Higher education, at least since the time of Plato, has always had four basic purposes that tug in different directions: the pursuit of truth for its own sake (“intellectual curiosity”); preparation for practical life< (“jobs”); the transmission of culture (“civilization”); and the shaping of good character (“citizenship”). Sometimes these can be brought into balance, but usually they jar against each other. Aristophanes, who favored the transmission of traditional culture, mocked Socrates as a charlatan; Cicero criticized the Greek philosophers for distracting student from preparation for public life. Jefferson extolled education as essential not for the pursuit of truth or the preparation of students for work, but as foundation of civic life.At different times, these purposes take on different emphases.
Those of us today who defend liberal education—and we are many—often make arguments for it that go well beyond the value of “intellectual curiosity,” though to be sure intellectual curiosity is important.
If we are, as many feminists and college administrators say, in the midst of a “rape culture” in higher education, what could be more pressing than to stop it? Would protecting “intellectual curiosity” trump protecting undergraduate women from sexual predators?Put simply, universities are failing, and Professor Wood suggests the failure has more causes than the complaints of the Chamber of Commerce.
Then again, many Americans attentive to the rise of ISIS and the aggressive new barbarianism of radical Islam have come to believe that liberal education today ought to prepare students to stand in defense of Western civilization. It is a hard sell, since a substantial portion of the American professoriate is ambivalent whether the West is worth defending. Still the idea of defending the West against Islamo-fascism is one strong way to uphold the importance of liberal arts education.
Let’s add to this list the concern that many Americans have over our nation’s economic prospects.
Missing altogether from [Chronicle of Higher Education columnist Dan] Berrett’s timeline are things like the 1962 Port Huron Statement, in which the SDS laid out its agenda for using colleges and universities as instruments for radical transformation of American society; the 1964 Berkeley Free Speech Movement, which was the opening phase of the successful effort by the campus left to unseat the curricular authority of the university; or the success of the effort to establish racial preferences in admissions and “diversity” as the regnant campus creed. The fragmentation and trivialization of the liberal arts curriculum had a lot to do with these developments. And the disaffection of millions of Americans with higher education today is in very large part a consequence of the self-destruction of the ideals on which the liberal arts were once based.Precisely.
Berrett is among those defenders of the status quo who are unable or unwilling to look more than momentarily at the bonfire the left has made of the curriculum and of academic standards. Where will liberal education go next? I hope it not only survives, but that it thrives in years to come. That will happen, however, only if we get serious about defending the essentials and return to Reagan’s distinction between the higher uses of liberal learning and the distractions that merely appropriate the name of the liberal arts. We need more discernment, less distraction.
My advice to Governor Walker: don’t fall into the simplistic distinction between the “search for truth” and “workplace needs” that your opponents have set up. It is a net at your feet meant to trap you. Asking and expecting universities to address workplace needs is legitimate—more than legitimate, it is urgent. But it is a goal that can be pursued without making yourself a supposed enemy of open-minded inquiry. It is your foes who, rightly understood, have snapped their minds shut against the danger of new ideas.