Illiberal Education Cant Be Cured With Illiberalism


Mr. Pham is former editor-in-chief of Campus, America’s largest student newspaper, and co-editor of the forth coming book, The State of the Campus Report, from the Intercollegiate Studies Institute.

I. Crisis in Academia

When Allan Bloom published his 1987 critique of American higher education, The Closing of the American Mind, he ignited a fire-storm of indignation from the dons of academia whose seemingly tranquil world he had disturbed. Not uncommon was the response from the American Council of Learned Societies, which solemnly declared that “precisely those things now identified as failings . . . actually indicate enlivened transformations.” Today, however, the record clearly vindicates Professor Bloom: no matter what index is used to gauge the performance of the country’s “best and brightest,” the results are equally dismal.

A 1989 poll of college students from 67 schools conducted for the National Endowment for the Humanities by the Gallup organization revealed that most would not be able to recognize classic literary works, identify the men and women who contributed major philosophical concepts, or even state important historical changes. For example, 58 percent couldn’t identify Shakespeare as the author of The Tempest; 42 percent couldn’t date the American Civil War to within a half-century; and 25 percent thought that one of Karl Marx’s favorite dictums—“from each according to his abilities to each according to his needs”—was excerpted from the U.S. Constitution.

At the University of Chicago, a current-events survey recently conducted by the independent student journal, The Chicago Crucible, found that two-thirds of the nearly 300 undergraduates interviewed at the prestigious Midwest institution didn’t know the capital of Canada. Only 8 percent could identify both U.S. senators from Illinois. Equally disheartening statistics were tallied in similar polls conducted by independent student jour nalists at Dartmouth, Vassar, and other elite schools.

These statistics often are justifiably offered as evidence of some failure in higher education to impart to students a common body of knowledge essential to the continuance of the Western tradition of humanistic studies and the maintenance of a free and informed society. To a great extent, the responsibility for the crisis must be borne by colleges and Universities. The administrations of these institutions have certainly allowed standards to decline to the extent that it is now possible to graduate from 78 percent of the nation’s colleges and universities without ever having taken a course on the history Of Western civilization, and 33 percent without ever having taken any history course. American literature is required reading at fewer than half of American centers of higher education.

What is worse is not that students are no longer being exposed to a common body of cultural knowledge (although this is a major problem), but that the shell of traditional studies has been preserved, yet left devoid of any semblance of meaning, rational moral purpose, or hierarchy of values. Traditional academic departments have had to endure the indignity of having courses such as “Psychology of Dress” (Dartmouth), “Sexual Metaphysics in Gustave Courbet” (Stanford), and “Sodomy and Pederasty Among 19th-Century Seafarers” (Rutgers) inserted into the curriculum next to the works of Plato and Aristotle.

Alongside the debasement of traditional humanistic studies has been the increase in undergraduate specialization and vocational studies to the detriment of liberal education. While there should always be the option of early professional training for students and parents who elect it, the level of vocational overspecialization has approached the absurd. Auburn University, for example, offers a course in “Recreation Interpretive Services,” which, according to the course description, teaches “principles and techniques used to communicate natural, historical, and cultural features of outdoor recreation to park visitors.”

Arguments have nevertheless been made that some students may need the security of employable skills that vocational studies confer rather than the more abstract utility of, say, classical studies. Granted. However, employers still expect graduates to have a certain set of skills commonly associated with educated people, the abilities to communicate coherently and reason rationally heading the list. The graduates of the traditional curriculum certainly had these qualifications; time will indicate whether students of recreational interpretive services have them as well.

And if it weren’t bad enough that the liberal curriculum has been trivialized, the quality of the actual instruction in what remains of the curriculum, particularly for undergraduates, is on the whole rather poor. According to the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, over half of American college and university instructors spend less than 10 hours a week actually teaching; an additional 15 percent never even darken the doorway to a classroom.

As a full exposition of the crisis in teaching is beyond the scope of this article, it suffices to mention that perhaps the primary factor contributing to the decline is the reduced incentive to teach. While billions of both private and government dollars are available in grants for competent researchers, there are relatively few such rewards for gifted instructors. This, coupled with its corollary, the cash-starved academic department’s dictum of “publish or perish,” has pushed many promising teachers into becoming researchers in order to further—r in some cases, simply to continue—their careers.

This crisis in instruction is particularly noticeable in the sciences where a common complaint among undergraduates is that their professors do little more than appear at appointed times to dictate some notes, leaving “discussion sessions” (i.e., teaching and explanation) to graduate-student assistants of varied qualification and, often, marginal English fluency. In this area, government involvement is partially to blame: lucrative government research contracts and grants are a veritable magnet of incentive drawing professors away from the classroom and into the laboratory.

While the overall extent of the crisis may not be fully appreciated outside of academic circles (and indeed the philosophical crisis posed by relativism and deconstructionism in general is far more serious in the long run than the pragmatic crisis of culturally illiterate students or disinterested instructors), the sensational headlines of the past decade have aroused sufficient interest from society at large to bring the government into the scene. Former Education Secretary William J. Bennett, National Endowment for the Humanities Chaff-man Lynne V. Cheney, and other high-ranking public officials have certainly performed a yeoman~ task in refocusing some attention away from short-term policy decisions to the long-term plight of the nation’s schools. Nevertheless, some of the solutions they, or educators taking their cue from Washington, propose for the current malaise may be too utilitarian: illiberal education cannot be remedied by illiberal means.

II. Centralization and Freedom of Choice

Most education critics would agree that the disintegration of the American academy began and continues to foment at the local level. In fact it can be argued that the leading educational crisis is that deconstructionists, feminists, and other academic special interest groups have become the dominant voices in many departments, forcing cowed administrators at individual institutions to grant concession after concession in the vain hope of avoiding public confrontation. To cite a particularly notable example, in 1988 a group of radical students occupied administrative offices at Stanford University and kicked off a series of protests that drew such national celebrities as Jesse Jackson to chant “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western culture’s gotta go!” and “We don’t want to read any more dead white guys!”

What the protesters objected to was a sequence of core courses centered upon some of the great books of the Western tradition, including the Bible, Homer, Thucydides, Plato, St. Augustine, Dante, Thomas More, Machiavelli, Martin Luther, Galileo, and Locke. The faculty quickly capitulated and replaced the sequence with a course called “Culture, Ideas, and Values” that avoids any explicit Western orientation and requires instructors to “confront issues relating to class, ethnicity, race, religion, gender, and sexual orientation, and to include the study of works by women, minorities, and persons of color.” Thus a subtle shift was executed wherein the criterion for inclusion in the course was altered from intrinsic merit (historical, literary, philosophical, etc.) to extrinsic quota-filling.

The Stanford case and others like it, such as the New York State “Curriculum of Inclusion” report, have prompted movements toward a centralization of curriculum. While Dr. Cheney no doubt never intended it to be, some have interpreted her 1989 report, 50 Hours: A Core Curriculum for College Students, as a call for some sort of national standard or regulation of the educational curriculum of the country’s schools.

Dr. Cheney’s proposal of a required core of 16 semester-long courses—including six courses in “civilization and cultures,” four in languages, and two each in mathematics, natural sciences, and social sciences—is, from the educational point of view, little more than minimalism, hardly amounting to a liberal education. Nevertheless, any sort of government-dictated standardized curriculum, no matter how nobly intended, is dangerously statist. While administrators such as Drs. Cheney and Bennett would hardly pose a challenge to a free, liberal education, there is no telling what might be the eventual ramifications of the precedent of Federally dictated curricula. Certainly few critics of contemporary academia would favor a Soviet-style education system where everything was dictated from an omnipotent Ministry of Higher Education.

A crucial pan of the effort to restore the American academy must be choice in colleges and universities. And choice implies diversity. While these institutions face pressure from one side to all become little better than relativist think tanks, they also face tremendous pressure to all become liberal arts colleges. Neither is an acceptable option.

In the relatively free and pluralistic United States, students come from a variety of backgrounds and interests and have an even wider range of goals and plans. Excluding obviously deficient curricula and schools, students should be allowed to choose from a diversity of colleges and universities when they go off to school. There is a need for both philosophers and engineers, Chicago’s and MIT’s, and everything between in a pluralistic society.

In a free society, colleges and universities emerge in response to the various demands of education consumers. It might be, for example, that the economy requires both liberal arts and professional studies. Since education is a commodity in the market, each institution has to resolve for itself its own priorities in the matter. Consumers (parents and students) then have to decide whether they prefer an institution emphasizing one or the other characteristic. In the end, everyone benefits by getting that which gives him or her maximum utility.

III. Freedom of Choice and the End of the University

While many education analysts are willing to grant that there must be a necessary choice and diversity among different types of schools, fewer, it seems, are willing to be as tolerant within a given liberal arts college. Those to the left attempt to expunge from the liberal arts curriculum works they judge to be “insensitive, racist, sexist,” and the like, and seek to replace them with a bewildering host of relativist courses in women’s and minority studies. While those to the right are less guilty of such outright politicization, many of them exercise something short of tolerance toward differing viewpoints: few who describe themselves as conservative are to be found fighting for Karl Marx’s inclusion in the curriculum although the importance of his thought in history is undisputed. This leads to the question of the end of a college or university education. Perhaps no more succinct articulation of the mission of collegiate education exists than the one given it by John Henry Newman in The Idea of a University. The 19th-century English cardinal acknowledged the pluralism of the modern university when he noted that “a university is a place of concourse whither students come from every quarter for every kind of knowledge.”

Newman emphasized that the aim of higher education was thus to be the cultivation of the intellect for the intellect’s sake. The liberal education was intended to open minds to the wealth of man’s intellectual and cultural heritage. Through the study of works of literature, philosophy, theology, and polity, students are led to discover for themselves the nature of man and his place within the social and cosmic order. Rather than stifle academic dissent, Newman encouraged it: a university was meant to be a place where “an assemblage of learned men, zealous for their own sciences, and rivals of each other, are brought by familiar intercourse and for the sake of intellectual peace, to adjust together the claims and relations of their respective subjects of investigation.”

Allowing for the freedom of each institution to determine its own philosophical and curricular policy, it would seem that the best recourse in the current academic debate over liberal education would be the liberal approach in the end: let there be free competition in the marketplace of ideas between the conflicting visions of education. If their opponents are as bad as each side claims, then the opposing sides should encourage closer study and discernment of each other, rather than sweeping them aside. Under such scrutiny, the shortcomings will be all the more evident to free minds. Instead of replacing St. Augustine with Kate Millett, radicals should have them read side by side to contrast their validity. Students can decide for themselves whether the Confessions or Sexual Politics speaks more to them of the realities of the human condition.

Some would claim that such educational freedom is inappropriate for impressionable young minds and that students aren’t advanced enough in learning to discern what among the intellectual menu offered is important to internalize. While there is a certain validity to this, the classical liberal faith has always been that, in the end, the most efficient case—the truth—will prevail. While studentsat the University of North Carolina at Greensboro may get academic credit for following the Grateful Dead around, students at Stanford for picketing, and students at Dartmouth for observing the psychology of clothing, once they graduate, they will have to seek employment. And one suspects that a solid course of critical studies will serve the would-be professional much better than Activism 101. In any case, the speed with which students in Eastern Europe, when finally given a free choice, abandoned Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels for free market thinkers like Adam Smith and F. A. Hayek proves once and for all that a small amount of faith deposited in students is not misplaced.

IV. Some Other Liberal Solutions

The myriad crises of contemporary higher education—cultural illiteracy, curriculum devaluation, faculty indifference, and administrative weakness, among others—warrant thoughtful consideration by all who are concerned with the future of society. However, the pressing nature of the challenges facing liberal education in America doesn’t justify the use of illiberal, though seemingly expedient, solutions. Force, whether state or ideological, cannot be used to achieve true academic reform, unless one is willing to sacrifice academic freedom of ideas.

The recovery of the academy requires first and foremost a moral commitment to the principles of liberalism. This includes the reaffirmation of the principles of free inquiry of ideas and freedom of choice in education as the only truly humane basis for the search for truth. This, in turn, leads to more concrete action. While some solutions are outlined above, a few more which deserve more extensive study in the coming years should also be considered.

Faculty members who have been vital in the deconstruction of the academy are also vital in its restoration. True scholars are needed to rebut some of the trendy “scholarship” of the tenured radicals in the nation’s colleges and universities. These scholars must organize to defend the integrity and validity of the academy. In a free society, the battle for the academy must be fought on the field of ideas. A thought: instead of purging schools of radicals, why not let them continue in their positions, but remunerate them according to their success in attracting pupils? Inevitably, right reasoning will triumph, and, without violence, these dons will be forced to fade into other areas of employment.

Students acting as educational consumers have tremendous power to effect educational reform. As more and more students abandon failed radical experiments in search of the truth and wisdom to be found through liberal education, schools will be jolted into positive action. Additionally, as the various independent student publications across the country—Dartmouth Review, Chicago Crucible, Vassar Spectator, Northwestern Review, Carolina Critic, et al.—have proven, student opinion does carry influence when it is reasonably articulated.

Alumni, parents, philanthropists, and other groups have a great deal of power over higher education, especially since they speak the language most understood by administrators—money. In a free society, one has a choice as to where he disposes his resources, If the financial wells of particularly bad schools begin to dry while those of true centers of liberal education swell, assuredly the colleges and universities will get the message.

V.       Reconsidering Government’s Role in Education

The discussion of the crisis in education, as with almost any discussion of problem-resolution in a statist society, must eventually turn to a consideration of government. All too often, reports of problems in the educational system prompt little more than calls for more government funding or increased monitoring of troubled programs, as the case seems to warrant. Implicit in such calls is the assumption that government should be actively involved in higher education. However, if American higher education is ever to be recovered, even such long-held propositions must be reconsidered.

Aside from “tradition” (and it is a relatively young one, dating substantively only to the Morrill Act of 1862), an argument appealing to inertial tendencies among some, there isn’t a very convincing argument for government involvement in the ownership and operation of colleges and universities. On the economic level, these institutions are certainly no more efficient than private institutions. During the academic year 1985-86, for example, the average cost to educate one student at a state college or university was approximately $6,760, while the same figure for private colleges was $6,600. Few educators would venture to argue that the education received in most state schools or colleges was equal to—never mind $160 better than—that in private schools.

While it has been argued that state institutions often teach the technical skills necessary to keep up the country’s competitive edge in the world economy (as opposed to usually more liberal arts-inclined private institutions), the statistics have belied such claims: over 60 percent of the professional degrees earned in America are awarded by private institutions, and, since World War II, most of the nation’s physicians, scientists, and lawyers have been trained in the private sector.

In addition to its proprietary involvement in higher education, government is involved in a number of educational programs that include private institutions through its assorted funding programs. Many students receive assistance with their education from an alphabet soup of state and Federal aid programs: SEOG, Pell, NDSL, GSL, etc. While there is little doubt that these programs have helped a number of talented young scholars to receive training, there has been, as a consequence of the relatively easy access of these programs, little incentive to explore the possibilities of private sources of aid. And the potential for entanglement with the government leviathan—and the resulting loss of institutional freedom—that comes from the acceptance of public dollars is considerable, as demonstrated by the Grove City College case where participation in Federal assistance programs led, in part, to a government attempt to regulate unassisted athletic programs.

The question of government involvement with instructors, and hence curriculum, also needs investigation. While no concrete evidence of impropriety has yet been uncovered in the United States, the historical experience of other countries as well as analogous examples here should give some pause for thought. If allegedly independent thinkers, teachers, and researchers are receiving government assistance, then any claim to scholarly independence is forfeit. At best, it represents a market inefficiency: if there is a market demand for the work, the enterprising scholar can receive support for it from the private sector. At worst, it reduces academic freedom of inquiry from an undisputed right of the individual mind to a contractual item to be argued in courts of law.

Witness, for example, the recent limitation of freedom of expression for mists soliciting grants from the National Endowment for the Arts. Once funds are exchanged, the relationship between the state and the individual is altered from the government being an objective protector of rights to being an interested party with patronal rights of its own.

All in all, while the likelihood of anything close to a substantive state withdrawal from the education business any time soon is rather slim, the current malaise may serve to spark the debate in that direction. At least it should be an incentive to explore this question further.

VI. Conclusion

Liberal education is perhaps the most noble work of a free society. It aims not at proselytization or indoctrination, but at exposing the mind to the great wealth of diversity in the human experience, opening it to the full horizon of possibilities. In the end, it gives the freedom to discover and internalize truth, and the tools to do so. Yet never in history has this great work faced the assault it does today from within the academy. Nevertheless, in the battle for the hearts and minds of academia, it must never be forgotten that the end, liberal education, can never justify the means of illiberalism. Freedom of the mind cannot be bought by the slavery of the teacher.


July 1991

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