Nowadays, many liberal arts colleges promote the economic value of a liberal education. They boast that the impressive careers of liberal arts graduates offer an excellent return on students' tuition investment. Thus, while the cost of a quality liberal education may be high, the economic benefits down the line are greater still.
But while the economic success of liberal arts graduates is certainly worth lauding, we may be missing something more fundamental here. When, as a lawyer-turned-professor, I consider my own liberal education, I can see how it did much more than enhance my career prospects. In fundamental ways, it helped me connect my career aspirations to a meaningful, satisfying life. Looking back over 25 years now, I see how at its best my liberal education offered me increased possibilities not only of money, but significantly, of happiness.
An enduring puzzle of our times is why our well-documented rise in incomes has not led to an increase in our subjective well-being. While well educated Americans are clearly getting wealthier, we are not reporting higher levels of happiness.
Economist Robert Frank offers an intriguing explanation to this puzzle, one that bears on how we think about the value of a liberal arts education. The problem, he says, is not what we make, but how we spend it. "[G]ains in happiness that might have been expected to result from growth in absolute income have not materialized because of the ways in which people in affluent societies have generally spent their incomes."
The difficulty, according to Frank, is that we spend our money in conspicuous ways - such as on bigger houses - that are especially subject to the psychological process of adaptation. Under this process, as people generally buy bigger houses, the social norm for house size increases. Adapting to this rising standard, we need to spend more to get a house we can regard as acceptable. But while we come to spend more for our homes, we do not derive greater pleasure from them. Rather, the size of house that is needed to satisfy us has simply increased. If we wish our growing wealth to help make us happier, says Frank, we need to shift our resources to what he calls "inconspicuous goods." These goods aren’t really goods, but are conditions, like avoiding a long commute or leaving a stressful job. And when our wealth helps us do these things, it does make us happier.
The picture is different for long commutes and stressful jobs because such experiences are less subject to the psychological process of adaptation that occurs with the increasing number of larger houses. "As it turns out," writes Frank, "our capacity to adapt varies considerably across domains." While we easily get used to larger homes, we never completely adjust to longer commutes.
Thus, the key to happier lives is spending more of our resources on inconspicuous goods, those marked by our lesser capacity to adapt. Because increased spending on such goods is more likely to foster our subjective well-being, we are here better able to get our money's worth.
Frank's argument is an intriguing one for me, as at midlife I deepen my understanding of the value of my own liberal education. A central benefit of a liberal arts education is an enhanced capacity for critical thinking, the ability to subject to independent scrutiny the received norms of our environment. It is because of this enhanced capacity to scrutinize social convention that liberal education works to liberate individuals, enabling them to choose freely their own views, rather than simply relying on tradition or authority.
Thus in principle, a liberally educated individual should be less subject to the process of adaptation Frank describes. This is because this adaptation process is rooted in the very social norms the liberal arts graduate has developed the capacity to scrutinize critically.
Because a liberally educated person develops a critical distance from the norms of his environment, he has, under Frank's analysis, a greater potential for happiness. In conspicuous purchases such as houses, he is less likely to need to exceed the norm to insure happiness and more likely to avoid unhappiness if below the norm. Less bound to more conspicuous spending, he also has the freedom to devote more of his resources to the inconspicuous goods that offer a greater contribution to his well-being.
I saw this transformation in myself, while undergoing my own liberal education. I had always been a night owl and fell easily into the rhythms of student life as an English major at Wesleyan University. As my college years progressed, I remember distinctly watching less TV. In classrooms and conversations, I was discovering a world more engaging and enduring than the world of conspicuous consumption then displayed on network television. I still kept my late-night hours, but the “Tonight Show” gave way to the stories of Melville and Kafka, two writers more concerned with understanding human psychology and relationships than acquiring material goods. The result was that, during my senior year, I don't recall ever discussing the size of house I hoped to live in. But I remember distinctly a line I repeated often when asked of my ambitions. I'd say: "Give me a library and the woman I love - and I'll be happy."
As a middle-aged, family man, my life is more complex now, but its underlying values abide. I met - and married - the woman I love. She delights and surprises me almost daily. And in my current academic job, I enjoy access to a first-rate library that satisfies even my overly curious mind. To be sure, I've even come to live in a very nice home, one that's far larger than the national norm. But when my friend tells me he could never move back to a smaller house, I immediately sense a difference between us. I've learned that my happiness depends less on where I live and more on what I treasure.
Vocational training, by definition, is designed to enhance our productive capacities. It equips us with skills for occupations ranging from X-ray technician to software engineer. Liberal education contributes to our productive lives as well, as I know firsthand from my own legal career.
But liberal education can do more. Significantly, it affects not only our skills as producers, but also our discernment as consumers. When it works, it changes for the better the satisfactions we seek. Over the course of a lifetime, a discriminating sensibility in this regard can contribute more to our happiness than the raises our jobs provide.
Of course, liberal education performs this broader role only when it confers more than intellectual insights. A liberal education must reinforce such insights in a way that fosters in students a new set of habits and dispositions. Such an education's intellectual virtues must, in short, become moral ones.
I have no doubt that this has always been a difficult task. Indeed, as a professor teaching today, I see it's becoming harder as an already overly commercialized culture becomes even more so. But I know from my current vantage point how a liberal education succeeded with me in ways my earlier self couldn't have foreseen. More importantly, I see in my classes how students surprise themselves daily with the persons they are becoming.
Thus, in promoting the value of a liberal education to the wider public, we should attend to the way it can change the consumers we become. Altering the satisfactions a person seeks changes his life in ways more profound than the paycheck he receives. For the wider public, this is the story of liberal education that has yet to be told. I suspect we can tell it best by telling our own individual stories, how our liberal educations transformed our lives, and how happiness in an unexpected way became possible.
Jeffrey Nesteruk is a professor at Franklin & Marshall College.
Little doubt exists that the nation’s college faculty has become less intellectually diverse over the past generation. According to one recent study, self-described liberals or leftists increased from 39 percent in 1984 to 72 percent now, with even higher percentages among the ranks of humanities and social science professors. Speaking for the educational establishment, Jonathan Knight of the American Association of University Professors doubted "that these liberal views cut very deeply into the education of students."
Knight might have looked at teacher-training programs before issuing his comment. There, the faculty’s ideological imbalance has allowed three factors -- a new accreditation policy, changes in how students are evaluated and curricular orientation around a theme of “social justice” -- to impose a de facto political litmus test on the next cohort of public school teachers.
There would seem little or no reason why academic departments would seek to promote social justice, which is essentially a political goal. Though the concept derives from religious thought, “social justice” in contemporary society is guided primarily by a person’s political beliefs: on abortion, or the Middle East, or affirmative action, partisans on both sides deem their position socially just. Literally and theoretically, though never in practice, education programs could define a number of causes as demonstrating a commitment to social justice -- perhaps championing Israel’s right to self-defense, so as to defend innocent civilians against suicide murderers; or celebrating a Roman Catholic anti-abortion initiative, so as to promote justice by preventing the destruction of innocent life; or opposing affirmative action, so as to achieve a socially just, color-blind, legal code. Yet, as surveys like those criticized by Knight suggest, adherents of such views are scarce in the academy.
Despite this clear threat of politicization, however, dozens of prominent education programs demand that their students promote social justice. For example:
At the State University of New York at Oneonta, prospective teachers must “provide evidence of their understanding of social justice in teaching activities, journals, and portfolios . . . and identify social action as the most advanced level.”
The program at the University of Kansas expects students to be “more global than national and concerned with ideals such as world peace, social justice, respect for diversity and preservation of the environment.”
The University of Vermont’s department envisions creating “a more humane and just society, free from oppression, that fosters respect for ethnic and cultural diversity.”
Marquette’s program “has a commitment to social justice in schools and society,” producing teachers who will use the classroom “to transcend the negative effects of the dominant culture.”
According to the University of Toledo, “Education is our prime vehicle for creating the ‘just’ society,” since “we are preparing citizens to lead productive lives in a democratic society characterized by social justice.”
This rhetoric is admirable. Yet, as the hotly contested campaigns of 2000 and 2004 amply demonstrated, people of good faith disagree on the components of a “just society,” or what constitutes the “negative effects of the dominant culture,” or how best to achieve “world peace . . . and preservation of the environment.”
An intellectually diverse academic culture would ensure that these vague sentiments did not yield one-sided policy prescriptions for students. But the professoriate cannot dismiss its ideological and political imbalance as meaningless while simultaneously implementing initiatives based on a fundamentally partisan agenda.
Instead of downplaying the issue, education programs have adjusted their evaluation criteria to increase its importance. Traditionally, prospective teachers needed to demonstrate knowledge of their subject field and mastery of essential educational skills. In recent years, however, an amorphous third criterion called “dispositions” has emerged. As one conference devoted to the concept explained, using this standard would produce “teachers who possess knowledge and discernment of what is good or virtuous.” Advocates leave ideologically one-sided education departments to determine “what is good or virtuous” in the world.
In 2002, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education explicitly linked dispositions theory to ensuring ideological conformity among education students. Rather than asking why teachers’ political beliefs are in any way relevant to their ability to perform well in the classroom, NCATE issued new guidelines requiring education departments that listed social justice as a goal to “include some measure of a candidate’s commitment to social justice” when evaluating the “dispositions” of their students. As neither traditional morality nor social justice commitment in any way guarantee high-quality teachers, this strategy only deflects attention away from the all-important goal of training educators who have command of content and the ability to instruct.
The program at my own institution, Brooklyn College, exemplifies how application of NCATE’s new approach can easily be used to screen out potential public school teachers who hold undesirable political beliefs. Brooklyn’s education faculty, which assumes as fact that “an education centered on social justice prepares the highest quality of future teachers,” recently launched a pilot initiative to assess all education students on whether they are “knowledgeable about, sensitive to and responsive to issues of diversity and social justice as these influence curriculum and pedagogy, school culture, relationships with colleagues and members of the school community, and candidates’ analysis of student work and behavior.”
At the undergraduate level, these high-sounding principles have been translated into practice through a required class called “Language and Literacy Development in Secondary Education.” According to numerous students, the course’s instructor demanded that they recognize “white English” as the “oppressors’ language.” Without explanation, the class spent its session before Election Day screening Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11. When several students complained to the professor about the course’s politicized content, they were informed that their previous education had left them “brainwashed” on matters relating to race and social justice.
Troubled by this response, at least five students filed written complaints with the department chair last December. They received no formal reply, but soon discovered that their coming forward had negative consequences. One senior was told to leave Brooklyn and take an equivalent course at a community college. Two other students were accused of violating the college’s “academic integrity” policy and refused permission to bring a witness, a tape recorder, or an attorney to a meeting with the dean of undergraduate studies to discuss the allegation. Despite the unseemly nature of retaliating against student whistleblowers, Brooklyn’s overall manner of assessing commitment to “social justice” conforms to NCATE’s recommendations, previewing what we can expect as other education programs more aggressively scrutinize their students’ “dispositions” on the matter.
Must prospective public school teachers accept a professor’s argument that “white English” is the “oppressors’ language” in order to enter the profession? In our ideologically imbalanced academic climate, the combination of dispositions theory and the new NCATE guidelines risk producing a new generation of educators certified not because they mastered their subject but because they expressed fealty to the professoriate’s conception of “social justice.”
KC Johnson is a professor of history at Brooklyn College and the CUNY Graduate Center.Â