The reform efforts of Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in public higher education—which are, after all, very similar to those of many other Republican governors—focus on getting professors to work more and be more accountable to administrators, making “workforce development” the top priority, privileging, in the same vein, applied science or technology, scuttling initiatives have to do with community development, civic engagement, and public enlightenment, and even dispensing with “the search for the truth” for its own sake.
The new emphasis, in general, is on being as efficient and effective as possible in making men and women—both students and professors—productive. Insofar as colleges and universities claim to aim at more than that, they really are mostly serving “politically correct” or “progressive” causes.
Why should taxpayers fund partisan activism, especially activism that so obviously opposes—that is, in fact, unreasonably contemptuous of—majority opinions? And why should taxpayers be stuck with the salaries of lazy or at least self-indulgent tenured radical professors, who don’t bother to teach students the competencies they really need, deploy their relativistic theories to justify shamelessly mendacious grade inflation, and undermine middle-class America’s core principles of the dignity of work and personal responsibility?
Scott Walker Does Have Half a Point
The picture Walker and others paint is seductive, in part, because it is an exaggeration. Exaggerations are always useful because they highlight in neon letters part of the truth we might otherwise miss or slight. But they’re often pernicious because they hide or ignore lots of inconvenient facts. In this case, we might say Walker is too lazy—or too polemical—not to appreciate the saving grace that is the diversity of American higher education, even public higher education.
You really do find in higher education a lot of complacent politically correctness, relativism, and partisan self-indulgence. “Civic engagement” for college credit seems often to mean enlightening the rubes in the local communities about their true interests, which are almost always in the direction of redistribution in the service of equality, green initiatives, insufficient liberation regarding “relational autonomy,” sensitivity to diversity, and so forth. The premise often is that enlightened students readily know what justice is, so it’s possible to bypass disciplined inquiry into the question of justice to transform the rest of the world with the self-evident truth in mind.
It’s telling that few—if any—civic engagement initiatives tout the Tea Party as a model. Yet, say what you will about those partiers, they really do combine activism with a rather touching bookishness when it comes to being reverently attentive to the Founders’ intention and disparaging the deviations of the progressives and all that. Shouldn’t there be a program for conservative students, who themselves have studied carefully the great texts of American political thought, to engage the Tea Partiers through dialogue—including, surely, reading groups—that would encourage greater and maybe nuanced reflection on the true purposes of and dangers to our republic? It would be hard on many or most of our campuses to find a professor who would condescend to—much less be enthusiastic about—directing such civic engagement.
Careerism Furthers Political Correctness
But if Walker had looked more closely, he would have seen that on most of our campuses political correctness and careerism now go hand in hand. Experts, foundations, administrators, and bureaucrats are all about reducing higher education to the acquisition of competencies relevant to the twenty-first-century global competitive marketplace. So the study of the humanities has to be justified now through the “measurable outcome” of critical thinking or effective communication, competencies that have nothing in particular do with the actual content of history or philosophy. Among the competencies typically is diversity, which is about the kind of multiculturalism that detaches students from special concern for their own culture and its moral and intellectual claims for truth and virtue.
So it turns out that dissing liberal education in the sense of the love of truth and virtue for their own sake serves the forces that the governor opposes. He would deprive students of access to the books and music, the theology and philosophy, and so forth that might allow them to gain a critical distance from the fashionable claims of sophisticated intellectuals these days.
Now Walker might respond that political correctness these days has distorted the teaching of philosophy to the point that it’s indistinguishable from women’s studies. But that’s an exaggeration! And to the extent it’s true, he should work on that. He should be all for programs that go beyond techno-careerism and political correctness in the direction of the timeless truth, and he should rail against the relativism that devalues genuinely higher education.
A Commitment to Truth Undercuts Progressive Relativism
Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” one of the most liberty-loving great books ever written, says that it’s especially useful for our top students to study the Greek and Roman authors in their original languages. That’s because the tendency of democracy is to make language more one-dimensionally technological, to the point where we lack the words required to talk seriously about God and the good, liberty and dignity, and love and death. Excessive techno-reductionism isn’t even good for productivity, insofar as it stifles both openness for neglected wisdom of the past and possibilities for genuine progress of liberation. It’s those classical authors, Tocqueville remind us, that taught us not to be submissive to impersonal forces, and the key to leading others is really being able to rule yourself—to have the self-command of virtue.
The most important kind of progress, after all, is not the techno-progress toward some indefinite future to which I contribute only a smart part. It’s the progress that occurs toward wisdom and virtue over every particular life. From that view, we’re all searchers and seekers after the truth about who we are and what we’re supposed to do, and that indispensable quest shouldn’t be totally irrelevant even to public higher education.
Conservatives need to wake up to the truth that the future of the Democratic Party is in Silicon Valley, in technocratic efforts to undermine popular deliberation, the dignity of ordinary relational life, authentic religious faith, citizenship, and even sovereignty over the meaning of one’s most intimate experiences. Walker is, of course, correct that most of what goes on in our colleges and universities should be about preparing students for what the marketplace demands. But it’s hardly conservative not to be alive to the dangers of transforming all of life with the technocratic logic of the marketplace and the virtual reality of the screen.
It’s often the case that professors should work more. Governors, too. But there’s also a danger in thinking of professors as just workers to be scripted by the experts. That impetus toward techno-competent standardization threatens the genuine diversity present not only in our public but especially in our private higher education. The experts—the administrators—know less than they thinking they do, precisely because they place so much emphasis on competence and productivity. Surely we all believe, with Aristotle or Freud, that what makes life worth living is meaningful work and devoted love, and that means that higher education is about constantly reminding us that there’s more to life than productivity and preferences. To some extent, higher education is about creating a safe space for serious leisure.