthodoxy—as described by the Catholic Chesterton and lived, say, by the Orthodox Jews—is also genuine heterodoxy.

There is, of course, something deeply utopian in the thought that most of our elite institutions would heed the call to “viewpoint diversity.”  But, you know, it remains the case that the American system of higher education as a whole is marked by a singular moral and intellectual diversity.

Just like at Alice’s restaurant, you can still get pretty much anything you like when it comes to higher education in America—and often at a surprisingly affordable price. Do you want Smith or Oberlin?  Do you want Christendom or Thomas Aquinas? Do you want Berry or Berea?  Do you want Hampden-Sydney or Wabash? Do you want Cal Tech or MIT? Do you want Pomona or Swarthmore? Do you want Yeshiva?  Do you want Morehouse? Do you want Hillsdale or Patrick Henry? Do you want Union or Baylor?  Do you want Notre Dame or BYU?  It’s all there on our fabulously extensive viewpoint menu of choice.

We should be most attentive to the threat to that real viewpoint diversity flowing from the standardizing pressures of accrediting associations, government bureaucrats, foundations, think tanks on both the left and the right, misguided politicians—from Bernie Sanders to Scott Walker, and all the experts in general.


Emptying Content from College Courses

These comments were delivered at the 2015 Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation Symposium on “The Future of Higher Education” June 3 in Washington D.C. The event was co-sponsored by the Ethics and Public Policy Center and National Affairs. The full transcript of the symposium is here.

Some conservative critics say that the main problem in American higher education today is that tenured faculty don’t teach enough. It would be better if their lazy self-indulgence could be controlled by more accountable cost-cutting administrators.

Tenure from this view is a kind of union and faculty governance akin to collective bargaining. But the union-taming critics don’t understand that our administrators have already been achieving what the critics want. The truth is that the number of tenured and tenure-track faculties is rapidly diminishing as a percentage of our instructional work force. People with tenure and on tenure track now are still fairly unoppressed and, I admit, an often fairly clueless minority.

Buying Off Tenured Faculty

There are doubtless good reasons why in some places tenured and tenure-track faculty should teach more. It would be better if more students had their personal touch. But given how cheap adjunct faculty are — they work for less than subsistence — it is a big mistake to believe that tenured faculty taking on an additional class or two would produce a significant savings.

It’s often even the case that our administrators would rather they not teach more. At some places, at least, the situation seems to be that administrators are buying off tenured faculty with low teaching loads and various research perks. That incentivizes them to become compliant with the transfer of instruction to adjuncts and other temporary faculty. It also helps them accept the emptying out of the content of general education, those courses required of all students.  Requirements focused on the content and methods of the academic disciplines such as history, literature, and philosophy are being replaced by those based on abstract and empty or content-free competencies such as critical thinking and effective communication.

Make Way for Competencies

Unfortunately, it is often not so hard to convince career specialists to surrender their concern for merely general education or at least to convince them that the imperatives of the marketplace and the increasingly intrusive accreditation process demand that the value of their disciplinary contributions be reconfigured in terms of competencies.

That way they are led to believe they will be able to hang on to their curricular turf. The study of history or philosophy or whatever can be justified after all as deploying the skills and competencies of critical thinking, effective communication or whatever.

One problem, though: the faculty members end up seeing or experiencing is that those skills or competencies can be acquired more easily other ways, ways that are aren’t saddled with all that irksome historical or philosophical content. And when the disciplines of liberal education are displaced by competencies, institutions tend to surrender the content-based distinctiveness that formed most of their educational mission.

So the biggest outrage in higher education right now is not this or that report of students or administrators whining about micro-aggressions or being insufficiently trigger-warned. Notre Dame might be about to surrender the requirement of courses in philosophy and theology for all students in favor of competency-based goals.  If you want to worry about an outrage, worry about that.

Keeping the Classy Brand

As institutions surrender their liberal arts substance while sometimes retaining their classy liberal arts brand, they become identical in terms of their educational goals. Lists of competencies always seem to me kind of vague and random but somehow they turn out to be the same everywhere.

So what the idea of a competency denies is that the dignity of thinking and communication must have something to do with what is being thought and what is being communicated. The how of thinking about who or what a man or woman is way different from figuring out how to rotate your tires or even maximize your productivity. Communicating information is very different from winning friends and influencing people or persuasion or manipulation and is way, way different from communicating the truth through irony or humor or verse such as through the poetry or parables of Revelation or the dialogues of Plato.

Like Panera Bread or Amazon

So as the low but seemingly solid goal of competency becomes about the same everywhere the delivery of education can become less personal or quirky or unreliable or brilliant and standardized according to the quantitatively validated best practices. Courses can become more scripted and then delivery can be increasingly open to the use of the computer screen. So the intellectual labor of college administrators— the number of whom is bloated and the perks of whom are coming to resemble those of corporate CEOs — is directed in much the same way as it is in other sectors of the economy.

So what is going on in colleges and universities is not so different from what is going on at Panera Bread or the Amazon warehouse.

The Amenities Arms Race

As colleges become identical in their competency-based curricula, the question that continues to obsess a college president is how to make his or her institution distinctively attractive in the intensely competitive marketplace for the increasingly scarce resource of the student. So there is increased sensitivity to the student as consumer.

One result is the amenities arms race. Few institutions dare opt out. So there is a proliferation of hotel-style dorms, health club gyms, gourmet food in the cafeteria, more and more non-revenue generating Division III athletic teams and student affairs staff that function like concierges saving students from that dread disease of boredom.

It goes without saying faculty have nothing to do with these innovations at all. The excellent scholar Glenn Reynolds is so disgusted by such developments that his modest proposal is for campuses to be honest and market themselves as luxury cruises.

That means spend and spend more on amenities. And cut and cut more the cost of actual education by reducing the ranks of the career faculty and replacing them with various forms of online instruction and MOOC. No college or university is going quite that far but some are pretty far down the road. And even the small colleges that talk up the presence of real faculty because they can’t get rid of them have begun to describe them as agents and advocates for students. In a way, just another amenity offered to the discerning consumer.

And add to the amenities arms race all the increasingly intrusive and usually stupidly counterproductive compliance requirements of the federal government and accreditation agencies and all those administrative politically correct initiatives that have little to nothing to do with real education and it is easy to see where most of the so-called bubble in college cost is coming from.

It is not faculty compensation or the cost of instruction that is going up much more rapidly than the rate of inflation when my salary is not going up even at the rate of inflation; the cost of instruction is often going down and in ways that is making it worse. Now there are ways to cut the cost of instruction in higher education in general that would cause the quality actually to get better but that would require a renewed focus on the real point of higher education.

Institutionalizing PC

Well, you might say putting the focus on competencies at least has the advantage of banishing at least some politically correct blathering from the classroom. Exactly the opposite is true. It institutionalizes political correctness. Some competencies are always attitudinal about appreciation of diversity and all that so students learn that sensitivity is displayed not only by having correct opinions but having the right kind of enthusiasm, or as they say, “engagement” about them.

In the discipline of philosophy, the question of what justice is allows a genuine diversity of thoughtful and plausible answers. In the era of the competency, the question of justice has been answered and all that is left to do is to be engaged in the right way in promulgating the final solution. So the world of the competency mixes techno vocationalism with dogmatic social liberalism.

Don’t forget that political correctness has morphed from being a radical challenge by socialists as such to American capitalism promulgated by tenured radicals to a kind of cloying sensitivity to the consumer demand that every nook and cranny of a student’s life on campus in thought and deed be a safe and comfortable space. The effect, it often seems, is to make the campus a virtual reality above all, as some say. It is too much like the bubble. The virtual reality is that young people spend too much time losing themselves in in front of a screen.

A Noble Goal

So those conservative reformers who really mean it when they say that they want the classrooms of our career liberal arts professors to be filled with as many students as possible have a noble goal. I’ve explained why that goal doesn’t really have much to do with saving money necessarily. But if their reform intention is seriously personal, or as we say these days, “reform conservatism,” then they should oppose every effort of our administrators to displace respected professors with proletarianized adjuncts as well as to reduce as far as possible the place of the competency and the screen in figuring out what kind of general education, what kind of content-driven literacy is at the core of generally higher education.

Respected professors, it turns out, are a part of the indispensable content of higher education.  For now, we dissident professors are all about resisting standardization and surveillance of all kinds if it comes from the government. We resist it when it comes from the Obama administration and from the Republican Senate. And we, of course, resist all the intrusiveness and stupidity of accreditation associations. We want to protect the genuine moral and intellectual diversity that is the saving grace of American education.

The Accreditation Problem

One great thing about our country is that there are islands of liberal education, sometimes in unexpected places. Not only that, anyone in our country who wants a genuinely higher education can find one, and here is something we don’t emphasize at all, often at a surprisingly affordable price. So we dissident professors applaud those institutions aiming to wean themselves from government funding. And I hope that weaning is a prelude to dispensing with what is the worse and useless process of accreditation.

Because it is impossible to dispense with branding altogether in our world here is my idea. Let’s replace the idea with competency with the idea of literacy, and we want to do so with the real job market in mind. It turns out that the main complaint of employers today is not that college graduates lack this or that fairly minimalist techno competency that could after all be readily learned on the job. Their real complaint is that our students, our graduates don’t have the level of literacy, the good habits, the sense of personal responsibility and the fine manners that we used to count on most college graduates and, to tell the truth, most high-school graduates having.

The main problem with focusing on competency in higher education is that it allows our colleges and universities to be content with producing graduates who are functionally illiterate.

Sure, they can read for information and entertainment and they are quite adept at texting with their friends and playing games on screen. But their reading is too literal or non-ironic, and they can’t enjoy the way authors deploy words to play with ideas and take the light and the wonderfully imperfect and endlessly revealing ways words correspond to the way men and women really are. So our graduates can’t read attentively and they can’t think well as beings born to know, love, and die.

Why Tenure Makes Teaching Better

It’s impossible not to notice a contradiction on the pages of Minding the Campus. My friend Bill Voegeli seems to be saying that tenure makes teaching in our colleges and universities worse (“Tenure, Kipnis and the PC University,” June 22). The shameful goings on at Northwestern over Kipnis show that tenure doesn’t really protect the intellectual freedom of professors from the tyrannical political correctness emanating from administrators. And so tenure has been exposed as nothing but a job protection racket.

Bill has been writing in support of Governor Scott Walker’s scheme to end tenure in the Wisconsin state system. That would give administrators better control over the self-indulgent behavior of the tenured, allowing them, for example, to force lazy teachers to teach more and surrender the “release time” they received for their trivial articles and books that no one reads and no one in the free market actually would pay for. Let’s make professors work 40-hour weeks! And let’s fire them if they’re not serious and effective in their primary responsibility of teaching. The closer our campuses come to the “right-to-fire” situation we find in our more entrepreneurial states, the better.

Offend No Student

The invariably astute George Leef shows us (“Student Ratings Bait Profs into Lowering Standards,” June 24), although that surely wasn’t his main intention, that tenure makes teaching better. He makes the point that untenured faculty–that includes those on a tenure tack, temporaries, and adjuncts–have little choice but to be pretty obsessive when it comes to getting good student evaluations. Given our administrators’ misguided (but deeply rooted) tendency to identify “the good” with “the measurable,” a good set of evaluations has become one on which virtually every student gives the instructor the highest possible scores. So “being good” means to have produced no evidence that any student was offended or disturbed or unduly burdened by the instructor.

This situation seduces faculty into being more entertaining, more affirming, and less challenging than concerned about student learning or even student habituation (say, for the 21st century global competitive marketplace). It seems cruel (and contrary to everything we learn from the science of economics) to blame faculty for the way they’re being incentivized. Faculty would rather not suck up to the students, but what real choice do they have if they want to remain on the faculty?

Student evaluations can’t be made much better by experts trying to refine them with subtle questions that allegedly actually measure student effort and student learning. The more questions there are–and the more complicated they are–the less likely it is that students will actually read them. And as Leef rather wittily reminds us, the real goal of the faculty member is that students not read them at all, but automatically assign the highest score all the way down the line. That’s why (and I’ve noticed this first-hand) there’s an emerging science of getting students in a euphoric mood on evaluation day, to get them to surrender their critical faculties on a doughnut high or through a feel-good exercise in collective self-affirmation. After all, even if a student realizes that he or she has learned much, had a transformative emotional/intellectual experience, and feels the love and respect from a particular instructor, it’s very unlikely, if he or she deploys his or her critical faculties, that the result would be top marks all the way down the line.  The untenured faculty member wants the student to be feeling (feeling good, of course), not thinking, when evaluating.

Students Free to Choose

The incentive here, as Leef says, is to get the student to fill out the evaluation quickly and happily and without taking time to write comments. The numbers do the talking, the thought is, and the comments are bound to be ambiguous and subjective. Now, at my college, there’s a kind of doubling down on this incentivizing by an administrative concern. Our students are free to fill out the evaluations online whenever they please in a two-week period.  Left to their own devices, even with numerous emails of encouragement, a clear majority of them choose not to bother. For myself, I think they should be free to choose, and there might be some honor in refusing to evaluate someone anonymously.

It seems the administration is too consumer sensitive to develop some mechanism to compel compliance. So the burden falls on faculty (with, in principle, our accreditation on the line!) to get students to fill them out. And the one and only time I was judged by some administrator to be deficient on my evaluations is when my turnout was pretty low, and it was suggested to me that there was the rumor out there that I tell students the evaluation process is stupid. (I actually do say, when teaching the Republic, that Socrates says that a weakness of democracy is that it’s so relativistic that students even get to evaluate teachers. But I now add that we live in a democracy so you can’t blame Berry College, do your duty as a democratic citizen and fill the bleepin’ thing out.)

The trouble with low turnout for untenured faculty, of course, is that either it can become a reason to discount their high scores or leave their scores too much to chance by allowing the negative feedback of one disgruntled customer to count too much.  It also can curtail their academic freedom, at least a little, by keeping them from turning student evaluations into a teachable moment about a great text. One method faculty use to increase turnout is to have all the students pull out their smart phones (or tablets and laptops, but at Berry most students don’t bring computers to classrooms–yet another reason why your kids should come here) and fill out the evaluations in class. Well, talk about a comment-suppressing method! Nobody likes to type on those touchy keyboards.

A More Reliable Guide

I never do that. But when I did remind those in my con law class to man up (in the nonsexist sense) and do their evaluative duty, one woman five minutes later thanked me for the reminder and told me she had just filled out the evaluations for all five of her classes.  I’m guessing there were a bunch of fives (the highest score) and no comments, as she is a classy and charitable person.

The truth is that the comments, although far from foolproof, are a much more reliable guide to the quality of instruction. From my view, a really impressive set of evaluations has comments about what was actually learned, complaints (mostly ironic or appreciative) about the amount of work required, some feeling of love, in many cases, for the books read, and a good deal of affirmation of how smart, hard-working, informed, and fair the instructor is.

Comments that are somewhat hostile about the irksome requirements or strange perspectives of the class should also be regarded as positive.  And much better than a vaguely positive vibe from everyone is lots of evidence that some students really loved the class for the right reasons, but not all of them and maybe far from all of them. So there is, in truth, only a loose correlation between genuinely excellent evaluations and really high numbers. One reason is that there’s no denying that some faculty become adept at generating the numbers by prioritizing them over the learning.

The untenured faculty member, especially at a fairly large institution, can’t count on anyone reading the comments with the appropriate discernment and rightly fears being unpopular or even controversial for any reason. So he or she operates with the cynicism that accompanies the observation that virtue is not rewarded.

Virtuous Un-cynical Teachers

That means tenured faculty members typically have more incentive to be good–that is, authentically virtuous and un-cynical–teachers. They have less reason to be concerned about blips in evaluation numbers and often become confident that their reputation as teachers, developed over the years, trumps the quantitative data. It’s true that tenure protects some cynical teachers too, but it does less than the absence of tenure to facilitate excessively consumer-sensitive behavior.

Now there are some who say that if we got rid of tenure, we could break what many experts perceive as the corrupt bargain between students and faculty that leads to both grade inflation and very high scores on the evaluation. I’ll give you high marks for no good reason if you do the same for me. The main priority could be firing instructors who don’t grade with the measurable intention of whipping inflation now. But, to instructively over-generalize, we can see that the main priority of most of our institutions is enrollment and retention, and the main fact, especially among residential colleges, is the almost cutthroat competition for the increasingly scarce resource of the student.

When Princeton, for example, decided to get a little tougher (to improve its reputation) in its grading (getting the average GPA below 3.5!), it quickly decided that that point of distinction was an unacceptable competitive hindrance in the marketplace for the best and the brightest. So at most places most of the time, there’s not nearly enough reason for untenured faculty to risk low or even mediocre evaluations by getting tougher. That’s the type of experiment that might more reasonably be performed after tenure.

Let me conclude by mentioning the most inconvenient truth for those who oppose tenure.  At most of our colleges and universities (most private residential colleges and regional state universities), the teaching load is pretty demanding and salaries aren’t so great. Anyone who dedicates his or her life to teaching in such a place is a sucker–a sucker we should believe in.

It’s said that a downside of tenure is that it keeps faculty from being entrepreneurial by making them feel too secure.  The value of a good teacher in the marketplace goes down over time, and that’s one reason for the (probably somewhat avoidable) salary compression. Everyone really in the know knows that excellent teaching is nearly impossible to measure–or at least that the people doing the measuring don’t know what they’re doing. Not only that, teaching excellence is, in part, contextual–a teacher can flourish one place but not another for a variety of reasons. So when an experienced teacher looks for another job, he or she finds out that all the devoted and effective teaching he or she has done doesn’t count for much.

What does count in the marketplace (far more than it should at the undergraduate level) is publication.  The kind of excellence displayed in publication is easy to see and for many even easy to quantify. So the entrepreneurial professor at a small college has the incentive to get the teaching on the kind of auto-pilot that reliably generates the scores on the evaluation and spend most quality time on publishing. Tenure provides the kind of security (if often not the kind of money) that discourages that kind of behavior.

Contrary to Voegeli’s suggestion, a really good way to have a topflight undergraduate teaching institution is to make sure that most faculty have tenure, so that most faculty are devoted to spending most of their time helping students get what they most need. Tenure certainly discourages a career deformed by the behavior of mechanically generating marginal articles just to produce a more marketable resume, a behavior Voegeli rightly outed as often a trivial pursuit not worthy of support by either the taxpayers or the student’s tuition dollars.


I think it’s easy to see that the best teaching is going on at small colleges where most faculty are tenured and almost all are tenure track. Send your kids to one of them! The faculty members at my college are remarkably un-cynical about the secure career the institution offers good teachers, whatever they might think about other administrative initiatives. But nationwide, the number of credit hours generated by tenured and tenure-track faculty shrinks as the number generated by adjuncts and temporary faculty explodes. I hope nobody really believes that it’s good for genuinely higher education that our “instructional workforce” takes on many of the qualities of a proletariat. It’s not even good for cost control, but that’s an issue for another day.

The Withering Away of Law Schools

Even Emory, a fairly elite law school, may be part of a “death spiral” from which few law schools will escape.  Emory Law professor Dorothy A. Brown acknowledged that in a Washington Post article yesterday. Let me add to her observations from my vantage point as a professor of political science for over thirty-five years.  I’ve been watching students apply for law school, flourish there, and advance (or not) in their legal careers for most of my long adult life.

Well, here’s what going on right now: The legal profession is rapidly downsizing. Outsourcing and technology have turned it mostly into a herd of independent contractors without security or benefits. The days when any talented and reasonably conscientious student can move almost seamlessly from the residential liberal arts college to the law school and then to a secure and lucrative position in a firm are over. Those were really good days for the political science major, and for what I still think is the truthful view that the best route to political leadership–or any position of prominence in one’s community–is that combination of liberal and professional education.

More Disruptive Innovation

Partners of the elite firms are richer than ever, having figured out that they can flourish with (many) fewer people on their permanent payroll. There’s has been a jobless recovery–or, more precisely, partly fueled by the creative destruction of career positions that will never be restored.  That process of disruptive innovation is far from over. More legal work than ever is been done by lawyers piecemeal and for a (typically dropping) price.

Things are no better, and soon surely worse, for the profession of law professor. The low teaching loads and luxury perks of law professors has been premised, in part, on the high market value of  talented legal scholars and, more ridiculously, on the great value of their publications. There’s little real evidence that most of what’s found in amateurish, student-run law journals has any significant impact on the real legal marketplace of ideas. The practice of indulging law professors with astoundingly low teaching loads and summer research money to fake being on the cutting edge deserves to disappear.  I’m not talking here about the top research professors at our best law schools; it’s easy to show that there’s an actual market–in the worlds of both ideas and money–for what they know.  But at this point there’s little reason to pay most law professors much more or have them teach less than unremarakble undergraduate professors who attract no research money to their institutions.

Law school, after all, has been–except at the most elite level–pretty much a trade school.  And it will become more so as law school curricula are streamlined with efficiency and productivity in mind.

Well, you say, at least tenured law professors can’t be fired. Well, they can, if their school goes out of business or encounters really serious financial difficulty.  That means lots of them, in fact, will be fired.

The struggle is ferocious for the scarce resource of the college grad willing to risk time and especially treasure for uninspirational and unevenly delivered education that’s unlikely to pay off. The good news for students: It’s easier and suddenly a lot cheaper (with undergrad style financial aid having suddenly become the norm) to go to law school. Lots of students with less than stellar LSAT scores from my school are getting to go to decent law schools for free and even being given attractive discounts from elite schools, such as Emory, that wouldn’t have given them a second look even five years ago.

Easier Admissions

Good news:  The law school admission process ain’t scary any more.  The loans that constrain choice after graduation no longer need be all that huge. The bad news: For most grads there won’t be any lucrative and secure options.

Bottom lines: Lots of low-ranked law schools are going to close and even the good ones will have to become much more sensitive to the real needs of consumers. The working conditions for law professors everywhere gets worse. The market will, in this case, quickly and effectively sort things out, because the “home institutions” of most law schools won’t do all that much to subsidize them for very long. Those institutions have tolerated the self-indulgent quirkiness of law schools mainly because they’ve been cash cows. No longer.

The “liberal arts”–beginning with the political science major–take another hit, although it will still remain the case that the best route to political leadership will be the one followed by both Obama and Romney. It’s easy to advise undergraduate majors in political science to choose cheaper (often comped) technical programs leading to an MBA, MPA, MPH, and so forth. The better programs offering such degrees sometimes have solid placement records, and they are certainly better for many students.  But there’s no denying they lack the breadth and access to the opportunities associated with political life.

At this point, it is probably no more risky to pursue even a Ph.D in political philosophy or “regular philosophy” or history or whatever. Typically talented and accomplished students have to borrow little to nothing–at least if they don’t have a family and are very frugal–to flourish in said programs. The career prospects in a world where liberal education is disappearing, tenure has no future,  political correctness and techno-vocationalism are crowding out everything else, might not be all that much worse than that for most law students today.  That is, pretty bleepin’ bad.

How Reform Conservatives Can Help Higher Education

The Republicans’ massive victory on all levels of American politics requires them to be more than anti-Obama or anti-progressive. They must implement policies that will contribute to the flourishing of all of American life. “Reform conservatives”–such as Ramesh Ponnuru and Yuval Levin–have taken the lead in showing that Republicans have to do more than cut taxes for “job creators” and embark on maximum conceivable deregulation. It’s not enough to say that economic growth alone will obliterate the relational issues connected with our struggling, broken families and our sinking middle class. Sure, most genuinely conservative and therefore “progressive” policies—policies attuned to the transformational effects of the 21st-century global competitive marketplace—will be market-based and decentralizing. But Levin in particular reminds us that economic and political liberty should help individuals find their personal significance as parents, children, creatures, citizens, and friends.

Ponnuru and Levin, quite admirably, have quickly turned our attention to how Republican reform might make higher education better.  Republicans, it’s true, haven’t thought much about that. Meanwhile, our liberal educational leaders, Silicon-Valley foundations (Gates), and government bureaucrats have. So, although any libertarian conservative is inclined to begin with the thought that the national government ought to leave our colleges and universities alone, it’s too late to embrace such a simple solution, at least for now. What I’m about to say both supplements their empirical analysis and, I hope, tweaks more than a little the policy stand of us reform conservatives. One point worth emphasizing up front: Ponnuru and Levin think our colleges can use some more market-based discipline, and that’s true in some ways. But we shouldn’t neglect the fact that a lot of what they’re already doing is in response to that discipline.

Diagnosing the Problem

The first fact the authors present is the tripling of tuition over the last 30 years. The retail price of education at a private college is more than half the income of the average American family. I should add: The retail price at private colleges is something like the retail price at the routinely discount clothier Joseph A. Banks. Nobody pays it. The increase in tuition, at many colleges, has been accompanied by an almost corresponding increase in the “discount rate,” the percentage of the sticker price the student actually pays.

So here’s part of the real problem. Dealing with the admissions and financial-aid situation at private colleges now is much more complicated than the used-car market. It’s not something that naive teenagers and their clueless parents should have to face alone. One advantage of going to a good high school is the guidance counselor or some equivalent expert who can navigate students through the process and find them the best possible deal. Students who borrow big bucks to go to bad private colleges just haven’t gotten the advice they need. Kids with modest resources who don’t qualify for lots of financial aid, obviously, should go to public institutions, and our country is full of decent ones. It’s an abuse of the marketplace when the admissions representatives of colleges convince them otherwise, and those reps are driven, first of all, but doing what’s required to keep their schools in business.

Still, those who say that bubble in educational costs is something like the housing bubble a few years ago are far from completely wrong. Prices skyrocket, while quality gets shoddier.  What is that money paying for? Many think it must be mainly the ridiculous salaries of lazy, self-indulgently political correct “tenured radicals.” Well, there’s some truth to that, but less and less. The percentage of full-time faculty nationwide is dropping with stunning speed and now is barely over 20 percent. Meanwhile, the number of temporary and adjunct faculty soars.  The total number of faculty is, at best, stagnant, while the number of administrators continues to bloat. College administrators are often almost deranged by techno-enthusiasm, embracing every scheme to use machines and the screen to cut instructional costs.

So the cost of instruction is often actually going down. And the main reason for bloated tuitions are expensive initiatives that have nothing to do with instruction. Some of these are fueled by intrusively politically correct student affairs staffs and the cost of compliance with needless federal requirements. But most of them have to do amenities that have very little to nothing to do with instruction but allegedly everything to do with recruiting and retaining students–such as gourmet food in the cafeteria, a health-club gym, many–including new– non-revenue generating intercollegiate athletic teams, hotel-quality dorms, student affairs staffs that function like concierges to fend off dreaded student boredom, and so forth. Students actually do show that most students who choose a residential private college do so with these lifestyle perks far more than the quality or value of the academic program in mind. Colleges are in some cases emptying students’ pockets in order to give them what they really want.

Our best students still often choose our most academically elite colleges with academic excellence in mind.  And, although it may or may not really be true, few doubt that Harvard or Swarthmore is worth the money in terms of both the educational experience and making the contacts required to get top jobs and get into the best graduate and professional schools. They also have, due to their huge endowments, enough financial aid to meet legitimate student need.  The median student at Swarthmore pays barely more than a third of the sticker price.

But dropping below that elite level, there’s cutthroat competition among private residential colleges (and, to some extent, all our residential institutions) for the scarce resource of potential students. Administrators are increasingly convinced that the liberal-arts brand doesn’t “sell,” and that students would prefer careerist majors that offer them immediate and obvious points of entry into employment. As colleges change in this direction, the character of the curriculum from one place to another varies less and less, especially as traditionally religious schools surrender most of their confessional educational mission. So what’s left to distinguish one college from another is amenities, and they don’t come cheap. Once again, colleges are being disciplined by the market, by the consumer.

The Changing Face of Higher-Ed

Meanwhile, the mission of all our nonselective schools have changed. America, as a whole, is getting less competent. More precisely, our best high schools are getting better, while most of them are getting worse. The remedy for this problem, many of our colleges (out of self-interest), our foundations, and our government think, is to get as many young people to go to college.  College is charged with the job that used to reliably performed by most of our high schools, to get young people up to a level of basic competence required for most entry-level positions in our workforce.  The main reason that some many modest jobs now require a college degree is to ensure that competence. So college, which used to aim at “higher” excellence, is now charged with achieving and demonstrating workplace competence.

Maybe the main reason college degrees are worth less, however, is that we increasingly count on college to do the job high school used to but no longer does–give young people a standard level of basic competence required by most entry-level jobs.  Maybe the main reason college degrees at private, residential colleges cost more is those schools, to fill themselves up, are stuck with  providing students with all kinds of costly bells and whistles that have nothing to do with their education. I don’t think, for the record, that the opportunity for personal attention from career faculty is a mere amenity that should only be available to those studying at elite institution, while students at most schools are spending all their time stuck in from of screens.

One remedy, as Ponnuru and Levin point out, is to gradually cut back on the place of the federal government loan subsidy business.  It’s that government facilitated easy credit that was also, after all, a cause of the housing bubble. And private colleges that have distinctive academic missions that are attractive to various “niche” constituencies have an additional incentive to divest themselves of the amenities that drive dependence on excessive student borrowing.  They should cut back to what they do best, which might mean dispensing with screens altogether in most classrooms. The only reason decent colleges should worry about submitting to the increasingly intrusive and expensive accreditation process is to qualify for those government bucks. Preserving and enhancing the genuine diversity–moral, religious, and pedagogical–that is the saving grace of America’s unique system of private education may depend on it becoming more privatized.

Reform conservatives, of course, should never to fail to mention the indispensable place such “countercultural” higher education has in our free country. American freedom, historically, has been freedom for the flourishing of places like BYU and Notre Dame, not to mention Gordon, Bard, Deep Springs, Baylor, Providence, Thomas Aquinas and St. John’s. Our increasingly political-correct foundation-government-accreditation complex will likely continue to increase its hostility to their freedom to choose for themselves what it means to be a liberally educated person. The world of techno-assessment and competencies, in truth, has no place for what they do best.

There are also some places that focus their countercultural efforts far less on their academic programs than their co-curricular efforts at the development of character, such as Berry, Morehouse, Berea, and our military academies. The market for the focus on “moral virtue” flows from the fairly true–if exaggerated–perception that most our duty-free colleges with their state-of-nature dorms are actually making young people worse, less fit for the real competitive marketplace. The irony is that the “bubble” that is out-of-control tuition costs is funding the “bubble” that is the unrealistic self-indulgence that is too much of campus life.

Meanwhile, those private, residential colleges that are about little more than providing basic competency in an amenity-laden environment probably deserve to go out of business.  Often, their misguided efforts at disruptive techno-innovation will lead to their uncreative destruction.  If higher education is pretty much about the techno-delivery of workplace skills, then students should attend state schools–and probably commute and work part-time to minimize borrowing.  Unlike Ponnuru and Levin, I don’t think, in fact, that there’s a big need for “for profit” schools to supplement what our community, technical, and regional state colleges do well enough.  I certainly don’t think it’s a good idea to incentivize for-profit schools more than the market alone would by qualifying them for government subsidized loans.

Perhaps the truncated government loan and aid program should be focused on every American having some opportunity for higher education, not a luxury cruise that they enjoy by borrowing against their futures.  Our country–our states and in some small way our national government–owes them that opportunity, given how far short most of our high schools have come in providing our citizens the techno-vocational foundation they need to flourish in a middle-class country.

Grade Inflation 1, Princeton 0

The big academic news this week is that Princeton seems to be abandoning its war against grade inflation.  It really wasn’t a war against inflation, because grades actually stabilized at a high level a while ago.  The effort was to stop giving most students A’s.  Princeton had barely achieved its goal, with 43% of students “earning” A’s or A-minuses in 2013.  As the author of a Washington Post article sagely remarks, “Princeton students may have had the best of both worlds: a reputation for tough grading, but a grade distribution that was relatively lenient.”  Nevertheless, Princeton has apparently decided to surrender that reputation and allow most grades to again become A’s, as is the case in most of the Ivies and the comparable elite liberal arts schools.

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Why Accreditation is a Waste of Time

Here’s my reaction when I saw the title of “The Great Accreditation Farce,” Peter Conn’s recent article in The Chronicle of Higher Education: Finally, someone’s telling the truth.  Our system of accreditation of colleges is indeed a farce, a waste of “millions of dollars and tens of thousands of hours.”  To please external examiners, faculty and administration do work they would never to do otherwise and is of no obvious benefit to students.  For instance, they prepare reports “often hundreds of pages in length and chock full of data” that will do nothing to improve their institutions.

Our system of accreditation by regional agencies is one reason among many for administrative bloat and the transfer of institutional power from faculty to administrators.  Most dedicated and competent teachers—especially in my field of political philosophy—have no respect for the process at all.  They comply because they must, coming up with rubrics they don’t believe in, expanding and fine-tuning syllabi with language that means little to them, and quantifying all sorts of stuff that doesn’t need or is amenable to quantification.  None of the good professors—often, award-winning professors—that I know think that the accreditation process has helped them do their jobs better.  It’s mainly a time-suck that falls just short of a serious threat to their sanity. So they approach the accreditation tasks delegated to them with a sense of ironic resignation–without spirit or enthusiasm. It is one of the duties for which they are paid, and not one of the joys that seduced them into choosing a profession that doesn’t pay much.

Doesn’t everyone know that “a culture of assessment” is a culture of intrusive boredom?  And although its accreditation bureaucrats tend to talk up “diversity” as a some kind of competency, the standardization supported by their pages and pages of standards that must be met by every institution—many of which have amazingly little to do with education in the precise sense–actually undermines the genuine moral and intellectual diversity that is the saving grace of American higher education.  It has, in fact, devalued the language of mission and the ends of education, making the increasingly vacuous mission statements and educational outcomes of our colleges more similar and more content-light.

A True Farce

The accreditation process is worse than a farce because it is a waste of time and treasure.  And that in a time when everyone agrees that college education has become way too expensive.  One small but real  way of reducing the size of the tuition bubble is to eliminate or radically streamline that process. My question has always been:  Why do colleges with unimpeachable reputations put up with this degrading process, one that drags down excellence in the direction of measurable mediocrity?  The answer is that unaccredited colleges don’t qualify for federal financial aid money, including federally subsidized student loans and Federal Work-Study.  Of course, that means that being accredited qualifies colleges for money and students for debt, some not insignificant amount of which has to be used for staying accredited.

In the end, nobody is really going to deny Rhodes or Swarthmore or Kenyon accreditation.  That would be an outrage.  Even undeniably outstanding colleges, however, routinely get tortured by the accreditation folks, being forced into “redos” on their insufficiently quantitative reports and so forth.  Why do they put up with that?  Getting accredited doesn’t add to their reputations; many inferior schools can boast of the same credential.

It’s not the accreditation standards are genuinely tough.  Everyone knows that some really marginal and underperforming colleges get accredited, and accreditation isn’t  addressing the real causes of the declining quality of higher education. The reasons for ultimate denial have to do with egregious educational malpractice and financial meltdowns.  So all accreditation really proves is that you’re “good enough”—or not a fraud.

You’re probably objecting that nothing I’ve said has anything to do with Conn’s article.  Well, that’s because he doesn’t really think accreditation is a farce.  He’s “the man,” part of the educational establishment, no true dissident at all.  Here’s the only thing he thinks makes the present process a farce:  “awarding accreditation to religious colleges.”  So he want accreditation to become infinitely more intrusive by becoming  highly judgmental when it comes to our college’s missions.  He wants to up the ante on accreditation’s attack on our colleges’ moral and intellectual diversity.

Is Reform Possible?

Here’s a quick proposal for reform.  In my state of Georgia, the health inspection of restaurants is conducted rather quickly but thoroughly by an inspector or team of inspectors who show up unannounced.  They get the job done, and restaurants have to remain on their toes.  A bad day could get a place shut down.

So let’s have the accreditation team swarm on a college unannounced.  It would check out the books, examine degree requirements, attend some classes, review the qualifications of the faculty, check out the syllabi, and talk to some students.  Colleges would be required to have these records up-to-date at all times.  The “inspectors” would, in most cases, quickly pronounce the college “good enough” for government purposes.  The marginal cases would be put on warning and revisited, but in real life that list of losers isn’t going to be all that long.  Colleges could still have self-studies, strategic plans, and develop all kinds of metrics to satisfy themselves and their external constituencies.  But they wouldn’t have to undertake that optional (although doubtless often valuable) work just to get accredited.

According to my scheme, America’s adequately functioning colleges wouldn’t have to do anything much they wouldn’t do anyway—the various kinds of record-keeping are a must for any institution for all kinds of reasons—and accreditation would not be time-consuming, expensive, or a cause of tightening administrative and bureaucratic control over what good professors do.  Now the scrutiny of a college, I admit, has to be more detailed and rigorous the first time it is accredited, but even then the review should be of what the college has to do anyway to get itself established.

The best argument I’ve heard for the present accreditation process is that, without its bureaucratically-impressive deluge of paperwork and numbers, government would take over certifying colleges for funding, loans, and such.  And the government would be more insistent and intrusive in imposing its random and ephemeral priorities on our institutions of higher education.  Well, that might be true.  Still, the argument amount to this:  Please endure our senseless, demoralizing, and expensive torture to spare yourself even worse torture.  Surely our best colleges should take the lead in being more confident and principled than that!

Now, if and when I start a college, I would make it as amenity-free and administrator-free as possible.  I also would not get in the residential or food service or intercollegiate athletics businesses, and I would, in the name of cutting costs to the bone, make our point of distinction small, techno-lite classes based solely on great or at least good books and huge amounts of writing.  My faculty would work cheap, with demanding teaching loads, and without tenure for the joy of it.  I think I could get tuition low enough that we could dispense with government funding of all kinds.

We would dispense with accreditation too.  That might be hard at first, but only at first.  The reputation of our highly literate and otherwise civilized graduates would soon be more than enough. After all, who could deny that they’re superior to the sketchily educated graduates of most of our accredited schools? Of course, eschewing accreditation—and, by extension, federal financial aid—will require me to raise significant outside funds. But I suspect that private donors will flock to an institution that cares more about educating students than satisfying accreditors.

What’s the Real Threat to Liberal Education?

I’ve long believed that the main threat to liberal education—real higher education, in my view—is our tendency to judge the success of academics in technical terms. Too often, social critics attack tenured humanities professors for their inefficiency and poor productivity. Though they think they’re saving higher education, these pundits are harming higher-ed more than political correctness ever could.

Continue reading What’s the Real Threat to Liberal Education?

Seven Competing Views of Higher Education


What is the purpose of higher education? You can find seven philosophies of education in today’s conversations and arguments. The list isn’t exhaustive and there is, of course, some truth to each.

1.  Aristocratic Platonism argues that leisurely contemplation is for the few and work is for the many.  The few live outside the “cave,” while the many are completely formed by the “city’s” process of socialization.  For the latter, education is vocational and civic-minded.  For the former, education consists of seeking the truthand the truth is discovered primarily by attending to the words of the philosophers in their “great books.”

2. Aristotelianism or Stoicism insists that education should be directed toward the soul of all rational men and woman, but especially leaders.  It aims for the rational and habitual cultivation of moral virtues, the spirited virtues of courage, generosity and magnanimity, but also the more graceful social virtues having to do with manners, morals, and wittiness.  A rational man has an appreciation for cultivated leisure, but he knows that his life is for more than that.  He lives by an honor code shared by rational men and women everywhere  that allows him to know who he is and what he’s supposed to do, even in the most difficult and lonely situations.  So the point of classical education is to produce men like Atticus Finch or Admiral Stockdale or, most of all, the irreproachably generous and magnanimous George Washington.

Continue reading Seven Competing Views of Higher Education

A Simple Fix For the M.B.A.


Employers tend to complain that the graduates of American universities are skilled in solving particular problems but “often miss the big picture.” This complaint rings true for colleges graduates in general these days, but it’s an even larger issue for M.B.A. students, who hope to ultimately ascend to leadership positions in a wide array of businesses. Accordingly, the Wall Street Journal reported last week, M.B.A. programs are beginning to introduce philosophy into their curricula.

One example:  A course in “Nobel Thinking,” which exposes students to world-changing ideas generated by members of our cognitive elite.  The course is taught by a professor of economics and discusses transformative economic ideas like “adverse selection.” It seems, however, that only an economist could think that an insight into “what happens when buyers and sellers have access to different information” changed the world.   Nobel-winning economists do, in fact, have big-picture abstract thoughts.  But they shouldn’t be confused with the thoughts of political or corporate leaders.  Adam Smith and Karl Marx–less technical than political economists–did have thoughts that changed the world.  But they didn’t win Nobel Prizes and so don’t show up in the course.

Continue reading A Simple Fix For the M.B.A.

Plato, Rawls and the Liberal ‘Comfort Zone’ at Harvard

JRAWLS.jpgThe reason that Sandra Y.L. Korn’s article in the Harvard Crimson went viral is that she audaciously wrote what so many sophisticated Americans now think: that “academic justice” should be privileged over “academic freedom.”  The Harvard undergraduate contends that self-evidently unjust opinions  contradicting both the findings of academic studies and politically correct university policy should be banned from the campus and especially from the classroom.

Ms. Korn is sure we know what justice is.  When it comes to opposing racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, and so forth, we’ve achieved wisdom.  That wisdom has become easy, and much of education consists of outing those, past and present, who do not share it.  In that respect, the point of academic freedom is to defend the truth, not pander to those who contradict the truth.  Ms. Korn, in fact, could find only one Harvard professor lacking in wisdom concerning justice, Harvey Mansfield.  Mansfield is one of the few Harvard professors to loudly and proudly vote Republican, and probably the only Harvard government (political science) professor to vote that way.  Although it’s just, in some ways, that the classroom mirror the “diversity” that is America, it shouldn’t, in justice, mirror our political diversity or pretty equal division into Democrats and Republicans.

Continue reading Plato, Rawls and the Liberal ‘Comfort Zone’ at Harvard

Harvard’s President Faust Explains It All


By Peter Augustine Lawler

The president of Harvard, Drew Gilpin Faust, was asked by The Wall Street Journal to defend the skyrocketing cost of attending her university. The total residential cost, now $60,000, has risen much more quickly than the rate of inflation.

She assures us that not only Harvard but the other relatively nonelite private, residential colleges remain “worth it.” She reminds us of the return in “lifetime earnings” and “intellectual development.” But anyone would immediately think there might be cheaper ways of getting both.  And being saddled with mega-debt, it’s often said, can drastically limit the options of a graduate of ordinary means in either choosing an entrepreneurial opportunity or pursuing graduate or professional education.   

Continue reading Harvard’s President Faust Explains It All

Why Grade Inflation Hurts Social Mobility


The friends of “disruption” in higher education typically cite grade inflation as proof that liberal education is substance-free. They are correct to assert, as Thomas Lindsay recently did on this site, that grade inflation is a real problem.  But the disrupters haven’t identified the real problem with grade inflation: It makes liberal education seem to be worth less than it really is.

Grade inflation, in my view, is a quite deliberate project of our most elite schools to secure the elitist advantage of their students from effective competition. Indeed, the center of grade inflation is the Ivy League.  As far as I can tell, the grade inflation is meant to protect the “brand” of the meritocrats earned by being admitted. To be sure, it’s not that the students at Harvard or Princeton don’t work hard.  It’s just that their efforts occur in a safe and secure environment.  They’re protected from real competition from excellent students at lesser schools.  Nobody is ever to say that an A at my Berry College is as good as an A or even A minus at Harvard.  So we professors in the sticks can’t really win by sustaining grading standards too different from those used by our most prestigious schools.

If grade inflation is used to undermine the case for the traditional approach to liberal education at non-elitist schools, the result will be to enhance even more the somewhat unearned competitive advantage of elite schools and their students. Elite schools have the resources to retain their “traditional” or “luxury cruise” approach to undergraduate education, with small classes, tenured professors, real books, lots of “engagement,” and all that.  Their “brands” are so solid and so resilient that they won’t have much trouble fending off the forces of disruption.

Disrupting most of American higher education will therefore stall social mobility, as those who are not considered “excellent” to begin with will have little chance of ever obtaining that rank. We see a similar trend in our high schools, where our elite schools are better than ever, but we’ve been willing to let most of them be only “good enough.”

So, from where I’m sitting, it’s a huge mistake to think that grade inflation is evidence that liberal education as found at most of our four-year colleges has become worthless.  It’s certainly not evidence that the job of professor of, say, literature or philosophy has become easier than ever.  The easy A, very often, is making ordinary professors work harder than ever to prove the worth of their students as literate and accomplished men and women of character.  In plenty of places, our professors continue to strive for students who are more than competent, because they know their students well enough to see that they’re much more than “middle class.”  But they can’t give good and overachieving students Cs or even Bs in a world where all the elite kids are getting better grades no matter what they actually do.

The Downside of MOOCified Disruption


The two most potent and ingenious threats to liberal education in our country today are political correctness and techno-libertarian “disruption.”  Political correctness has corrupted the humanities and social sciences and politicized higher education by asserting that all inquiry is to be driven by correct opinions about justice. The great books of the past are authoritatively discredited by outing their racism, sexism, classism, heterosexism, and theocracy. The humanities so understood are characterized by “relativism,” which turns out mainly to be a rhetorical tool to discredit various forms of authority. The idea that truth is relative prevents students from being dissatisfied with today’s fashionable opinions in search of the truth about who they are and what they’re supposed to do.  Relativism is used to convinced students that behind every claim for the truth there’s a hidden agenda of oppression. Even science, it turns out, is driven by premises that privilege some forms of knowing over other equally valid–because equally relative–ones. So relativism justifies obsession with identity politics and empowerment; it substitutes “engagement” as self-righteous anger for open-minded wonder.

Holding on to the Liberal Arts ‘Brand’

Political correctness has, in fact, peaked. It still dominates much of the social sciences and humanities, and it certainly animates the various “studies” majors–such as women’s studies, black studies, queer studies, and even, to a large extent, environmental studies. But the social sciences and the humanities are themselves in retreat. They suffer one defeat after another in core curriculum or general education reform. They aren’t doing well either in attracting students as majors or even as being part of the “brand” of our colleges and universities. Many colleges that hold on to the liberal arts “brand,” after all, are busy emptying themselves of liberal arts substance.

The surging theory of higher education now is all about “disruption” through techno-innovation of the fundamental premises and habits that have animated our institutions of higher education. The social sciences and the humanities are a big part of the twin bubbles inhabited by so many of our colleges and universities. The first bubble, of course, is analogous to the housing bubble that disrupted our economy in 2008: Tuitions are rising far more quickly than the rate of inflation. Meanwhile, the largely “politically correct” self-indulgently relativistic quality of the product is increasingly more shoddy. The second bubble is the fantasy world of the campus that insulates both faculty and students from what’s required to flourish in the 21st century competitive marketplace. This second bubble is analogous to the artificial environment inhabited by the “bubble boy” on the legendary Seinfeld episode.

Moving from Bubble to Bubble

So the objection to the humanities, it turns out, is not merely to their political correctness. Even or especially the more traditional majors in philosophy and humanities are driven by obsolete “bubble” premises. The thought was that a liberal arts major could move from the bubble of the prestigious college to the bubble of, say, law school to the bubble of a secure career with a corporation or the government. Careerism in general has been disrupted by the dynamism of the global market. Unions, tenure, pensions, employer and employee loyalty and all that are yesterday’s news. The future will be all about independent contractors with flexible skills in either using what libertarian Tyler Cowen calls “genius” machines or in managing and marketing those who have that competence and the outcomes of their highly productive work. The future is all about techno-calculative capabilities, including the measurement and manipulation of personal productivity. All education not oriented toward the imperatives of this future isn’t worth the money.

Disruption theory thinks of a college like any other industry. Colleges that charge an extravagant price to deliver an education that students neither want nor need will be “disrupted”–put out of business–by those who can deliver a “good enough” product at a much lower cost.  The only way not to be disrupted is to disrupt yourself, and so the inventor of disruption theory–Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business School professor–instructs college administrators and especially governing bodies such as Boards of Trustees on how to do what’s unpopular in the interest of institutional self-preservation.

Faculty, the thought is, unreasonably cling to their privileges, privileges based on out-of-touch assumptions about what colleges is for. The “intellectual labor” of the college should be done by those attuned to the truth about needed disruption, and faculty should be thought of as workers disciplined by the imperatives of the market. And the latest technology should be aggressively employed to bring the cost of education down. Nobody really says that a MOOC or some interactive program is more engaging than a small class with a dedicated instructor. But techno-replacements for the personal touch can be good enough, certainly better than the blathering of the politically correct and the impersonality of huge lecture sections. All instruction should be evaluated by the “technology” of the precise measurement of outcomes, and outcomes should be the competencies required to flourish as part of the emerging meritocracy based on productivity. If the study of history or literature remains in the curriculum, it’s only because studies show they’re effective ways of acquiring the skills of critical thinking or effective communication. That means, of course, that alternative ways of acquiring those skills should also be available to students.

What’s Left of Liberal Education

For a taste of the rhetoric of libertarian disruption, I refer you to an article meant to counter those moved by my earlier criticism of the language of disruption as applied to higher education. The author, Thomas Lindsay of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, refers to me as a “distinguished humanist.” And it’s only right that I pay him the same compliment. I only wonder why such a distinguished humanist is at war with what remains of liberal education in our country.

Here are the key steps of Lindsay’s argument in fending off criticism of the MOOCification of higher education:

  1. Of course I’m right that, for example, the serious teaching of, say, Plato’s Republic has to be face-to-face. But, he suggests, that kind of education has disappeared from our country. And apparently there’s no way to bring it back. So he doesn’t suggest any way of giving more of our students such a face-to-face experience. That, to me, would be genuinely disruptive.
  2. The MOOCs will replace the large lecture section. How could they be worse? And they will certainly be cheaper. The implication is that one feature of disruption will be reducing the number of faculty a college actually requires to be effective. (Surely the lack of “face time” will get worse with fewer faculty faces.) Students won’t be any worse off learning before a screen than listening to lectures in “cavernous auditoriums” with their laptops open. Lindsay’s point: Don’t worry about students spending too much time in front of screens. They’re going to do it one way or another anyway.
  3. Lindsay then goes into a polemic against political correctness. The humanities have become worthless anyway. They don’t teach Americans what they need to be good citizens or to be informed by the wisdom and culture of Western civilization. They are, apparently, beyond reform. So students aren’t missing anything these days by being deprived of face-to-face instruction from the humanities professors we actually have.
  4. Education, Lindsay goes on, as a whole has become bizarrely self-indulgent outside of the techno-fields. Consider the evidence of grade inflation and the measurably abysmal learning outcomes. (What Lindsay doesn’t say, of course, is that the study guys like him love–Academically Adrift–finds “zero value-added” mainly in the studies majors and techno-lite fields such as communications and marketing. The traditional disciplines such as history and literature–despite the political correctness–are still adding lots of value.)
  5. Due to “systematic corruption,” MOOCs are to be embraced as very efficient and better than the nothing most higher education has become. They offer our children good enough, bubble-free degrees at a disruptively low cost.

More Inequality from MOOCs?

I think the libertarians (and Governor Rick Perry) and the Texas Public Policy Foundation have every incentive to exaggerate the corruption. And they also have every incentive not to get us worrying about the effect the dynamics of disruption will have on the niches of educational excellence in our country. They also tell us not to worry about what excessive time in front of screens is doing to the human soul in our techno-time.

But let me close with an observation found in the celebration of our disruptively libertarian future found in Tyler Cowen’s new book, Average is Over. The problem with MOOCification is that learning in front of a screen requires intelligence and self-discipline. It will actually work against struggling students who haven’t been raised well, and so who are more infected than most of us with the pervasive disorder of attention deficit. So Cowen says we should keep real faculty with faces around as kind of inspirationally motivating coaches for the less gifted and attentive. The message here is that the screen has the downside of exaggerating the growing inequality that is an indisputable downside of the 21st century global competitive marketplace.

(Photo Credit: StudyingLive.)

The End of “Disrupting” in Higher Education?

disrupting class.jpg

“Disrupting” may have had its day as a pervasive buzzword, claims Judith Shulevitz in The New Republic. It is or is soon to be toast as “jargon cluttering the pages of Forbes and Harvard Business Review” and as part of the title of many a TED talk.

Disruptive used to refer to students and others who had impulse-control “issues” in class.  It now is virtually a synonym for “innovative” and “transformational.”  Well, not quite a synonym, because it’s easy to find phrases like “disruptively transformational” Or “disruptively innovative.”  The unironic user of buzzwords doesn’t fear redundancy.  And the ironic user–who knows what to say to win friends and influence people–knows how to move his audience.

In this case (but not in most cases), Shulevitz reminds us we can actually “name the person who released a cliche into the linguistic ecosystem”: Clayton Christensen, a Harvard Business school professor.

An Awful Theory

Christensen’s first use of “disruptive innovation” occurred in his fascinating The Innovator’s Dilemma. That first use is more instructive–or more honest–than many of his subsequent ones.  A company that invents some “gizmo”–say, a disk drive–goes on to make better versions of said gizmo and sells them for more money and so a bigger profit.  Then a disruptive upstart makes a stripped-down version of the gizmo and sells it for much less, driving the established company out of business.  So “disruptive” means replacing something expensive and of high quality with something cheaper and no-frills but good enough.

Christensen went on to come up with the “brand” of “disruption theory” and applied it to virtually every area of human life. It’s a powerful theory less in what it really explains than its apparent capacity to explain complex human institutions with a compelling and disarming simplicity.  “Disruption theory,” in fact, is one form of scientism or expert self-help that flourishes in the techno-era of the TED talk.

I’ll limit myself to the way Christensen and others markedly less bright than he have applied that theory to education, particularly higher education. The theory is pernicious because it gives “stakeholders” in higher education who don’t really engage in it–such as administrators, politicians, bureaucrats, corporate leaders, and board members–way too much confidence that they really know what’s going on and what needs to be done. Disruption theory as the key for understanding everything makes these stakeholders as arrogant today as Marxism once made so many of our intellectuals.

The truth is that “disruption theory” in education and higher education means replacing an expensive and often self-indulgent concern for quality with doing what’s required to come up with an cheaper alternative that’s good enough for giving students what they need as productive members of the 21st century global competitive marketplace.  There’s an argument for this kind of transformation if the goal of American higher education is to give as many Americans as possible the useful credential of a college degree.

A problem in higher education surely is that this transformative agenda includes putting the higher quality but higher priced brands out of business. That’s not a real issue when it comes to software or tablets, of course; they’re just useful tools.  Nothing essential to human flourishing disappears with the replacement of the personal computer with the tablet.  The same isn’t true when it comes to the disappearance of close reading of the “real books” of philosophy, literature, theology, and so forth, the study of history, and the disciplined appreciation of art and music because they’re unreliable and not cost-efficient.

MOOCs Won’t Transform Education

One feature of disruptive theory as applied to higher education is an obsession with MOOCs and “blended learning” as somehow transformational. They aren’t. They are tools that teachers might or might not use. For those engaged in liberal education, they don’t change at all what is to be taught.  The MOOC is much inferior to “the book.” As I probably said too often, discussing a book written by Michael Sandel (who has a hugely successful social-justice MOOC) makes a lot more sense than hearing him talk.  And it’s ironic, after all, that those who criticize professors who are content to teach through lecturing alone (a just criticism) think that it’s somehow disruptive to use the teaching method of listening to the Sandel lecture.

The real promise of MOOCs and so forth is that they allow students to reliably achieve a fairly minimalist version of the relevant competency or learning outcome at a very affordable price. In higher education, disruption theory is not about “job creation.” The promise is that lots of self-indulgent, tenured, overpaid, and underworked professors will be laid off, and that all the other expensive amenities we associate with residential higher education will wither away too. Technology might, in some cases, make higher education worse or reduce it to much less than it has been or could be, but it will reliably make it cheaper and good enough.

A lot of the disruptive criticisms of higher education today point to real decadence, and in many places what goes on in our often needlessly expensive colleges manages to be neither useful vocational education nor beautiful and truthful liberal education. But disruptive techno-utopianism isn’t really about making higher education “higher” or more ambitious. It’s about exploiting the decadence to root out the quality as well, to discipline all of American education with the disruptive logic of the market.  That’s one reason the disruptive innovators want all American education (from charter schools to graduate schools) to be “for profit,” and for professors to be understood as workers like any others.

So, as Shulevitz points out, disruption theorists are against democracy in general.  Nobody runs an effective corporation that way, and “shared governance”–or thinking of professors as stakeholders too–has kept our colleges and universities in the thrall of outmoded illusions.  The disruptive cognitive elite that runs the institution of higher education should know all about “the best practices” to which the instructional workers should conform if they are to be as efficient and productive as possible.  “Best practices” turns out to be the methods of being reliably good enough to achieve the relevant competency.  Being competent shouldn’t be confused, of course, with being excellent or even being good.

The good news is that the word “disruption” seems to be just worn out through promiscuous overuse, and surely so too is disruption theory.  Here’s hoping our stakeholders in higher education get the news before they end up obliterating the genuine diversity that is the saving grace of American education.

Saving Liberal Education From ‘The Humanities’


The report from the American Academy of Arts and Sciences about the sorry state of the humanities was utterly forgettable, and Andrew Sullivan focused sharply on what’s wrong with it. But I think a bit more should be said in the service of my conservative defense of liberal education, part of which is the defense of the humanities from self-destructive extremes of scientism and relativism. So here goes:

  • It’s not so much that it’s a report from a committee.  It reads like a report from a committee.  When the Continental Congress wanted a declaration of independence, it had Mr. Jefferson come up with rough draft, animated by his singular vision about who we are.  And then it tinkered with the draft to make it a bit more of a consensus.  I wish the Academy had done something like that.
  • The humanities focus on the singular destiny of particular human lives.  That’s why Walker Percy said that all good novelists are existentialists or Christians or Jews–and never Marxists or even Buddhists deep down.  In the sciences and the social sciences, articles are typically “research reports” that often have more authors than pages.  Those reports of the results of experiments and such often begin sentences with “studies show” or, more recently, “data show”–and almost never “I think,” or even “I feel.”  The tone of science is necessarily impersonal; what it describes is a rational and empirically verifiable account of what we see when we abstract from or deny the personal element.  Scientists who know they’re abstracting are alive to the limits of what we can know through their method.  Scientists who don’t know that have fallen prey to scientism.  In our time, a big job of the humanities is to out scientism for what it is, to restore personal sovereignty from the clutches of the experts.  It’s to do what both Aristophanes and Socrates did to the sophists, who thought they knew much more than they really did.
  • So, for example, professors of the humanities should be digging in against “undergraduate research” as an allegedly transformational agenda in higher education.  In the natural sciences, it makes sense that students make their marks by becoming collaborators with their professors in making small advances in the reigning impersonal paradigm.  But in the humanities, students should be thinking and discovering more on their own.  I’m not talking relativism here, but something like this:  When I teach Plato’s Republic, the top students will grasp only a very small part of what could be learned from that great book. They will be alive to very different parts, and what they understand is conditioned, in part,  by their personal experiences.  It’s not that what they understand is “idiosyncratic” or so personal it can’t be communicated to others.  But they shouldn’t be allowed to think that what they understand hasn’t been seen or understood better by those before them.  So students should be writing for the joy of communicating their “insight” to others, but with no intention of being original, much less path-breaking.  Little eviscerates the humanities more than viewing undergraduates as scholars–or specialists without spirit or heart.
  • According to the Academy, the goals of humanities education aren’t drawn from the humanities:  They’re about making producing skillful, innovative, competitive and productive American leaders.  These goals, of course, come from science.  They come, more precisely, from a kind of techno-scientism that views the point of life to be productivity.  Science “alone” can’t accomplish the agenda set forth by techno-scientism.  And so the humanists hope to get a grudging admission that there’s a place for a kind of skillful literacy that techno-specialization can’t generate on its own in achieving practical success.  So the Academy buys into the various pathetic efforts of humanities professors to “brand” what they do in the techno-speak categories of skills and competencies such as critical thinking, effective communication, collaborative learning and so forth.   One job of the humanities should be to mock those categories.  Critical thinking and effective communication are redundancies, just as uncritical thinking and ineffective communication are oxymoronic.  Philosophy, to begin with, teaches clear thinking, just as literature teaches “communication” that is truthful and beautiful.  It’s the sophists who teach “effective communication,” how to win friends and influence people.
  • The humanities, in the old view, are about the purposes or ends of being human.  Technology is about the means–money and power–that should be subordinate to those ends.  Instrumental reason, by its very name, should be at the service of properly philosophical and theological reflection. So those with a technical education should be taking orders from those with a fully liberal education, as they have been, in fact, through most of our history.   Jefferson and Lincoln had a deep appreciation of the place of technology in American flourishing.  But they understood the difference between cultivation of the means for the pursuit of happiness and happiness itself.  When Jefferson thought of happiness, we learn from his letters, he gave us two exemplars:  the philosopher Epicurus and his version of the Jesus of the Bible.  And of course “the self-evident truths” could only be genuinely evident to a self who has reflected seriously–with the help of the key books of the West–about who each of us is.
  • The impoverishment of the commission’s report is reflected in its title “The Heart of the Matter,” as if the “head” were outside the domain of the humanities.  It suggests that science is about the facts, and the humanities about the values.  But the truth is, of course, that philosophy, literature, theology and so forth are modes of knowing.   The idea that the humanities is merely about “values” suggests a relativism that reduces the humanities to far less rigorous and more whimsical modes than “hard” science.  It’s that relativism, of course, that has sometimes been the cause of the decline of the quality of humanistic inquiry in thoughtlessly ideological or “identity politics” directions.  So that relativism has also fueled the despotic pretensions  of scientism:  If the humanities and so self-indulgent and so empty, then technology itself has to step up and  generate ends.  There are no human standards higher than health, safety, and productivity. If that’s the case, then the humanities becomes nothing more than a series of “lifestyle options” or hobbies that can be merely optional components of higher education, options that will routinely be rejected as wastes of big bucks and valuable time. The space abandoned by the humanities through relativism is filled up by scientism.
  • Not only does the Academy’s report do an injustice to the humanities, it does the same to science properly understood.  There’s nothing about the joy of discovery and sharing the truth with others across time and space.  There’s nothing about “the community of knowers and lovers” that should include theoretical physicists, philosophers, novelists, poets, theologians– among others.  Plato, we remember, excelled in all those specialized disciplines, because he thought that the discipline of specialization was at the expense of the comprehensive inquiry required to know who we are and what we’re supposed to do.  So the division of human inquiry into the humanities and the sciences is artificial and alienating.  It clearly at the expense of the humanities.  Theology and philosophy, for example, are sciences–for science is nothing but genuine knowledge of the way things really are.  And there may be no human mode of communication more empirical–not to mention more diagnostic–than a great novel.  Dostoyevsky, for example, had a clearer insight than Darwin or Hegel or Marx about what the 20th century would be like.

Civic Engagement: Teaching Students to Be Partisan Activists


As a professor of political science, I can’t help but be concerned with all the enthusiasm about “civic engagement” as some radically transformative, disruptive, “Copernican” revolution in higher education.  All the literature that makes such bogus claims is rife with management-speak barely masking progressive ideology.  It makes the agenda-driven proclamation that the point of higher education is to make students into citizen-activists all about transforming communities, nations, and even the world in the name of removing inequities, fighting for inclusive diversity, achieving social justice, and fending off the impending catastrophe of global warming.  All those activist engagement might be praiseworthy, but it is highly partisan–reflecting the opinions of professors and administrators and dissing the allegedly false consciousness of so many ordinary Americans.

But I’m not going to waste more time mocking the jargon-laden literature.  Most “civic engagement” authors don’t seem to know much.  And that literature often carries a hostility to genuine higher education.  The hostility is often reflected in the word “infuse.”  The goal is to infuse courses with this new way of learning in the hope the more traditional or more disengaged content-driven parts of courses atrophy as a result.

Neither Science Nor Philosophy

It’s only fair that I think about the real concerns that brought the ideology of civic engagement into being.  In political science, it appears as a kind of “third way.”  The other two ways are more detached than engaged.  There’s the objectivity of the rigorously scientific political science–the behavioral approach, for example.  And there’s the leisurely study of great books of political philosophy.  So “civic engagement” is neither science nor philosophy.  It claims, instead, to take the perspective of the citizen.  In political philosophy, we read books that take the perspective of the citizen seriously, such as ones by Aristotle or Tocqueville, not to mention ones written by exemplary citizen-statesmen and citizen-soldiers.  And we even encourage students to be engaged citizens, but we don’t given course credit for acting as citizens. 

Our problem is that we think that “activism” is little more than self-righteous anger without being informed either by the real interests of a citizen living in a particular place, or by the wisdom that comes through science and philosophy.  So we political philosophers see “civic engagement” as a soft form of the fairly mindless (although undeniably heartfelt) activism of the late Sixties, just as we see that the activism of the early Sixties (the Civil Rights movement) was led by those (such as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.) who actually had studied with care the exemplary works of our political and theological traditions.  Morehouse, as I explained before, prepared Dr. King for his life of courageous activism, but it did so, in part, by not being silly enough to give him college credit for activism. 

College typically means “leaving home” and in a way not inhabiting a “real place,” and its point is to prepare the students for work, leisure, and civic responsibility after returning home.  Higher education requires more than a bit of civic disengagement, although part of the point of that disengagement is acquiring the civic literacy that’s primarily the product of “book learning.”  Liberal education is based on the premise that we have to know who we are, before we figure out what to do.  And so higher education as political education is about actually mastering the key texts and revisiting the key moments of the tradition of our written and highly contentious and remarkably erudite constitutional tradition. 

‘Disruptive’ Calls for Reform

Now you might respond that I’m defending the higher education bubble in the sense of the artifical world–the world of ideas–insulated to some extent from the “real world.”  Well, I would do that all day long.  Defending the bubble in this sense is harder than ever because of the higher education bubble in the other sense.  The cost of inhabiting the bubble is expanding much more rapidly than the rate of inflation and the real value of the increasingly shoddy product.

So there’s the understandable–if not exactly noble–demand for evidence that higher education be worth what it costs.  Most “disruptive” calls for reform are in the direction of relevance to the real world.  Higher education should be more practical or vocational, more attuned to preparing students to flourish in the world of work.  I have some sympathy for this concern, although it too often leads students to tech-lite majors that are too specific and too easy to give them what they need to succeed–majors such as sports broadcasting or beverage management or public relations or (let’s tell the truth) marketing or management.  Still, who can deny that students majoring in business or engineering or computer science should be provided with practical experiences–which sometime carry college credit–to prepare them for their clearly chosen vocations?

Civic engagement is not that kind of relevance.  It’s not preparing students for jobs, but to be citizens!  The alleged crisis is that young people think of themselves as citizens less than ever, and they lack the “skills and competencies” required to be engaged, effective citizens.  It’s inevitable that the American devotion to individual rights will be in tension with the devotion to political responsibility.  And this tension is tilting in the “libertarian” direction too much right now.  But is “civic engagement” for college credit really the remedy?

Citizenship and Self-Interest

Tocqueville explains that one American way of combating the excesses of individualism is “free, local institutions.”  In America, political power is decentralized and most decisions are made locally.  And Americans, to secure their interests (their interest, for example, in getting a bridge, built) have to mobilize their fellow citizens with the same interests.  They enter political life out of calculation, but they end up finding it intrinsically enjoyable.  The experience of citizenship turns out to be the result of self-interest rightly understood.  And so civic engagement comes from be immersed as in local life, in being a person with a job, a family, and so forth.  College students, for the most part, lack the responsibilities and the corresponding interests that generate informed, “authentic” civic engagement in a free and democratic country.  So Tocqueville sees no connection between higher education–which is largely about books and experiences you wouldn’t get “on the street” in a democracy–and being somewhat a participant in democratic political life.

The people who complain about the two bubbles have their strongest case against reconfiguring higher education as civic engagement.  Am I really paying the big bucks to have some professor teach my kid to be a citizen?  When I think good citizen, I rarely think of this or that professor. Maybe a thoughtful parent could easily add that the withering away of citizenship is much more clearly correlated with the near-disappearance of military service–of the citizen-soldier.  But how many professors of civic engagement approach the issue from that angle?

In any case, the problem I have with “civic engagement” can be reduced to the problem I have with a lot of higher education these days.  It’s neither liberal education nor vocational education.  I could go on engage in a polemic against all those “studies” majors that fall into the activist, “neither/nor” category–such as women’s studies or environmental studies.  But I’ve decided to show some self-restraint.

Another trendy educational concern that generates all this concern with civic engagement focuses on “engagement.”  Engagement, the thought is, generates “deep learning.”  So higher education reform should focus on inquiry-based learning, undergraduate research, capstone courses, internships, and so forth.  What is learned is less important than how it’s learned. The focus on engagement is one way of trumpeting the superiority of the small college, one of showing that what it offers is worth the big bucks.  Engagement in general becomes pernicious when obsession with process or method overwhelms concern for content.  But it’s true enough, after all, that small classes that encourage guided discussion of the deep issues raised by real books blow away MOOCs and such as educational “delivery systems.”   But the claim for “civic engagement” is weaker than those for the other “high-impact practices,” precisely because it seems more about generating a reformist attitude than mastering some disciplined body of knowledge.

Separating Service from College Credit

Let me add that I’m all for student work, student service, and student political involvement in causes.  I just think giving college credit for all that a mistake that distorts both the admirable activity and higher education.  “Service learning” makes sense if you mean that the virtue of charity teaching you plenty about yourself and others.  But adding credit (just like adding money) is at the expense of experiencing the virtue for what it is.  I think students should work in college, and a few colleges–such as my Berry college–have heavily endowed work programs in which almost all students participate.  For work, they get money; they learn stuff too, of course.  But not for college credit.  And Berry is also distinguished by a vibrant religion-in-life program, which generates all kinds of outreach from the local community to other continents.  It goes without saying that nothing would undermine that vibrancy more than the idea that students are serving God for either money or credit.  Berry has scholarship programs–such as the legendary Bonner Scholars program–which require lots of service in the community.  But even there, that requirement is clearly separated from college credit.  I hope things stay that way.

I sometimes aim to separate credit from “real world experience” even further.  Berry, like every other college, gives college credit for internships.  It would be suicidal to take a strong stand against that practice. But when our entrepreneurial students find themselves fine internships with law firms or think-tanks or government agencies, I almost always ask the student whether receiving college credit for the internship is actually worth their while. They often say no. Moving away from Berry in particular, I could go on agree with critics who’ve noticed the elitism of our whole system of unpaid internships.  It’s a perk of privilege to be able to work for credit–not money. Internships, by gum, should be paid.

What’s Wrong with Our Meritocracy?

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In the search for substance in the sea of edifying platitudes in commencement addresses, I came upon Ben Bernanke’s thoughtful list of ten suggestions or observations on life after graduation he gave at Princeton’s tradition-laden Baccalaureate. It’s the rare graduation address that’s clearly worthy of commentary, analysis that inevitably generates some criticism. Here is one of Bernanke’s fine set of observations:

The concept of success leads me to consider so-called meritocracies and their implications. We have been taught that meritocratic institutions and societies are fair. Putting aside the reality that no system, including our own, is really entirely meritocratic, meritocracies may be fairer and more efficient than some alternatives. But fair in an absolute sense? Think about it. A meritocracy is a system in which the people who are the luckiest in their health and genetic endowment; luckiest in terms of family support, encouragement, and, probably, income; luckiest in their educational and career opportunities; and luckiest in so many other ways difficult to enumerate–these are the folks who reap the largest rewards. The only way for even a putative meritocracy to hope to pass ethical muster, to be considered fair, is if those who are the luckiest in all of those respects also have the greatest responsibility to work hard, to contribute to the betterment of the world, and to share their luck with others. As the Gospel of Luke says (and I am sure my rabbi will forgive me for quoting the New Testament in a good cause): “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded” (Luke 12:48, New Revised Standard Version Bible). Kind of grading on the curve, you might say. 

Continue reading What’s Wrong with Our Meritocracy?

President Obama and the Proud Men of Morehouse


It’s hard to find a “serious” commencement speech that isn’t about remembering that there’s more to life than power and money. And that the secrets of a successful life include following your passion and finding purpose, not to mention giving back to your community. The president’s speech at Morehouse had a few of these insipid moments, to be sure.

Still, you expect political leaders and public intellectuals to also aim higher. This challenge was especially daunting for President Obama at Morehouse. Morehouse, our leading historically black college, is about educating men. And the question is whether even our president can rise to a level that’s impressive to such men, to classy gentlemen, to men who’ve been educated to know who they are and what they’re supposed to do. Morehouse men are like Southern gentlemen, only better. They’re better because what they’ve achieved has been in spite of the injustices they suffered, and because they’ve been ennobled by both their American and their African heritages. There’s little more formidable than seeing that combination displayed in the highly disciplined and beautifully manly performance of the Morehouse glee club.

The president acknowledged all this by saying “I am humbled to stand with all of you as an honorary Morehouse Man.” His achievements, he humbly hopes, have made him worthy of the great honor men can bestow. He added, “I’m mindful of an old saying: You can always tell a Morehouse Man, but you can tell him much.” Why is that? Morehouse men have that “sense of pride” that gives them direction, that makes them courageous, generous and magnanimous. But it also makes them easily offended, especially by one who’s not really–or only an honorary–one of their own.

The president spoke, he thought, to enlarge and refine their view of their greatness. But what did he tell them that they didn’t already know?

Quoting the legendary Morehouse president Benjamin Mays, the president says that it isn’t enough for Morehouse or any college “to produce clever graduates.” Dr. Mays, notice, said college should make men clever and productive. But it should also “cultivate good men”–men who are honest and trustworthy “and are willing to accept responsibility for correcting” injustice and needless suffering in both public and private life. A good man assumes responsibility. And that’s why the first Morehouse men became teachers and preachers. After all, political life and much of economic life were not open to them.

So what the president finds “unique” about Morehouse is the “sense of purpose that has always infused the place.” That’s “the conviction that this is a training ground not only for individual success, but for leadership that can change the world.” I can’t help but notice that the president is speaking less eloquently and precisely–and more grandiosely–than Dr. Mays. For Dr. Mays, character begins with honesty, and assuming responsibility can easily be more modest and local. It’s tempting to say that the president reduced the proud Morehouse tradition to a platitude. But, to be fair, he doesn’t do that consistently.

For the president, the model Morehouse graduate was Martin Luther King, Jr. Some of what he says about MLK just isn’t well crafted. But he does highlight what, from a proud or manly point of view, is the key thing the Morehouse Man who changed the world learned at college: “at Morehouse, as Dr. King later wrote, ‘I realized that nobody…was afraid.'”

It really is true, as the president goes on, that the main thing Dr. King “taught others” was “to be unafraid.” It’s the courage of the Morehouse Man and the men he inspired that changed hearts and minds to the extent that an African American “can serve as President of the United States.” It’s that courage that’s at the foundation of the more ordinary but still quite remarkable and unprecedented success in business open to Morehouse men today.

Yet, it’s still the case, the president goes on, that the Morehouse Man’s best contribution is “the power of your example.” And he asks that man to use “that power for something greater than yourself.” Another platitude! But the president does better: “it betrays a poverty of ambition if all you think about is what goods you can buy instead of what good you can do.” I have to admit that “poverty of ambition” is a noble phrase that points in the direction of generosity and magnanimity. And magnanimity and generosity–more now than courage–are the virtues that should distinguish the successful Morehouse Man today.

The president might be faulted, at this point, for not praising the disciplined and clever virtues that allow one to make money, and especially for not praising Morehouse for graduating young men so well prepared to distinguish themselves in the world of work. And we’ll also just excuse him for the gratuitous and unmanly commercial for ObamaCare. He is, after all, a politician, a member of a class that can’t be expected to practice reliably the classy virtues.

The president, after all, does make it clear that he doesn’t want assuming responsibility to be confused with treating others as dependents. The Morehouse Man should “inspire those who look up to you to expect more of themselves.” If I were a Morehouse Man, here especially I would say you’re not telling us anything new. Surely, Morehouse Men of proud personal responsibility have always tried to inspire all free and equal black men (and women).

The president speaks personally–although not specifically–of his own “bad choices” and how found excuses to avoid responsibility for them. He quotes “a common fraternity creed here at Morehouse: ‘excuses are tools of the incompetent, used to build bridges to nowhere and monuments of nothingness.'” Blaming racism and so forth is a tool of incompetence. Not taking responsibility for who you are and what you can do makes you more incompetent–less a free and responsible man — that you would otherwise be. The tougher your struggle, the more you have to depend on virtue and the more you’re rewarded with proper pride when you succeed.

More than ever, the president claims, there’s “no time for excuses.” Here’s why: “in today’s hyperconnected, hypercompetitive world…nobody is going to give you anything you haven’t earned. And whatever hardships you may experience because of your race. They pale in comparison in comparison to the hardships previous generations endured–and overcame.” The news here is good and bad, but mostly good. The excuse of race-based hardship makes less sense than ever. We live, more than ever, in a meritocracy based on productivity. And that’s thanks, in great measure, to the courage and competence of black men and women–particularly Morehouse Men–in the past.

It’s here, finally, that the president praises the virtues connected with being productive, being judged according to the relevant qualities of character and competence–and nothing else–in today’s rigorous competition for money and power. Surely some conservatives could go into a polemic against affirmative action here. But you couldn’t expect a Democrat to do that, and that wouldn’t have been classy for anyone, given the audience of justifiably proud black men. The Democratic president is certainly praising the ennobling challenges of a genuinely free market.

The remainder of the speech was rather uneven. I wish the president has stopped after he said: “You now fail from a lineage of legacy of immeasurably strong men….They knew full well the role racism played in their lives. But when it came to their own accomplishments and sense of purpose, they had time for excuses.”

Give the president his due. He showed himself, in his best moments, to be a Morehouse Man. He didn’t tell his fellow men anything they didn’t already know. But when it comes to praising noble, truthful displays of moral virtue, maybe there just isn’t much new to be known.

The lesson for liberal education is that it isn’t nearly enough to say mouth platitudes about the purpose of life being more than money and power, and that everyone should be socially responsible, have a cause greater than oneself, give something back, yada, yada. It’s about teaching about and inculcating through example and disciplined learning what allows men to rise above their circumstances and take responsibilit y for themselves and those less fortunate. The president’s speech is remarkable–and a lesson to every professor and administrator in the land–insofar as it has called to mind all that is great about the Morehouse Man.

(Photo: President Obama speaks at Morehouse. Credit: The White House.)

Why MOOCs Fail At Real Education

Well, The Chronicle of
Higher Education
reports the big news that philosophy professors at San
Jose State have refused to adopt a pilot program centered on the legendary
Harvard professor Michael Sandel’s MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) on justice.  Here are my reflections on their stand:

  • Watching the Sandel MOOC doesn’t add anything of
    value to reading a book by Sandel.  A
    lecture by Sandel might well be better than a lecture by a local professor. It might be better to discuss a book by
    Sandel with Sandel. Or maybe not:  It’s hard to develop a critical perspective
    on Sandel with Sandel himself as the authority in the room. Better still would be local professor leading
    a discussion on the book by Sandel in a small class. The local professor can hold students
    accountable for having read Sandel in the way Sandel himself can’t. Better
    doesn’t mean best: Sandel is more a
    first-rate lecturer than a first-rate thinker. Best of all would be a local professor leading a discussion on
    Tocqueville and Marx or Aristotle and Aquinas.
  • The criticism of the teaching-by-lecture as
    nothing but pontificating and spouting content contain much truth. But the Sandel MOOC is a series of lectures
    than amply displays both those excesses.  A more nuanced criticism of the lecture method is that the student finds
    the lecture so persuasive that s/he thinks there’s no point in doing the
    reading. The professor understands Plato
    or John Stuart Mill so much better than I do, they say, so there’s no way I’m
    getting what he’s getting out of it when I read it. (Or: This guy is so enthusiastic and so dogmatic about his interpretation of
    these authors that getting my own opinion might be bad for my grade.
  • Consider that a kind of equivalent to the MOOC
    has been around for a generation. Most
    of the lecture classes of the legendary professor of political philosophy Leo
    Strauss were recorded, and the transcripts and, more recently, tapes have been
    available to those interested. Reading
    the transcript, in truth, is more instructive than listening to tape.  It’s true in the case of Strauss that paying
    an hour’s attention to the transcript seems to be more efficient way to learn
    what’s really going in the
    than actually reading the
    Symposium. But it’s also true Strauss spoke and wrote in
    such a way that you understand his lecture or book a lot better if you actually
    did the reading. It’s not so bad to be
    encouraged to read Plato to understand Strauss, although Strauss himself,
    unlike Heidegger or Hannah Arendt, worked pretty hard to keep Plato the focus.
  • Strauss was a great teacher, but his was hardly
    a model classroom. A gifted teacher’s
    class is a lot less scripted or predictable. 
    How the text is related to the student’s lives or current events or seemingly
    more random questions depends on the character of students. Many so-called “Straussians” in small
    colleges are much better teachers than Strauss was himself. Part of their excellence depends, of course,
    on what they learned from Strauss. But only part.

Continue reading Why MOOCs Fail At Real Education

MOOCs and the Stratification of American Higher Education

Cross-posted from Big Think

So Peter Sacks, author of the
excellent Generation X Goes to College, explains what’s
really wrong with the likely MOOCification of higher education.

Studies show that learning through
MOOCS and related online delivery systems isn’t worse than that through the
more traditional or personal ways of teaching, at least according to allegedly
reliable quantitative measures.

That “assessment” is more
than enough to lead state schools and poorer private schools to embrace such
efficient and effective enough instructional technology. Students will
get the competencies and skills connected with degree completion at an
affordable price. There’s no particular reason why “for profit”
institutions–as long as they’re rigorously assessed–shouldn’t get involved in
this effort to get as many Americans as possible through college. American education so disrupted will have purged itself of educationally
irrelevant amenities, beginning with tenured faculty lounging about insulated
from the relevant standards of productivity.

Meanwhile, the richer and more
“elite” colleges won’t go in this techno-direction. They will
become progressively more personal, emphasizing student “engagement,”
more luxurious amenities from gourmet food to health-club gyms and edifying
internships and study-abroad options that could easily be mistaken for
vacations, and undergraduate research.  

The elite schools will get better
and better and the state schools will get more standardized and commodified,
more reliably mediocre. Actually, that’s an optimistic scenario. If
we check out secondary education, we can see that the elite high schools are
better than ever, while most high schools are pretty much warehouses for
teenagers. Those two kinds of high schools will pretty predictably feed those
two kinds of colleges. And nobody with eyes to see trusts assessment
rubrics to guarantee quality control.

So you still might say there’s nothing
to worry about here. Our elite colleges have pretty meritocratic
admissions policies, and they’re all about “diversity.” They
also have lots of financial aid. But we can also see that our colleges
are more stratified than ever when it comes to SAT and IQ. And we can
also see that our “cognitive elite” is separating itself more than
ever through choice of schools and all that from the rest of society. Those who have actually looked at the stats see that diversity at our
best colleges is increasingly smart and rich black and white kids being
educated together. Meanwhile, the class divide based on money, education,
and brains widens, and there’s no real incentive for our best colleges to care.

It’s tougher than ever for members
of our sinking middle class to be able to do what it takes to get into our best
colleges.  Meanwhile, we’re going to be about stripping our ordinary
colleges with open or semi-open admissions policy of personal features,
beginning with tenured faculty, to cut costs. That means our struggling
ordinary guys aren’t going to get the personal attention and possible
“transformative experiences” that have historically been available on
even our ordinary low-tech campuses. Those most in need of and often
deserving of personal encouragement are going to be those least likely to get

So Sacks is right that it should
offend our meritocratic sensibilities that our elite colleges are now, more
than ever, First Class.  And our MOOCified colleges might well be on their
way to becoming “steerage” or more and more distant from real higher

What’s Wrong with ‘Cultural Transmission’?

I found much to admire and little to disagree with in Sam Goldman’s defense of liberal education. Well, I was offended that he called my use of “cultural transmission” postmodern.  I wasn’t offended for any good reason, of course. Putting the techno-phrase in quotes is, of course, a postmodern or cloyingly ironic “move.”  It is a way of ironically appropriating a phrase found in the relevant educational “studies.”  “Cultural transmission” does call to mind pomo lit criticism.  But it also has Darwinian overtones, insofar as evolutionary studies show that human evolution is not only natural but cultural. For members of our species, culture needs to passed on as surely as genes do. “Cultural transmission,” of course, not a phrase I would use without quotes.  I rarely, in fact, use either “culture” or “transmission.” Okay, I do use the latter prefaced by either “standard” or “automatic.”

But there is a sense I think that a properly conservative defense of liberal education should be postmodern, as long as postmodernism is “rightly understood.” Let me explain.

We conservatives are all for a world that’s benefited from both premodern and modern experiences, although we don’t think that there’s anything historically inevitable or even likely about the emergence of such a world.  A genuinely postmodern world avoids the spiritual and aristocratic excesses of the medieval world and the material and democratic excesses of the modern world.   It’s a place human beings can flourish as material and spiritual beings or, more precisely, as whole persons.  We think that the true human progress is personal and relational. It takes place over the course of particular human lives in the direction of living responsibly in light of the truth.

For this understanding of postmodernism, I refer you to the work of the great anticommunist dissidents Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Vaclav Havel, as well as to the American philosopher-novelist Walker Percy. For a genuinely postmodern thinker, a conservative criticism of the excessively technological orientation of the contemporary West doesn’t mean a rejection what we’ve learned that’s true about our freedom and our productive capabilities from modern developments. It does mean acknowledging that our mistaken identification of progress in techno-productivity has been at the expense of who we are as relational and purposeful beings. “Cultural transmission,” from this view, means discovering and remembering who we are as whole persons, as opposed to “free individuals.”

So we postmodern conservatives believe that people these days can be educated as both beings who work and beings who love–including love the truth. And, as I’ve said before, critical thinking about the “how” that gives us the means to pursue happiness can be combined with reflection about the “who” and “why”–the self-knowledge and the relational purposes–that make humanly worthy happiness possible.

The idea, rightly understood, of postmodern suggests, of course, that education is not merely traditional, if only because our diverse tradition is composed of elements in tension. The personal appropriation of tradition is, of course, thoughtful and even creative.

Conservatives v. Libertarians on Higher Education


A big divide is showing up between conservative and libertarian criticisms of higher education. Conservatives–and I am among them–argue that higher-ed has become too vocational and libertarians say it is not vocational enough.

Professor Michael Hepner of the University of Dubuque, part of an influential and cutting-edge effort to think through the causes of the withering away of “general education” programs, drew recent attention by arguing that conservatives are obviously right. “It is no secret,” he wrote, “that American higher education is becoming more and more technical.” Colleges are reducing the quantity and quality of general ed requirements so that students can get to their technical majors more quickly and easily.

I would add the observation that technical majors expand as general ed programs contract. Complicated techno-lite vocational majors like music marketing and sports broadcasting often require huge numbers of courses. The student, after all, has to master both music and marketing! And then there are the alleged imperatives of the various specialized accrediting programs for education, business, chemistry, nursing, and so forth. How could anyone possibly expect to get a job without a professionally accredited major? English, literature, history, and philosophy and other “liberal arts” majors remain modest in size. Those majors, of course, don’t really claim to prepare technically competent students for some specialized job. They don’t have any vocational or professional reason to gloat.

A Sorry Defense

One reason general education as liberal education is fading fast is that professors in the social sciences and humanities do a pathetic job defending its indispensable perennial relevance. The Association of American Colleges and Universities is a case in point. Their first claim is that liberal education gives students “a sense of social responsibility.” Libertarians respond, not without reason, that such a pro-social attitude is what you might pick up from your parents or at church or by being involved in your local community. They add, of course, that being socially responsible ought to be up to the individual. It’s based on a feeling–empathy–that might be more screwed up than helped by the narcissistic environment of today’s self-indulgent humanities professors. The libertarians are perfectly right that it’s not worth giving up lots of time and treasure (and especially “borrowing treasure”) to acquire a sense–an attitude– that might not be anything more than buying into the trendiest form of professorial political correctness.

The real claim of liberal education, I think, is that its social or civic function is what is sometimes called “cultural transmission.” A student learns what it means to be part of a political community in a particular place and at a particular time. The student learns what it means to inherit a tradition of thought, love, and action. You have to understand yourself as more than an “abstract individual” before you can really know what your responsibilities as a relational being are.

From this view, liberal education isn’t a mere feeling or sense. It’s to be filled with human content. Or better, it’s to be filled with the content that allows a human being to be all he or she is meant to be. There’s no way someone could be socially or politically responsible without, for example, knowing the purposes and limits of our government as found in our history and in our best political writing. There’s no way someone could be socially or politically responsible without the prudence and moderation that comes through reflection on the enduring lessons of our political experience.

The Seductive Charm of Technical Competence

From this view, gen education can’t help but mean an education all American students should share in common. It includes, of course, more than knowledge of our country in particular, given that our country is part of a larger tradition and a larger world. From a technical view, it’s pretty much always the case that our ingenious inventions have freed us from having to depend on the limitations of the less enlightened past. But that “progressive” insight doesn’t really apply as readily–or sometimes at all–to our moral, political, and religious lives.

One point of “liberal education” is to chasten the vanity that is one seductive charm of technical competence. Today it, among other things, should be an antidote to the “autonomous” pretensions of the creeping and sometimes creepy libertarianism of the morally challenged “displacement” of our self-important “cognitive elite.”

The other part of the AACU’s lame defense of general education as liberal education is that it can be the source of skills that are “transferable” to our techno-world of work, such as critical thinking, analytical reading, effective communication, and problem solving. That, of course, is not really an argument for the study of history in particular. Surely those skills could be picked up without all that annoying historical “content.”

Not only that, it’s not an argument for “general education,” because any history course or any philosophy course could be the source of the “competency.” Students don’t have to know any content in common, because what’s important is the “how” or technique and not the “what,” “who,” and “why” that liberal education, in particular, claims to address.

The AACU, by subordinating liberal education to the production of technical skills and prosocial attitudes, has no standpoint by which to resist the trivialization of gen ed. There’s no reason that the skills and attitudes can’t be picked up in a very user-friendly form. So history and literature can be delivered in courses dealing with pop culture, burning (and typically ephemeral) contemporary issues, or sexuality.

Trivial Gen-Ed Courses Fail

There’s a place for such courses, no doubt, but not as general education. They’re not about essential “cultural transmission,” about discovering who you are and what you’re supposed to do. Students can’t be fooled into thinking that they’re a serious–much less indispensable–part of their higher education. They contribute to their perception that all real education is technical education. And so it’s no wonder that studies show that trivial gen-ed courses even fail in inculcating students with the relevant marketable skills and responsible attitudes. When their “learning outcomes” don’t have to do with “cultural transmission,” they don’t achieve any learning outcomes at all.

Relativism, as many have said, is one cause of “the suicide of the humanities.” But another is the understandable but futile effort by their proponents to justify their contribution to general education on technical terms in an increasingly technical/vocational environment. It’s a pretty open secret that the phrase “critical thinking” is pretty fuzzy. If it’s not critical, after all, it’s not really thinking! The least our defenders of general education liberal education should begin to do is to explain that thinking is not only about the “how”–as technicians (or sophists) believe–but about the “what” and the “who” and the “why.”