Christopher Scalia has a product to sell, and he’s wondering why conservatives aren’t buying it. As an English professor at an elite university, he’s troubled that so many high-profile conservatives have been speaking dismissively about the liberal arts.
His sales pitch is reasonable enough: the liberal arts can make an important contribution to producing the sort of well-informed and critically engaged public that democracies need to thrive. A liberal-arts education exposes students to a wide range of facts, ideas, and experiences, making it harder for the government to control the minds of its citizens. Likewise, the critical-thinking skills students develop from wrestling with complex and sophisticated ideas enable them to ask better questions and challenge authority more effectively.
In theory, a good liberal-arts education is a strong antidote to authoritarianism. So it is unsurprising that conservatives have traditionally extoled the virtues associated with receiving one. What, then, has changed? Scalia seems to think conservatives are simply losing sight of a liberal-arts education’s benefits and need to be reminded of them. But perhaps some conservatives are questioning the value of the liberal arts because they see a slew of indications that what’s offered under that banner at today’s universities may be increasingly less likely to produce a well-informed, critically engaged citizen.
Higher Education Is Closed-Minded
In fact, some American universities seem to be reconsidering whether exposing students to a wide range of perspectives is necessary or beneficial. They want students to feel safe; not just physically, but psychologically and intellectually as well. Over the past year, many mainstream universities have been experimenting with the use of trigger warnings. If an idea might upset some students, then professors are encouraged to provide a trigger warning so students can choose to close themselves off.
For example, if a professor is going to discuss sexual violence, a student who had been raped might prefer to excuse herself. While a trigger warning might demonstrate sympathy and respect for students who are legitimately dealing with exceptional trauma, it is clearly a bridge too far to apply such things in a general manner at a liberal-arts university. Such an approach undermines the purpose of a liberal-arts education, which is to expose students to a wide spectrum of views, and not exclusively the pleasant ones. Coddling students and protecting them from disturbing ideas is not a sustainable strategy for promoting the sort of civil society conservatives value.
The “micro-aggression” is another emerging threat to the traditional liberal arts. Hypersensitive students or teachers tease out the supposedly vicious and unacceptable deeper meanings of mundane remarks from their peers and colleagues. Saying something that implies a student has a mother and a father is a micro-aggression, for example, since the student may have been raised by two mommies, or maybe just one. Again, this student arrived at the university feeling safe within his or her own bubble. Educators preoccupied with micro-aggressions aim to protect sensitive students from classmates who might have different assumptions about what normal is.
Substituting Political Correctness for Philosophy
Perhaps the best example of the problem with how the liberal arts are being taught at today’s universities occurred last year at Marquette University. In an ethics class, a young teacher’s assistant (TA) was confronted by a student who wanted to debate the ethics of gay marriage. The TA told the student this issue was not up for debate. She asked the student to stop talking about the possibility that there could be an ethical argument against gay marriage. This line of thought made him a homophobe, and a gay student in the class might feel hurt if he discovered one of his classmates harbored doubts about the legitimacy of his choices.
Sadly, the consensus in the academy seems to be that this young TA got it right. Meanwhile, her colleague who exposed the incident to the public—thinking people would be horrified by what was going on in Marquette’s classrooms—was stripped of tenure and fired.
This is disheartening, for multiple reasons. The TA seems oblivious to the fact that if everyone else were as closed-minded as she, no one would have questioned the former consensus that homosexuality is a form of deviancy. But someone, quite possibly in an ethics class, challenged the prevailing point of view. This person asked how someone’s rights could be denied on the basis of a moral code he did not subscribe to. This started a debate. The objector was not told to shut up and stop making everyone feel uncomfortable.
Another reason this incident was so ironic is that it occurred in a philosophy classroom. If there is one discipline that cannot survive in an atmosphere of political correctness, it is philosophy. Philosophy critically evaluates ideas. It does not remove some from discussion just because someone might find them offensive.
Imagine if all of the world’s philosophers were suddenly forbidden from questioning God’s existence, or from challenging Christian morality. After all, there is a pretty good chance a Christian might hear such a lecture and be taken aback. Getting offended is largely the point. Socrates said provocative things, knowing that others would try to silence him. He did not relent, and was ultimately forced to take his own life. That’s what philosophy does. It challenges, it offends, and it risks a backlash. It is not the role of the philosopher to chastise students for straying from conventional wisdom.
The Liberal Arts Should Bring Ideas Into the Light
The idea seems to be growing that universities are where young people go to flaunt their possession of the correct set of ideas, rather than where they go to learn to reason critically. A full 39 percent of Americans now believe students ought to be expelled from college for making racist comments, according to a recent YouGov poll. The poll’s question leaves it unclear whether respondents thought students should be expelled only when they make aggressive and taunting remarks like those of the University of Oklahoma fraternity members caught on video chanting a racist song that promoted violence, or if the respondents thought any statement regarded as racist should be grounds for dismissal. The latter allows for broad powers of thought control. Should students be expelled for trying to link the violence wrought by the Islamic State to Islam? Our president seems to think that is racist.
But even without worrying about mass expulsions of students expressing common-sense beliefs, the high percentage of people who seem to consider the proper response to a racist comment is to banish the speaker from the university is disturbing. People who harbor racist or other backward beliefs are precisely the people who stand to benefit the most from a liberal-arts education.
It would make more sense for university educators to encourage students to express negative stereotypes they might subscribe to rather than to repress them. The whole point of learning to think critically and to inspect one’s beliefs and values is lost when students are told up front they should never speak any potentially offensive thoughts they might have, and consequently should never open themselves for critical evaluation.
All That’s Left Is Vocational Training
As a philosopher myself, I too balked when Sen. Marco Rubio discouraged an audience from pursuing a degree in Greek philosophy. While he accurately cited the lousy job market for Greek philosophers, a bad job market is an insufficient reason to discourage the study of philosophy. Ideally, a liberal-arts education would help produce the sort of citizen that can contribute meaningfully to our nation’s political discourse. That is more important in the long run than a steady paycheck straight out of college.
But the price is only worth it if liberal-arts universities remain committed to fostering open-minded, free-thinking individuals. Increasingly, conservatives are coming to doubt this commitment, so they are left wondering whether students might not be better served spending their college years preparing themselves for the job market.
Granted, an indictment of liberal-arts universities is not the same as an indictment of the liberal arts. Conservatives sometimes conflate the two when they denigrate certain courses of study. But there is an obvious connection. The liberal arts, after all, are taught in liberal-arts universities. As America’s universities increasingly concern themselves with what students can think and say, rather than how to reason and argue, the value of a liberal-arts education diminishes.
While Scalia may be correct in arguing that the liberal arts can serve as a bulwark against centralized government power, the growing preoccupation of liberal-arts universities with political correctness makes them seem more like an instrument of political power. At least this is the perception that people like Scalia must counter if they want to win back conservatives.