July 1 2013
The Heart of the Matter: Illiberal Education
We’ve been reading a lot lately about interest rates on student loans.
Less frequently addressed: To what end do people attend colleges and universities? Just what is required to be an educated person? Is an education a way to get ahead or are there other purposes?
The American Academy of Arts and Sciences has just released a report entitled “The Heart of the Matter,” the result of a call from Democrats and Republicans in Congress to determine what actions should be undertaken by "federal, state and local governments, universities, foundations, educators, individual benefactors and others" to "maintain national excellence in humanities and social scientific scholarship and education."
Peter Berkowitz writes (subscription required) that there are several praise-worthy aspects of the report but that it doesn’t get to—well—the heart of the matter. The heart of the matter is “the illiberal nature of liberal education at our leading colleges and universities:”
The commission ignores that for several decades America's colleges and universities have produced graduates who don't know the content and character of liberal education and are thus deprived of its benefits. Sadly, the spirit of inquiry once at home on campus has been replaced by the use of the humanities and social sciences as vehicles for disseminating "progressive," or left-liberal propaganda.
We know from the extensive documentation that William F. Buckley Jr. provided in his stellar critique of American academia, "God and Man at Yale," first published in 1951, that this propagandizing extends back at least to the middle of the 20th century.
Today, professors routinely treat the progressive interpretation of history and progressive public policy as the proper subject of study while portraying conservative or classical liberal ideas—such as free markets, self-reliance and a distrust of central planning—as falling outside the boundaries of routine, and sometimes legitimate, intellectual investigation.
Meanwhile, courses proliferate on highly specialized topics—Muslims in movies, gay and lesbian gardeners, the mathematical formalization of political decision making, for example—that closely correspond to professors' niche research interests but contribute little to students' grasp of the broad sweep of Western civilization and its literary, philosophical and religious masterpieces.
Through speech codes, endless seminars and workshops designed to teach students how to avoid "offensive" speech—and by handling sexual harassment and sexual-assault allegations with procedures that undermine the presumption of innocence—universities teach students to discount free speech and due process.
The university system began to take shape in Europe in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The beginnings were so organic and informal that it is impossible to date, for example, the founding of the great University of Oxford. In light of the skyrocketing costs and lackluster intellectual culture of today’s universities, it may be time for us to explore alternatives to the current system. Perhaps the Oxfords of the future will grow out of the rubble of political correctness.