Tag Archives: liberal education

The Fading of Liberal Education

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

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

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

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

Bluefield College

Clark Atlanta University

Colorado Christian University

Gardner-Webb University

Pepperdine University

Regent University

Southwest Baptist University

Thomas Aquinas College

Thomas More College of Liberal Arts

University of Dallas

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

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


Like many commentators and candidates, Fareed Zakaria, the eloquent host of CNN’s GPS, has turned out a new book on higher education. In Defense of a Liberal Education laments that today’s students are pressured into thinking of college as a time to prepare for the global marketplace, discouraged from dreaming big, and told to acquire the skills they will need for the workplace. It is “openness” and “the ability for the mind to range widely and pursue interests freely” that Zakaria not only took advantage of as an undergraduate at Yale, but that he also sees as being “inherent in liberal education.”

Despite his aversion to the vocational drift of higher education over the past several decades, Zakaria’s recommended version of liberal education seems just as instrumental—a means to employment and viability in the new “global economy.” He maintains that what it does best is teach students skills—critical thinking and communication skills—how to write (which for him is a process of thinking), how to speak, and how to learn. It teaches them “how to read critically, analyze data, and formulate ideas.” It teaches them new methods and approaches to problems “of the world we live in.”

At one point he sounds like an admissions counselor for a liberal arts college, claiming that fields like art history and anthropology are not a waste of time because they “require the intensive study of several languages and cultures, an eye for aesthetics, and the ability to translate from one medium or culture to another.” Such skills “could be useful in any number of professions in today’s globalized age” because they force a person “to look at people and objects from a variety of perspectives” and make him or her “more creative and aware.” He then pays customary tribute to Steve Jobs and Mark Zuckerberg, who studied Greek in high school and psychology at Harvard. So art history, perhaps the study most heavily derided as pointless these days, turns out to be unexpectedly useful for future employment.

Zakaria praises the “open-ended exploration of knowledge,” yet this exploration keeps showing up as a useful component of job training. “Technology and liberal education go hand in hand in business today.” So college graduates “have to be at the cutting edge of design, marketing, and social networking. . . . You can make a sneaker equally well in many parts of the word. But you can’t sell it for three hundred dollars unless you have built a story around it.” In other words, they should use liberal education to serve “capitalism, globalization, and technology.”

This argument is bound to grate on those with a less commercial view of liberal education. At its best such education cultivates intellect, judgment, good character and disposition, and above all else awareness of one’s ignorance and limitations. It is more concerned about asking the right questions than it is in finding the right answers–the antithesis of the outcomes-oriented, results-driven American mindset. If done well, it puts people on the path toward leading a good life. As Mark Van Doren wrote more than sixty years ago in Liberal Education—a more learned and convincing defense of the subject—its “prime occupation” is “with the skills of being.”

These skills are very different from the instrumental skills of writing, speaking, and learning that Zakaria maintains is the end product of a liberal education. I am not suggesting that they are unimportant; rather, that they are requisite for a liberal education and should be obtained in high school or through general education—which Zakaria confounds with liberal education.

To write well, students must know how to think; to learn to think, they must know how to read; to learn to read, not for amusement or for paltry convenience, but in “a high sense,” as Thoreau says, as “a noble intellectual exercise” they must possess curiosity and the desire to see and think beyond their immediate surroundings and concerns. Only then will they have been properly prepared and primed for what a liberal education has to offer: nuance, complexity, beauty, alternative models and examples of how to live one’s life.

The fact that today’s students are not “animated by big arguments” or do not “make big speeches about grand philosophical issues” or “stay up late arguing about Nietzsche or Marx or Tolstoy,” doesn’t bother Zakaria. “Their lives are more involved with these economic and technological forces than with ideology and geopolitics. And that means there is less scope for grand theorizing, fewer intense late-night bull sessions, less stirring eloquence at the student forums and political unions”—which for Zakaria is the chief difference between the “complete experience” of a liberal education and taking “pre-professional and general education” courses in a MOOC.

Today’s students are simply products of our time—and it’s not their fault. They might be writing apps instead of poetry, “but that’s just an adjustment for the age.” Their icons are “entrepreneurs, technologists, and businesspeople. Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos are far more important symbols than any politician today, and they occupy the space that iconic political figures did in earlier eras. The young reflect today’s realities.”

Unfortunately these realities are the bourgeois concerns and values that dominate American life: making a living, creating a home, raising a family, worshipping technology, progress, and advances in medicine that make life comfortable and prolong our lifespan. Zakaria asks, “Are the issues that students today think about less important than those of war and peace? Are their heroes inferior to those of past ages?” Students who have never read Homer or Thucydides, let alone Nietzsche, Marx, Tolstoy, will never know. The idea of liberal education once meant taking students out of the cave. In Zakaria’s version, it is the cave.

J. M. Anderson is dean of the School of Business and Liberal Arts and Sciences at SUNY Cobleskill

Capitalism and Western Civilization: Liberal Education

CapitalismEducation pic.jpgSpeaking of business and management majors, Douglas Campbell and James E. Fletcher argue
in A Better Way to Educate Professionals that their students “should have a strong base in the traditional liberal arts and the physical sciences….to effectively work with people to understand and solve problems as well as to accomplish individual, organizational, and social goals.”

The  management consultant Peter Drucker agrees, writing in The New Realities (1989):

Management… deals with action and application and its tests are
results. This makes it a technology. But management also deals with people, their values, their growth and development–and this makes it a humanity. So does its concern with, and impact on, social structure and the community. Indeed, as everyone has learned who, like this author, has been working with managers of all kinds of institutions for long years, management is deeply involved in spiritual concerns–the nature of man, good and evil.

Management is thus what tradition used to call a liberal art–“liberal” because it deals with the fundamentals of knowledge, self-knowledge, wisdom, and leadership; “art” because it is practice and application. Managers draw on all the knowledges and insights of the humanities and the social sciences and ethics. But they have to focus this knowledge on effectiveness and results.

For these reasons, management will increasingly be the discipline and the practice through which the “humanities” will again acquire recognition, impact, and respect. 

The Romans educated their governing elites in the artes liberales, the
“liberal arts.” To them, artesmeant skills and liberales referred
to a free man. Liberal arts were originally something like “skills of the
citizen elite” or “skills of the ruling class,” who were expected to debate and
decide on issues of public policy. The Renaissance deplored ignorance and
exalted the power of the educated mind. For its elite, it stressed education in
the skills and prudence necessary to be successful in a life of work and to be
a public-spirited citizen and member of the ruling class. The Renaissance
demonstrated the need for balance in the knowledge provided by science,
humanistic studies, and religion. In today’s sophisticated capitalist economy,
business or corporate executives and managers constitute an economic ruling
class that should be provided a similar education and capabilities.

But our universities have adopted an orthodoxy that dismisses a priori as
“white male ideology,” the very idea of an educated person, of a cultivated
human being provided with broad and humanistic knowledge of the kind esteemed in the Renaissance. The liberal arts have largely been eliminated from
education, replaced by the social sciences and postmodern multiculturalism,
with their animus against Western civilization and objective knowledge.
Postmodernism in the academy still vehemently denies the efficacy of science,
the value of reason and humanistic studies, and the need for religion and its
moral precepts, while fostering the unrealistic and immoderate illusions of our
academic and college-educated elites.

In Post-Capitalist Society (1993), Drucker discusses the clash between postmodern multiculturalism and the classical Western education in our colleges and universities. 

A motley crew of post-Marxists, radical feminists, and other “antis” argues that there can be no such thing as an educated person–the
position of those new nihilists, the “Deconstructionists in this group assert
that there can be only educated persons with each sex, each ethnic group, each race, each “minority” requiring its own separate culture and a separate–indeed an isolationist–educated person….These people are mainly concerned with the humanities….Their target is…the universalism that is at the very core of the concept of the educated person….

The opposing camp–we might call them the “Humanists”–also scorns
the present system.  But it does so because it fails to produce a
universally educated person. The Humanist critics demand a return to the
nineteenth century, to the “liberal arts,” the “classics.”…They are in a direct line of descent from the Hutchins-Adler “Return to Pre-Modernity.”

Both sides, alas, are wrong. The knowledge society must have
at its core the concept of the educated person. It will have to be a universal concept, precisely because the knowledge society is a society of knowledges and because it is global–in its money, its economics, its careers, its technology,its central issues, and above all, in its information. Post-capitalist society requires a unifying force. It requires a leadership group, which can focus local, particular, separate traditions onto a common and shared commitment to values, a common concept of excellence, and on mutual respect.

The…knowledge society…thus needs exactly the opposite of what
Deconstructionists, radical feminists, and anti-Westerners propose. It needs the very thing they totally reject: a universally educated person.

Drucker argues that the productive use of knowledge now determines the competitive position of countries as well as companies (see my earlier article Knowledge Workers). More than possessing a bridge to the classical past, the educated person also “needs to be able to bring his or her knowledge to bear on the present, not to mention molding the future.” He adds:

The Western tradition will, however, still have to be at the
core, if only to enable the educated person to come to grips with the present, let alone the future. The future…cannot be “non-Western.” Its material civilization and its knowledges all rest on Western foundations: Western science; tools and technology; production; economics; Western-style finance and banking. None of these can work unless grounded in an understanding and acceptance of Western ideals and the entire Western tradition.

This is the very point that Steve Balch emphasizes in Metamorphosis: 

What happened in, and through, the Western world during the last
three hundred years is unique in the history of civilization. Western
civilization is not just another civilization. It represents a metamorphosis in
humanity’s estate. The other civilizations of the world have been reborn in,
and through, that of the West

Tragically, the kind of liberal education that Drucker recommends and Campbell, Fletcher, and NAS seek for future managers is no longer available in today’s academy.Campbell and Fletcher note that the saturation of the liberal arts “with
Marxist doctrine is particularly confounding. Marxism, radical-collectivism and
hostility to free enterprise are the antithesis of the traditional liberal
arts’ search for truth, virtue, beauty and the meaning of human existence, and
its commitment to intellectual freedom and personal choice.”

Moreover, the NAS report The Vanishing West demonstrates that education in the Western foundations sought by Drucker is no longer provided at most colleges and universities. Peter Wood observes in Epic Battles: “The
report brims with the relevant details. But the basic picture is clear and
simple. American higher education has by and large taken itself out of the
business of teaching undergraduate students any kind of orderly overview of
Western civilization.”

Thus, academia fails to provide the kind of enlightenment that Drucker considers
essential for management and business professionals. Instead, as Jay Schalin
notes in The Reopening of the American Mind, they are smothered in a “postmodernist fog that clouds the mind and renders graduates unemployable for all but rudimentary functions.” Ironically, the nation’s economic competitiveness is the worse for lack of a proper liberal arts education at America’s colleges and universities.

The changes recommended by NAS to restore that education need urgently to be

The Honorable William H.Young served as Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy from November 1989 to January 1993.. 

New Criterion on Higher Education

Look to the latest New Criterion, focused on liberal education, for some incisive writing on the modern academy and its afflictions:

Our own Jim Piereson, reviewing Education’s End, in “Liberalism vs. humanism”

Alan Charles Kors’ fascinating and depressing account of his long experiences in the academy in “On the sadness of higher education”

Charles Murray on our extravagant educational expectations in “The age of educational romanticism”

more also from Victor Davis Hanson, Robert Paquette, and Roger Kimball. Take a look.