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.