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How Liberal Education Became Illiberal


We must summon a miraculous indulgence of grace to greet with patience and good faith campus radicals across the country whose demands and quest for continued media spotlight were inspired by Yale University, Dartmouth, and the University of Missouri. The vignettes widely circulated (and they are merely vignettes) are reason for despair. Students blast dissenters with a deluge of illiberalism and vulgarity, like a rhetorical Jackson Pollock. Comparisons to Robespierre are not totally inapt.

As Ross Douthat observes, these fits of radicalism, beginning in the 1960s and continuing apace to the present dramas, are in fact attempts to erect a new moral scaffolding, to restore the higher purpose higher education has lost in recent decades. The drama of the moment may reflect an unyielding reverence for identity thought (and not a little egoism), but it is primarily the effect of the decline of the liberal arts.

The Liberal Arts Don’t Mean Anything Any More

Properly understood, liberal arts are a temple-arena for pursuing the permanent questions that elevate moral life—truth, beauty, justice—in light of reason. This quest for the sublime animates and edifies the soul. Speaking always with a Greek twang, the late professor Allan Bloom once characterized the liberal arts as “the experience of greatness.”

Today, students lack an experience of the sublime because the university has lost the ability to sublimate. Left directionless but zealous for direction, students are prone to intellectual licentiousness, susceptible to the passing vulgarities of mass movements. Thus, the disposition of the campus radicalism currently en vogue is the result of an ongoing iconoclasm, an erosion of aspirations and ideas that have defined education since Martianus Capella compiled “Marriage of Mercury and Philology.”

There seems even to be confusion as to the definition of liberal education. The Association of American Colleges and Universities, a consortium of 1,300 accredited institutions of higher learning, defines liberal education in this way: “An approach to learning that empowers individuals and prepares them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change.” They offer this in response to the question “What is a 21st Century Liberal Education?” It smacks of a liberal academy no longer sure of its relevance, suffering from a lack of tradition, and anxious about its market utility. Worse still, it feigns not the slightest interest in the elevation of moral life, those permanent questions that are the wellspring of liberal learning.

Theory and Equality Struck Death Blows

The contemporary character of the university has been molded by strange bedfellows that include gargantuan administrative apparatuses, ideologically homogenous faculties, and the commodifying forces of capitalism. Two features particularly seem responsible for the deterioration of the liberal arts: the displacement of ethical and aesthetic thought by theory (or, put more capably by a dear friend, the “1970s poststructuralist gnashing of teeth”) which hurled the university gates open to all manner of passing fads, and a democratizing effect that forged the campus in the crucible of egalitarianism and made the application of reason virtually impossible.

Truth itself is being deconstructed under the scrutiny of criticism.

The expression and prevalence of theory, which infects English departments particularly but the humanities generally, leaves entire fields, departments, and classes wanting for material coherence. Increasingly, they are mere attitudes. Theoretical approaches that are today the norm in liberal arts classes are often steeped deeply in social theory students are ill-equipped to grapple with. “Theoretical lenses” are embraced without regard for context, or the associated history of intellectual engagement, rendering professor and student unable to answer related questions, trapped within theory like Tom Sawyer in McDougal’s Cave.

This problem is compounded when professor and student have sparse backgrounds in methodology, best practices, or social science research. Additionally, the litany of theoretical constructs makes any form of ecumenical synthesis, the discovery of a truth which ennobles moral living, a tall order indeed.

Thus truth itself is being deconstructed under the scrutiny of criticism. The profound intellectual fragmentation that attends what I have just described obscures the true purpose of pursuits like philosophy, literature, art, or history, distracting us from the fundamental and permanent questions that are the purpose of the liberal arts. Is not a brush with the course catalogue an occasion for bewilderment? Left intellectually impoverished, it is not surprising that students are now constructing their own conception of the good.

Refusing to Call Some Things Superior and Others Inferior

In “The Closing of the American Mind,” Bloom meditates on another regrettable broadside against liberal education, lamenting the extent to which academe has accommodated intellectual fads and blurred the distinction between high and popular culture. He describes the contemporary campus as “a democracy of the disciplines—which are there either because they are autochthonous or because they wandered in recently to perform some job that was demanded of the university.”

Academe has accommodated intellectual fads and blurred the distinction between high and popular culture.

Note that the demand was made of the university and not by the university, which Bloom says indicates the increasingly egalitarian character of higher education (a development that drove him to the depths of despair).

In the Bloomian universe, the egalitarian university does not offer a vision for moral life and human happiness because it makes no distinction between the valuable and the vulgar, knowledge which magnifies the moral life and knowledge that is pre-professional, technical, or of no value. It has abandoned reason and, in particular, ethics.

What distressed Bloom was that it cannot even offer competing visions of moral life, since a survey of competing ideas is integral to the liberal exercise. Without a vision (or competing visions) of the moral and the sublime, disarray ensues, making rational inquiry a practical impossibility. The spuriousness and relativism of virtually every campus was, in Bloom’s eye, a function of this chaos.

In this chaos, students will assemble their own vision of moral living, human happiness, and the good life. They are to be absolved of their follies because the university has failed to channel their intellectual promiscuity toward the sublime (indeed, this pursuit has an erotic dimension). But we indulge them at our peril. Higher education must revive the liberal arts and truly liberal education, for without them the university stands for nothing. If the university stands for nothing, for what purpose does it stand?