Truly Higher Education
Education is a perennial human good, and its decadence today comes, most of all, from neglecting its proper purposes. One of those purposes, of course, is to prepare free persons to compete effectively in the global competitive marketplace, and the evidence is abundant that our colleges and universities are failing us on that front. But another purpose, especially associated with higher education, is to help us understand who we are as more than free and productive beings. And on that front, most of our institutions of higher education seem even more inept.
Our political and economic freedom are properly understood as mainly ministerial to what gives particular lives personal significance, as helping us in being good friends, parents, children, citizens, creatures, and so forth. Likewise, individual freedom must be a central goal of good governing, but it must not be the only goal. The good of liberty to a person is most evident and true when it is practiced through roles that require responsibility to others. So let's begin by remembering that having freedom is not necessarily always a good in itself; politically speaking, libertarian means should be used for non-libertarian ends. Those Republicans who want to make real reforms in public policy should therefore be interested in more than cutting taxes for "job creators" and achieving maximum conceivable deregulation and personal autonomy. While economic growth is certainly good for everyone, growth alone cannot obliterate all the relational issues connected with our struggling, broken families and sinking middle class.
Some of the dependency-facilitating institutions of the welfare state have surely contributed to personal irresponsibility in a world with too many feckless men and lonely single moms. But it's also true that the progress of the division of labor itself makes it more difficult for ordinary Americans to find jobs that afford them the wherewithal to live a life of relational dignity. Candid libertarian futurists, such as Tyler Cowen, explain that the future will be about the division of our country into a cognitive elite and those who work off the scripts devised through the intellectual labor of that elite. Once work becomes reliably scripted, of course, the worker can be replaced by a machine, a computer, or a robot, so that the top and bottom spread even further apart. "Average," Cowen tells us, "is over."
It's easy to get wrapped up in a (consciously selective) nostalgia for industrial unions, as the foundation for the "family wage" earned by so many workers. At one time, the largest non-governmental employer in the country was General Motors, where the average pay was around $20 an hour in today's money with excellent benefits. Today, it's Walmart, at about $9, and no benefits. Conservatives know that the day of the union is over, and to proceed otherwise is literally counterproductive given the realities of the global marketplace. Genuinely conservative — or genuinely progressive or non-reactionary — reform today must be market-based and decentralizing.
Any attempt at educational reform has to come to terms with this changing reality. That means, for one thing, that higher education has to be oriented toward preparing people to be independent operators with flexible skills, in a world where employer and employee loyalty are withering away and "what you know" is more completely displacing "who you know." Colleges are frequently failing to prepare students for that future — and not only in the ways that our economically obsessed political discussions tend to emphasize.
THE COLLEGE BUBBLES
The elite model of American higher education used to be the most reliable path to a successful future. A privileged person could move from the fairly leisurely, cultivated, and comfortable environment of the liberal-arts college to the enveloping institutional arms of the professional school — law, medicine, or business — and then on to a fairly secure "career" in a firm or practice or corporation. All along, a certain level of literacy and analytical ability was required, but the whole system was filled with "safety nets" that cushioned the person from the unmediated pressures of the market. And all along, the loans required to fund all this education were more than justified by the prospect of the high and secure income to come.
But the whole elite model of American higher education may soon be outmoded. Today, borrowing big to go to law or medical school is an extremely risky move. Physicians may soon be largely displaced by diagnostic computers, which (who?) know more and make many fewer errors. The personal touch and personal judgment can be provided by nurses, who will refer the rare case they and the computer can't handle to a specialist. Much of what lawyers do will also increasingly be done by machines. We see that the supply of lawyers already considerably exceeds the demand, and their average compensation and perks, like those of ordinary physicians, are dropping quickly. Enrollment in law school is also dropping, as is the quality of law students, and even good schools are being forced to discount their rates to fill seats. If you still love the law or medicine, you should still, of course, "follow your passion," but in a much more entrepreneurial spirit; just like everyone else, you'll likely spend your career functioning as an independent contractor, selling your skillful labor piecemeal for a price. From this skillful-labor point of view, higher education as "liberal education" seems like an ill-considered choice, not worth the institutional cost in time and treasure.
Everyone agrees that higher education should be more responsive to the market and that graduates often are ill-prepared for a world in which many traditionally middle-class jobs are becoming harder and harder to find. Employers who complain about unprepared college graduates, however, often don't mean that students lack specific technical skills; the problem is that new workers don't have the general literacy, capacity for thought, and personal discipline necessary for life in the workplace. What employers often mean, in other words, is that graduates don't have the manners, morals, and confident literacy of ladies and gentleman. They don't have what a college or even high-school diploma used to fairly reliably signify.
The blame for this failure is often placed on the artificial and infantilizing environment of the residential college, which is typically described as a "bubble." Though the form of the liberal-arts college remains (in many cases), there is little trace of its old animating discipline. Students allegedly frolic freely in luxury while doing very little work. Little is required of them either in the classroom or the dorms. They are not only allowed but encouraged to express themselves as they please, as long as it's safe and consensual. This socially engineered environment often yields an unpleasant sense of entitlement. Students can end up altogether unfit to enter the "real world" upon graduation. This might be especially true if they've coasted through with one of the notorious "easy" majors; college has given these students no intellectual "value added," and perhaps the opposite of professional manners and morals.
Critics of the bubble often describe this way of life as the result of a corrupt bargain among professors and students. The "tenured radicals" of the professorial class also luxuriate with a rich sense of entitlement while doing very little work. They can teach all sorts of envious and malicious nonsense without being held to account. Tenure allows them to do what they please, as long as students like them and continue to take their courses. All they have to do is give students good grades for very little effort; in return, students will give them good evaluations, whether or not they are deserved.
But the bubble of campus life is not the only troubling college bubble. Tuition and other costs continue to rise far faster than the rate of inflation. As with the housing bubble that peaked in 2006, easy credit facilitated by misguided government policy has artificially inflated prices. When the housing bubble popped, equity disappeared and foreclosures became commonplace. Some critics think the same thing will happen to many of our residential colleges; in fact, two small liberal-arts colleges recently announced they will be closing their doors this year. Surely paying more and more for less and less — that is, for degrees that have less and less value in the marketplace — can't go on much longer.
Critics on the right say that colleges have little incentive to be efficient and productive because, thanks to the government, it is too easy for students to borrow to cover bloated tuition and other costs. Young people with short mental time horizons are being seduced into a privileged, irresponsible way of life. When the party ends, their careers and other life choices are hobbled and even crippled by sometimes six-figure debt. The total amount of student debt in America now exceeds a trillion dollars, and, not surprisingly, the rate of default is on the rise.
Conservatives and libertarians agree that the only solution is to wean our institutions of higher education off the government dole and force them to adjust educational costs to the realities of the marketplace. To the extent they remain on the dole — and liberals, bureaucrats, and technocrats all have schemes to expand federal subsidies — colleges should be disciplined by public policy that forces them to demonstrate that they actually give students their money's worth by getting them ready to compete in the marketplace. To that end, colleges should be held accountable for how many students graduate, how many of their graduates and non-graduates default on loans, how many graduates get well-paying jobs, and how many measurable learning outcomes each student has mastered.
But these related lines of criticism — being pushed at the moment by, among others, presidential candidate Governor Scott Walker — underestimate the ways in which American higher education is already submitting to the discipline of the marketplace and to the imperatives of technology and progress in the division of labor. Many institutions are following the lead of the corporate world by concentrating "mental labor" in the administration and reducing, as far as possible, instruction to working off a script devised by experts. The number of tenured and tenure-track or careerist professors is in free fall; they now "deliver" a surprisingly small minority of the credit hours generated. Meanwhile, the number of temporary and adjunct faculty soars. Faculty governance — which is increasingly viewed as rule by those cluelessly out-of-touch with the market realities — is being displaced by strategic plans generated by administrators and their expert consultants.
Meanwhile, the top administrators — the self-appointed cognitive elite — have compensation, benefits, and even "golden parachutes" increasingly comparable to those found in the for-profit corporate sector. An administrative class with its own class consciousness is evolving, and members of that class speak (with conviction) in jargon borrowed from the world of corporations and schools of business.
The transfer of governance from the faculty to administrators is, of course, partly the fault of tenured faculty. Like members of any of the unions that are withering away, they don't see clearly enough that their perks are being dissolved by the market. More importantly, they are also often so wrapped up in their areas of scholarly specialization that they fail to take an interest in the development of their institution as a whole, and so they are happy to allow introductory or "general education" courses to be taught by temporary employees. Administrators are typically cagey enough not to go after professors' tenure, and the professors themselves are fatalistic enough to think the future of tenure is not a cause worthy of defense. Everyone really knows that safety nets like tenure — which cushion employees from being rigorously evaluated according to standards of measurable productivity — don't have much of a future. But a professor can reasonably imagine that tenure's future extends at least to the end of his own career.
The administrators now in charge are typically techno-enthusiasts, embracing without much reflection the various ways to make classrooms "smarter," create courses that are "blended" and "flipped," and profit from the rampant and loosely monitored proliferation of lucrative online learning. The general thought is that the use of machines and screens aids in scripting instruction according to "best practices," or empirically validated methods of most efficiently delivering skills and competencies, is the future of higher education. The spontaneity of faculty behavior occasionally leads to brilliant teachable moments, but those can't be relied upon and are a time-consuming indulgence. And administrators have found it easier to discipline insecure or temporary faculty working at subsistence (or even less); such instructors are far more open to the imposition of instructional rubrics. Joel Kotkin writes of the proletarianization of the middle class, and the general tendency is, as Marx suggests, to rip the halos off the cherished professors and reduce them to laborers being paid piecemeal. And once instruction has been mechanized or scripted, the instructor can be replaced by a machine.
Libertarian futurists see that most instruction in the future will be delivered by "genius machines," or astutely interactive computers. Cowen, Glenn Reynolds, and others criticize colleges for not going down this road fast enough. They foresee that the popping of the bubble will dispel their remaining illusions and speed schools down the road they are already traveling. The libertarians talk up the new birth of equality in freedom that will come with a screen to which virtually everyone has access, and there is already plenty of evidence that this technology might have the power to burst both of the educational bubbles (economic and utopian) by delivering "good enough" education to everyone in the privacy of their own rooms.
But this future is not as close as some libertarians think. Our elite schools, because of their endowments and assured enrollments, are relatively insulated from these market pressures. Harvard professor Michael Sandel markets his celebrated justice MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) only to less prestigious places, and the techno-instructional initiatives coming out of Stanford and MIT aren't meant for the students at Stanford and MIT.
Some of our less selective and more precarious colleges are making a virtue out of necessity by branding themselves as exceptional in student-faculty engagement or personal service. But on those campuses, the pressure is on faculty to display how engaged they are in ways that pay off. Cowen remarks that, even once we've mechanized instruction, a place for faculty will remain as coaches who encourage slow and unmotivated students, and some of our small colleges are already making that kind of appeal to worried parents. The question for the future is whether engagement alone is worth taking out a big loan, when "good enough" is available online for almost nothing. If this kind of thinking were to become common, the tuition bubble would quickly pop.
THE SCOURGE OF ADMINISTRATION
So why is tuition so high? Although it's not true everywhere, the general trend indicates that the cost of instruction is dropping. Certainly, when most college faculty see tuition rising at double or more the rate of inflation, they, as much as anyone, wonder what the money is for, because it is not coming to them in compensation or other perks. As the size and status of faculty decline overall, there has been what almost seems to be a corresponding increase in the proliferation and status of administrators.
The most important cause of administrative proliferation appears to be the new division of labor. Administration has in many ways become more "cognitive" as "enrollment management" and "advancement" have become both more challenging and more expert-driven, as have their enhanced roles in determining curricular priorities and modes of instructional "delivery." It is generally conceded, for example, that as higher education moves online and becomes more widely and cheaply available, the on-campus product needs to be more carefully regulated: Faculty can no longer be allowed the freedom to determine either the content or mode of delivery of their courses.
Administrators themselves often prefer to call attention to their new responsibilities in complying with increasingly intrusive governmental and accreditation regulations. Those responsibilities do, in fact, require an unprecedented deployment of time and resources. Consider, for example, the recent mandate from the Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights requiring that, to deal with accusations of sexual assault and rape, colleges develop their own internal processes that are meant to operate outside the realm of legal due process.
More generally, many institutions have a dean just for "diversity" and another to worry about hate speech, safe spaces, trigger warnings, microaggressions, and the like. These roles have arisen in response to external bureaucratic pressure; such initiatives have little or nothing to do with improving the quality of instruction. They are, in fact, generally perceived to make instruction worse, as faculty members are harassed by regulations and regulators — as well as by students, invigorated by the politically correct environment — that privilege "academic justice" over "academic freedom."
More and more administrative time is also spent on accreditation. The regional accrediting associations are always upping the ante when it comes to lengthy and data-laden reports. Every moment of instruction has to be validated by measurable acquisition of skills and competencies.
Lots of time is dedicated to determining what counts as a competency. The faculty who justify their courses in terms of competency acquisition, especially in the humanities, often do so ironically, reassured that their courses can (and should) be about a lot more than being competent. But some faculty members, having attended conferences dominated by administrators, buy into "the culture of assessment." Administrators charge these cooperative faculty members with leading the revision of curriculum and especially "general education" with the competencies in mind, typically truncating or emptying out its distinctive content. Competencies, after all, are content neutral.
This unfortunate process is a general trend that, as I've suggested, has had less effect on both elite institutions and on countercultural institutions secure in their missions. It does, however, explain why college administrators so readily submit to the discipline of accreditation: It is actually their discipline. It is imposed by the class of administrators as such on recalcitrant faculty at particular institutions. Accreditation is just one factor among many that is flattening the rhetoric of higher education, causing the class of administrators increasingly to deploy, with unironic enthusiasm, assorted buzzwords concerning competency, techno-disruption, diversity, assessment, and engagement. Those words aren't intrinsically bad, but it's becoming difficult to find administrators who can rise above them in the direction of genuine educational mission or content.
Benjamin Ginsberg, who teaches political science at Johns Hopkins, has ironically put forward a modest proposal for a MOOA (massive online open administration). Given that a large part of the increase in costs in higher education comes from administrative growth, and given "that a 'best practices' philosophy already leads administrators to blindly follow one another's lead in such realms as planning, staffing, personnel issues, campus diversity, branding and curriculum planning," why not take the "best practices" idea to its logical conclusion and have a single, expert provost making decisions for hundreds of campuses? After all, it seems as if one size really does fit all, given that the strategic plans of our colleges and universities are becoming increasingly identical. Content, tradition, or genuinely distinctive (for example, religious) missions are being replaced by feel-good gimmicks thought up by the marketing department.
As the president of my college has remarked, the liberal arts don't sell anymore, so even they have to be rebranded with the current market in mind. Sometimes, colleges aim to keep the general ambiance of liberal education — it gives the campus a classy, traditional feel — while jettisoning much of its substance.
As curricula become more alike and academic missions morph into brands, residential colleges in particular aim to distinguish themselves by offering "lifestyle" amenities that make the "college experience" seem worth the money. As a result, higher education is in the midst of what amounts to an amenities arms race. One measurable outcome is the increase in staff and costs that have little to nothing to do with instruction, and everything to do with recruitment and retention. These unproductive and expensive features of college life are the result of accepting (not without reason) that market discipline is indispensable for the institution's self-preservation and flourishing.
The features of this rapid and often stunning improvement in the quality of campus life include cafeterias with gourmet food, health-club gyms, a proliferation of non-revenue-producing intercollegiate athletic teams, hotel-quality dorms, student-affairs staffs that function like concierges to save students from boredom, and user-friendly and otherwise attractive study-abroad programs. According to recent surveys, the self-esteem of college students is on the rise, even as actual student achievement declines. One reason is that colleges, more than ever, treat students like consumers, maximizing health, safety, comfort, and choice in every feature of campus life. Colleges do this for good reason: Studies actually do show most students who choose a residential college usually do so more with the general lifestyle than the excellence or value of academic programs in mind. Colleges in many cases can be justly charged with emptying student pockets and indenturing their futures with debt in order to give them what they really want.
THE COMPETENCE GAP
There is a great deal of justifiable outrage about crushing college loans that aren't worth the cost. These cases usually involve under-qualified and ill-informed students borrowing massive amounts of money to go to bad private colleges. Sometimes they drop out; other times, their college of choice doesn't give them what they need for their desired career. The real problem is almost always that they didn't have the advice they needed. Students who don't qualify for lots of financial aid should choose non-residential public institutions, and our country is full of decent ones. It is an abuse of the marketplace when the admissions representatives of expensive private colleges convince them otherwise. Those representatives are driven, of course, by the imperatives of the marketplace, and they are doing what's required to keep their schools in business. The student is a scarce resource, and there are more private residential colleges than we can really use.
It is a disservice to students to allow those schools to prop themselves up indefinitely on loans guaranteed by the government; the education they offer is not worth the burden of a five- or six-figure student loan. If the marketplace weren't distorted in such a seductive way, young people would typically make safer and better choices. Colleges are failing young people by offering them choices they're not really competent to make.
Many of the criticisms of higher education in America today are related to a national crisis in competence or, more precisely, a competence gap. Some Americans — members of our cognitive elite — seem in some ways more competent than ever. The best secondary schools are better than ever, and their graduates are often so well prepared that they could go to Ivy-League colleges and slouch through with minimal effort in grade-inflated, politically correct humanities courses and still be perfectly ready for the more cognitive parts of the workforce. And employers know that the SAT scores and fabulous résumés of teenage accomplishment that got them into their elite colleges are typically evidence enough that they have the brains and skills to learn on the job. Still, few question whether the Ivies and the other elite schools are worth the money, for a couple of reasons. For one thing, their huge endowments allow them to offer most students steep discounts. For another, there is little doubt (less, actually, than there should be) that their degrees — as well as the contacts students make on their campuses — are a reliable ticket to lucrative employment.
Elite schools aren't completely immune to competition. They don't have to worry about filling their desks with warm bodies, but their "brand" depends on getting the students with the best measurable credentials. One way the Ivies and other elite schools secure their students' highly marketable brand of excellence is through shameless grade inflation. The typical grade is some form of an A.
A few years ago, Princeton attempted to buck this trend and develop a reputation for rigor by enacting grading reform that reduced the number of As to around 35%. It seemed to be a brilliant move: Princeton could boast that it was a little bit more demanding, and its students would have the benefit of having the reputation of surviving the "tough" Ivy. But the reform backfired: The admissions folks at the other Ivies started to warn the best and the brightest that they might be tarred with the stigma of Bs if they went to Princeton, and Princeton started to struggle in the competitive marketplace. So Princeton rather quickly caved, and has since gone the other direction. The administration recently announced that it may well do away with or radically deemphasize grades, at least for freshmen, as a way to reduce student stress.
Grade inflation is a sensitive subject among Ivy-League students. They argue that they are exceptionally good students and so deserve exceptionally high grades. Few of the highly competent people at such schools want to be rigorously compared with one another; the result might be an unfair reputation for mediocrity. In the end, despite or because of the well-known grade inflation, graduates can still enter the global competitive marketplace quite successfully with the impression of excellence maintained.
For elite schools, grades don't measure the basic competence required for the marketplace, although they might distinguish between ordinary and soaring excellence. But their grade-inflation scam affects almost all other colleges and universities, and similar grade inflation in less-selective colleges has a far more insidious effect. Nobody really believes that being admitted to these colleges is a sure sign of competence, so earning inflated grades there really isn't either. But if professors deviate too much from the Harvard grading pattern, then their competent, accomplished students will be doubly disadvantaged. It might actually be harder to get an A at, say, Hampden-Sydney than it is at Harvard, but nobody is likely to believe that. So it becomes increasingly difficult to show that graduates from less-selective colleges are competent. The fact that they often are not makes it even harder.
Just as troubling, while elite high schools continue to improve, most high schools are getting worse. The intention of the controversial Common Core project is to ensure that all high schools turn out students with a basic level of competence. There are valid criticisms of the Common Core as a form of techno-leveling that replaces a quest for genuinely humane learning, cultural acquisition, and civic literacy with a "good-enough to be a cog in a machine" minimalist approach to competencies. Those are the same criticisms, after all, that are directed against the techno-confidence of competency-based higher education. But there is much more to criticize in the technocratic optimism reflected in Bill Gates's comparison of education delivery to standardized electrical outlets. With such misplaced confidence at its foundation, the Common Core will probably work about as well as No Child Left Behind.
What's really wrong with most schools, however, may be less the "method of delivery" than the social and economic context in which they operate. The failure of our schools is closely connected with our increasingly pathological families, the gradual disappearance of the middle class, and all the other trends that are dividing our country into two more clearly distinct classes. Members of our "cognitive elite" are herding together in particular zip codes and dominating our best schools, both public and private. Meanwhile our other schools are increasingly deprived of the genuine socioeconomic diversity that, until fairly recently, led to rich kids dating their poor classmates and to talented poor kids being raised up by the general excellence of the school. Social mobility is on the decline, and the composition of our schools reflects that fact.
Ordinary graduates of most of our secondary schools lack the basic competence required to enter the world of work, and schools now claim victory if they manage to successfully warehouse most of their students until they graduate. It wasn't that long ago that a high-school diploma was regarded as a reliable measure of basic competence. Now high-school graduates often aren't prepared in terms of skills or habituation for even entry-level manual labor or service-sector jobs. And those jobs, in any case, are getting rarer, less lucrative, and increasingly short on both benefits and security.
As a result, we now expect college to provide the basic levels of competence that used to be the fairly reliable result of a high-school education. That's the main reason why jobs that used to be open to high-school graduates now require a college degree, and it's why more of what our non-selective colleges do now is oriented toward teaching fairly low-level techno-vocational skills.
Some reformers think that the key to increasing American social mobility is to make sure that as many people as possible get college degrees. To ensure those degrees continue to mean something, foundations, bureaucrats, and others are working to enforce standards so that the college-degree credential is evidence of workforce competence. These reformers insist that every feature of "the undergraduate experience" be reconfigured with "demonstrated competence" in mind. What the Lumina Foundation, Gates, and their compatriots really want is a Common Core for college to supplement the one for secondary school — so colleges can guarantee the competence that failing secondary schools no longer can.
Some may wonder why reformers are merely aiming for competency, instead of excellence. But "good enough" is a reasonably democratic goal, and it is still quite a challenge, as too many students leave the college bubble no better prepared for the world of work than when they entered. Given that college is now charged with accomplishing what public education used to do for most Americans for free, it's really a matter of justice that the college experience be as efficient and productive as possible. Degrees should be cheap, and a student should be able to get one quickly. Going beyond competence, in most cases, is a waste of time and money. In truth, it's outrageous that struggling young people have to borrow to get a credential required for a very modest job and that "disruptive innovation" has come to mean getting them the skills they really need and nothing more. It is sad to think that the colleges that "disrupt" themselves with cheap and quick competence in mind may well be the institutions that have real futures.
A LIBERAL EDUCATION
The truth is that the parts of higher education known as the liberal arts or the humanities haven't ever been about competence but have rather presupposed it. And despite the current environment, they retain some of the mission they received from their aristocratic and religious heritage to raise students above middle-class vocationalism. Charles Murray has called attention to the inconvenient truth that a college student at the typical skill level will not only be unable to readily absorb this or that "great book," but he will be unable to absorb the average text in, say, world-history class.
That doesn't mean the students don't have the brains to overcome their educational deficiencies. But it does mean that if institutions want to fix this situation, they need to both have the mission-based dedication to teach students the skills they lack that are indispensable for more than basic literacy and, more importantly, convince students that the effort will improve their lives. In most cases, however, this is a hard sell. The case for dedicating the time and money to achieving historical literacy or nurturing the ability to attentively absorb a difficult book seems weak.
Still, the truth is that the case for the "higher competence" in the liberal arts is quite strong. E.D. Hirsch has provided the strongest argument for the humanities — or the attentive reading of "real books" that are more than technical manuals or sources of information. There's a strong correlation between high-level success in life and the size of one's active vocabulary. This may seem implausible at first, but the more words a person really knows, the more he knows about the real world around him. To know what a word means is to really grasp the (always imperfect, of course) correspondence between the word and a part of reality. It is also to understand the limitations of words, when they are vaguely or wrongly used. With that kind of knowledge comes a good deal of self-discipline and control. For example, there's a clear distinction between those who use today's expert techno-babble (about "disruptive innovation" and the like) seriously and those who are able to deploy such jargon ironically. The latter have both a better grasp of what's really going on and the ability to use what they know to their own advantage. Leaders, we notice, typically express themselves both precisely and ironically, and they are very adept at both description and deception. And there are obvious connections, of course, between being deeply literate and being innovative and creative in most areas of life.
The best way to acquire this kind of literacy is to be blessed with a "bookish" environment from the beginning. Kids whose parents read to them have a tremendous advantage, as do kids who grow up in a home full of books that is infused by the joy of reading. Our schools, for the most part, aren't capable of doing much to help students who haven't had this kind of upbringing overcome their disadvantage. So most students come to college without the capacity to revel in the process of discovery that accompanies being able to treat literature as a form of knowledge. And, even given the best possible environment, the capacity to be liberally educated in this sense is given only to relatively few.
All in all, most college students do not choose for themselves to read with this kind of wondrous enjoyment in mind, and not many of them even read whole books as a form of recreation. That's not to say they don't read at all; their literacy is fueled in a minimalist sense by the pleasures and opportunities available online. And in many cases, that's all they need to function well in the marketplace — but usually not as leaders or part of the cognitive elite.
The model for leaders in America remains the undergraduate degree in the traditional areas of the liberal arts, combined with an advanced, more technical degree in law, public policy, public health, business, or medicine. Say what you will about the content of the 2012 presidential campaign; each of the candidates was uncommonly precise in speech and grammar. Both were able to deploy clichés with irony, and so with the suggestion of deeper meaning. Both of them, of course, focused on the humanities at elite colleges and went on to professional graduate programs.
The same goes for leaders in other fields. The most astute and reflective of the Silicon Valley billionaires — Peter Thiel — majored in philosophy and then went on to law school. It's true that his education has not immunized him to the transhumanist technophilia characteristic of his chosen industry, but he has a far greater capacity for irony about both political correctness and technocratic educational engineering than, say, Gates. He has reflected broadly about the social responsibility given to the genius founders of start-ups, as well as on the conformist pseudoscience that disfigures business as an academic discipline.
In evolutionary psychology, the foundational field of today's social science, the outstanding scholar who has escaped the confines of the discipline is Jonathan Haidt, who has an undergraduate degree in philosophy. That means his science is rooted in the deeper and less time-bound, world-forming, soul-based concerns of Plato and Descartes. Haidt is able to use selectively and with some irony the somewhat reductionist language of his discipline, especially regarding the members of the "eusocial" species with really big brains.
Given these advantages, there is a strong argument that liberal education should be for everyone, and especially for those destined to rise to positions of leadership in the various professions and in political life. But a reasonable goal is to do what we can to sustain it as a "lifestyle option" on as many campuses as possible.
We can see, to begin with, that liberal education most securely flourishes on campuses with missions that are more than a brand. Some of our elite institutions have the right environment, but it is more reliably found at good schools with a basically religious understanding of who we are and what we're supposed to do. It's possible to include on this list those colleges that retain a genuinely classical or Stoic understanding — one concerned with a rational self-confidence when it comes to manners and morals, such as Hampden-Sydney or Morehouse.
The Morehouse man, as President Obama reminded us a few years ago, is so proud that nobody can tell him what to do. And it was at Morehouse that Martin Luther King, Jr., learned both to be absolutely fearless and to have magnanimous concern for doing what he could to elevate the people he championed.
Despite all its problems and shortcomings, the American system of higher education has one saving grace: not a uniform excellence or greatness but genuine moral and intellectual diversity. Many of our best colleges and universities have unique strengths, which ensures the higher-education marketplace offers diversity of thought and approaches to teaching and learning. This diversity ensures a space for true liberal education.
If we look closely, we can see some of that diversity even on our large urban campuses, such as the genuinely distinguished Honors College at the University of Houston, which flourishes at a place mainly known for training top-flight engineers. Houston's achievement has been possible thanks to a group of faculty "with a vision" for their school, who appealed above the administrators to the trustees. (In fairness, the administrators at Houston also seem to be a lot less technocratic than at most places.)
This diversity is threatened by increasingly intrusive bureaucrats, education experts, accreditors, and administrators who, by insisting on weak "standards" of competence, standardize higher education. And colleges and universities are dangerously vulnerable to such pressure because they depend on government money — especially subsidized loans — to stay in business.
That is why conservative educational reform should be about libertarian means for non-libertarian ends. That means working to reduce the footprint of accreditors, bureaucrats, technocratic administrators, and other interlopers — often including state government. It means disagreeing with Scott Walker and other Republican governors who argue that the main driver of educational cost these days is tenured faculty not teaching enough, and that the remedy is to empower administrators to whip the faculty into line with their agendas. It means that, if we want a genuinely flexible and literate workforce that can adapt to our rapidly changing economy, we need to stop thinking of college only in terms of technology-driven workforce development.
For their part, our diverse array of private schools and colleges should work to do what they can to reduce their dependence on government funding. That means cutting back as much as possible on expensive and irrelevant amenities and taking the noble risk of putting the focus almost entirely on excellence in educating particular persons.
That there is a market for institutions that follow this advice is undeniable, and it may well increase rather rapidly in size. There are growing numbers of parents who home school as well as parents who value the religious and classical foundations of education for all sorts of reasons. And the charter-school movement is surging. In focusing on liberal education and shunning bureaucrats and accreditors, the only thing to be lost by good colleges is government money; no one believes that being accredited is any sign of educational excellence or even reliable educational competence. Properly educated students will build the reputation for excellence that schools need without official outside validation. American colleges just need to have the courage to do what's right for their students.