On Some Common Rationales for Liberal Education (and why they aren’t very good)
By Daniel A. Kaufman
With the exception, perhaps, of those who teach at our most elite universities and liberal arts colleges, it should be apparent to everyone in the higher education business that the humanities and liberal arts are in trouble. Deteriorating numbers and declining esteem tell the story of subjects that are increasingly perceived as being largely useless to a person’s life and of essentially gratuitous value.
And yet, one also could make the case that the contemporary university – at least in its role as an undergraduate institution – exists largely for the sake of liberal education, for at the heart of every bachelor’s degree is a general education curriculum packed with liberal arts and humanities courses. Rather than simply train students to be accountants, nurses, engineers, and business managers, we also require that they take not a small number of courses in philosophy, history, English literature, and the like. Indeed, this general education comprises two years-worth of a typical four-year baccalaureate degree.
We find ourselves, then, in an interesting situation. The humanities and liberal arts are perceived as being so useless that hardly anyone chooses to major in them, but they are also deemed to be so essential that we will not send anyone out into the professions, without studying them.
The reason for this is that we’ve arrived at a point in our collective pedagogical consciousness, where the only reasons that we can think of for studying the humanities and liberal arts are essentially foundational in nature. Unfortunately, as I will explain, these reasons are not very good. Indeed, they are mostly terrible. More unfortunate still is the fact that I don’t think there are any better ones – at least, not given the kinds of reasons that we are inclined to accept, today. The value of an education in arts and letters is essentially gratuitous, and we have become the sort of people for whom a gratuitous value is, for the most part, no value at all.
I actually think that this last point is very important and gets at some of the worst features of our civilization, at least in its current stage of development, but it will have to be left to another time. My aim, here, is to describe the rationales that we commonly give for requiring that every receiver of a B.A. or B.S. have a liberal education, via the general education curriculum, and to show why they aren’t very good reasons at all.
The Argument from Professional Competence and Virtue
It is widely believed – or at least, it is widely stated – that in order to be a good accountant, nurse, engineer, business manager, etc., one must have, beyond the obvious sorts of professional competencies, two characteristics, which it is alleged a liberal education helps to provide: the first being the capacity for “critical thinking,” which is hazily defined as the possession of a certain kind of practical rationality, and the second being “ethics,” which is even more hazily defined, but which typically is intended to mean that the professional in question is not inclined to cheat or otherwise mistreat those people whom he employs as labor or whom he serves.
What we are being asked to believe, then, is that a liberal education produces sharp, morally decent professionals, an idea, to be fair, that is not merely some invention of contemporary advocates of higher education, but is one that has some real history behind it. Notably, John Stuart Mill, in an 1867 inauguration speech, given prior to his becoming Lord Rector of the University of St. Andrews, said the following:
Whether those whose specialty they are…will make a wise and conscientious use of them or the reverse depends less on the manner in which they are taught their profession than upon what sort of minds they bring to it—what kind of intelligence and of conscience the general system of education has developed in them. (1)
But is there any reason to think that this claim regarding liberal education and competent, ethical professionals is true? I doubt it. In fact, I would maintain that there are a number of very strong reasons for thinking that it is false. One is that practical reason and moral virtue are not products of book and classroom learning or, for that matter, of the possession of knowledge of any kind, and to think that they are is to fundamentally misunderstand both. Another is that there simply is no case to be made, whether empirical or a priori, for the idea that the sort of knowledge provided by a liberal education produces more professionally prudent or ethical people.
Excellence in practical reasoning is a species of wisdom, not knowledge, and wisdom is both acquired and exercised in practice, not in the receipt or dissemination of information. Put another way, you get better at making choices and decisions, by making choices and decisions, not by being taught logic or by being given a list of formal and informal fallacies, and the reason is that the ability to deliberate is a kind of knowing-how, rather than knowing-that. (2) The canons of practical reasoning describe sound deliberation, they do not engender it, so the usefulness of such rules in producing good deliberators – and thus of what can be taught in a classroom – is minimal and indirect. Of course, the ability to make good professional choices depends upon the possession of some “knowledge-that,” but only of the sort that one must have to engage in the profession in the first place; i.e. one can’t make good nursing or engineering choices, without knowing a great deal about medicine and engineering.
Much the same point applies to the development of moral virtue: we must remember that ‘ethics’ comes from the Greek word ‘ethikos’, which means, roughly, “arising from habit.” Like excellence in deliberation, from which it partly derives, moral virtue is acquired in practice and not by way of possessing some body of information. It is true that many – perhaps most – people think that being morally decent in one’s professional and other affairs is a matter of a kind of instruction-following, but this is only because they misunderstand the nature and purpose of moral canons like the Mosaic Law or the moral rules that one derives from secular moral philosophies. Like the canons of practical reasoning, moral rules only describe moral behavior, they don’t create it, which means that being versed in them – even memorizing them to the last letter – will never be sufficient for being a decent person. This is true, not simply because of the inherent nature of canons and rules or because what counts as a good decision depends so heavily on the cirumstances, but because being morally decent in one’s affairs is not a matter of knowledge, but of inclination — of right sentiment — and this is only developed as a matter of habit. We’ve known this since antiquity — specifically, since Aristotle rejected the Socratic assertion in the Protagoras that to know the good is to be good (and conversely that to be bad is the result of some deficiency in knowledge) — but nonetheless, we continue to think that and act as if being good is the result of rule-following and is something, therefore, that is teachable in a classroom setting.
All of this speaks to the general question of whether anything that is teachable in a university classroom could produce competent and ethical professionals, and I have maintained that there is either nothing or at best, very little, that we do that could have such an effect, but let’s remember that the suggestion, currently under consideration, is the bolder, more specific one that receiving a general education – one consisting of a smorgasbord of humanities and liberal arts courses – is both necessary and sufficient for the production of qualified, decent professionals. Now, this strikes me as being demonstrably false, so much so, in fact, that it borders on the incredible that anyone would suggest it.
Does anyone really believe that if our businessmen would just read more Kant and Mill, we would have fewer corporate scandals and crimes? Or that if our politicians just read more Greek and modern political philosophy, we would have better governance? It’s not just that these suggestions sound absurd. We have every reason to doubt their validity. For one thing, the educated, cultured villain is a longstanding trope, which is, as all such tropes are, based in reality — think of the Marquis de Sade and of the aristocratic perverts and sex criminals that populate his 120 Days of Sodom; of Leopold and Loeb and the characters in Alfred Hitchcock’s Rope, who were based on the Chicago genius-killers; or of Theodore Bundy and the fictional Hannibal Lecter, the latter of who is a kind of amalgam of upper-class, educated serial killers — and for another, consider the fact that the sorts of businessmen and politicians, whose professional indecency has given rise to our concerns about professional ethics, are the most likely to have had precisely the sort of education that is being proffered as an antidote for professional malfeasance. Ken Lay, was educated at the University of Missouri and the University of Houston. Michael Milken received degrees from UC Berkeley and the Wharton School of Business. Richard Nixon was a graduate of Whittier College and Duke Law School.
The Argument from Civic Virtue
Aside from the argument from professional competence and virtue, the case most often made for the necessity of liberal general education is that it is fundamental to citizenship in a participatory democracy; that if we want people to play a productive part in their civil society and government, they must be liberally educated. As with the argument from professional competence and virtue, a version of this argument also can be found in Mill’s inaugural address at the University of St. Andrews:
It is thus too that minds are formed capable of guiding and improving public opinion on the greater concerns of practical life. Government and civil society are the most complicated of all subjects accessible to the human mind; and he would deal competently with them as a thinker, and not as a blind follower of a party, requires not only a general knowledge of the leading facts of life, both moral and material, but an understanding exercised and disciplined in the principles and rules of sound thinking up to a point which neither the experience of life nor any one science or branch of knowledge affords.
Specifically, the argument is supposed to go something like this. People in a society like ours are free, rational actors, whose decisions determine who will govern them and what form that governance will take (i.e. what laws and institutions they will be governed by), as well as what products and services private industry will provide and they will purchase. It is crucial, then (so the argument goes), that we have sufficient critical thinking skills and general education to participate well — that is, to make good economic and financial choices, select competent, ethical political representatives, and support good legislation and civic and political institutions. The argument, in short, takes as its backdrop, all of the assumptions and principles that characterize modern, liberal political and economic thought, as manifested in the work of classic political and economic theorists like John Locke, Adam Smith, and the signers of the American Constitution.
The first criticisms I will offer are essentially the same as my criticisms of the argument from professional competence and virtue: The desired social characteristics to which the argument from civic virtue refers are varieties of excellence in deliberation and moral virtue, and as we’ve already demonstrated, these are not traits that are acquired by way of book and classroom learning. Some may want to suggest that the civic and political virtue required by participatory democracy is a distinct species of virtue from the kinds of moral virtue that are desirable in the personal and professional spheres of life, but here I must agree with T.S. Eliot, who maintained that any such conception of civic or political virtue is at best obscure and at worst, hopelessly problematic. Would we call a person a good citizen, who competently and actively supported his society, even if the society and its aims were wicked in nature? Would we call a person a good citizen, who competently and actively supported an ethical society, if he was wicked in his own personal affairs? As Eliot says of the citizen in a participatory democracy:
He must be adapted to it, certainly: for without being adapted to it, he cannot play a part in it… But he must not be completely adapted to it in the form in which he finds it around him; for that would train a generation to be completely incapable of any change or improvement. (3)
The good citizen, then, must act in support of his society when it is good, but must work against it, when it is bad. Furthermore, he must be good in his private and professional affairs, for it would be absurd to describe a person who was malicious and vicious in his private life as a good citizen, regardless of his public behavior. And so it seems that there really is no useful distinction to be made between the good person and the good citizen, which is why I tend to agree with Eliot that the good citizen is “simply the good man manifesting his goodness in the social context,” and that consequently, the manner in which a good citizen is produced is no different from the manner in which goodness is developed, at the personal and professional levels of our being.
There are also a number of problems that are distinctive to the civic virtue argument, and I want to discuss a few of the worst of them here, because they speak directly to the way in which our current system of higher education depends upon a significant degree of self-deception, with respect to our identities as individuals and as a society.
With respect to the individual, the idea that we engage both the economy and the polity as “rational actors,” who make decisions on the basis of sober and competent evaluations of cost/benefit analyses and other rational principles, has been rendered so problematic by nineteenth and twentieth century thought that it is hard to believe that anyone other than the rankest idealogue is still advancing it. Part of the problem is that the classical liberal picture of the rational actor depends, essentially, on the essentially Cartesian idea that one’s thoughts — and thus, one’s reasons, for belief and for action — are transparent to oneself; that we actually know, with a high degree of certainty, what our reasons are. Yet it is difficult to credit this idea, in light of the critiques of Friedrich Nietzsche, Karl Marx, Sigmund Freud, and others, all of whom have argued that our reasons for believing what we do and acting in the way we do, are tangled, conflicted, largely non-rational, often vicious, even animalistic, and regardless, are largely obscure to us, without extraordinary and extended investigation. That is, the manifest reasons for why we believe and act as we do are not the real reasons, and the real reasons are largely hidden from us, and involve motivations and passions that are anything but those of the disinterested rational actor, the image of which has fueled the Descartes, Kants, Lockes, Smiths, and Rawlses of the world. Add to this the most powerful and enduring psychological paradigm of the last century — behaviorism — according to which individuals are not even actors at all (let alone rational ones), but rather, complex stimulus/response mechanisms, whose behavior is determined by nothing more than our native genetic endowment and our experience of sensory stimulation, and the human image presupposed by the civic virtue argument comes across as fantasy.
It would be easy to dismiss such considerations as mere theorizing, except for the fact that the world in which we live largely bears them out. Put another way, both our economic and political institutions now conceive of and engage the individual in precisely the way that has been suggested by the critics of the classical liberal human image, and it is a conception that has granted businesses and politicians immeasurable wealth and power. Our businesses do not serve their customers by engaging their clear, rational conception of what they want and need and then serving it; they aggressively create desire for whatever it is that they want to sell. (A fascinating example of this is the marketing campaign designed by Edward Bernays – the first to employ the principles of crowd psychology and Freudian psychoanalysis in business –which convinced women to take up smoking and the society at large to accept women smoking, something for which, at the time, there was near universal disapproval.) Similarly, politicians do not follow the rationally conceived and deliberated upon desires and needs of the public. Rather, they aggressively manage public opinion, in order to, as Walter Lippmann described it, “manufacture consent” for the policies that they and the experts they employ have decided are best. (4) As Bernays put it, in his revealing and devastatingly honest manifesto on social and civic control, Propaganda: “If we understand the mechanism and motives of the group mind, is it not possible to control and regiment the masses according to our will without their knowing about it? The recent practice of propaganda has shown that it is possible…” (4)
The truth is that we do not live in a participatory democracy, based on classical liberal principles, and have not since the onset of the industrial age. Rather, we live in a technocracy, as part of a mass public that is managed – not governed or served – by cadres of highly sophisticated psychologists, social scientists, legislators and administrators, whose chief managerial instruments are vast bureaucracies, large-scale business concerns, and multi-modal media enterprises, which operate by way of a combination of psychoanalytical and behaviorist principles, under a façade of classical liberal institutions and traditional business enterprises, the public’s belief in which is engendered and maintained by mass public education, mass higher education, and by a shallow, but effective patriotism. Indeed, it is not an exaggeration to say that the worlds of Aldous Huxley and B.F. Skinner have been largely realized in the modern, industrialized West, and that the lives that we lead as consumers and citizens are much more along the lines described by Lipmann and Bernays than those described by John Locke, Thomas Jefferson, or James Madison. The ultimate problem with the argument from civic virtue, then, is that there simply are no citizens of the sort that it imagines, for whom the proffered liberal education would do any good.
The model of liberal education that is being touted as essential for good citizenship belongs to an earlier era; to a pre-industrial society, in which the franchise was limited to a “natural aristocracy” of landowners, the omnipresent bureaucracy and civil service that we currently have did not exist, the world of commerce consisted primarily of small business operations, with minimal and unsophisticated marketing and advertising, and in which, consequently, the idea of self-determination and self-rule was a far more substantive and credible one. It was reasonable, then, to suggest that this natural aristocracy, which was responsible not just for governing, but for determining the general character of the larger culture, required a common cultural background and formal education, and it should be noted, their liberal education was far more substantial and rigorous than ours, including heavy instruction in Greek and Latin language and literature.
It is simply not possible to make a similar case for the relevance of this sort of education today, living, as we do, in an industrial, mass society, where governance is overwhelmingly effected by career bureaucrats and civil servants and by professional politicians, and where the popular culture is determined by enormous corporate media conglomerates, concentrated in New York and Los Angeles. Political participation, today, even at the local levels, is largely superficial, consisting of little more than infrequent voting and perhaps, for a tiny number of people, some limited political activism, and yet we are supposed to believe that this barely-invested, thinly conceived citizenry requires an education in Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Descartes, Weber, and the like, lest their participation — such as it is — suffer. The suggestion is beyond incredible; it is preposterous.
Now, one of my colleagues has made an interesting suggestion: if a liberal education cannot support the individual and the citizen in his or her engagement with the economy and the state, because of the largely technocratic nature of our society and the diminished agency that goes along with it, perhaps it might play a restorative role, instead; one in which its task is to return a greater degree of autonomy to the individual and the citizen, in opposition to the current (technocratic) society. The, proposal, in short, is that liberal education should be reconceived as essentially countercultural.
Let me say a thing or two on behalf of the idea and on what would have to be the case, in order for it to be effective. For a liberal education to serve a countercultural role in today’s postindustrial world, it would require a radically different curriculum; one that emphasized late 19th century and 20th century arts and letters and particularly, those that serve demystifying, debunking, and unmasking functions: works by the likes of Nietzsche, Freud, Marx, the later Wittgenstein, Foucault, Huxley, Orwell, etc. Why do I say this? The traditional Western canon is essentially humanistic. It consists of literature and arts that describe and celebrate a deeply and richly rendered human being and which are devoted to identifying his place in a world that is at least ideally designed for him. The world we live in today is not designed for such a human being and our current state — that diminished state of individual social, economic, and political agency that we have been discussing here — can only be described as post-human. We have a kind of world and are a kind of human being, then, about which the the Western canon has little to say. But beyond this simple and obvious point, let me suggest two reasons why a traditional liberal education is inappropriate, if one’s ends are essentially countercultural in nature:
(1) If a countercultural liberal education is essentially restorative in nature — that is, if its purpose is to return agency to the individual and the citizen; i.e. to revive the classical liberal conception of personhood — then its main task must be to undo the social, economic, and political control under which we’ve fallen; to counter the work of the Lipmanns, Bernayses, Skinners, and others who have helped to construct the systems of social management that currently obtain and which have led us to our current post-human state. This cannot be accomplished by pointing to what personhood used to mean — to what we used to be —but only by exposing the mechanisms of mystification and control that have determined what personhood currently means and what we currently are, so that they can be countered and their effects, perhaps, broken.
(2) To continue teaching the traditional Western canon — and to allow it to be co-opted, as it currently is, into the general education curriculum — is to allow the illusion to be maintained that our society is, in fact, a classical liberal, participatory democracy and free market and that in our engagement with it, we really are free, rational agents. In short, it is to facilitate the current façade and thereby support the very technocracy against which we are supposed to be fighting.
The virtues of a countercultural rationale for liberal education notwithstanding, I must say that I am quite dubious about its prospects, for two reasons. First, the humanities and liberal arts are tolerated in the current university at all – even in their diminished ‘Gen-Ed’ state – only because they have willingly accepted the role of facilitating the façade of a living participatory democracy and free market. This has been true since the university placed professional education at the heart of its mission, so for us to drop the traditional humanities and liberal arts and thereby abandon our façade-supporting role is to give every reason for the university to get rid of liberal education once and for all (and especially in fiscally tight times like those we are experiencing today). Second, our current universities and colleges are simply too intimately involved with government and private industry to ever permit the liberal arts to play the sort of sustained, effective, countercultural role that we have been considering.
The Personal Growth and Development Argument
I do not have much to say about this argument, mostly because it is never made in the absence of the previous two, but is treated, for the most part, as a kind of “icing on the cake.” Even if everyone were to agree that a liberal education is an integral part of a personally satisfying, fulfilled live, it is difficult to imagine anyone making the case that we ought to sustain the vast –and vastly expensive – system of higher education that we currently have, in order to fulfill it.
Of course, everyone does not agree that a liberal education is essential to a personally satisfying, fulfilled life, and when this point is made in the stronger form, currently under consideration, namely that an education in liberal arts is necessary for a personally satisfying, fulfilled life, it ceases to be credible at all. Philosophers might like to think that they can distinguish “higher” from “lower” pleasures – in Utilitarianism, Mill famously maintains that the pleasures of the intellect and higher sentiments are higher than pleasures of mere sensation and that human happiness only is possible through the former and never through the latter – but the arguments are inevitably question-begging or circular, and do little more than advance the philosopher’s own tastes. (5) This is precisely what we are doing, when we make the Personal Growth and Development argument on behalf of universal liberal education, for the truth of the matter is that there are as many possibly satisfying, fulfilling forms of life as there are people and indefinitely many types of endeavors, entertainments, and pleasures that might serve them. Certainly some of these satisfying, fulfilling forms of life are served by experience of the classics of Western art, literature, philosophy, social science, and the like, but the idea that all or even most of them are so served, is nothing more than self-serving.
I do not want to leave anyone with the impression that I am against liberal education or that I think ill of the classics of art, literature, philosophy, and social science that make up the liberal arts curriculum in contemporary American universities. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Indeed, it is partly out of my love for this tradition and course of study that I feel compelled to speak out as strongly as I have. In my view, the integration of this curriculum into a system of universal, mass education has done it enormous harm. By administering it at the level of general education, which is typically provided by way of distribution requirements, it has been fragmented and watered down to the point that it is largely ineffective, and by forcing it into ridiculous utilitarian roles, like those described by the “Professional Competence and Virtue” and “Civic Virtue” arguments, it has been distorted into such a caricature, that it is barely recognizable. Moreover, our students – not to mention our colleagues in the other disciplines – see these arguments for the cynical shams they are, and this causes them to become cynical about the Western tradition of arts and letters, the result of which is that it we become a kind of pitiful welfare case on campus , and makes it less, rather than more likely that our students will ever want to engage this tradition again, once they have left the campus.
The truth, I am afraid, is that the value in studying these subjects is largely gratuitous, and we have the misfortune of living in an age, in which gratuitous values are almost completely unappreciated, with the exception of the most rudimentary varieties of pleasure-seeking. Aristotle understood quite clearly that the ultimate human good consisted in the life of leisure and in the contemplation that such a life made possible. (6) This is not an understanding that pervades the American consciousness today, and it is one that will take a lot of work – and a lot of change – to engender, if it is even possible at all.
- John Stuart Mill, Inaugural Address at the University of St. Andrews (1867).
- Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind (1949).
- T.S. Eliot, “The Ends of Education” (1950), reprinted in To Criticize the Critic and Other Writings (Lincoln, NE: University of Nebraska Press, 1965).
- Edward Bernays, Propaganda (1928).
- John Stuart Mill, Utilitarianism (1863).
- Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics (350 BC).