2015 Bradley Symposium: Remarks by Peter Lawler

Published July 6, 2015

2015 Bradley Symposium

“The Future Of Higher Education”

The Future of Liberal Education

The Four Seasons Hotel, Washington, D.C.

June 3, 2015

Speaker: Peter Lawler, Berry College


Peter Lawler
Peter Lawler

Peter Lawler:  Well, thanks to Yuval and the Bradley Foundation.   Thanks so much for inviting a tenured faculty member from the sticks in the south who teaches nothing but great or at least good texts and who deploys no technology whatsoever in the classroom.


Well, you know, air conditioning.


It is the south.  So my comments are from the point of view of faculty, especially faculty somewhat devoted to the future of liberal education.

So some conservative critics say that the main problem in American higher education today is that tenured faculty don’t teach enough.  It would be better if their lazy self-indulgence could be more controlled by more accountable cost-cutting administrators.  Tenure from this view is a kind of union and faculty governance is akin to collective bargaining.  It would be better if administrators could get closer to the right to fire situation found in our more entrepreneurial states.

But what the union-taming critics don’t understand I think is what they want our administrators have already been achieving.  The truth is the number of tenured and tenure-track faculties is rapidly diminishing as a percentage of our instructional work force.  People with tenure and on tenure track now are still fairly unoppressed and I admit often fairly clueless minority.  There are doubtless good reasons why in some places tenured and tenure-track faculty should teach more.  It would be better if more students had their personal touch.  But given how cheap adjunct faculty are — they work for less than subsistence — it is a big mistake to believe that tenured faculty taking on an additional class or two would produce a significant savings.

It’s often even the case that our administrators would rather they not teach more.  At some places at least, although not at Purdue, of course, the situation seems to be that administrators are buying off tenured faculty with low teaching loads and various research perks.  That incentivizes them to become compliant with the transfer of instruction to adjuncts and other temporary faculty.  It also helps them accept the emptying out of the content of general education, those courses required of all students.  Requirements focused on the content and methods of the academic disciplines such as history, literature, and philosophy are being replaced by those based on abstract and empty or content-free competencies such as critical thinking and effective communication.

I could spend 20 minutes mocking the competencies but one thing you have to mock is their earnest redundancy.  Ah that critical thinking, if it weren’t — if it is not critical it is probably not thinking.


In the same way effective communication, you know if it is not effective it is probably not communication.


Okay.  So that — I wish I had a PowerPoint to back this up but —


But what appears to be objective is actually silly.  That is my take away for this.  All in all it is often not so hard to convince, unfortunately, career specialists to surrender their concern for merely general education or at least to convince them that the imperatives of the marketplace and the increasingly intrusive accreditation process demand that the value of their disciplinary contributions be reconfigured in terms of competencies.

That way they are led to believe they will be able to hang on to their curricular turf.  The study of history or philosophy or whatever can be justified after all as deploying the skills and competencies of critical thinking, effective communication or whatever.  One problem, though: the faculty members end up seeing or experiencing is that those skills or competencies can be acquired more easily other ways.  Ways that are aren’t saddled with all that irksome historical or philosophical content.  And when the disciplines of liberal education are displaced by competencies, institutions tend to surrender the content-based distinctiveness that formed most of their educational mission.  So the biggest outrage in higher education right now is not this or that report of students or administrators whining about micro aggressions or being insufficiently trigger warned.  Here is the biggest outrage.  It is that Notre Dame might be about to surrender the requirement of courses in philosophy and theology for all students in favor of competency based goals.  If you want to worry about outrage, worry about that.

As institutions surrender their liberal arts substance while sometimes retaining their classy liberal arts brand they become pretty much identical in terms of their educational goals.  Lists of competencies always seem to me kind of vague and random but somehow they turn out to be the same everywhere.

So what the idea of a competency denies is that the dignity of thinking and communication must have something to do with what is being thought and what is being communicated.  The how of thinking about who or what a man or woman is is way different from figuring out how to rotate your tires or even maximize your productivity.  Communicating information is way different from winning friends and influencing people or persuasion or manipulation and is way way different from communicating the truth through irony or humor or verse such as through the poetry or parables of Revelation or the dialogues of Plato.

So as the low but seemingly solid goal of competency becomes about the same everywhere the delivery of education can become less personal or quirky or unreliable or brilliant and standardized according to the quantitatively validated best practices.  Courses can become more scripted and then delivery can be increasingly open to the use of the computer screen.  So the intellectual labor of college administrators — the number of whom is bloating, and the perks of whom are coming to resemble those of corporate CEOs — is directed in much the same way as it is in other sectors of the economy.

So what is going on in colleges and universities is not so different from what is going on at Panera Bread or the Amazon warehouse.

So as colleges become more identical in their competency-based curricula the question that continues to obsess a college president is how to make his or her institution distinctively attractive in the intensely competitive marketplace for the increasingly scarce resource of the student.  So there is increased sensitivity to the student as consumer.  One result is the amenities arms race.


Few institutions dare opt out.  So there is a proliferation of hotel-style dorms, health club gyms, gourmet food in the cafeteria, more and more non-revenue generating Division III athletic teams and student affairs staff that function like concierges saving students from that dread disease of boredom.

It goes without saying faculty have nothing to do with these innovations at all.  The excellent scholar Glenn Reynolds is so disgusted by such developments that his modest proposal is for campuses to be honest and market themselves as luxury cruises.


That means spend and spend more on amenities.  And cut and cut more the cost of actual education by reducing the ranks of the career faculty and replacing them with various forms of online instruction and MOOC.  No college or university so far is going quite that far but some are pretty far down the road.  And even the small colleges that talk up the presence of real faculty because they can’t get rid of them —


— have begun to describe them as agents and advocates for students.  In a way just another amenity offered to the discerning consumer.

And add to the amenities arms race all the increasingly intrusive and usually stupidly counterproductive compliance requirements of the federal government and accreditation agencies and all those administrative politically correct initiatives that have little to nothing to do with real education and it is easy to see where most of the so-called bubble in college cost is coming from.  It is not faculty compensation or the cost of instruction that is going up much more rapidly than the rate of inflation when my salary is not going up even the rate of inflation; the cost of instruction is, in fact, often going down and in ways that is making it worse.  Now there are ways to cut the cost of instruction in higher education in general that would cause the quality actually to get better but that would require a renewed focus on the real point of higher education.

Well, you might say putting the focus on competencies at least has the advantage of banishing at least some politically correct blathering from the classroom.  Exactly the opposite is true.  It institutionalizes political correctness.  Some competencies are always attitudinal about appreciation of diversity and all that so students learn that sensitivity is displayed not only by having correct opinions but having the right kind of enthusiasm, or as they say, “engagement” about them.

In the discipline of philosophy what justice is is a question one to which there are a genuine diversity of thoughtful and plausible answers.  In the era of the competency the question of justice has been answered and all that is left to do is to be engaged in the right way in promulgating the final solution.  So the world of the competency mixes techno-vocationalism with dogmatic social liberalism.

Don’t forget that political correctness has morphed from being a radical challenge by socialists as such to American capitalism promulgated by tenured radicals to a kind of cloying sensitivity to the consumer demand that every nook and cranny of a student’s life on campus in thought and deed be a safe and comfortable space.  The effect, it often seems, is to make the campus a virtual reality above all as some say.  It is too much like the bubble.  The virtual realities young people spend too much time losing themselves in in front of a screen.

So those conservative reformers who really mean it when they say that they want the classrooms of our career liberal arts professors to be filled with as many students as possible have a noble goal.  I’ve explained why that goal doesn’t really have much to do with saving money necessarily.  But if their reform intention is seriously personal, or as we say these days, “reform conservatism,” then they should oppose every effort of our administrators to displace respected professors with proletarianized adjuncts as well as to reduce as far as possible the place of the competency and the screen in figuring out what kind of general education, what kind of content-driven literacy is at the core of generally higher education.

Respected professors, it turns out, are a part of the indispensible content of higher education.  For now we dissident professors are all about resisting standardization and surveillance of all kinds if it comes from the government.  We resist it when it comes from the Obama administration and from the Republican Senate.  And we, of course, resist all the intrusiveness and stupidity of accreditation associations.  We want to protect the genuine moral and intellectual diversity that is the saving grace of American education.

One great thing about our country is that there are islands of liberal education, sometimes in unexpected places.  Not only that, anyone in our country who wants a genuinely higher education can find one, and here is something we don’t emphasize at all, often at a surprisingly affordable price.  So we dissident professors applaud those institutions who aim to wean themselves off government funding.  And I hope that weaning is a prelude to dispensing with what is the basically worse and useless process of accreditation.

Because it is impossible to dispense with branding altogether in our world here is my idea. Let’s replace the idea with competency with the idea of literacy, and we want to do so with the real job market in mind.  It turns out that the main complaint of employers today is not that college graduates lack this or that fairly minimalist techno competency that could after all be readily learned on the job.  Their real complaint is our students, our graduates don’t have the level of literacy, the good habits, the sense of personal responsibility and the fine manners that we used to count on most college graduates and, to tell the truth, most high school grads having.

So the main problem with focusing on competency in higher education is that it allows our colleges and universities to be content with producing graduates who are functionally illiterate.


Sure they can read for information and entertainment and they are quite adept at texting with their friends and playing games on screen.  But their reading is too literal or non-ironic and they can’t enjoy the way authors deploy words to play with ideas and take the light and the wonderfully imperfect and endlessly revealing ways words correspond to the way men and women really are.

So our graduates can’t read attentively and so they can’t think well as beings born to know, love, and die.

Getting back to the workplace perspective, we really know, everyone in this room really knows, that there is a close connection between success in life and a high level of literacy and that means a huge and discerning active vocabulary.  The world belongs to people who aren’t sucked in by the non-ironic language of the various forms of political correctness today.  That includes both those who prattle on about micro aggressions and safe spaces and those who prattle on about disruptive innovation and creative destruction.  The world belongs to those who are alive to the difference between real books and textbooks and instructional manuals, manipulative propaganda and “self-helpy-happy” talk.

And I think I’ll stop there. Thank you.


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