Opportunity Knocks for Liberal Education

The work we do now sits squarely in the middle of what so ails our nation and what is required to fix it, writes Matthew C. Moen.

December 17, 2020
 
 
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Opportunity has arisen for those of us who are true believers in the intrinsic worth of liberal education for students.

Counterintuitive thought, for sure, as we observe the steady disassembling of classic liberal arts programs and colleges, driven by the blend of chronic budget problems and the long-running strategies of educational entrepreneurs to gleefully monetize alternative pathways for students. An example is the credentialing business heavily praised in a recent series of education articles by The Wall Street Journal on “The Future of Everything.”

Doubly discouraging because so many academics have fought so valiantly for so long for liberal education, providing a passionate defense of its value both rhetorically and empirically. Heck, we’ve even reframed liberal education along utilitarian lines to promote it amid criticism and indifference. We’ve shifted to describe the lifetime skills students receive, enlarging the conversation to include ideas like experiential learning and amplifying Phi Beta Kappa’s rejoinder to the career-readiness mania that a student’s first job after graduation matters less than their overall career trajectory.

Despite this stout and innovative defense, the Atlantic magazine published a piece in 2018 alarmingly entitled, “The Liberal Arts May Not Survive the 21st Century.” So why amid this long-running pattern of liberal education retrenchment, in spite of our best efforts to fight back, do I believe we now have a window of opportunity?

Here’s why.

At its core, liberal education consists of two contradictory yet complementary streams: the pursuit of truth and the creation of virtuous citizens in the community. Bruce A. Kimball makes this crystal clear in his magisterial 1986 book, Orators and Philosophers: A History of the Idea of Liberal Education.

The search for truth is right now the only antidote to the poison of disinformation in America. The creation of virtuous citizens is central to building a new, more inclusive democracy.

However it happened, in other words, liberal education now sits squarely in the middle of what so ails our nation and what is required to fix it. Truthfulness and citizenship are needed now more than ever. Opportunity knocks.

Opportunity knocks because developments in the public square ensure that these issues will be salient for years to come. Take truthfulness. We can be sure that our foreign adversaries will continue peddling disinformation to diminish America’s stature in the world. Mass manipulators will continue spreading wacky conspiracy theories to line their pockets, amplified by those who follow. Members of Congress from both political parties are for different reasons weighing regulation of the tech companies over disinformation issues.

These will spill over into recurrent issues of free speech, free expression, campaign expenditures, voter information and even the terms of service for social media users. All are likely to wind their way through legislatures and courts at the national and state levels for years to come.

We’ve grown accustomed (or maybe numb) to the search for truth in our political discourse, but this issue is so much larger than just politics. It spills out across our daily lives. We no longer even trust faces in a photograph. Truth or falsehood, fact or faction, is a defining issue of our time and will remain a significant challenge for our descendants.

Here’s the point: the search for truth lies at the very heart of liberal education, of what we do. We just have to effectively convey that to the public.

At a Crossroads

Shift to citizenship. We’re immersed in a national conversation about the sustenance of our democracy, driven by claims of fraudulent voting and a refusal by a president to commit to a peaceful transition of power.

Bake into the mix that democracy is on the wane globally. The Economist uses 60 objective criteria each year to determine whether the nations of the world fit the profile of full democracies, flawed democracies, hybrids or authoritarian regimes. This year, 167 nations hit their lowest collective democracy ranking since this tracking started in 2006. Less than 5 percent of the world’s population currently lives in a full democracy, while about 30 percent live in authoritarian regimes.

What about the United States, the originators of the democratic experiment in world history? We dropped down from full to flawed democracy back in 2015, driven primarily by citizen distrust of government. And we haven’t climbed back up.

American democracy is surely at a crossroads, as so many scholars and journalists have pointed out in recent months. Either we build the first multiracial, multiethnic and multicultural democracy of its kind in the world -- what I have taken to calling the Second American Democratic Experiment -- or we will likely slide into the morass of so many other nations.

It’s not a hyped scenario. Democracies do die. I was reminded of this every day for the last three years as president and CEO of the Gettysburg Foundation, driving past the cemetery where President Abraham Lincoln noted that governments of, by and for the people should not perish from the earth. But they can, and they have. Ours nearly did in the 1860s.

Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt’s book, How Democracies Die, explains that this typically happens through military coup in some regions of the world but through slowly voting democracy out of existence in more developed nations. They present many examples. Anne Applebaum’s new book, Twilight of Democracy, is an excellent companion volume. She focuses in on those more developed nations, explaining how demagoguery has been actively blending with simplistic solutions and identified enemies to erode long-established democratic traditions. Intellectual and media enablers sign on as a shortcut to personal influence or enrichment.

Today, democracy is at the center of a national conversation, as are our responsibilities as individual citizens. Record voter turnout in the 2020 election shows that people are right now engaged in citizenship issues. And like the situation with truthfulness, the citizenship conversation is not about to go away. Ahead of us will be many a postmortem on the issues of voter suppression and intimidation, voter registration, mail-in ballots, election security, judicial intervention, redistricting, gerrymandering and the Electoral College. All recurrent issues where public policy solutions will be advanced, and all this tied into citizenship.

Fostering citizenship also lies at the heart of what we in liberal education do. Here, too, we just have to effectively convey that to the public.

From Defense to Offense

We will now have two liberal education streams concurrently flowing deep and wide for many years to come. Our task is to start connecting the dots for a worried American public. For the first time since I don’t know when, it’s our chance to flip from defense to offense, with a clear message that liberal education is more than just intrinsically valuable. It is a ticket to helping fix a broken nation.

Easy road? Hell, no.

It will take faculty members and administrators speaking effectively and repeatedly to the public about liberal education -- which doesn’t fit easily into anyone’s job description on campus. It will require deliberate outreach to a broad swath of Americans who have come to believe that colleges and universities are primarily places of political indoctrination. Our message needs to be that colleges and universities have always been and will always remain -- no matter what else they may do -- institutions where students and faculty search for truth in classrooms and labs, in courses as divergent as biology, philosophy and politics.

This sounds so old-school that we don’t even bother talking about truth very much anymore, but look around and ask yourself if we haven’t paid a steep price. Polls reported by Inside Higher Ed on citizen perceptions of academe tell the story.

It will require distillation of a liberal education message that is currently formulated to guide insiders but way too obtuse for the general public -- with its promotion of pathways, high-impact practices, student portfolios, signature work and learning rubrics.

It’s problematic for academics to simplify matters sometimes, in spite of our desire for parsimony in empirical explanation. But taking advantage of the opportunity now set before us requires this bare-bones message: “Hey, America, liberal education teaches students to discern truth and be good citizens, and those are needed to help heal our nation.”

Leading liberal education associations are more than capable of spearheading a public reformulation: the Association of American Colleges and Universities, Council of Colleges of Arts and Sciences, Teagle Foundation, Phi Beta Kappa, and Project Pericles -- perhaps aided by the Carnegie Foundation and the Association of Governing Boards of Universities and Colleges, both of which have issued reports about the state of civic/civil education.

Opportunity knocks for liberal education. We better soon open up the door lest it stay shut.

Bio

Matthew C. Moen is distinguished professor emeritus at the University of South Dakota, where he served 15 years as dean of the College of Arts and Sciences and Lohre Distinguished Professor. He was recently awarded the 2020 Arts and Sciences Advocacy Award by the Council of Colleges of Arts and Sciences.

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