Education Week

Liberal Education vs. Liberalist Education

Among those hit hardest by the prolonged downturn in the economy are recent college graduates, who face both high unemployment rates and a high debt burden from college expenses. This fact has rightly caused many to question the value of a college degree. But when the numbers are broken down, they tell a slightly different story. Graduates with degrees in engineering or teaching, for example, are much more likely to find work than graduates with degrees in the humanities.

And so the question is narrowed: What is the value of a college degree in the humanities or liberal arts? (Here I shall use these terms interchangeably.) A recent story in the Wall Street Journal, which focuses on the drop in liberal-arts undergraduates at Harvard University, is only the latest in a growing refrain of unease among students, parents, and policy makers on the value of a liberal-arts education.

But the question is still not sufficiently in focus, for it fails to ask a prior question: What is a liberal-arts education? Until we answer this question, we will not have a clear idea of what is really at stake in the debate. As I tell prospective students and their parents when they come to visit Hillsdale College, where I teach, although most colleges and universities describe themselves as liberal-arts institutions, only a very small fraction of them offer anything close to the real thing. What they offer should really be called “liberalist education.” Liberalist education is characterized by three features: First, a suspicion of all authority, including the authority of truth; second, the celebration of autonomy and individual choice; third, a commitment to social justice. Whatever the merits of these things, none of them has anything to do with a real liberal-arts education.

The real educational problem we face today is not the value of a liberal-arts education per se, but the large number of liberalist education programs — most of them heavily subsidized by taxpayer money — that masquerade as liberal-arts programs while depriving students of the specific excellences that can only come from the real thing. Liberalist humanities professors prepare students to fight hegemonic power structures through various kinds of victimization studies organized around race, class, gender, etc. In response, conservatives are often all too ready to throw liberal education overboard and to replace it with an education focused on technical training for productive employment. Both groups can miss what is singular and valuable about a liberal-arts education. 

David Brooks is on the right track, then, when he attributes today’s crisis of the humanities to a change of focus within the humanities themselves. “The humanities turned from an inward to an outward focus,” he writes. “They were less about the old notions of truth, beauty and goodness and more about political and social categories like race, class and gender.” Unfortunately, Brooks then commends to his readers a new report by a commission (of which Brooks was a member) of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences entitled “The Heart of the Matter: The Humanities and Social Sciences for a vibrant, competitive, and secure nation.”

The title of the report alone suggests why Brooks’s underlying tone about the report is less than enthusiastic, despite his endorsement. Amazingly, in over 60 pages of prose, this report, produced by what are presumably the nation’s leading figures in the humanities, does not use the words “truth,” “goodness,” or “beauty” even once. Instead, the report echoes the kind of high-sounding but meaningless phrases one is now accustomed to hear from increasingly desperate humanities professors.

For example, the report repeatedly states that education in the humanities will produce “an adaptable and creative workforce,” without ever bothering to ask whether adaptation is always good. Rather than address the real problem, the report merely reinforces the contemporary academic division of labor: The physical sciences change the world, the humanities teach us how to “adapt.” As the banal boilerplate of one typical liberal-arts college puts it: “A liberal arts education prepares human beings to adapt to a diverse and rapidly changing world.” It’s no wonder the humanities are in trouble.  

How can one distinguish between liberalist and liberal education? This is itself a question for liberal inquiry. Put most simply, a true liberal-arts education cultivates the intellectual virtues whose ultimate object is wisdom or knowledge of the whole. It differs both from technical training, which serves useful ends, and from “specialization,” which focuses exclusively on some part of the whole. Specialization and technical training are necessary and useful, but by themselves they are radically incomplete. A liberal education enables human beings to distinguish truth from falsehood, good from evil, and beauty from the obscene and sentimental. It is, to borrow a phrase from Aristotle, not simply for the sake of living, but for the sake of living well.  

How does one identify a college that offers this kind of an education? Here are three marks to look for.     

First, does the institution have a robust and unified core curriculum consisting of specific courses every student must take, and specific texts every student must read?

If the liberal arts really are arts, then like other arts they consist of a substantive body of knowledge, specific practices, and standards of excellence that are internal to those arts and which can only be learned under the careful guidance of masters in those arts. Unfortunately, recent defenders of the humanities have a habit of reinforcing the common but false stereotype that the hard sciences are about reason and reality, whereas the humanities are about spontaneous emotion and subjectivity. Lee Siegel reflects this naïve, romantic prejudice when he writes in the Wall Street Journal that “every other academic subject requires specialized knowledge and a mastery of skills and method. Literature requires only that you be human.”

Liberalist institutions, instead of initiating their students into the specific excellences of the arts, flatter their democratic prejudices by giving them the widest possible range of choices across a distribution of general subjects. But what other art can be mastered by the undirected and free choice of the apprentice? No program in biology or engineering or accounting operates in this way, and neither should a liberal-arts education. To tell students otherwise is to do them an injustice.

Harvard University is a case in point. The university website celebrates its new “Program in General Education,” which consists of eight categories. The reason why these particular categories were chosen and how they are related to one another is far from clear. Most of the category titles are vague (“Culture and Belief”), meaningless (“Societies and the World”), or simply parochial (“United States in the World”). Within each category is a long menu of course offerings. “Culture and Belief,” for example, includes 41 different course offerings with titles such as “Animated Spirituality: Japanese Religion in Anime, Manga, and Film” and “Institutional Violence and Public Spectacle: The Case of the Roman Games.”  

Two graduates of another Ivy League university recently recalled to me how a professor at their freshman orientation announced to his audience, “we look forward to learning from you.” (Doubtless this professor did not pay the same tuition as them for this privilege.) They told me they would be willing to spend a considerable amount of money now to get the liberal education they never received at their alma mater. This fact speaks volumes. Ivy Leaguers are often wealthy enough to go to school twice, but not all are so fortunate. Most 18-year-olds can recognize when they are being patronized; sadly, it is often only later that they discover the costs of this indulgence. 

Second, what is the quality of the teaching?

I once saw a clever college advertisement that read something like this: “Your teachers this year will be: Homer, Plato, Aristotle, Virgil, Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, Dante, Shakespeare, John Milton, Blaise Pascal, Rene Descartes, Immanuel Kant, David Hume, John Stuart Mill, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, T. S. Eliot.” If, as I did, students receive a degree in the humanities without reading these authors, they have been defrauded.

Today it is common to describe a liberal-arts education as training in purely formal skills such as “critical thinking and reasoning,” but the real masters of that tradition are the Great Books. Logic, along with rhetoric and grammar, are necessary and important tools in a liberal-arts education (and would that more liberal-arts colleges today taught even these), but by themselves they tell us nothing about reality itself. The Great Books are characterized by powerful imaginative and intellectual forms that guide, test, deepen, and enrich our knowledge of reality.

A true liberal-arts education, therefore, is not freestanding or contentless. It is constituted by what Alasdair MacIntyre calls a “tradition of inquiry,” which is recorded, expressed, articulated, challenged, revised, and continued through the Great Books. For liberalist humanities professors, however, the term “Great Books” is code for a right-wing political agenda that is bound up with sexism, racism, ethnocentrism, and other forms of hegemony and oppression.

The irony here is that this very criticism is made possible by the Great Books tradition. The Great Books tradition, unlike most other traditions in the history of the world, is characterized by openness to the truth and the value of different cultures and ways of life, and so is permeable by the artistic and intellectual gifts of all cultures. By closing a liberal-arts curriculum around the Great Books, therefore, students are made more open to seeing the richness of reality than by the flat, directionless “open” curriculum.

It is not enough simply to read the Great Books, however. Moderately intelligent readers can find spontaneous delight in reading the Great Books for fun, but the deeper and more lasting delight comes from the ability to unpack the depths of rich meaning in these books. This requires an art of interpretation and analysis. In a real liberal-arts education teachers are like well-trained tour guides who teach their students how to notice not only the surfaces of things, but also the layers of meaning lying in and beneath that surface. This involves a trained art of reading. Just as no biology teacher tells her students that an organism is whatever they feel or want it to be, so no liberal-arts teacher tells his students a book means whatever they feel or want it to mean. Texts, like organisms, like reality, have a real structure and meaning that can be discovered only through careful and often difficult interpretation and analysis. An education in postmodern deconstruction is not a liberal-arts education. Criticism has an important role to play in a liberal-arts education, but the “hermeneutic of love” must come before the “hermeneutic of suspicion.” Socrates is a better guide than Descartes.

Third, what is the quality of student life outside the classroom?

Does what the students are learning in the classroom feed their conversations and friendships outside the classroom, or are life in the classroom and social life sharply demarcated? Are the students more energized by the ideas they are learning, or by the prospect of the early-weekend drinking binge?

Here again the common core curriculum described above plays an important role. I’ll never forget the first party I attended at a true liberal-arts college (by then I was a graduate student), when amidst the free-flowing libations a fierce argument broke out among the whole group over the relative merits of Achilles and Odysseus, Homer’s two great epic heroes, who exemplify the tension between the specific excellences of body (bie) and mind (metis). It was not quite a symposium, but it was a far cry from the usual bacchanalia one finds on other campuses. Without a common core, students simply lack a common subject matter to discuss with their roommates, to argue about, and build friendships around when they are not in the classroom, and teachers have no common foundation upon which to build in upper-division courses.

A liberal-arts education is not principally concerned with what you do, but with what you are. Therefore defenders of the humanities are right to insist that the value of a liberal-arts education cannot be measured simply by productive employment. To defend liberal education in this way is like defending religion in terms of morality, or friendship in terms of personal utility.

But then one can also say that just as real religion does in fact reinforce morality, and just as real friendship is in fact useful, so a real liberal-arts education does in fact prepare students for productive employment and for democratic citizenship. Imagine what the American Founding would have looked like had Washington, Madison, Jefferson, and Hamilton only been trained in gender studies, or accounting. But the fact that liberal education is ordered to non-useful ends should not be a cover for fraudulent humanities programs to insulate themselves from the criticism they have received and deserve. The real scandal is not that graduates in the humanities cannot find jobs, but that they have spent four years and thousands of dollars on a random hodgepodge of trendy courses. Jobless, they don’t even have the comfort of a rich intellectual life to compensate them for their poverty.  

— Nathan Schlueter is an associate professor of philosophy at Hillsdale College.


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