SEATTLE – “Higher education is broken,” wrote historian Niall Ferguson in a November 8, 2021, Bloomberg commentary. To help fix it, he has helped to create the University of Austin, a new institution that is supposed to be free of the growing leftist intolerance found at too many universities nowadays. According to Ferguson, that intolerance is evident not only among faculties, but, more ominously, among administrators at elite universities such as MIT and Harvard. As politically centrist faculty members at any major public university can attest, the situation appears no better there, either.
The heart of the problem identified by critics such as Ferguson is that universities have been abandoning the ideal of what used to be called a “liberal education.” It was once accepted that a good education included more than just technical subjects. An appreciation for history, literature, and the arts was considered essential to prepare the young for the professional and other roles they aspired to fill. This was also important in secondary and even primary schools as well, where students should be exposed to a simplified form of the same program as part of creating informed and democratic citizens.
The study of foundational classics was central, because they formed the basis of Western civilization. The point was not to teach any fixed dogma, but to introduce students to essential debates and insights about the complexities of human experience. A liberal education would also show students where we came from, what there was in our traditions that should be valued and retained, and what needed to be improved.
Critical thinking was to be developed in this way – or, at least, that was the ideal. But openness to debate and complexity has never been fully safe from attack, so defending liberalism (in the term’s broader sense) was always necessary. Today, the critics say, the battle is being lost, owing to a left onslaught with dire implications. Without institutions of higher education fulfilling their proper role, there will be nothing left to combat escalating attacks from the far right.
Retired General Paul Eaton made this point in a recent interview and a commentary about the danger of the 2024 presidential election ending in another attempted coup. “The fact that we were caught completely unprepared – militarily, and from a policing function – on January 6, is incomprehensible to me,” he says. “Civilian control of the military is sacrosanct in the US and that is a position we need to reinforce.” Eaton fears that, next time, parts of the military could join an effort to overthrow the election:
“I had a conversation with somebody about my age, and we were talking about civics lessons, liberal arts education, and the development of the philosophical underpinnings of the US Constitution. And I believe that bears a re-teach to make sure that each and every 18-year-old American truly understands the Constitution of the United States.”
Where will we find instructors who can teach that lesson, if not in colleges and universities that do more than impart technical knowledge and job training? The decline of what Eaton calls a “liberal arts education” certainly includes American, political, and constitutional history. And as his warnings make clear, the danger we face today is not just about abstruse arguments at elite schools.
The Center Cannot Hold
Three books published in 2021 (by the same elite university press) address this issue, each in its own way. All argue that saving the best of higher education’s traditions is crucial, not just to preserve elite universities but also to cure the US, the United Kingdom, and other democracies of their terrible divisions and anti-democratic drift. But before turning to their recommendations, we need to consider the connection between what may seem like a side issue concerning only elite institutions, on the one hand, and the reality of the problems we face in the struggle to preserve our democracy, on the other.Subscribe to Project Syndicate
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Surveys by the Pew Research Center and Gallup suggest that a majority of US Republicans consider most universities and colleges to be overpriced, mostly useless, and overrun by leftist, godless professors who teach irrelevant courses meant only to spread nefarious Marxist ideology. A small minority of Democrats agree, and independents are somewhere in between.
To be sure, moderate conservatives do not deny that university-based scientific, medical, and perhaps even some social scientific research has transformed the modern world. The global prominence of America’s major universities is justified. Moreover, the expansion of higher education in the US, mostly through investment in public universities, has been one of the keys to enriching the country, especially since World War II. But now there are problems.
Consider the comparative evidence about the importance of a liberal education in different countries. Specialists studying former communist countries in Eastern Europe have wondered why so many of their elites have tended to remain uninterested in preserving the democracy that was gained after 1989. According to Princeton University political scientist Grigore Pop-Eleches, a narrow education concentrating too exclusively on science and technology left out open discussion of other aspects of society. History and politics had long been taught as fixed dogma and were no longer taken seriously.
Even when, after 1989, serious open discourse became possible, the young mostly tuned out and remained less involved. Now, similar findings have been revealed in the US: students with some social science education tend to be more politically active than those with the kind of purely technical training that is now being championed.
To address the general problem, it is useful to examine an academic controversy that has now taken center stage in the country’s political battles: How to interpret America’s history of racial relations and slavery. That debate weighed heavily in the recent Virginia gubernatorial election, where Republicans gained an unexpected victory.
How we view the past is much more than just a matter of the curriculum. Our entire political and social lives are affected by it. In Russia and China today, the strengthening of authoritarian control has depended on a thorough rewriting of history to cover up the brutal reality of the past. In the US, the vicious state-sanctioned and extralegal racism of the past has been replaced by a way of looking at history that is geared toward rejecting policies to mitigate the damage caused by past policies and practices.
Should any privileges or disabilities still be attached to those old, formerly pejorative (or in some cases flattering) classifications based on skin color? Biologists and social scientists agree that old racial categories have no significance beyond how they were socially and politically imagined. But that still is not what most people think. On both the right and the left, many believe that ancestry based on skin color should count in how individuals are treated.
On the left, the interpretation of past prejudice is supposed to legitimize policies that compensate those whose ancestors were wronged because of old skin-based stereotypes, particularly because such historical inequality persists. It thus follows that those who consider themselves white should recognize that past injustices require restitution and social transformation.
White supremacy is at the heart of what America has always been, the argument goes. Slavery and genocide against indigenous people were followed by Jim Crow and now continuing inequality. The problem cannot be remedied unless we recognize that all those stories about democracy, equal rights, and social progress have been lies.
Those who are more conservative but not part of the extreme right do not necessarily deny that skin color plays a role in how individuals are treated, or that the abduction, trafficking, and enslavement of Africans was wrong. But they subscribe to a more forgiving interpretation of the past.
They point out that there have been great social improvements over time, and that there has always been much more to America than slavery and racism. Democracy, the rule of law, and the preservation of individual rights have been the more important parts of the American tradition, and to deny this is to throw out the legitimate political foundation of the nation. Conservatives see no justification for using traditional racial categories to make those who think of themselves as “white” feel ashamed, or for then going on to restructure or overturn society on that basis.
The New York Times Magazine’s highly publicized The 1619 Project is at the heart of the division over how to teach the history of race relations in American schools. If 1619, or the “critical race theory” that inspired it, were merely academic corrections to neglected parts of history, it would not be such a big deal. What is really is how the very nature of American society is to be interpreted and how its history is to be conveyed.
The New Counter-Enlightenment
This is where higher education comes back into play. The thinking behind critical race theory and 1619 originated in top universities and among intellectuals trained by them. 1619 largely dismisses the influence of the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European Enlightenment on the creation of the new American nation and its subsequent efforts to improve humanity’s condition over time.
But if America and the entire Enlightenment were no more than white hypocrisy to cover up racist imperialism, including the enslavement of Africans and the conquest of other cultures all over the world, what hope is there for us? While not entirely wrong about some of that hypocrisy, such an interpretation leaves out the tremendously positive role the Enlightenment ultimately played in freeing much of humanity from rigid dogma and inequality. Throwing it out only leaves us open to the far right’s rejection of reason in the name of such dogma. If all that exists is a zero-sum struggle between hostile tribes for control of the state, the left will lose and so will American democracy.
The right’s attack on the Enlightenment tradition, most of all among religious fundamentalists, is different. It rejects biological evolution, geology, and even parts of modern medicine. Those topics of study are considered anti-biblical, as is open inquiry into the history of how biblical interpretation has changed throughout history as political ideologies have shifted.
The Enlightenment began in the seventeenth century not just with a scientific revolution but also with a serious questioning of traditional theology. From Spinoza’s scandalous demonstration that the Bible was written by humans, to the French and Scottish Enlightenments – which provided the intellectual pillars of the new American republic and the French Revolution – the goal was to free humanity from the religious obscurantism that had so long sustained inequality and repression.
The inclination to reject enlightened skepticism and freedom of thought has always been present in the US, but it was mostly a marginal phenomenon (except in the South). Now, it has emerged with renewed force and political influence, ultimately posing a threat to individual rights.
That is why liberal education is so important. Beyond any specific curricular argument in universities or secondary and primary schools, a much bigger question is at stake: To what extent do the growing divisions in American politics and life reflect the eclipse of the liberal Enlightenment tradition that was once the bedrock of the nation’s identity, except in the slaveholding South?
George Washington’s 1789 Thanksgiving Proclamation called on Americans “to promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue…” Washington was obviously a believing Christian, but he never specified what he meant by “true religion,” because he knew that officially establishing or promoting any single version of faith had led to terrible wars in Europe and would impinge on others’ freedom of thought and conscience. Thomas Jefferson, who was not much of a believer in divine providence, insisted on the same principles of tolerance and government abstention from support for any version of religion.
The US has moved a long way from that original spirit of Enlightened liberalism now that the religious right has come to dominate parts of its government, including some of the highest courts, and does not hesitate to impose its brand of intolerant dogma on everyone else. And the far left’s dismissal of the liberal Enlightenment tradition as a fig leaf for racism has made resistance more difficult. The public is forced to pick sides between one form of intolerance and another.
For decades, too many humanities professors have rejected or relativized the Enlightenment, rather than defending it. They have suggested that science is just another hegemonic way of thinking and exercising power – one that is of no greater value than any other way of understanding the world. The implication is that the Western liberal tradition has no intrinsic merit. That is what administrators at major universities are communicating when they enjoin their faculty in all fields to “decolonize” the curriculum.
To be clear, no top academics today defend the brutality of Western colonialism, much less slavery. What “decolonization” really means is that we should abandon those parts of liberal education that value the Western tradition, and that the humanities should be replaced by a supposedly progressive dogma that is intolerant of opposition.
Though there has always been some justification for affirmative action to correct past prejudices, abandoning the Enlightenment, rather than drawing on it, to redress those wrongs is a dead end. The more the anti-Enlightenment left has succeeded in imposing its dogma in higher education and lower grades, the stronger the anti-Enlightenment right, and its project of religious intolerance enforced by autocratic rule, has become. That is why what were once rarified arguments in elite universities have grown to immensely greater proportions.
Shots of the Canon
What, then, do the three recent Princeton University Press books propose to do to save liberal education?
In Rescuing Socrates, Roosevelt Montás, a senior lecturer at Columbia University’s Center for American Studies, offers a very personal autobiography combined with a discussion of not just Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, but quite a few other canonical figures, including Saint Augustine, Sigmund Freud, and Mahatma Gandhi. A Dominican immigrant from a poor family, Montás previously headed Columbia’s venerable “Core Curriculum,” which all undergraduates must complete. For decades, the core curriculum has consisted of major works by mostly Western thinkers, though some greater cultural diversity has been added. Montás also recruits low-income minority students to Columbia and teaches high-school kids from disadvantaged backgrounds in his Freedom and Citizenship program.
We learn from the book that Montás was a brilliant, curious young man who had the good fortune to find wonderful mentors and build a career at the highest reaches of academia. He wants to spread what he learned more widely by drawing two essential lessons from his experiences.
First, the Western tradition, from the Greeks through Christianity to more modern texts, is of immense practical value. The great works enabled Montás to understand himself better and lead a richer life. They taught him the value of democracy and tolerance. By not eschewing the inner contradictions and problems of Christianity, European democracy, and the ultra-materialism of the modern world, they also made him a better citizen and mentor.
Second, his experience and reading show that it is simply untrue to claim that minorities need to be taught by someone whose identity is identical to theirs. Providing good role models for students who come from a background like his is a good thing, but it is not everything. The most critical factors are the content of what is taught and the skills necessary to impart it. Those who most inspired Montás included not only his own family members but also professors who came from very different milieus.
Montás’s book has appealed to conservative commentators like George Will at the Washington Post, because it attacks the academic left’s belief that ethnic, sexual, or ideological identities trump all else in orienting education and that the Western canon is more harmful than beneficial because it perpetuates inequality and prejudice. But Rescuing Socrates also received a highly positive review in the leftist publication Jacobin. Far from being a right-wing rant, the book issues a passionate demand for balance.
But Montás’s argument has some problems. For example, it is hard to see how his elite education could ever be widely replicated unless a large new corps of teachers could be suitably educated and trained. Nonetheless, he gives us a good place to start.
Another, more serious issue is that Montás is skeptical of materialistic rationality, attacking René Descartes and the emphasis on mechanistic science that emerged from that part of the Enlightenment. This leads to a denunciation of Silicon Valley’s soulless technophilia. But, given that a truly liberal education requires balance, the scientific ethos must be accepted alongside the humanities. In China and Russia today, the scientific and technological half of the Western Enlightenment is embraced while the humanistic side – democracy, toleration for open discourse, and individual rights – is shunned. Making the opposite mistake by demeaning material scientific and technological progress is self-defeating.
Jonathan Marks’s Let’s Be Reasonable is a less personal, even more direct defense of classical liberal education. A political scientist at Ursinus College, Marks writes and blogs for conservative outlets like Commentary, the Weekly Standard, and the Wall Street Journal. His defense of reason is more confrontational than Montás’s, and he relies heavily on a series of stories about abuses perpetrated by leftist academics.
Marks agrees with Allan Bloom’s famous 1987 denunciation of humanities education in The Closing of the American Mind. Too many humanities professors, he believes, have accepted that the texts they teach should be deconstructed to the point that they no longer hold any life lessons for students. Truth becomes irrelevant, because the texts are portrayed as nothing but expressions of ideology. Even those who have not succumbed to this orthodoxy have lost faith in their message.
Thus, Marks concludes that students looking for inspiration from the classics can no longer find it in colleges (unless they manage on their own). This leaves them less able to defend the core values that underpin a moral life and a democratic polity. Even more alarming, students have been abandoning the humanities, which have been steadily losing funding for decades.
Sharing disturbing anecdotes about “wokeism” (formerly known as “political correctness”) may arouse anger among moderates and conservatives; but as Marks himself admits, wokeness isn’t as popular as it seems. The academic departments that support it get a very small percentage of university budgets and tiny numbers of majors. What frightens him is that in each of the cases he cites, fearful administrators have surrendered to activist minorities to avoid causing offense and creating controversy.
Unfortunately, Marks weakens his case by taking as his prime example the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement against Israel. Though much of the support for BDS is either naive or, worse, anti-Semitic, the fact remains that the Israeli-Palestinian problem has a long, tragic history. One can study the complexities and the reasons why no solution is remotely possible without declaring one side perfectly good and the other perfectly evil; moreover, this is hardly one of the main issues in American higher education today.
The worthwhile lesson to draw from Marks’s book is this: Complex issues require careful thought, a balancing of evidence, and a willingness to accept the fact that there are rarely easy, simple answers. The liberal philosophy of John Locke and other Enlightenment thinkers needs to be taught because it forces students to think deeply about the human condition and the principles underpinning the society and constitutional system into which they were born. The same cannot be said for more technical disciplines.
Flavors of Fundamentalism
That brings us to the third book, Gary Saul Morson and Morton Schapiro’s Minds Wide Shut. Morson, a professor of Slavic languages and literature at Northwestern University, and Schapiro, the president of that institution, attack the type of intellectual certitude that rejects complexity and brooks no intellectual opposition.
For example, such rigid thinking long dominated economics (though less so recently) by insisting that markets can fix every problem. The authors particularly dislike the nostrum that humans are so rational that, if left alone, pure self-interest will consistently guide them to the right decisions. Such extreme libertarianism has been so pervasive that we hardly understand how much harm it has done.
But Morson and Schapiro emphasize that imposing government power throughout the economy and eliminating market forces produced even greater catastrophes in the twentieth century. They therefore want students to be introduced to the subtlety of Adam Smith’s writing. Smith not only championed “the invisible hand” of the market but also warned that without a common moral basis for action, nations would inevitably suffer. Pure self-interest is never enough.
The kind of ideological fundamentalism that regards opposition as evil leads to civil war and authoritarianism. Democracy cannot work if opposing sides fail to compromise and respect honest disagreement. Morson and Schapiro also attack intolerant pseudo-science of every kind, because the essence of the scientific enterprise is that any finding might eventually be falsified. Being open to new evidence is vital. If there is a central principle to the Enlightenment, that is it.
As a scholar of Russian literature, Morson proposes that the great Russian classics – the works of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Chekhov, and a few others – offer students a perspective on life’s dilemmas that can inure them against fundamentalist certitude. That may be true; but rather than privileging one literary tradition over another, we should be mindful that there are equally enlightening literary traditions in many cultures.
Though the Western classics must remain part of the humanities, incorporating a more diverse array of sources is now just as important. Why not add The Tale of Genji from the distant past and the Nigerian novelist and playwright Wole Soyinka from the present? What counts is introducing students to a sampling of great literature. That is the best way to teach what humans have in common, and how different cultures have developed distinct ways of coping with the exigencies of life.
Finally, Morson and Schapiro address religious fundamentalism. They respect the Bible and religious faith, but they know it is futile to try to reconcile its text with modern knowledge. Their advice is to tolerate the duality. Practicing Jews, for example, should accept, when worshiping, that the world is 5,782 years old. But they must also recognize as an equally valid secular truth that it is 4.5 billion years old. That is hard to sustain for most people.
Some believers who reject fundamentalism will agree that the Bible’s stories are symbolic metaphors inspired by God, but not literally true, and that interpreting God’s meaning as transcribed by human hands can never be perfectly clear or consistent. Unfortunately, the opposite trend has taken hold in many so-called world religions, including Islam and Hinduism, with many insisting on the literal truth of sacred texts.
A World Adrift
Teaching about complexity and the consequences of fundamentalism must be part of a liberal education, too. But ultimately, there is no perfect, fixed curriculum. I would require every student to read John Stuart Mill, perhaps instead of Plato. He is not just more current but also much more democratic. But, then again, why not also raise Plato’s interesting questions about the tyranny of the majority?
Without a liberal education that provides a sufficient grounding in the humanities and history, young people will have a much harder time orienting themselves in our complicated world. Without an appreciation of what the Enlightenment has given us, they will not know how to defend democracy and human rights.
Today, we are heading in the wrong direction. Without a correction, we face a less democratic, more authoritarian, more anomic world. Universities, particularly the best private and public research institutions, need to be courageous and defend what made them great. It won’t be easy. While the cause is not yet lost, saving democracy will take a lot more than a few well-meaning books read by only a small number of intellectuals who already agree with one another.