Another Conservative Defends Liberal Education


Last month I posted a piece to this blog commenting on a recent book and op-ed by two conservative scholars, which argues persuasively that “right-wing hand-wringing about higher education is overblown” and that “conservatives survive and even thrive in one of America’s most progressive professions.”  Now comes an essay posted today on the website of the National Review by Peter Augustine Lawler, Dana Professor of Government at Berry College. The piece is excerpted from a scheduled keynote talk at the Association for Core Texts and Courses conference.

Here is some of what he writes:

[I]t’s an instructive exaggeration to say that college is becoming about the same everywhere — being nudged along by the standardizing pressures of the market, government bureaucracies, Silicon Valley–funded foundations driven by the principle that education can be delivered in roughly the same way as electricity, and the administrative class of higher education itself, a class that dominates the increasingly intrusive accrediting associations. And basically middle-class or techno-vocational standardizing pressures have a big negative effective on genuine diversity — moral, religious, and intellectual diversity — on our campuses. The pressure here, I want to emphasize, doesn’t really come from old-fashioned tenured radicals. For one thing, the percentage of tenured faculty is dropping like a rock. Nor does it come all that much from the most recent wave of campus protestors.

It comes from the corporate and administrative agenda that’s about purging all that is not middle-class or that is incompatible with the dynamism of the 21st-century global competitive marketplace. We see, better than ever, the threat that the universality of middle-class thinking has on freedom of, and so diversity in, thought.

Although I am a scandal to the fashionable conformism of higher education because I typically vote Republican and am not in the closet about it, I admit that the imposition of middle-class or techno-vocational, techno-enthusiastic tyranny on higher education has been more a theme of Republican politicians, such as Scott Walker and Marco Rubio (for whom I actually voted). Rubio’s theme that we need more welders and fewer philosophers is an assault on free thought, insofar as it might be good for welders to know some philosophy just to live well. One American ideal should be the philosopher-welder, given that we have no work at all for philosopher-kings. . . .

I actually have more sympathy for Bernie Sanders’s call for free higher education for everyone. Bernie is thinking about the old City College of New York in the 1950s, staffed by mostly leftist emigrés who taught the great books as if they really mattered to New Yorkers of all races and classes and religions. In Bernie’s imagination, we should be perfectly free to be either a philosopher or a welder or some combination thereof, just as we have a mind.

It’s true that Sanders’s solution wouldn’t work today, mainly because all public higher education is marked by so much less freedom than it was in the Fifties. And the effectual truth of his solution would be to starve what moral and intellectual diversity we have left in mostly private colleges.

Still, I hope that the appeal of Bernie to the young is all about his calling out the corporate technocratic elitism that dominates both our parties — and that he’s defending intellectual freedom against the middle-class tendency to sacrifice controversy to public relations, and even against the libertarian economist’s tendency to sacrifice controversy to the imperatives of productivity. Don’t worry, I’ll never vote for Bernie, although I might vote for (as professors and college presidents) the old socialists Irving Howe and Michael Harrington over most of the professors and especially administrators we have in the humanities and social sciences today.

I’m not so sure that free higher education would “starve . . . moral and  intellectual diversity” and wonder how much more freedom there actually was in public higher education in the Fifties, given the massive assault on left-leaning and even liberal faculty associated with the postwar Red Scare, but still, here’s one more piece of evidence that those of us in the academy to the left of center can indeed find common ground with colleagues to our right.

One thought on “Another Conservative Defends Liberal Education

  1. There are some unanswered questions that keep being “ignored” but should be laid on the table:
    a) What is the quality of preparation of students now seeking post secondary education, of all types and should more attention be devoted to those graduates. One head of a vocational/technical college says that a large number of entering students are those who were pressured into a university but found that their skills and interests were not an appropriate match.

    b) It is recognized that post secondary education is almost an imperative to enter into the work force. Yet employers are concerned because the graduates from these institutions are lacking both content and soft skills needed. And in today’s work force income for non-university graduates can equal or exceed that of graduates from traditional universities

    c) Those who are paying (students, parents and governments) are concerned that those going thru a post secondary program graduate and on graduating have a reasonable opportunity to repay that investment.

    It is hard to find parties who do not see the above scenario as a reasonable assessment, recognizing the shifting demographics of those graduating from secondary schools in the United States, the parents and social environment in which they have been immersed,particularly minorities and persons of color, especially first generation.

    The issue at hand appears to surround the above which has been characterized as “vocationalization of post secondary programs, primarily the shift away from the idea of a liberal studies flavor of the traditional college or university. In the past, few institutions, particularly the faculty, except in select “professions” seemed to assume that the struggle to build programs for those passing through the system was the critical dimension (Cardinal Newman’s idea as an example). The lack of entrance skills or the fate of graduates entering the world of work seemed to stop at the entrance and exits of the Ivory Tower as graduates should be prepared to go forth. Even programs for those who were entering under prepared seemed to be relegated to a separate space.

    There are many reasons for this such as few faculty have a say in who is qualified to enter. As in medicine, there is a triage path for acceptance. Few know who will be admitted to a class. And, few are involved in the programs and have responsibility for the path beyond the exit.

    The world inside the Ivory Tower may be changing as “competencies”, including micro credits from a variety of sources start to appear in student programs, and as needs call for interdisciplinary skills from the research facilities to the undergraduate programs. That is not just a mathematician talking to a biochemist but philosophers working with physicists as examples. As cracks develop in disciplinary silos, fresh air seeps through interstitial spaces in the walls of the Tower. And therein lies hope. As Wordsworth says, we will grieve not, rather find strength in what remains behind.

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