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Published on: May 4, 2014
Mind-Bending
Saving Higher Ed from Middle-Class Tyranny

American higher education suffers as much from inflated costs as from what Tocqueville considered middle-class morality: identifying ultimate freedom and fulfillment with work.

Many earnest minds are currently puzzling over the changes to liberal arts education brought on by technology and an increasingly competitive job market. They would be well served by Alexis de Tocqueville, who with his characteristic, uncanny prescience penned some relevant insights close to two centuries ago. The morality of capitalism, he wrote, can also be called middle-class morality. Being middle class falls between being an aristocrat and being a slave. It’s to be a free being who works. The middle-class American is free, like an aristocrat, to work like a slave. Unlike an aristocrat, he has no one to work for him. He’s very judgmental about work: nobody has a right not to work. What the aristocrat calls leisure, he calls laziness. And, as we see today, he can only pity the poor if they are “working poor.” Ensuring that all have the equal opportunity to better themselves through work is the foundation of the American idea of justice and prosperity. Aristocracies were poor by comparison to us, Americans know, because none of their members worked for themselves.

So middle-class education is education for freedom, for being able to work for oneself. Tocqueville found in America universal literacy and lots of techno-vocational education. Education, he observed, was largely achieved through apprenticeships to professions, and even science was studied in the spirit of a trade. Freedom was to be won through the rational and industrious deployment of tools and machines.

But that sort of education for freedom isn’t “higher education,” and it doesn’t bring the kind of intellectual and spiritual self-determination we associate with liberal arts education. So Tocqueville claimed to find almost no higher education in America, and little genuine concern for the leisurely cultivation of the soul. His main criticism of middle-class democracy was that it lacked a leisure class with the time and inclination to be an audience and patron for books, art, and music. The middle class, in this sense, is too busy and in love with money to have much real class.

Tocqueville observes that middle-class education produces middling brains. Democracy can turn even art and literature into industries, and push language in such a technical direction that the words conveying the truth about metaphysics and theology simply disappear. The middle class imposed a techno-orientation of thought that amounted to intellectual tyranny, pushing its pupils toward the “how” at the expense of the “who,” the “why,” and the “what.” It amounted to intellectual tyranny, preventing theoretical innovation and cross-cultural speculation about the merits of various forms of human flourishing.

Tocqueville’s claim that the United States was bereft of higher education was an exaggeration then, and it seems out of date now. We have a huge and diverse array of colleges and universities, all of which pride themselves on providing higher education. But “higher education” to Tocqueville meant theoretical physics and the meticulous reading of the “great books” in their original languages, accompanied by high-minded and joyful attention to the best art and music had to offer. How much of that is going on in our colleges and universities? Well, some, but less and less with every passing day. If schooling centers on textbooks, PowerPoint, collaborative teamwork, civic engagement (as beneficial as that can be), service learning, and all that, it’s not higher education.

Fewer and fewer of our colleges market themselves as offering traditional, liberal arts education. Others stick with the “liberal arts” brand (because it signals prestige) but are emptying themselves of substance. At most colleges, “general education” or the core curriculum is becoming smaller and more optional. Traditional courses in the humanities are justified these days in terms of acquiring skills and competencies required to flourish in the competitive marketplace.

The president of my college told me that liberal education just doesn’t sell. Critical thinking and analytical reasoning, on the other hand, do sell because of their obvious benefits in a high-tech world dominated by a cognitive elite—an elite that prides itself not in its wisdom but in its productivity. America’s current elite, despite its unprecedented wealth, remains middle class in its conviction that work is the prerequisite for and expression of freedom. One problem, however, with “selling” higher education (history, literature, philosophy, and such) as a means for mastering critical thinking is that the “learning outcome” cannot be achieved without slogging through tough literature or history. Professors of the humanities who think of themselves as primarily contributing to the “measurable competencies” of techno-driven, middle-class society have surrendered their “higher” concern for the actual human content of their “disciplines.”

In the crucial respects, higher education is becoming more vocational or careerist, and the most penetrating and effective criticisms of our residential colleges and universities tend to be from a libertarian, utilitarian, or middle-class point of view. College, the critics say, has become an expensive and irrelevant leisure cruise. It has become a “ bubble” into two senses. As in the case of the recent housing bubble, costs are expanding rapidly while quality is getting worse. Why do college costs far exceed the rate of inflation every year? Just as in the housing bubble, the government facilitates easy-credit borrowing that allows the usually ill-informed consumer to borrow big without considering long-term consequences.

College is also a “bubble” insofar as it insulates students from the increasingly tough imperatives of the competitive global marketplace. It is an artificial environment not unlike that inhabited by the “bubble boy” on that legendary Seinfeld episode, an environment that isn’t fit for people who can and eventually must survive in the real world. From this view, liberal education used to make sense, back when privileged young people moved from the “bubble” of the residential college to the bubble of the law firm or corporation. But in today’s marketplace, corporate and employee loyalty are toast, and everyone needs mainly to have the flexible skills required to function as an independent operator ever-ready to adapt the increasingly dynamic challenges of our highly competitive, technology-driven world. In this world, dominated by the new meritocracy based on productivity, liberal education is a useless luxury—fine as hobby for those who can easily afford it but not worth great financial sacrifice for those who can’t.

The combination of these two bubbles means, of course, that students are paying a lot for degrees that won’t pay off. Lots of students leave college with both big debt and no prospects of becoming prosperous enough to easily make the monthly payments. America’s colleges are charging us ridiculous amounts not to prepare us effectively to be free beings that work for money. It’s just a matter of time until, just like the housing bubble did, these bubbles burst.

It’s amazing how much the critics of our higher education bubbles agree and how pervasive their influence is. Consider this: The election between Obama and Romney could be understood to have been between two kinds of American corporate capitalist oligarchs. Obama had the support of Silicon Valley and much of the financial sector, while Romney had the support of more old school corporate giants such as the Koch Brothers. Two forms of big money and big data had a showdown, and one of course proved itself more savvy or more in touch. But both sides of this struggle—Silicon Valley and our mega-industrialists—agree that what’s wrong with American education is these two bubbles, and that the bubbles have to be burst in a techno-vocational, more efficient and productive direction.

Also agreeing are various foundations, the consultants and experts that surround the Harvard Business School, accrediting associations, and academic and government bureaucrats—such as those who came up with the very mediocre or relentlessly middle-class Common Core. The cutting-edge thinkers in this mode are mostly libertarian economists and various state public policy institutes, which are often facilitated by Republican governors. (Among these thinkers, Glenn Reynolds and Tyler Cowen stand out.) These critics believe they’re outing higher education in America as the shameful project of decadent aristocrats called professors. Their lives are full of privileges, but without the corresponding responsibilities. The privileges, then, have become indefensible.

When the critics, beginning with Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School, write of disrupting higher education, they mean to apply to higher education a process that transforms various techno-industrial sectors in the competitive marketplace of 21st-century capitalism. When a product—say, a tablet—is developed, it is initially quite expensive, and its developers focus on making their machine better, assuming the consumer is as concerned with quality as with price. Then a competitor ingeniously devises a “knock off” that performs the essential operations at a “good-enough” level and prices the designer version of the product out of the market. It’s the tendency of capitalism to drive prices down by responding to the consumers’ views of what their real needs are. It’s the good-enough colleges that have a real future, the colleges that give students exactly what they really need and want at the lowest possible price.

Now, in my opinion, a good beginning to defending higher education against the tyranny of middle-class thinking by middle-class brains is on behalf of diversity. All our corporate elites pay homage to the ideal of “multicultural diversity.” And the real tendency of the “disruptive” efforts in higher education is to discredit and empty out the diversity that is the saving grace of the American system of higher education. Defense of higher education ought to celebrate the educational mission of all our institutions that educate people to be more than middle-class, more than workers with interests. There are, of course, institutions with religious educational missions of one sort or another. There also those that privilege a classical understanding of who we are, such as the St. John’s colleges that prioritize “great books” curricula. And, finally, let me mention institutions, such the one that cultivates the fearlessly and relentlessly responsible “proud men of Morehouse,” that are about privileging the “leadership virtues”: generosity, magnanimity, and charity. One downside of living in a country ruled, more than ever, by a meritocracy based on productivity (think Silicon Valley) is that our class of leaders tend to have no class, none of the sense of responsibility for one’s fellow citizens and creatures that should come with great power and influence.

The diversity I’m talking about here, of course, is moral and intellectual diversity. Tocqueville wrote that the result of American being too exclusively middle class is that everyone would end up having roughly the same opinions regarding politics, economics, and so forth. The true tyranny of the majority over thought, which he considered the main danger to liberty in our time, is that the perspective of the free being who works crowds out those that regard people as more than beings with interests. Our Puritans, Tocqueville explained, are the source of the countercultural thought that universal education should be more than middle class, that it should be truly the liberal or liberating way of beings with souls discovering the truth about who they are and what they’re supposed to do. Maybe our best living novelist, Marilynne Robinson, reminds us, for example, of the neo-Puritanical foundation of the liberal education found at antebellum Oberlin College. There, everyone, including blacks and women, studied great books, including, of course, the Bible, and everyone, including professors, engaged in manual labor.  Both leisurely contemplation (that’s what the Puritan’s Sunday respite from commerce was for) and productive labor are for all creatures made in our Creator’s personal image.

Observing that the middle-class (as opposed to, say, the theocratic) brand of intellectual despotism is most powerful today, we defenders of genuine diversity in higher education embrace libertarian means for non-libertarian ends. We work to free up our institutions from degradingly conformist dependence on government bureaucracies, foundations, accrediting associations, schools of education, and disruptive expertise in general. That means, of course, that we have to acknowledge that the critics of the ridiculously out-of-control costs of higher education are right, and we have to take the lead in finding ways to make higher education affordable.

So we must also admit that too many of our professors really are self-indulgently luxuriating in privileges, oblivious to their corresponding educational responsibilities. But we add that a renewed focus on the core educational mission should mainly be about purging our institutions of irrelevant concerns and amenities, from increasingly bloated administrations to student affairs staffs that function as concierges, from dorms that look like four-star hotel suites to gourmet food in the cafeterias and to non-revenue producing intercollegiate athletics. The truth is that liberal education—philosophy, history, literature, and so forth—is cheap. There are plenty of talented and enthusiastic professors ready to work for modest wages, and there’s virtually no equipment or other infrastructure required. If you really want to save money, we say, let’s take the technology out of higher education! In the name of diversity, we want to get back to the basics.

It goes without saying that much or most of the education in our country, full of free beings who must work, should be technical/vocational or middle class. My only goal is to keep all of allegedly higher education from being disrupted in that direction.

Peter Augustine Lawler is Dana Professor of Government at Berry College.
show comments
  • Andrew Allison

    Given the news from Harvard, Rutgers, etc., perhaps we should focus on saving higher ed from “progressive” tyranny.

  • Jim__L

    “It goes without saying that much or most of the education in our
    country, full of free beings who must work, should be
    technical/vocational or middle class. My only goal is to keep all of allegedly higher education from being disrupted in that direction.”

    It seems to me that it would be appropriate to look at higher education is a hobby (or perhaps a passion) not an industry.

    • Art

      Higher education is education. Full stop. However, it is not education for everyone. Future politicians need it. Future welders don’t. And in many cases, we need more welders than politicians. But we still need a place to educate the politicians and intellectuals. RAND and Heritage need their employees educated somehow.

  • Boritz

    “The diversity I’m talking about here, of course, is moral and intellectual diversity.”

    The reason the author has to define diversity is because in government and the university this view of diversity is as out of vogue as the word groovy.

  • Anthony

    Essay brings to mind “aristocrats were disdainful of men of business, who believed in turning everything, including all of society, into a profit making scheme – men whose aim is not an increase in possessions do not go into business.” Author intimates such a pervasive attitude (education for freedom) seems to currently dominate higher education at the expense of liberal education. “Defense of education ought to celebrate the educational mission of all our institutions that educate people to be more than middle class, more than workers with interests.” That is, middle class educational acculturation leaves dearth of societal component necessary to surmount intangibles of the cash meritocratic market (perhaps to detriment of civilization’s bigger interests).

    Certainly, one can take away from essay that author thinks inherent social irrationality of middle class driven education (system of education chiefly to enhance production and acquisition) leads to overreaching and idealization of market place in pursuit of capital thereby impoverishing the country of talented leaders; to wit leadership values – generosity, magnanimity, and charity – are no longer foremost in corridors of power and influence. Something to think about.

  • Roland

    You say that according to the bourgeoisie nobody has a right not to work. Don’t think you have that quite right. People have a right not to work, they just don’t have a right to expect tax payer funding to not work. You talk a lot about your version of morality: generosity, magnanimity and charity and those are all well and good, although people tend to like to do that with other peoples’ money. See previous point. But to the prime moral directive, much like the hippocratic oath, is not to be a burden on society. That is much more useful to society than the whimsical types of noblesse oblige that you mention. Also not sure if I’m comfortable with you imposing you moral catechism at the college level. Probably much better left to church and family and much better at earlier ages as the Catholic church knows all too well.

    You call the Puritans countercultural. Is that what you call stringing up, drowning and burning witches? Granted religious ecstasy can turn in good directions like what you mention with Oberlin even though you undercut your point by lauding their physical labor, which you had previously categorically mocked. I recently read a pretty convincing treatment of the leadup to the civil war that the Puritans were the prime instigator in propelling us into a war that cost us 600,000 lives. If the Puritans’ rabid otherworldly ideology hadn’t goaded the paranoid southern slaveholders into war we should have been able to settle it peacefully like England and Brazil and everybody else in the world did. What was unique about us? The Puritans. I’ll take Dutch capitalist New York over Puritan New England any day.

    Which brings us to your disdain for capitalism and how it has invaded universities. It wasn’t capitalism that invaded the humanities–it was all the marxist sophistry. Now that the humanities are virtually worthless, capitalism might be swooping in to pick through the rubble but they didn’t bring down the edifice. If Christensen can somehow resurrect it, good for him.

    Also, strangely, you juxtapose liberal arts and critical thinking and analytical reasoning as being somehow antithetical. What would you recommend, memorizing some sort of catechism? Returning to scholasticism? Indicting the middle class brains of our era would beg the question of which eras had high class brains. The ancient Greeks and the Enlightenment stand out in an otherwise tepid intellectual history. And in those times universities had little to do with this intellectual ferment and these societies were the most middle class and capitalist of their eras. The populace justseemed to be infused with intellectual curiosity and critical thinking and analytical reasoning were useful rather than suppressed. Funny what a little freedom can do. Of course, perhaps you prefer the times when the Catholic Church controlled society and punished new ideas. They used to kill people too, didn’t they?

    • Diws

      I would be interested to know where you read the analysis of the causes of the American Civil War pointing to the Puritan moral crusade-mentality. It rings true to me, but I would like to look at it in-depth.

      • Loader2000

        The churches in New England were probably the main anti-slavery drivers in the North. However, I think the assumption that slavery would have peacefully settled into something else very different from slavery over time is unfounded. The American South was completely different from England (I don’t know about Brazil). More likely that not, slavery would have evolved into a kind of serfdom in the South, and, by the 20 century, supposedly free slaves would be earning pittance wages and bound to their estates. No change that would have given millions of ex-slaves permission to simply leave the plantations and head North would have occurred without war, at least not for 60 or 70 years.

        • Fred

          Farming technology would eventually have put paid to slavery. It’s a helluva lot cheaper to maintain a machine than a human being.

          • Loader2000

            If your friend (or even someone you just know) is being
            chained to the basement of your neighbor’s house, forced to work, occasionally
            beaten and raped, but you know that in 30 years, a machine might come along to
            replace her such that maybe he will let her go, do you just sit back and
            relax. You call the police and they
            storm the house to put an end to the monstrous injustice taking place next
            door, even it means 2 or 3 of them get shot in the process freeing the woman.

            Slavery may not have been the biggest reason the
            war started, but it should have been.
            Some forms of injustice are simply intolerable. When millions of human beings in your own
            country are being chained, whipped and often raped, you do something about
            it. Individual southerners were NOT evil
            and many of them were honorable people.
            However, the institution of slavery was a hideous, inexcusable evil that
            needed to end as soon as possible for the sake of the blacks, not just the whites.

          • Fred

            I wasn’t making an argument about the morality of slavery. You said it was unlikely that the question of slavery could have eventually been settled peacefully (like it was just about everywhere else in the civilized world). I disagreed for the reason I cited. That doesn’t make me pro-slavery.

      • Jim__L

        Ulysses S. Grant talks about it in such terms in his memoirs, I don’t know if he elaborates on the topic enough to tie it to Puritanism, though.

        Anti-slavery was originally more of a Quaker thing, though abolitionists of more crusading sorts showed up later.

    • Art

      I notice you find him to hardcore Catholic elitist. To me, he is not hardcore Catholic elitist enough!

  • rheddles

    Berry is an independent, coeducational college of approximately 2,100
    students that offers exceptional undergraduate degree programs in the
    sciences, humanities, arts and social sciences, as well as undergraduate
    and master’s level opportunities in business and teacher education.
    Students are encouraged to enrich their academic studies through
    participation in one of the nation’s premier on-campus work experience
    program, and more than 90 percent take advantage of this unique
    opportunity to gain valuable real-world experience prior to graduation.

    Time to move on.

  • qet

    “Among eminent persons, those who are most dear to men are not of the class which the economist calls producers.” –Emerson

  • Art

    We are not going to get elite education out of a middle class culture, I am afraid. This is why we need to restore a true elite to power. A world where the Kirk family commands less wealth than the Koch’s and Soros is simply not going to support the liberal arts.

    Also, there is as you suggest, a greater need for vocational and technical education. We need to stop confusing that with education in the Arts and Sciences, and if necessary marginalizing colleges which refuse to give genuine support to the liberal arts. A limited number of good colleges that provide full funding *and* provide a path to better status and better employment is better than a multitude of poverty factories that leave students with debt and no improved job prospects.

  • Fat_Man

    Romantic fantasy. Guess what? The Middle Ages are not about to return.

    If the higher education that the writer is dreaming about ever existed, it was long ago and far away. The only alternative to vocational eduction that the American system offers is political indoctrination and then only of the far left variety.

    The colleges tipped their hand when they discovered they could jack tuitions up to the stratosphere without a major push back. The only trade off they had to make was that they needed to layoff the upper class sprogs they were tending and let the little dears spend their lives in drunken debauchery.

    There is no going back now. Rich kids want to go the Ivies so they can drink and screw and make connections for their real lives. If the middle class could ever afford a luxury education, they can’t anymore. Further, there probably aren’t 50 potential faculty members in the whole country who have the learning to teach the liberal arts and are not retired due to old age and debility.

    “Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate.”

    • Jim__L

      So which circle of hell do blog commenters end up in, I wonder? ;)

  • Anthony

    Proposition may be all for a naught: “a new OECD report delivers grim news about how poorly Americans score in the skills necessary to a modern economy: larger proportions of adults in the United States than in other advanced countries have poor literacy and numeracy skills, and the proportion of adults with poor skills in problem solving is slightly larger than average, despite the relatively high educational attainment among adults in the United States.”

  • johnwerneken

    The tyranny of the boss or the mob (what’s the difference? Sometimes the boss considers consequences) is never far away, people being people. In prior eras education was also about admittance to and perpetuation of status. Michelangelo worked decorating St Peters and Da Vinci on war machines. If there’s a new spin, it’s maybe a combination of so many being indoctrinated in ‘power to the people’ and in being thrown together, we are working on doing it globally. So DIFFERENT ideas about what has and should have status may have a harder slog. Not as when a college was the same as today but the local ruler or sect differed…

  • http://abiasedperspective.wordpress.com Luke Phillips

    Interesting points but go back to college, man. I’m a student at USC and I have a profound love and reverence for what you call ‘the liberal education’ as well as my area of expertise and my major, international relations. Guess what? The general education program here, our version of liberal education, is just about the most despised institution among students on campus, precisely because it doesn’t actually do much to expand anyone’s minds- it’s rather a crushing requirement that everyone’s required to go through before they can actually start studying WHAT THEY CAME HERE TO STUDY.

    Beyond that, you simply can’t, can’t, can’t, can’t force a liberal education onto an assembly line format the way you can do so with STEM subjects. The very basis of the liberal education is that it must be a self-driven education embarked on by choice, preferably from the youngest age possible, and done with the help of mentors who actually care about what they’re teaching, not poorly-paid grad students just trying to make a buck. I’d consider myself fairly well-read, but probably 85% of my liberal education came from my own desire to connect with the most important works of human civilization, not from some educrat checking off my performance on a numerical chart. I feel you, man, that our society is suffering from a lack of the fascination with great literature and great histories that generations past gloried in; but forcing great literature down people’s throats and making it something they hate just really isn’t working. If the culture isn’t already inclining towards appreciation of great works and is pushing instead towards consumerism and pop culture, well, it seems that there really isn’t that much that education policy can do to fix that.

    Forgive my callousness but your article seeps upper-class elitism. I appreciate your points and I think you have some good arguments, but generally, Americans appreciate people who work for a living because it is by the sweat of our brow that we eat, and the good we can do for our fellow men that makes us valuable to society; if we cannot do good for ourselves, though, we cannot be expected to be useful to others. America is an egalitarian nation premised against class hierarchy simply because the excesses of decadent upper class elites have proved, time and time again, to be disgusting, disgraceful, and downright dangerous to the social order. Ever read The Great Gatsby? That’s what elites are in the American imagination, and I would argue the American reality. It would sure be damn nice if we could have elites of the Founding Fathers’ ilk, and I sense that’s what you’re arguing for, but that’s just not going to happen just by having college kids read a few more books between beers.

  • Curious Mayhem

    Nice essay. The liberal arts approach to higher ed, and the related pure sciences options, were never intended for a mass audience. There is payoff from both, but the payoff is diffused over time and society. It cannot be quantified in terms of skills. It was once fine for a smaller band of students to learn this approach, even if it did not become their life’s vocation, because once upon a time, college was not so expensive that students couldn’t take a few years to find themselves and even make fruitful mistakes, before getting into groove of their lives. With absurd costs, we’ve made college an absurdly high-stakes game where anxious parents and taxpayers need constant reassurance of immediate and large payoff — which payoff is generally not there.

    The explosion in academic costs impacts different flavors of higher education in different ways. For those expecting immediate payoff, it’s unlikely a 22-year-old could earn enough in, say, 10 years to justify the debt needed. For those looking for payoff over a lifetime, or over multiple generations, exploding costs obscure and negate the more distant but still real benefits.

    The libertarian critics of higher ed, like Reynolds, don’t generally hold *professors* to be the aristocrats of higher ed. Rather, they correctly hold *administrators and professional staff* as the aristocrats. That is where the explosion of costs and functions unrelated to knowledge largely originates: the offices of “diversity,” “student services,” “sustainability,” and so on, and the explosion in the number of “deanlets.” There are “star” faculty who don’t teach (or don’t teach much). But they’re tiny in number, and much teaching these days is done by poorly-paid, part-time adjuncts and graduate students.

  • Fred

    I wonder how long it’s been since Lawler had a humanities class. I can speak from experience about the field of literature (PhD 1995). Unless the field has changed dramatically since I was in it, love of literature, deeper understanding of humanity, and plain old logic are all considered tools of white male oppression. The object of a literature course now is not to impart any knowledge or appreciation of a great work but to “interrogate” a “text” for its complicity in oppressive power relations. Sad to say, the last place in the world someone who genuinely loves language and literature should be is in a university English department.

  • bruce

    If academics weren’t so placidly and vehemently conformist…never mind.

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