Magazine | December 31, 2015, Issue

Reclaiming Traditional Education

Why we should study old books and beautiful things

John Stuart Mill described conservatives “as being by a law of their existence the stupidest party.” The present candidates for the GOP nomination seem determined to prove him right.

Marco Rubio took his shot at proving the Mill theorem during the fourth Republican-primary debate. Responding to a question about the minimum wage, he asserted: “Welders make more money than philosophers. We need more welders and less philosophers.”

Rubio’s claim about wages is false. Philosophy majors and welders earn comparable incomes at the beginning of their working life, but philosophy majors do much better than welders over the course of their career. Rubio would have come closer to the truth if he’d focused on theology — the lowest-paid liberal-arts major, according to Payscale.com. But a crack at the expense of religion might not have worked for a Republican audience.

All politicians play games with numbers. The real problem is that Rubio’s remark reflects a deep hostility to ideals that conservatives once treasured. Rather than encouraging the transformation of universities into a combination of vocational-training centers and sports franchises, conservatives should defend traditional education against an unholy alliance of utilitarian philistinism and progressive activism that increasingly dominates American campuses. 

Criticism of higher education plays a distinctive role in American conservative thought. Titles alone indicate the longstanding prominence of the issue: “God and Man at Yale” (1951); “The Degradation of the Academic Dogma” (1971); “The Closing of the American Mind” (1987). There were important differences between the intellectual and political orientations of William F. Buckley Jr., Robert Nisbet, and Allan Bloom, the authors, respectively, of the books that bore those names.

Nevertheless, their diagnoses had some common features. First, conservatives posited that the canon was the soul of the university. From the medieval university through the colonial colleges, institutions of higher education aimed to teach “the best which has been thought and said,” in Matthew Arnold’s phrase. This vocation was political as well as intellectual. In studying masterpieces of Western civilization, students could cultivate virtues necessary to limited government.

Next, conservatives argued that influxes of students and subsidies after World War II diverted universities from this mission. Rather than educating citizens for self-rule, they prepared students for lives as workers and consumers.

It followed from this argument that we should return higher education to its origins. With a renewed focus on traditional subjects and methods, colleges and universities could moderate the despotic tendencies of modern democracy by cultivating a natural aristocracy.

Although it informed conservative arguments from the 1940s to the culture wars of the 1990s, this conception of higher education is no longer authoritative on the right. In the last decade, a new critique has challenged it. According to this view, universities are vendors of credentials that allow students to increase their future income. Since chemical engineers, say, earn more than English majors, students should choose technical or pre-professional subjects. Moreover, new technologies make online instruction cheaper than traditional courses. Therefore, we should shift funding toward massive open online courses and other high-tech approaches.

This analysis combines populist suspicion of book learning with a business-minded commitment to efficiency. It is often summarized by describing higher education as a “bubble,” in the dual sense of being cut off from the real world and being unsustainable.

The bubble theory is not all hot air. It would never have gotten off the ground if the cost of attending college had not increased vertiginously. Bubble theorists also make reasonable criticisms of reduced standards. Trendy courses substitute scholarly fads for the classics, and surveys find that many students, far from becoming “natural aristocrats,” don’t learn much in college.

The downside of the bubble theory is that it has become an excuse for dismissing the study of dead languages, old books, and beautiful things. In 2011, for example, Rush Limbaugh argued that classics majors were “wasting [their] time in a nothing major.” By reducing college to the pursuit of practical relevance, bubble theorists on the right become unwitting allies of the trigger-warning brigade. For different reasons, both treat education as an instrumental matter of advancing one’s interests — and the sooner the better.

It would be irresponsible to ignore today’s tight budgets and tough labor markets. If being conservative means anything, however, surely it means preserving higher education from both the bean counters and the devotees of progressive ideology. In Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke pointed out that radical egalitarians were not the only enemies of the pre-modern, apparently irrational institutions that he defended. The Jacobins would not have gotten far if the “sophisters, economists, and calculators” had not basically agreed with them.

But what sort of “higher” education? Surely advanced seminars in basket-weaving aren’t worth saving. But they are far from the only thing that happens in our colleges and universities. At a discussion at Williams College in 1989, during a previous round of the culture wars, Gertrude Himmelfarb suggested that we speak of “traditional” education. Traditional education is what needs advocates — among conservative politicians as well as academics.

While it’s hard to give an exhaustive definition of this term, we can set the boundaries by rule of thumb: Traditional education includes courses and disciplines that regularly require students to consider texts, artifacts, or ideas that are more than about 50 years old. For undergraduates, this should include physics and mathematics.

Traditional education, in other words, is about building a relationship with the past and passing on what has already been learned, as the necessary condition of making new discoveries. A commitment to creating this relationship is much more important than preservation of a rigidly fixed canon. Traditional education can change for the better, as it did when schools began teaching modern literature in the 1920s.

A Burkean attempt to develop a deep connection between past and present has implications for instruction. Although some technological innovations are promising, teaching is not rocket science. Outside highly technical subjects, the most reliable way to ensure that students learn is to make them read worthwhile books.

A common justification for traditional education, as noted above, is political. The idea is that serious study, particularly of the Greek and Roman classics, inculcates ethical principles and historical understanding essential to republican freedom. In his eighth annual message to Congress, George Washington urged the federal government to fund a national university that would give young people a “common education.” He asked: “In a republic, what species of knowledge can be equally important, and what duty more pressing on its legislature, than to patronize a plan for communicating [the science of government] to those who are to be the future guardians of the liberties of the country?”

This argument is sound as far as it goes, but it is too narrow. A good education is more than civic cultivation. And reading good books does not guarantee that one will become a good citizen. The lessons of those books also have to be honored by the rest of society — a matter that is beyond the control of professors.

Since the political justification isn’t strong enough, we might consider the possibility that traditional education has inherent intellectual value. We don’t have to take Matthew Arnold’s word for it. Contrary to the popular caricature, students in history, English, and philosophy classes do learn something. In their widely praised study Academically Adrift (2011), Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa found that students in traditional subjects showed considerable academic progress compared with those who studied business or education.

These results may be partly explained by the fact that smarter students gravitate toward more demanding courses. But content matters, too. When students are confronted with something worth thinking about, they do more and better thinking. In reading good writers, they become better writers themselves. They are more able to advance their own observations after they have considered the most illuminating investigations of the human condition.

Of course, a good critique of Henry James won’t pay the bills. But the economic situation is not as bleak as bubble theorists sometimes claim. There might be little demand for the specific content of traditional education, but there is plenty of demand for the skills students develop in old-style courses. Contrary to anecdotes about English majors’ working as baristas, economic research suggests that there is no employment crisis for people who know how to read carefully, write persuasively, and analyze an argument. They are in especially good shape if they know enough math to translate data into anecdotes.

There are two common objections to these arguments in favor of traditional education. One is that it’s relevant only to a small elite. Although we think of college as the realm of verdant quads, the vast majority of students in higher education attend community colleges, nondescript public universities, or for-profit institutions. And many of these are non-traditional students who are older than usual, work full time, or both. Surely they don’t need Aristotle.

We should not accept this patronizing assumption. The biggest problems with the lower tiers of higher education are low completion rates and inadequate skills among those who do graduate. Although vocational programs are the darling of some reformers, they have relatively low graduation rates and too often load students with debt. A renewed emphasis on traditional education might give better results.

It’s possible that some students wouldn’t enroll in the first place if they knew they had to read challenging books. But those students are unlikely to succeed in any kind of higher education. Others might discover, as Rod Dreher put it in the title of his recent book, “how Dante can save your life.”

The second objection to a renewed commitment to traditional education is that it’s a luxury we can’t afford.

The good news is that traditional education is relatively cheap. All you need are tables and chairs, some paperbacks, and a few professors. Some conservatives blame tuition hikes on the tenured faculty. The real culprits, though, are administrative bloat and the race to offer more and more amenities on campuses. Having fewer five-story rock-climbing walls and more classes in philosophy might actually allow universities to decrease tuition.

Colleges and universities must be accountable for making prudent use of public resources. Conservatives, however, also have a calling to defend the treasures we have inherited. Burke argued that real patriotism means making the best of one’s country as it exists, even at the price of tolerating inefficiencies and irrationality. We should follow his lead in defending traditional education, rather than sacrificing it to a misguided ideal of economic efficiency or customer service.

– Mr. Goldman is an assistant professor of political science at George Washington University and the director of its Politics & Values Program.

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