Ethics & Public Policy Center

Higher Education and Liberal Education

Published in National Review Online on August 31, 2015

More than most of the presidential candidates, Marco Rubio tends to make a point of talking about higher education reform in his stump speech. He mentions rising costs and loan burdens, and talks about making college more affordable by breaking down the barriers that restrict competition and by allowing parents and students to know more about job prospects for graduates of particular schools and majors (a reference to the “Know Before You Go” act, to make more data that’s held by the federal government available to the public, which Rubio has sponsored with Ron Wyden). Usually, when he makes his pitch for this particular idea, Rubio puts it this way:

I believe that before any of our young people take out student loans, that school has to tell you how much you can expect to make when you graduate from that degree from that school so people can decide whether it’s worth borrowing tens of thousands of dollars to major in basket weaving.

But a little earlier this month, at the Iowa State fair, he put the point a little differently:

We can’t keep graduating people with degrees that don’t lead to jobs. That’s why I believe that before you take out a student loan, schools should tell you how much people make when they graduate from that school with that degree, so you can decide if it’s worth spending $50,000 to major in Greek philosophy, because after all the market for Greek philosophers has been very tight for 2,000 years.

It wasn’t the first time he had substituted philosophy for basket weaving, and it’s easy enough to see his point and take his joke. But this particular spin on his ideas raises a question that conservatives who support this kind of market-oriented approach to our higher education dilemmas as a way to improve mobility and opportunity (and I’m one such conservative) should take seriously: What is the place of genuine liberal education in such a vision of higher ed?

It’s easy to see how a pure job-skills approach to higher education might be seen as suffocating real liberal education. Ironically, this might be easiest to see in a response to Rubio’s remarks offered (upon being asked by Inside Higher Ed) by Amy Ferrer, executive director of the American Philosophical Association. She said:

Philosophy teaches many of the skills most valued in today’s economy: critical thinking, analysis, effective written and verbal communication, problem solving, and more. And philosophy majors’ success is borne out in both data — which show that philosophy majors consistently outperform nearly all other majors on graduate entrance exams such as the GRE and LSAT, and that philosophy ties with mathematics for the highest percentage increase from starting to midcareer salary — and anecdotal evidence indicating that philosophy and other humanities majors are increasingly successful and sought after in the business and technology sectors.

This is true, and it’s important too, but it suggests that while philosophy might be able to formally justify itself in terms of earnings outcomes and job skills, it does so by refraining from justifying itself in terms of the value of the actual substance of what it might teach students, even just in addition to making arguments about test scores and job placement.

This isn’t all that surprising from the American Philosophical Association, whose members don’t really teach much Greek philosophy now anyway. But it’s a little alarming to those of us (and I will admit to having spent more time under the influence of teachers of Greek philosophy than any sensible career advisor would have deemed prudent) who think that while liberal education can justify itself in the terms of such economic utilitarianism it has at least as much to offer as a counterbalance to such attitudes about education.

Indeed, it is as a counterbalance that liberal education may be most important. We often think of liberal education as providing a foundation in the intellectual roots of our civilization, and so in that sense as a kind of assimilation to our own culture, but liberal education is actually a profoundly countercultural enterprise in modern societies. I don’t mean that it’s just countercultural in 21st-century America because we’re somehow uniquely decadent or distracted or the various other kinds of compliments masquerading as self-criticism that we constantly pay ourselves. We’re not so unique on any of those fronts, I think.

Rather, liberal education is countercultural in modern liberal democracies, and it always has been, because it involves an exposure to an idea of the truth and its relation to human life that modern liberal democracy unavoidably pushes aside and diminishes. Liberal democracy offers us many good things in return, and I would say it’s easily worth the price, but we can reduce the price a little (and can also help reinforce the foundations required for making all those good things possible and sustainable, many of which have to do with avoiding shortcuts in the formation of liberal citizens) by being aware of the roots of our society and being alert to the ways it often deceives itself.

This approach to liberal learning values its countercultural character not because our culture should be rejected but because it often needs to be corrected or counterbalanced. It needs to be reminded of things it has forgotten. As one notable purveyor of liberal learning put it, “Liberal education reminds those members of a mass democracy who have ears to hear of human greatness,” which after all is not what mass democracy itself tends to remind us of. I think liberal education also reminds these same open-eared democrats of human fallenness and human limits, as the same society inclined forget about human greatness would be inclined to forget about human limits.

Liberal education is thus inherently a counterbalance, rather than the dominant force. It is now always an exception, or a minority, in higher education and in society at large. But its role as such a counterbalance makes it an essential minority, and in some limited respects more important and influential than even the mainstream in education, which just confirms what we think we know. The counterbalance can matter as much as or more than the mainstream because the goal of education is less to transform society’s institutions than to form its members—one soul at a time—and the champions of liberal learning in our society are often deeply devoted to that work of shaping one soul at a time and less devoted to political activism and the transformation of mass institutions. Liberal learning therefore needs to be available, and needs to make itself attractive, even though it will never appeal to most students.

Alexis de Tocqueville, who studied democracy with an eye to counterbalancing its excesses to reinforce its strengths, took note of the need for this particular kind of counterbalance, and suggested that it might not belong in quite the same category as basket weaving. “Greek and Latin ought not to be taught in all schools,” he wrote in Democracy in America, “but it is important that those whose nature or whose fortune destines them to cultivate letters or predisposes them to that taste find schools in which one can be made a perfect master of ancient literature and wholly steeped in its spirit,” which is altogether different from the spirit of our times. “To attain this result,” he continued, “a few excellent universities would be worth more than a multitude of bad colleges where superfluous studies that are done badly prevent necessary studies from being done well.” Most of higher education in a democracy will be devoted to other things, he noted, and this is as it should be.

There are now indeed “a few excellent universities” along these lines in America. In places like St. John’s College or Hillsdale or a few other wonderful specialized institutions, in some of our best liberal arts colleges, and even in corners of larger more mainstream schools where a great teacher or two can be found toiling to clear enough space to really open a book, liberal education surely exists as a very real option. An option is probably all it can really hope to be, but that’s no small thing.

And this, ultimately, is why I actually think the kind of approach to higher-education policy that Rubio, among others, is suggesting is in fact exactly what liberal education in America requires, even if its champions don’t always present it in the most appealing terms. Breaking the stranglehold of incumbent universities by opening up more options for accreditation, for course credit, and for financing while giving students and their families more information is a way to broaden the range of options and undo some of the damage the federal government has been doing for decades. It is a response to the financial pressures now pressing in on American higher education that seeks to increase the diversity of options, rather than decreasing the freedom to offer and choose different sorts of paths to a degree. That means exactly making liberal education an option among many, rather than trusting in uniform administration to give it the room it requires.

The alternative to this response is more, not less, utilitarian skills-talk, because a less diverse higher-education system would need to become more efficient by squeezing rather than spreading, and Greek philosophy and its ilk would be squeezed before most other programs. In higher ed, market mechanisms are the friends of intellectual diversity, including of those avenues of study prone to offer crucial criticisms of the market.

This is one of the many ways that we cultural traditionalists are going to have to learn to love diversity in the coming years. The weakening of our society’s dominant, mainstream institutions is both a curse and a blessing. It is a curse because it tends to undermine cohesion and supercharge the centrifugal forces pulling us apart and isolating us from one another. But it is a blessing because it will mean that winning cultural battles will tend to involve offering attractive subcultural options rather than dominating large institutions. In time, as the dust settles, cultural conservatives will find they’re well positioned to do that, and have a lot of wisdom and experience to draw on in that work. And that very work, in turn, will be essential to counteracting the isolation and estrangement that characterize our age of individualism.

Liberal education will help us find that wisdom, among much else. And opening up today’s artificially obstructed and inflated higher-education system will be essential to making that possible. It is a vital cause, even if the people working to win public support for it sometimes trivialize some of its most important goals.

Yuval Levin is the Hertog Fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center.

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