Academic life can be insular and claustrophobic, and when I want to escape into a world unlike the one I know too well, I read mainstream journalism about academe.
Gone are the demands of e-mails to settle small administrative issues or to reschedule student conferences, the asbestos abatement in the office next door, the lesson planning, the thrilling moments of seeing students learn. Instead, in journalism about academia, shadowy cabals rule every gesture, and an Orwellian darkness encroaches. Of course, like any enormous incorporation of people with differing goals, academe has its cliques, its pettiness, its paranoia and its very real problems.
Yet journalism has little interest in day-to-day university life or in the complexity of dynamic, systemic problems. Plus, when any aspect of university life appears in the news, a necessary but forgotten asterisk is often absent: colleges and universities can be very different from one another, with seeming trends much more limited than they appear. As an undergraduate, I attended a commuter college with one dorm and one fraternity; as a graduate student, I attended the flagship campus of a Midwestern state university, then an urban campus considered by a surprisingly high number of students as their university of last resort, despite the high quality of education they received. Now I teach at an Ivy League university, with cultural norms both similar to and different from those of my undergraduate and graduate experiences. The most prominent similarity, in my experience, is the expense and challenge of parking.
I recently escaped into the wild fantasy of Jonathan Chait’s essay “Not a Very P.C. Thing to Say,” in which he attempts to diagnose and critique language-use rules among leftists and liberals. His summary, from a follow-up post: “The story describes a set of social norms and protocols within communities of the left that make meaningful disagreement impossible on issues related to race and gender. I decided to reclaim the widely misused term political correctness rather than invent my own.” Much in his essay is wrong, starting with his understanding of political correctness.
Is Political Correctness Real?
Chait writes that he “reclaims” political correctness, but what he reclaims is unclear. He summarizes the history of P.C. thus: “After political correctness burst onto the academic scene in the late ’80s and early ’90s, it went into a long remission. Now it has returned.” Chait’s capsule history isn’t so much an elision as a fiction. There aren’t any straightforward, uncontested histories of political correctness as a term, used inside and outside academe, nor of it going into “remission.” At any given moment, it has seemed much more like Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart’s definition of obscenity: “I know it when I see it.”
In Chait’s essay, political correctness is whatever he needs it to be; he knows it when he sees it. Most often it’s a widespread “academic movement,” organized by “pro-P.C. activists," but elsewhere it “is a style of politics” and even a zombie, having died: “The most probable cause of death of the first political-correctness movement,” he begins one section, “was the 1992 presidential election.” Remarkably, Chait never cites or quotes anyone acting in the name of political correctness, nor does he demarcate the parameters. He writes, “In a short period of time, the P.C. movement has assumed a towering presence in the psychic space of politically active people in general and the left in particular.” Towering presence, psychic space: Chait has hyperbolized what may have begun as an inside joke, transforming it into an internal psychic repression.
Yet for a movement so broad, it’s oddly shadowy. In telling the story of University of Michigan student Omar Mahmood, whose apartment was vandalized after he wrote a satire of offense taking on campus, Chait writes, “Mahmood was widely seen as the perpetrator rather than the victim.” The passive voice gives away the game: Who saw Mahmood as perpetrator, and how does Chait know that view was widespread? Track passive voice and the pronouns that float unmoored from actors, and you may start to see Chait’s essay as conspiracy theory. Chait compounds the sense of conspiracy with an Orwell allusion standard to overheated-but-undercooked op-eds: “The subsequent vandalism of [Mahmood’s] apartment served to confirm his status as thought-criminal.” “Served to confirm” to whom?
When Evidence Isn’t
How does Chait demonstrate the re-emergence of what he sees as thought policing? If we accept his evidence at face value, it seems compelling. But his anecdotes simply don’t demonstrate what he intends them to do. Sift his evidence, and you end up with almost nothing.
For example, look at how he treats the protests against talks by Bill Maher and Ayaan Hirsi Ali: “You may remember when 6,000 people at the University of California-Berkeley signed a petition last year to stop a commencement address by Bill Maher, who has criticized Islam (along with nearly all the other major world religions). ...[O]thers at Brandeis blocked Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a women’s-rights champion who is also a staunch critic of Islam....”
Chait euphemizes how both Maher and Ali have spoken of Islam. Maher doesn’t simply degrade Islam as he does other religions, he explicitly denounces the entirety of the religion as brutal. And context matters: Maher was invited as a commencement speaker; for Muslim students in the audience, the invitation to Maher suggests that critical thinking -- the kind Maher studiously avoids in his comments on Islam -- is unimportant. Ali’s situation was similar; she was being awarded an honorary degree that was rescinded when people drew attention to her 2007 comment that the entirety of Islam should be defeated, as well as her comments that Islam is a “destructive, nihilistic cult of death” and that there is no moderate Islam. Somehow, “staunch critic” doesn’t do justice to her actual language.
These comments are offensive, but not just to Muslims: they are offensive to anyone who values critical thinking, one of the explicit central values of universities. Had Maher and Ali been invited by groups independent of the university administration, the criticism would have been less notable and vocal. And, as Chait’s essay doesn’t mention, Maher still spoke at commencement with broad support on campus, and Ali was invited to speak at Brandeis.
Chait’s other omissions and elisions reveal how paltry his evidence is. He writes, “Stanford recently canceled a performance of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson after protests by Native American students.” According to Chait’s summary, the university itself -- presumably represented by higher-ups in the administration -- prevented the performance. But that’s not even remotely true; after long talks with Native American groups on campus, the groups producing Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson decided to cancel the show. What happened next, in the parlance of clickbait headlines, will astound you: the groups who canceled the show put together a new show called Does This Offend You?, in which they performed controversial songs from Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and other musicals. And they did so with enthusiastic support from the Stanford American Indian Organization, the group that originally brought forward their concerns with the original show. Either Chait omitted the aftermath because it wasn’t convenient to his narrative, or he ignored it. As he’s phrased it, his argument is cherry-picking and misleading.
Elsewhere, he distorts contexts and terminology, treating university debates as cutesy oddities. He writes, “UCLA students staged a sit-in to protest microaggressions such as when a professor corrected a student’s decision to spell the word indigenous with an uppercase I -- one example of many ‘perceived grammatical choices that in actuality reflect ideologies.’” His summary is both true and fundamentally misleading. Whether you agree or not that the lowercase i was an insult -- for what it’s worth, I do agree -- to treat it outside of its context amounts to a falsehood. At the time of the sit-in, UCLA was dealing with serious charges of systemic denigration of faculty of color; students of color were responding to what they saw as similar mistreatment -- condescension and hostility from students and faculty. And, contra Chait’s claim of repression and silencing, the students were asking to be heard. Acknowledging that complexity, though, runs counter to his thesis.
He doesn’t just minimize context in the sit-in anecdote; Chait has little respect for trigger warnings or the growing concern over microaggressions, mainly because he doesn’t seem to understand them. He introduces trigger warnings by writing, “At a growing number of campuses, professors now attach ‘trigger warnings’ to texts that may upset students.” One of Chait’s readers unfamiliar with academia might assume that trigger warnings are becoming more broadly accepted, but that simply isn’t the case; facing criticism of a broad policy recommending, not requiring, greater use of trigger warnings, Oberlin College tabled the proposal. And many inside and outside academia have brought more attention to trigger warnings not by endorsing them but by debating their usefulness; the official position of the American Association of University Professors, for example, is that trigger warnings are a “threat” to academic freedom. But Chait doesn’t tell his readers that.
Worse still, Chait doesn’t seem to know what trigger warnings are. He writes, “Trigger warnings aren’t much help in actually overcoming trauma -- an analysis by the Institute of Medicine has found that the best approach is controlled exposure to it, and experts say avoidance can reinforce suffering.” I don’t use or support trigger warnings, but at least I know what they are. Take, for example, historian Angus Johnston’s trigger warning:
Course Content Note
At times this semester we will be discussing historical events that may be disturbing, even traumatizing, to some students. If you ever feel the need to step outside during one of these discussions, either for a short time or for the rest of the class session, you may always do so without academic penalty. (You will, however, be responsible for any material you miss. If you do leave the room for a significant time, please make arrangements to get notes from another student or see me individually.)
If you ever wish to discuss your personal reactions to this material, either with the class or with me afterwards, I welcome such discussion as an appropriate part of our coursework.
That warning describes not avoidance, but “controlled exposure.” Also, a search of the Institute of Medicine’s Web site turned up no discussion of or position on trigger warnings in classrooms, and their analyses of how to handle trauma concern clinical standards and settings, not those of the classroom.
Chait’s cursory treatment of microaggressions is similarly inaccurate. (Trigger warning: bad generalization ahead.) He writes, “There is a campaign to eradicate ‘microaggressions,’ or small social slights that might cause searing trauma.” Though there is debate about what microaggressions are and how much impact they have, to call them “small social slights” erases the context. African-American students are still underrepresented at many colleges and universities, and students of color report feeling racially isolated and even misled by university recruiting materials, an isolation exacerbated by microaggressions that highlight it. That isolation isn’t simply the same isolation that all students feel on moving to a new place; some research suggests that microaggressions can impact academic performance negatively.
The diminishing of microaggressions to “small social slights” is deeply ironic, given Chait’s tendency to use hyperbolic cliché; in addition to examples I’ve already noted (the ivory towering presence), his version of political correctness “has bludgeoned” even its supporters. Chait wrote for the student newspaper while at the University of Michigan in the early 1990s. In a campus controversy about a display by videographer Carol Jacobsen, Chait “was attacked for writing an article for the campus paper defending the exhibit.” The nature of the passive-voice attack is unclear. Did people disagree with the argument? Did they criticize Chait himself? Was his apartment door vandalized as Omar Mahmood’s was? Given the common use of “attack” to describe any verbal disagreement (paging George Lakoff), I’m inclined to assume until further notice, in Chait’s case, that “attacked” is hyperbolic.
Position, Culture and Subculture
I’m familiar with right-wing denunciations of academe, so much so that I tend to ignore them. The weather is the weather. But when a self-described liberal adopts a right-wing critique but treats his as distinct, I take notice. Position matters. “I am white and male, a fact that is certainly worth bearing in mind,” Chait writes. I quote that here because it’s also true of me: I am white and male, which is worth bearing in mind. Also, I’ve been a student or teacher in universities every year except one since 1996. I mention that because it’s just as meaningful, which is to say meaningless, as one of Chait’s anecdotes:
Indeed, one professor at a prestigious university told me that, just in the last few years, she has noticed a dramatic upsurge in her students’ sensitivity toward even the mildest social or ideological slights; she and her fellow faculty members are terrified of facing accusations of triggering trauma -- or, more consequentially, violating her school’s new sexual-harassment policy -- merely by carrying out the traditional academic work of intellectual exploration. “This is an environment of fear, believe it or not,” she told me by way of explaining her request for anonymity. It reminds her of the previous outbreak of political correctness -- “Every other day I say to my friends, ‘How did we get back to 1991?’ "
I don’t want to diminish the anonymous professor’s feelings, but it’s appalling that Chait treats that interview as evidence. I’m also at a prestigious university, though I’m a lecturer unprotected by the tenure track. Maybe I’m attending the wrong meetings and missing out on fearful powwows, but the fear she describes isn’t something I’ve come across.
And it’s not that I’m ideologically or behaviorally pure: I’ve misspoken and said ignorant things and probably will in the future. When called on those things, I’ve rethought my position, and I’ve apologized. In each case, I’ve learned something. Maybe that anonymous professor’s anecdote is entirely accurate in describing how she feels, but it’s also possible that she’s not noticing a new upsurge but is more attentive to an old trend. Ultimately, what she says is nothing more than an unverifiable, context-free anecdote.
Just one counterexample to the culture Chait creates for his readers: in a first-year writing seminar, I taught Denis Johnson’s remarkable novella Train Dreams.Set in the early 20th century, the story begins with a group of white laborers attempting to throw an Asian laborer from a bridge for allegedly stealing from company stores. The third-person narration, which borrows the main character’s diction and syntax, repeatedly refers to the Asian laborer as a “Chinaman.” During in-class discussions, the students used the word “Chinaman” as they spoke. They didn’t recognize it as a slur, nor were they discussing it as a particular use of language. Notably, when I drew attention to their use (too late, I confess, even though Walter Sobchak from The Big Lebowski echoed in my head: “Dude, ‘Chinaman’ is not the preferred nomenclature”), the Chinese-American and international students from China said they hadn’t known it was a slur. I apologized for my slow response, but the students seemed to think it didn’t matter.
I don’t tell that story because I think students are oblivious to language use or that language use isn’t at times angrily contested on campuses; obviously, language use is often contested. But to describe arguments about language use as a movement that’s created an overwhelming culture of fear falls apart when you examine the evidence and Chait’s approach against context.
Back to positionality: we should always be mindful of that. My position -- as a white male, as a lecturer, as a colleague -- matters, not because the university is the bastion of a movement of political correctness, but because all cultures and subcultures have social norms and restrictions on speech and ideas, norms and restrictions that often vary depending on race and gender, as well as one’s position within a given institution. Plus, institutions have histories we have to attend to and, in some cases, rectify. Every publication Chait has ever worked for, every organization he’s ever been part of, formal or informal, has restricted acceptable discourse; over time, those restrictions have changed. What Chait sees as an “outbreak” of political correctness (P.C. was, earlier, in “remission,” so there’s that illness metaphor again; paging Susan Sontag) is actually one among many long, ongoing debates about how we can and should use language. Some of these debates occur inside the university; but they also occur well beyond the university, and daily, and always have.
Ultimately, Chait’s distorted portrait of the university isn’t meaningless or separate from his depiction of liberalism and the left; it’s important to his distortion of American history, one that’s widespread. To close his essay, he writes, “The historical record of American liberalism, which has extended social freedoms to blacks, Jews, gays and women, is glorious. And that glory rests in its confidence in the ultimate power of reason, not coercion, to triumph.” In his invocation of glory and “the ultimate power of reason,” the prose purples. To be honest, I wish I agreed that reason triumphed. But if Chait thinks the historical record of liberalism is one in which reason stands champion, I’d advise him to do some reading. Maybe he should return to school.
Charles Green teaches writing as a lecturer at Cornell University.
As of this week, Intellectual Affairs has been running for 10 years, which is nearly as long as Inside Higher Ed itself has been around. My title when it all began was Essayist at Large, as in fact it still is: I can’t imagine a nicer euphemism for being, in effect, a perpetual student -- and somehow making a job of it to boot.
Few publications would offer such a position to a writer; fewer still, if any, would give a columnist such a long tether for such a long time. Inside Higher Ed’s exact launch date is not clear. The beta version went live during the Modern Languages Association’s annual conference at the very end of 2004, which the founding editors covered as it happened. But a placeholder page (the gamma version?) was online even before that. In any event, Intellectual Affairs made its debut on Feb. 1, 2005 -- a short time after IHE hit the ground running as a fully functioning (if, for a time, woefully understaffed) news organization, reporting on academe and publishing throughout the workweek.
As it happens, the column premiered almost exactly 19 years after my first article for the late, lamented magazine Lingua Franca. Being so alert to the passing of anniversaries is undoubtedly a tic of consciousness, but in this case it underscores something that’s informed the column from the start: an effort to carry forward into the digital era as much of the tradition of the journalism of ideas and haute vulgarization as possible. The models I had in mind included the sort of review-essay that Francis Jeffrey fostered in The Edinburgh Review in the early 19th century, the more casual and sprightly genres of the feuilleton and the causerie, and the mode of confessional criticism practiced by Seymour Krim, one of this column’s patron saints.
While the rise of e-publishing may be irresistible, it seems that reports of the death of the traditional book are somewhat exaggerated. But the shape of the public-intellectual sphere has been forever changed by the past decade. It may amuse younger people to know that in 2005 the idea that scholars would blog was controversial. Just try to stop them, I remember thinking. (For a taste of what went on, search “Ivan Tribble.”) Both digital boosterism and neo-Luddism have always struck me as dead ends. Each evades the task of paying attention to the world and checking how well one’s stock of ideas and attitudes holds up in the flux of experience.
Writing in the preface to the American edition of his essay collection Travels in Hyperreality, Umberto Eco said something that left a huge impression on me and set the course leading to this column: “I believe that an intellectual should use newspapers the way private diaries and personal letters were once used. At white heat, in the rush of an emotion, stimulated by an event, you write your reflections, hoping that someone will read them, and then [you] forget about them.” It would seem that I took this even more to heart than I realized: by the time something is published, I don't want to spend another minute thinking about it. Sharp-eyed readers will occasionally point out a blunder or, more often, a garbled passage. (There is a very efficient gremlin who occasionally removes something important from a sentence, such as its verb, or the word "not.") Repairs are made, but otherwise my habit after filing a column and responding to edits is to go to work immediately on the next piece without looking back.
But here's a selection of columns that seem to have held up reasonably well, assembled with the help of friends with better memories than mine.
A handful of pieces elicited discussion far beyond the ivory tower, such as the early one on the 19th-century American novelist Emma Dunham Kelley-Hawkins, considering how and when her work had ever been called back from its richly deserved neglect. Another column from that period was among the very first articles about Harry Frankfurt's essay "On Bullshit" when Princeton University issued it as a hardback booklet. The review had little or nothing to do with On Bullshit's subsequent best-seller status, but it was surely the only mass-media response taking into account the secondary literature. A column on the postpublication peer review of Robert Service's biography of Leon Trotsky seems to have made its way around the world and, if memory serves, into French translation. But the most notorious column, it seems, expressed my dismay at the as-told-to autobiography of Cornel West, a good man undone by mere celebrity.
The closest runner-up would probably be the piece discussing a publisher's effort to whitewash the abundant and well-documented scholarly transgressions of Michael Bellesiles. While distasteful to write, doing so was a basic obligation of intellectual hygiene. Much more agreeable was writing the profile of George Scialabba, an important cultural critic who now has the wider audience he deserves. It's also been gratifying to be able to alert readers (academic and otherwise) to university-press books shortly after they've appeared, such as a French historian's memoir on working in the archives, or a fascinating monograph on Santa Muerte, "the skeleton saint," who hears the prayers of spurned lovers, gangsters and entrepreneurs. And likewise to share the news that a fellow C. L. R. James scholar had discovered the long-lost script for a play about Toussaint Louverture in which Paul Robeson played the lead. And the column's readers heard about The New Inquiry (here and here, for example) a year or two before The New York Times got to it.
Publication of Zizek's Jokes by MIT Press provided the opportunity to confess my secret shame at having dubbed the Slovenian thinker "the Elvis of cultural theory" -- an endlessly repeated phrase that will surely outlive me, despite it being, on the whole, fairly idiotic. Among the earlier Intellectual Affairs columns was a literature review on the field of Oprah studies, followed in due course by an interview with the organizer of the first academic conference on a reality TV show called Jersey Shore. More interesting and rewarding was a book that established how career criminals signal their competence to each other (despite the lack of an established credentialization process) and applied its findings to the world of incompetent-but-powerful senior faculty in Italian universities. The column explored such 21st-century questions as the sociology of trolling and the value of a comprehensive and professionally curated archive of Twitter.
The troubling developments at Miskatonic University were a challenge to report on, and I still regret covering part one of the Atlas Shrugged movie trilogy, which gave the expression "train wreck" a whole new meaning. Reviewers have said that the budget and quality declined sharply with each new installment. I find that impossible to imagine but am glad to take their word for it.
Finally: I've written a number of commentaries and tributes following the deaths of various people, including the historian Philip Rieff and pomo prophet Jean Baudrillard. Thanks to the Google, I see that references to each of them have turned up in later years, including a description of J. B. as being, "in his day, [a] major brand-name cash cow in the world of academic publishing," which still seems apt. So does the obit that says, "Lou Reed’s lyrics were quite unwholesome, like a Baudelaire sonnet," especially given Reed's place as a student of the poet Delmore Schwartz. A couple of the tributes were hard to write because the subjects were friends. Over the first few years of the column, I always kept in mind that the novelist and critic John Leonard was out there in the audience reading it. He said as much, which was inspiring and intimidating at the same time, and I miss him.
By contrast, the suicide of Aaron Swartz -- who, when we met, didn't look old enough to shave -- still seems difficult to believe. Yesterday I saw his photo while going through the spring catalog for The New Press, which is bringing out The Boy Who Could Change the World: The Writings of Aaron Swartz in May. A worthy effort, but it's hard to feel anything but numb at the prospect of the posthumous collected works of an author who died at 26.
Ben Goldacre writes something in the preface to I Think You'll Find It's a Bit More Complicated Than That which left me slightly dreading today's column: "Reading your own work from 10 years ago is a bit like being tied down, with your eyelids glued open, and forced to watch ten-foot videos of yourself saying stupid things with bad hair." Indeed! It's been a week of careful, strategic combing, that's for sure. It has been an interesting decade -- and while the work seems never to get easier, in a sense the effort is its own reward. (I wouldn't want the editors to take that too literally, because I'm counting on the paycheck.) And as the guy in a medieval shtetl is supposed to have said about his job keeping watch for the Messiah so he could blow a horn to tell everyone else: "Well, at least it's steady work."
As Victor E. Ferrall Jr. offered a valediction for the liberal arts here, declaring them “over the brink,” colleagues at the recent Association of American Colleges and Universities conference in Washington, D.C., were abuzz designing its future: #libedunbound.
During a session entitled “Liberal Education Unbound: The Life of Signature Student Work in the Emerging Digital Learning Environment,” Rebecca Frost Davis of St. Edward’s University asked audience members to live tweet their reflections to the hashtag #libedunbound, to illustrate the productive potential of this networked back channel. The tweets posted during the session (including my own) were less than inspirational, perhaps because they were penned (thumbed?) on demand, in response to an assigned topic, “Where and from whom do you as a professional learn outside of the formal classroom or conference session?”
But the hashtag itself was inspired, as became evident during a later session, “The Future of Liberal Education in the New Learning Ecosystem,” led by Randy Bass of Georgetown University. Bass invited the panelists -- José Antonio Bowen, president of Goucher College; Gardner Campbell, vice provost for learning innovation and student success at Virginia Commonwealth University; and J. Elizabeth Clark, professor of English at LaGuardia Community College -- to move away from technology-driven questions about the future of higher education and instead pose a true design challenge: How would we reimagine and reconstruct the future (of) #libedunbound? As the speakers took on a series of probing questions about the possibilities as well as the threats “the new learning ecosystem” might represent, audience members’ -- and the panelists’! -- live tweets were projected onto a large screen. In this way, the panel’s official channel ran alongside its unofficial back channel.
The panel’s oral channel focused on a new vision of learning that will transform our conception of the liberal arts and higher education alike. Panelists spoke, for example, not just about students as content creators but about professors as “cognitive coaches.” They hypothesized that the role of faculty members might become to make their learning -- as process, not as an achieved state of being -- visible to students and to one another. How will we fulfill our responsibility to prepare students to “live fully in their time”? Are we preparing our graduate students to teach the future generations of networked learners?
As the panelists considered the conceptual parameters of the new learning ecosystem, the digital back-channel chatter -- a word that I find particularly suitable, as it captures the unscripted and unedited murmur of live tweeting -- both deepened and challenged the panel’s official argument.
Some tweets obliquely echoed the panelists, while others amounted to philosophical challenges and engaged fellow tweeters in a parallel conversation. One tweet asked, for example, if “it is possible to think deeply on [T]witter” (@noreen_o), while another (my own) mused that the concept of depth may have to shift in a networked environment. Particularly amusing was the banter about an imaginary gadget that a panelist described as the “academic [F]itbit,” which might provide future students and professors with a feedback loop on vital cognitive data. But even that jest quickly turned into a serious query: What questions would we ask about our learning and how would we measure it? How will we teach our students to read and monitor their own data?
We were, I admit, in a glorious echo chamber of like-minded liberal education enthusiasts, caught up in one of those electric moments of communal inquiry. We needed no convincing of the value of liberal education and we have not given up on its future. Ferrall is no doubt correct that we cherish liberal education because it helps students become “critical thinkers, able and eager to distinguish opinions from facts and prejudices from truths, alert to the lessons of history and unwilling blindly to accept unsupported claims and assertions.” But what the hundreds of tweets to #libedunbound also demonstrated is that we may benefit from the exercise of thinking about the future of liberal education away from the historically accurate but no longer productive dichotomy that juxtaposes it with vocational training.
In the knowledge economy, critical thinking and what we typically call skills are much more closely bound and more difficult to disentangle than they were at the inception of the liberal arts centuries ago or even in the relatively recent course of their 200-year history in U.S. higher education. As Gardner Campbell observed from the panel table, the new learning ecosystem offers innovative symbolic possibilities that liberal education has yet to explore. Our conception of the liberal arts will evolve with the learning ecosystem that it inhabits.
That is the key point Ferrall missed: liberal education has never been static. An argument that presents it as such has already given up on its key component: learning as a never finished process, always renewed and always contextual. #Libedunbound may be one way to capture this idea: the chatter to this hashtag indeed emphasized active liberal learners of the future over and above the nominalized form of liberal “education.”
Any valediction for the liberal arts should, like John Donne’s, at the very least “forbid mourning”: our historical moment can certainly be read as a “breach” of the venerable tradition, but it must equally be read as presenting an opportunity for its “expansion.” As Nicola Pitchford of Dominican University of California observed in a tweet from the session, “Instructional technology is for augmentation of what we do, not automation.” Any tradition worth preserving must live and breathe with the times, and we are responsible for its augmentation in the future.
“Valete artes liberales.” Not yet. And hearty welcome to #libedunbound.
Eva Badowska is interim dean of the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at Fordham University.
Liberal Arts at the Brink was published three years ago. In it, I reported that student demand for liberal arts courses and majors -- the humanities, social sciences, and physical sciences -- was rapidly declining and being replaced by demand for vocational, directly career related courses and majors. Liberal Arts at the Brink focused on liberal arts colleges, but the student-demand shift was also occurring at universities with both liberal arts and professional programs. As the book’s title suggested, I thought the future of liberal arts education was bleak, but not hopeless. Now, I believe I was too optimistic.
* * * * *
The reasons 18-year-olds went to college used to be simple; it was what one did after finishing high school, what everyone in their class was doing, and besides, it would be fun. Students trusted their colleges in much the same way they trusted their doctors. The colleges told them that courses in the humanities, social sciences, and physical sciences were good for them, so they took them. The colleges -- at least, liberal arts colleges -- said they needed to choose a liberal arts major, so they did.
After World War II, following the arrival of returning veterans with GI Bill money, the doors to colleges and universities swung open for students previously excluded or restricted by quotas. Between 1955 and 1970, the number of undergraduates tripled, from 2.4 to 7.5 million. Many of the new students had a purposeful, focused reason for attending college -- to be trained for a career that would open up a better life than their parents had known. Majoring in a liberal arts subject did not make sense. Indeed, even taking liberal arts courses seemed a waste of time and money. Student demand for liberal arts began to decline and colleges and universities began adding more directly career-related courses and majors to their curriculums. A sea change in U.S. higher education was underway.
At first, many liberal arts colleges offered vocational courses grudgingly. Most of them, however, soon overcame their reluctance. Lacking large endowments, they were, in the words of Yale University’s financial guru, David Swensen, “forced to respond to the wishes and needs of the current student body to attract a sufficient number of students to maintain current operations.”
The facts that college students are graduating with greater and greater debt, and that many debt-ridden graduates are unable to find employment providing enough income to pay off their debt, accelerated the declining demand for liberal arts education. With the cost of attending college soaring, the question “is it worth it?” became even more central to deciding what kind of education to pursue.
As reported in Liberal Arts at the Brink, between 1987 and 2008, the percentage of graduates from the top 225 private liberal arts colleges with vocational -- not liberal arts -- majors tripled, from less than 10 percent to almost 30 percent. By 2008, at 51 of those colleges less than half of all graduates were liberal arts majors. A 2007 survey showed that 92 percent of college-bound high school seniors felt preparing for a career was very important, while only 8 percent believed the availability of liberal arts education was essential in choosing a college.
In 2012, the year after Liberal Arts at the Brink was published, U.S. News and World Report’s annual Best Colleges guide reported that colleges and universities were “responding to workplace demand” by creating new undergraduate majors in fields where the demand for workers had spiked, and featured nine “hot” new majors, all of which were vocational, including computer game design, health informatics, homeland security, new media, and cyber security. The next year, the Best Colleges guide added forensic science, business analytics, petroleum engineering, and robotics to its list of “hot majors that can lead to a great job.”
Today, liberal arts colleges are using their websites to proclaim that the education they offer will get their graduates better jobs and careers. Here are a few typical examples:
“Provides practical knowledge, professional skills, and powerful connections.”
“Gives you a big edge on jobs after graduation.”
“Prepares you for a wide range of careers and professional callings.”
“Gives you the confidence it takes to pursue rewarding careers.”
“Provides a competitive edge in the job market.”
“Prepares you not just for your first career but for all your careers.”
There is scarcely a liberal arts college whose promotional materials fail to claim “95 percent of our graduates will be employed or in graduate or professional school within one year of graduation” (although precisely what the employment is likely to be is not specified).
Claims that liberal arts majors provide direct preparation for careers have become an integral part of the promotional materials of even the most distinguished institutions. Here, for example, is how the University of Chicago now describes some of its undergraduate liberal arts major offerings:
Anthropology “can lead to careers in research and teaching in museum settings.”
Classical studies “provides excellent preparation for careers such as law and publishing.”
History “is excellent preparation for a wide field of endeavors from law, government, and public policy to the arts and business.”
Political science “can lead to a career in business, government, journalism, or nonprofit organizations.”
Sociology “is attractive for students considering careers in such professions as business, law, marketing, journalism, social work, politics, public administration, and urban planning.”
As the pool of potential liberal arts students has shrunk, competition to attract them has intensified. The wealthiest colleges and universities are intent on capturing the most desirable students (highest grades, highest ACT/SAT scores, most-wanted extracurricular activities, etc.). While less well-endowed institutions are fighting simply to enroll enough students to fill their classes, the strategies they pursue -- to the extent they can afford them -- are the same as those employed by their wealthier competitors.
One strategy is to lure students with fancier facilities. Even though lavish dorms, extensive sports and recreation spaces, and elaborate internet and electronic facilities may be well calculated to appeal to 18-year-olds, success with this strategy has proved problematic. If College A builds a luxurious new student center, its competitors are likely to respond by building their own, canceling out the competitive advantage College A sought to achieve. Colleges and universities often feel compelled to make substantial expenditures (and incur substantial debt) on new facilities they cannot afford -- not to achieve a competitive advantage, but rather to avoid falling behind.
Competition among liberal arts colleges is fiercest in financial aid discounting (the percentage off sticker price that students pay). Average discount rates of 50 percent or more are now commonplace. Most colleges seek to replace some of the tuition revenues lost through discounting by attempting to admit more students, exacerbating the adverse financial impact on the colleges of the shrinking pool of potential applicants. The tragedy of the commons is at work.
The net result of the competition to attract students is (1) to increase colleges’ operating costs and decrease their operating revenues, neither of which any but the few colleges with huge endowments can afford, and (2) to do nothing to address the core problem that gave rise to the competition, the fact that fewer and fewer high school seniors want a liberal arts education.
Even if liberal arts colleges were not engaged in self-destructing competition, the deck would still be stacked against them. Powerful national voices aggressively champion vocational education and barely mention, or deride, the liberal arts, voices such as Georgetown University’s Center on Education and the Workforce, directed by Anthony Carnevale (“if higher education fails to focus on occupational training, it will damage the nation’s economic future ..., something we cannot afford”); President Obama’s secretary of education, Arne Duncan (“the challenge of producing the best educated, most competitive workforce in the world is not just a question of national pride; it is an economic imperative”); and President Obama (“folks ... need higher education ... to make sure ... [they] are ready for a career, ready to meet the challenges of the 21st-century economy”).
America’s public high schools are also turning to career preparation and away from their historic liberal arts curriculums -- Latin, the English poets, American and English history, a modern foreign language, mathematics, and science -- curriculums, Jacques Barzun said, that were once “the envy of industrialized nations.” Now, in National Center for Education President Marc Tucker’s words, high school liberal arts courses seem “more and more of a self-indulgent luxury.” President Obama has announced plans to make major changes in “the American high school experience” to make it “more relevant” by strengthening “career and technical education programs.”
In Liberal Arts at the Brink, I sought to make the case for liberal arts education and will not repeat it here. Suffice it to note that, for more than 200 years, the liberal arts have provided the platform from which U.S. students developed reasoning and analytic skills that led them to become critical thinkers, able and eager to distinguish opinions from facts and prejudices from truths, alert to the lessons of history and unwilling blindly to accept unsupported claims and assertions.
Of course a trained, skilled workforce is in the public interest. But the welfare of our nation (indeed, of the world) is ever more dependent on thoughtful citizens who can hold leaders accountable. This is what democracy by and for the people requires. And, as former U.S. Supreme Court Justice David Souter said in a recent speech, “It is in the national interest for our STEM scientists to have backgrounds in the humanities and social sciences before they get out of college. They need those habits on the mind.”
* * * * *
The facts I have recited are well known in academe. When I wrote Liberal Arts at the Brink, I hoped educational leaders would come forward and join together to lead a campaign to restore the demand for liberal arts by educating all Americans about its extraordinary value. In particular, I hoped the leaders of liberal arts colleges, the institutions most directly impacted by the declining demand for the liberal arts, would set aside counterproductive competition and take the lead in such a cooperative undertaking before it was too late. None of this has happened.
One can speculate about the reasons for liberal arts college leaders’ inaction. Perhaps they are unwilling to publicly admit that fewer and fewer students want the kind of education their institutions offer. They may also fear appearing disingenuous championing the liberal arts at the same time their colleges are replacing liberal arts courses and majors with vocational training. College presidents, in particular, scramble so hard to raise money they may lack the time or the energy to pause and reflect. One fact, however, stands out. The overarching commitment of all college leaders is to maintain the viability of their institutions. If this requires abandoning liberal arts, so be it.
If liberal arts college leaders are unable or unwilling to undertake an organized campaign to educate all Americans -- not just high school seniors and their parents but also the high school counselors; business leaders; friends and neighbors; local, state, and national government officials; and countless others who now urge students to study something directly connected to getting a job and not waste their time on the liberal arts -- it seems highly likely no one will. There no longer is reason to believe the decline of liberal arts education will be stayed or reversed.
Liberal arts are over the brink. Some liberal arts colleges will fail or be forced to sell out to for-profit institutions; some already have. Many will quietly morph into vocational trainers. A handful of the wealthiest colleges, probably fewer than 50, educating less than one-half of 1 percent of U.S. college students, may survive. They will, however, no longer play a central role in educating Americans. Rather, they will become elite boutiques, romantic remnants of the past, like British roadsters and vinyl phonograph records.
Valete, artes liberales.
Victor E. Ferrall Jr. is president emeritus of Beloit College and author of Liberal Arts at the Brink (Harvard University Press).