Rediscovering Liberal Education: A Case for Reform in America’s Universities

THE MODERN AMERICAN UNIVERSITY is the product of confidence: confidence in its concrete utility, and confidence in its service to freedom and democracy. Concrete utility has mainly been the product of the university’s scientific/technological establishments, and the research and training facilities they embody. Freedom and democracy have been the province of its humanities and social science curricula, presumably designed to broaden the mind, strengthen the reason, and inculcate the essential norms of republican self-government.

During most of the twentieth century this confidence was largely warranted. The question at the dawn of the twentieth-first is whether this is still the case. It’s a question that first must be answered by the academy’s permanent inhabitants: the scientists, scholars, and administrators responsible for its daily operation. But, ultimately, it must also be answered by the citizenry at large, because the nation’s fate depends on the conclusion.

Unfortunately, few of influence within higher education today are interested in an honest assessment. Too many careers have become dependent on the support of the university’s least serviceable sectors. Indeed, pandering to them is what most often passes for progressive academic leadership.

Even more disturbing is the general unconcern of the leaders outside of the academy. While accepting the idea of academic freedom, they’ve lost sight of two other equally important truths: first, that the doings of scholars can, if sufficiently wrongheaded, seriously endanger America’s prosperity, freedom, and safety; and second, that the laity has an obligation to act prudently to prevent these injuries.

One would expect such an understanding to prompt serious interest in the principles and practices through which the academy functions, particularly by those who as trustees, legislators, alumni, and donors are vested with powers of academic oversight and influence. The life of the mind promotes the welfare of society when it produces genuine knowledge and clear habits of thought. And these outcomes depend on its being governed by reason, evidence, intellectual civility, due modesty and, with respect to the proper study of mankind, measured judgment. Such governance further requires an academic constitution sufficient to its task. When unreason, disdain for evidence, incivility, arrogance, and poor judgment flourish within significant quarters of academic life, an appraisal of the adequacy of its constitutional practices is in order. Given the reaction of America’s opinion leadership to the extravagances of academic political correctness, it is astonishing that such a reexamination has not been undertaken.

One reason for the relaxation of academic quality controls is in part the outcome of higher education’s democratization, made possible by open-door admission policies that became widespread during the twentieth century’s second half. The equality of opportunity these afforded, coming closer than anything before to creating true meritocracy, has been unparalleled. But it also has had the paradoxical effect of weakening the performance standards on which meritocracy is based. Thresholds have also been lowered for the proportional representation of major demographic groups.

The public’s support for broad-access is exceptionally intense. Aware of this, public leaders have been unwilling to dwell on the intellectual compromises the policy demands. Neither, of course, have most university presidents, for whom growing enrollments are the financial bottom line.

The price paid for broad-access admission policies goes beyond their diluting effect on undergraduate curricula and courses. High school teaching at the college-level breeds cynicism. When an institution’s inhabitants believe it has drifted too far from its authentic calling, their willingness to resist further assaults on mission slackens. A sense pervades that what was once a profession has become merely a living, without principles worth bothering to defend.

The bigger threat to the intellectual health of the academy, however, has been internal. A number of academic fields, centered in the humanities and the social sciences, have fallen under the influence of a variety of ideological sects. Classically utopian, their fuzzy vision of a perfect future is often supplemented by a perfect hatred of the manners and mores of existing society. Divided in what they believe, they are generally united in what they oppose, including much of the legacy of civilization, typically seen as an oppressive, elitist, and outworn encumbrance. Similarly regarded are the maxims of pluralism, freedom and tolerance. The banner of “diversity” under which they march is meant to supplant, not strengthen, authentic pluralism, artfully substituting differences of color, ethnicity, and sex, for those of belief.

The preaching of these campus sectarians is a far cry from liberal education’s original conception. Instead of preparing for free citizenship, or the reflective life, it undermines rationality, narrows perspective, and obstructs the acquisition of the knowledge and judgment necessary to both. Although the sectarians are a minority of the total faculty, their strength of conviction frequently allows them to dominate their quieter, more moderate colleagues. Worse yet, because they fight so hard to hire their own and multiply their numbers, such resistance as exists is in serious danger of dwindling with the passage of time. Not satisfied with dominating their respective fields, they also seek to appropriate as many other aspects of institutional function as they can, reaching out to remold university admissions, student life, interpersonal relations, and other dimensions of campus existence to their ideological liking. Over the last several decades their successes have been immense.

Something was clearly missed by the architects of the modern American university. Men like Harvard president Charles W. Elliot, Johns Hopkins president Daniel Coit Gilman, and intellectual leaders of the professorate like American Association of University Professors founders John Dewey and Arthur O. Lovejoy assumed that in the dawning new age of science academics across the disciplines would comport themselves more or less in accord with science’s methods and strictures. Hardly simpletons, they understood the differences in practice and aspiration that inquiry into subject matters as disparate as those of physics, history, sociology, and literature entailed. Yet they also believed that a “science-like,” if not wholly scientific, insistence on methodical research, reasonable dispassion, careful verification, professional civility, and general open-mindedness, could build communities of teachers and researchers outside the natural sciences, capable of advancing knowledge in a spirit similar to those within.

In retrospect, the mistake of the modern academy’s founding fathers stands clear. It was simply wishful thinking to believe that the internal checks that suffice to keep the natural sciences on the intellectual straight and narrow could operate effectively in the humanities and would-be social sciences. No reform can succeed unless this “constitutional fact” is admitted.

In fields like physics, chemistry, and biology, the classic paradigm of scientific investigation is fully realized. The natural sciences have organized themselves into a powerful system for generating, testing, discarding, verifying, accumulating, and integrating propositions about the world.

By contrast, in the humanities and social sciences continued laissez-faire is unlikely to get things right. The very humanness of their disciplines is at the root of the problem. They wrestle with questions too entangled in the world’s strife – and too inherently complex – to accumulate reliable knowledge and avoid intellectual debasement in the manner of the natural sciences. Causes more than curiosity recruit their acolytes, rivalries too easily slip into enmities, disagreements superheat over value conflicts, and before disputes can get into substance they’re apt to spin off into fierce quarrels over rival modes of verification.

As might be expected in such conflicts, it is the passionate intensity of the worst practitioners that commonly prevails. As a result, the simple modes of majority-rule academic decision-making, entirely serviceable in the sphere of hard science, often lead in the humanities and social sciences to the exclusion of the most reasonable perspectives through ideologically motivated hiring, tenure, promotion, publication and curriculum decisions. To keep these domains as intellectually balanced and fruitful as possible, a systematic rethinking of their governance procedures must commence.

Recognizing this is not an act of disparagement. The humanities and social sciences address core issues about the human condition that demand deeply considered answers. Nor is it a suggestion that the university’s internal affairs be micromanaged from outside – individual academic decisions should be left to academics, whatever their field. The issue, rather, is the structure of the system within which such decisions are made. And here the external world, and its representatives at the peak levels of university governance, may have some practical wisdom to bestow on the academy’s denizens.

The constitutions of free republics contain a variety of proven devices for preserving due process, limiting overweening majorities, and tempering decision-making in ways potentially applicable to the more fractious precincts of academe. Some are “judicial” in nature, relying on refereed rule-maintenance in decision making, others involve voting systems crafted to protect minority viewpoints, others organize competing power-centers to check the abuses of concentrated authority, and still others structure public debate so that opposing positions get a fair chance to be heard. Such mechanisms, poorly delineated in current academic practice, might greatly benefit fields occupying the “bloody crossroads” of science and politics if made part of their procedures of governance.

The goal, of course, would not be to turn the governance of the humanities and social sciences into a replica of democratic politics – searching for truth and splitting the difference aren’t the same vocation. Rather, it would be to inhibit the formation of oppressive intellectual monopolies based on zeal and organizational power, and direct the resolution of academic disputes toward a more productive resort to civility, evidence, and logic.

Discovering these constitutional solutions is likely to require extended trial and error, taking different paths in different fields and institutions. (I’ve provided some specific conjectures about the forms these might assume in an essay included in Building a Healthy Culture; Strategies for an American Renaissance, recently published by William B. Eerdmans.) Needless to say, new information technologies, by dissolving established academic structures, could also tremendously accelerate this process. But because it will inevitably be resisted by passionate ideological interests deeply rooted in the academy’s soil, the process will only succeed if reformers inside the university find stalwart and understanding allies without.

But will they? Will men and women in public life see the necessity of applying the lessons of “real-world” conflict management to the task of constitutional reform within our universities? And will they then take the time and trouble to work with cooperative academics to make such reform real? It is often difficult for people of affairs to see how what might easily pass for a vapid realm of talk can profoundly effect things they hold dear. But as economist John Maynard Keynes famously observed “practical men who believe themselves exempt from any intellectual influences are usually the slaves of some defunct economist. Madmen in authority who hear voices in the air are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribblers of a few years back.” The twentieth century saw more than its share of madmen in authority. One can only hope that today’s “practical men” will recognize the need to prevent America’s universities from becoming nurseries for the lunatics of the twenty-first.

Dr. Balch is President of the National Association of Scholars.