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What’s Wrong With Higher Ed?

The Marketplace of Ideas: Reform and Resistance in the American University, Louis Menand, W.W. Norton & Company, 176 pages

Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities, Martha Nussbaum, Princeton University Press, 178 pages

By John Schwenkler

It helps to think of the modern university as having a triune nature, two elements supporting one another while tending to undermine the third. The complementary components are probably the first that come to mind when considering what a university is: a place where professional scholars research and write, and one where rising generations of scholars and non-scholars receive the instruction that will make them productive members of society. It is largely thanks to the evidence of research that society acknowledges the professoriate’s educational expertise, and because of scholars’ willingness to teach that the public finds their research worth supporting.

But the university is not just a source of scholarship and vocational training. It is also where students undergo an extended process of intellectual, cultural, and moral formation, both within and around the classroom. Students not only acquire various bodies of practical skills and factual knowledge that will influence how much money they can make, they also pass through a gauntlet of great ideas and social encounters that play an important role in shaping the lives they will lead.

That many academics would admit to having no such formative role is no proof that they do not have it, but only that they are probably forming students badly. Students’ general unwillingness to have their lives shaped by what they read and are taught is just another indication of the same. This formative role of the university rarely comes up in discussion of the various “crises” in higher education, not least because that discussion often centers on the question of whether the cost of a college education is justified by what it contributes to students’ future earnings. Yet the formative component of higher education is arguably the subject that needs the most attention.

The history of American universities’ attempts to work out the relationships between scholarship, professional education, and personal formation is the subject of Louis Menand’s latest book, and the story it tells is not a comforting one. In many respects, the modern university is a cultural dinosaur, its overall design and disciplinary divisions are the products of centuries-old ways of thinking. Yet many things we take to be essential to the very idea of a university—for example, that almost everyone from the middle classes upward goes to college, that a university education should be a requirement for entry into law or medical school, and that professors ought to produce significant scholarly research in addition to teaching—are actually rather recent additions to it. Of course, many of these changes have been salutary, as is the fact that the professoriate’s reflexively conservative view of the university helps to sustain traditional disciplines that would likely have little, if any, place in a school built along strictly contemporary standards. (The for-profit University of Phoenix offers a B.A. in English, but that seems to be it for the humanities.) But with few exceptions, lost in this shuffle is any real concern for the role of higher education in turning students into mature adults and influencing what sorts of citizens they will become.

The most interesting section of Menand’s book focuses on the exceptions to this rule, in particular the institution and reform of “general education” curricula at Harvard and Columbia in the decades following World War I. While the requirement that college students receive some sort of broad exposure to disciplines outside their majors is commonly considered the paragon of a commitment to “learning for its own sake,” Menand explains that such programs were initially conceived with decidedly practical rationales: to prepare students for their encounter with the contemporary world, provide them with a common culture that would help them transcend their divergent backgrounds, combat relativism and socialism, and generally prepare young minds for a thoughtful transition into the responsibilities of adulthood. As universities became ever more dedicated to churning out scholarship and credentialing future professionals, liberal education was to comprise what Menand calls the “public face” of college life.

Yet as Menand explains, an air of paradox has always pervaded this arrangement. No matter how well a liberal education serves as a means of personal formation, humanists’ common conception of their own subjects as fundamentally impractical means that such instrumentalist rationales for liberal learning can seem at odds with the very sort of education they’re meant to support. As a consequence, when the liberal arts are called to justify their existence before an obsessively consumerist culture and growth-obsessed political establishment, their defenders often have little to say.

But why should this be so? Menand suggests a few reasons why humanists should reject this self-undermining aversion to practicality, but the real difficulty seems to lie in a fundamental confusion as to what being “practical” means. When, for example, Aristotle argues that certain sorts of knowledge are ends in themselves, he clearly does not mean that a philosophical education is entirely irrelevant to how one lives one’s life. The idea is that theoretical wisdom should not be thought of as a means to wealth, power, or pleasure, not that it has no point at all. In the same way, refusing to justify liberal education in narrowly utilitarian terms should not mean acting as if it doesn’t have a purpose or regarding the cultivation of the intellect as something other than an essential component in a virtuous life.

No matter its other flaws, Martha Nussbaum’s defense of humanistic education in Not For Profit: Why Democracy Needs the Humanities suffers from no such tendency to conflate practical and merely instrumental worth. We have, she argues, abandoned our concern for the liberal arts in favor of a blinkered focus on education’s ability to foster economic growth, and the consequences of this are a threat to civil society and political life alike. Students need philosophy so that they can detect bad arguments, develop good ones, and appropriately challenge those who claim moral and political authority. Along with an understanding of basic economic principles and the elements of political theory, they need an honest, uncompromising grasp of history so they can appreciate where they’ve come from and thereby understand how best to move forward. The study of literature helps to cultivate careful reading and good writing, which together with the other arts can help shape the imagination, deepen the emotions, and encourage interpersonal and cross-cultural compassion and understanding. And all of these elements of a liberal education are no less important at the university level than for students in earlier grades. Indeed, given the catastrophic failings of primary and secondary schools to provide children with a broad and intellectually rigorous liberal education, doing this well in college is more important than ever.

But the barriers to such reforms stand higher than Menand and Nussbaum recognize. What makes it so hard to articulate a publicly compelling rationale for liberal learning is not just the tendency of scholars to conceive of their work as “useless,” or of the public at large—and politicians in particular—to measure the value of an education in its contribution to GDP. In addition to all this, the widespread allergy among intellectual and political elites to public discourse about things like the good life and the virtues of citizenship makes it extremely difficult for arguments like Nussbaum’s to get a real hearing.

Unlike Menand’s frustratingly non-prescriptive approach, Nussbaum’s book offers a refreshing break from this tendency, and the terms it sets out are ones that many scholars, politicians, and university administrators might happily endorse in certain contexts. But as a guide to public education policy or the design of an academic curriculum at a leading university? Here the worst tendencies of “value-neutral” liberal society kick in, as any talk of educating for virtue or responsible citizenship is likely to be labeled a call for indoctrination or the imposition of values. (It goes without saying that many so-called conservatives are among the worst offenders here.) Yet if Nussbaum is right about the importance of education to democracy, this very reaction kicks out the slats that a democratic society is supposed to stand on, by rendering the public too stupid and complacent to govern itself.

Our best hope for an exception to this self-defeating stance may lie in those universities so constituted as to stand at some distance from the assumptions of liberal society, especially schools with an explicitly, or at least traditionally, religious orientation. (Nussbaum praises the example of America’s Catholic colleges when she advocates a requirement of two semesters of philosophy for all university students.) At my own institution, the project of redesigning our extensive undergraduate core curriculum began by addressing the question of what the core is for, the answer being that the four-year sequence is intended not just to introduce students to a range of topics and scholarly disciplines but also to form them in the virtues and prepare them for a life well-lived—a goal that Nussbaum would certainly endorse, but not one that is likely to get much traction at her own University of Chicago. Nussbaum remarks at one point that the situation of higher education in America is made more hopeful by the fact that our universities rely far less on government funding than do those in Britain and the Eurozone (would that she had continued this line of thought further!), but as we have seen the disease she describes is not just the product of mistaken funding priorities. Our public confusion about the nature and purpose of an education seems unlikely to go away any time soon. It may be that the best we can do is to hole up in those places where glimmers of light can still be found, working as best we can to uphold the tradition and pass it on to posterity and waiting, as Alasdair MacIntyre has suggested, not for Godot but rather for the appropriate sort of Saint Benedict.

John Schwenkler is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at Mount St. Mary’s University.

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