Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

More on the DoE’s accreditation push

Today’s Inside Higher Ed tells us that a "tough but fair" (and non-political) DoE official has been reassigned, in a move likely intended to accelerate efforts to rework the accreditation system. I’m betting that this is not good news.

We also learn that Phi Beta Kappa has passed a resolution deploring the failure of the Spellings Commission report to mention the liberal arts. I’m a member of PBK. On this, they speak for me:

[W]e must speak up when national policy initiatives are framed by the idea that higher education is no more than a service delivered to a consumer. That metaphor will obscure the most distinctive aspect of education that is truly “higher.” Education in the liberal arts and sciences cannot be adequately captured in the language of consumerism: it specifically aims at the student’s transformation and not at the gratification of pre-existing desires. Its real value may well be made invisible by the model of mass distribution of standardized goods and services.

As I’ve said before, I understand that the price of higher education and the sometimes irresponsible behavior of the professoriate make higher education a tempting target, but those of us who care about the traditional role of liberal education, whether it’s practiced
"philosophically" or "oratorically", have to be friends of diversity, of which the DoE currently seems to be the enemy.

Discussions - 28 Comments

"Education in the liberal arts and sciences ...specifically aims at the student’s transformation...." is a mission statement I cannot accept. Transformation to what? The professoriate decides, and therein lies the saving grace of "consumerism", i.e., whether and where to buy in to that diktat.

It is simply more elitist cant to seek such transformation, and I write this as a graduate of a highly-rated Eastern liberal arts college dismayed at the transformative persona of my son, who followed me there.

Ugh. Thanks, though, Joe, for keeping us informed.

Tom T,

"Transformation" may mean turning you son or daughter into something you find less than pleasant, or it may mean solidification (on an intellectual basis) of the upbringing he or she received. The strength of the American system is that there are oodles of choices. If you’re going largely by reputation, unfortunately, you’re buying a pig in a poke. It makes sense for parents and their children to look closely at what’s taught, at how it’s taught, and at the tacit teaching of the curriculum and student life. Had you heeded, for example, the advice offered here, you might have had a somewhat different experience with your son.

I have to admit Tom T makes a pretty good point. This transformation thing is elitist. If you don’t believe me, consider how conventional, secular liberals think of it in approaching evangelical or orthodox students. But of course students aren’t consumers buying a product either. And you’re saying less than nothing buy claiming that the outcome is "critical thinking." The way to preserve diversity is to protect us from too much precision on what higher education really is.

Perhaps we should be mindful that what the Secretary is advocating, treats most education as though the only end is professional or workplace preparation and that student assessment is easily captured through data points. As for "transformation" it is necessary to remember what liberal education means: education of the free man. It is not merely "critical thinking" so that one may become a better advocate for what one already believes in. To borrow from a better mind than mine, liberal education "demands from us the complete break with the noise, the rush, the thoughtlessness, the cheapness of the Vanity Fair of intellectuals as well as of their enemies. It demands from us the boldness implied in the resolve to regard the accepted views as mere opinions, or to regard the average opinions as extreme opinions which are at least as likely to be wrong as the most strange or the least popular opinions. Liberal education is liberation from vulgarity. The Greeks had a beautiful word for "vulgarity"; they called it apeirokalia, lack of experience in things beautiful. Liberal education supplies us with experience in things beautiful."
To this one must add responsibility. The purpose of the "highest" education in higher education would seem to aim at something beyond merely the cultivation of the individuals mind for his own pleasure or use. We are not aiming for persons to merely contemplate, but for contemplation to lead to good actions. Just a thought.

Good comments, Jeff.

It is unfortunate that Bush has used so many of his cabinet-level appointments to just "get through the day." He has a rather limited view of most things, education certainly included. Margaret Spellings seems to be an example of this. Reagan knew we needed to change a whole society. Bush just wants to tinker at the margins. Big, big difference. As Bill Bennett once said, if we’re not moving the ball on them, they’re moving the ball on us. And that’s what we’re seeing.

It’s highly unusual for me to post to a conservative forum but it appears to me that some of your contributors are actually kind of thoughtful about this subject so hey, what the hell, as an extremely secular professional educator with long years’ experience at Big State U. maybe I can chip in with something from the other side of the fence...

I personally don’t know of anyone who has abused-- or come anywhere close to doing so-- their supposed authority/prerogative in the classroom. At least not in a way which most conservative commentators might find offensive. Oh, some of them are total buttholes and are universally reviled by their students and often other professors for their demeanour or policies, but I don’t know of anyone who’s gone off on a cartoonish leftist rant in class. Of course, I work at the College of Business so maybe that stuff happens over on the other side of campus (where I suppose it belongs.) And I don’t know what on earth this thing about "transformation" is about? Transformation? By the time they get to me they’re fully formed-- or almost so-- human beings. I’m not deluded about my influence on these kids (and indeed many of them are working adults): I stick my finger in a glass of water and pull it out. Wait a minute then you can measure the impression I’ve made.

Anyhow, I’ve generally seen most debate about liberalism/elitism/subversion-- pick your hot-button cliche here-- in the hallowed halls to be mostly shadow-play. (And in fact, that’s why I take the time to write here. I’m hoping there are perhaps some conservative folk who aren’t primitive reactionaries-- you know that’s the stereotype we pointy-headed secularists have of you guys.) That what we see in the media on the issue-- if indeed such an issue for debate even really exists, and that it is not just a straw-man constructed as a target for professional fulminators-- is NOT actually about quality of education, or "moral values," or even a coherent philosophy of society, and most certainly not about Concern for the Youth of Our Country. No, I’ve always believed that the Horowitz Gang and its ilk, the ones leading the crusade against creeping socialism or whatever it is they call it these days, is rather purely amoral in its agenda, and the assault on certain academics and their occasionally outrageous and unprofessional behavior is really just a public relations campaign for a wider power grab in the Nixonian style. Playing politics is what they’re doing and politics is, has always been, and will always be about Power. Power to accumulate wealth and power to accumulate more power. Power to exploit. Power to silence the supposed opposition to one’s accumulation of exploitative power, whomever they may be, and indeed power to silence a fantasized opposition which may or may not even really exist. Control the airwaves, control the schools, fleece the gullible, indoctrinate and institutionalize. And did I include "fleece the gullible?" Exertion of power requires a supply of resources at one’s disposal, human and financial capital. And controversy sells books and tv ad space. And whom better to attack than a bunch of eggheads? Hey, most people feared and resented their grade school teachers. Maybe we can tap into that visceral half-remembered anger and stick it to a bunch of pacifist ninnies at the university? You know, the ones who make helpless non-unionized Joe Six-Pack feel inferior? Bash ’em! Go ahead, they won’t fight back, they’re "intellectuals." Right?

Anyhow, that’s the way I see it. And I’m not a ranting leftist, although I do enjoy getting rhetorical on occasion as you can see. I really don’t think this is about "values" or indeed about anything more meaningful than the accumulation of wealth and power by a bunch of ill-intentioned thugs. And though I find it somewhat reassuring to read that gee, there may be some conservative "thinkers" who may see themselves as residing a bit above the typically purely simian dominance/submission level of discourse in the media, I am nonetheless somewhat discouraged by the thought that more polite discussion of such things on your side may really just serve as unwitting legitimation for what may be a far uglier agenda being perpetrated on all of us, liberals and conservatives alike.

My two cents. See, no horns. (Except to say "rock’n’roll!") As you were. Thanks for the air-time.

Go away.

It is not about YOU or any of us transforming anyone. It is getting them to think about the most important and difficult things in life that transforms them. It is the greatest arguments and authors that transforms them.

Is higher education "transforming" or not? That seems to be the question here. It depends on whether the institution is truly "higher" and whether the student is open to "transformation." Perhaps we need to be more specific. The true object is to encourage philosophy or the quest for wisdom. (That, of course, depends on having philsophers or their students already teaching.) Many schools, whatever their pretensions, are not doing that, not even (or especially not) in the liberal arts departments. If not, there is hardly any potential for transforming students. And unless students have already begun to philsophize (which is a rarity, indeed), they may be transformed in a liberal arts curriculum. I was. I don’t mean I became a different person, but because professors of political philsophy pushed me to think hard about the most important things, my outlook on the world changed and even the way I lived my life. It did not happen all at once but the paths I followed, professionally and in my family and in the community, reflected the transformation. If, as the self-forgetting supposedly non-leftist ranter says, the call for an end to simple indoctrination is "all about power," then he is looking through the wrong end of the lens. Niether my professors nor I gained any "power" from our activities or relationships. If he means discouraging or even removing professors who have a narrow or ideological agenda, it does take power to make that happen, just as it did to load university faculties and administrations with leftist ideologues or brain-dead consumer-oriented trainers. Change won’t come with discomfort to those who have been afflicting our students for so many years.

There really aren’t "oodles of choices", as Joe K would have us believe. The data collected by FIRE (Foundation for Individual Rights in Education) is evidence to the contrary. Duke is one of the few schools in the FIRE report with a good FIRE grade for observing the First Amendment right of students, but look at the lacrosse case and the position of the Duke "Group of 88" faculty who would’ve lynched the accused students last year for racism, sexism, and being rich white guys. This is what tenure and the power to transform can yield. Parental due diligence up front is futile in discovering such academic malignity.

Tom T,

I guess you haven’t considered, for example, the wide variety of very good religiously-affiliated colleges and universities, some described by Naomi Schaefer Riley in God on the Quad. And I guess you haven’t looked at the ISI guide I mentioned above, which offers accounts of both conventionally prestigious and less well-known institutions. If you have sense of which institutions are solid and which programs and professors are solid in otherwise shaky institutions, you’ll find a pretty decent array of options out there. This is a diversity worth protecting and is, I fear, threatened by the DoE.

A liberal arts education can at least give a student the chance to transform. Not all are ready to take advantage of that chance, and some will enjoy a delayed response. Others will squander the luxury.

But, that is part of what this country is about: The ideal of the equal chance, and no illusions about equal outcomes. That is part of my problem with the multi-layered assessment game, as well as with the consumer metaphor.

I certainly would hate to lose the goal of transformation, not as an expectation for every student, but as a chance afforded to every student.

The problem with transform is that it’s most obvious meaning is to become completely different. One sense of transform: Losing one’s sense of duty to God, country and family in favor of "autonomy." Another: Becoming a philosopher, who is, according to some, virtually a different species from the rest of us. Less than transformational but more realistic: Having a deeper and more realistic appreciation of human goods--which include one’s duties to one’s God, country, truth, and family. Anyway, this was a very interesting and smart thread.

Peter, I still don’t buy your assertions that transformation is elitist or dangerous.

Since there are both secular and religious institutions providing the opportunity, and since they vary on a quality continuum, there are many, many choices for a variety of students, including, of course, the choice to attend a technical college, or to avoid the experience altogether.

And, as for the "dark side" of change that you present, I don’t see that as much of a problem, either, given (a) the change from "blind," automatic religiosity to true autonomy is a liberating change, (b) true liberal studies are not indoctrinating, but rather "liberating," and providing more choices, but not forcing any particular choice, and (c) my earlier point, that there really is no guarantee that, or how, a liberal arts education will affect a given student.

Joe K,
When you write in your original post that "...those of us who care about the traditional role of liberal education...must be friends of diversity", did you mean, as in your #12 above, a diversity of educational institutions, or did you mean something else, perhaps broader?

And to clarify my earlier remarks about my son’s transformation, he graduated college 15 yrs ago, transformed to seeking consensus rather than seeking, then doing, the next right thing; a product of feminization by higher education, if you’ll permit me to say.
Not the kind of info found in college guides 20 yrs ago.

Tom T,

I meant diversity of institutions.

You’re right about college guides, though WFB had written God and Man at Yale a long time before, and Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind was a best-seller while your son was in college.

Fung, To make a long story short, the movement from "blind, automatic religiosity" (which is a caricature of religious faith as ordinarily experienced) to "true autonomy" (which is not quite an oxymoron, but the experience of autonomy is not an experience of the truth or the whole truth about being human) is a movement from one false or misleading extreme to the other. Liberal education surely about how and why to live, in truth, between those extremes. Liberal education isn’t promiscuously liberating, because a basic, maybe the basic, human experience is of limitation. There are limits to babbling about these things on a blog, but to end with a slogan: Liberal education is not about becoming Socrates.

Very well put, Mr Lawler. Thanks for your thoughtful words.

Peter, you have closed both of your last two comments with a signal to end the conversation, and that is fine with me. But, I would like to point out that neither one of us suggested that ANY movement is likely to be a pure one, or that any particular movement adequately characterized liberal education.

I responded to your pointing out "one sense of transform," and I was responding only to that sense. As such, I was not suggesting that all losses of religiosity result in true autonomy, but I rather used the word "true" to limit my consideration to those transformations that ARE accurately described the way I described them.

Certainly, we can jump from one restricting perspective to another, and feel the illusion of greater freedom, but that is not what I referred to.

I find little in my comment to merit the terms "caricature," "promiscuously liberating," or "babbling." But, if that is the way you interpret my view, then I can see why you are anxious to end the dicussion.

Fung, Babbling referred to me--I was the one who was babbling on...I was anxious to end the conversation but my prolix post. Caricature I’ll stick with...Our American believers today just aren’t blind automatic believers, although our liberal professors here at Berry think they are. Our better religious students are the most open minded ones, and almost impossible to anger... Autonomy--I was looking for a conversation about what it really means. But sorry for the misunderstanding. Peter

Not sure if anyone is still on this line, but.....

I like the question about autonomy, and it fits well in this discussion.

I am reminded of an observation in William Least Heat Moon’s book "Blue Highways." The author is watching a kite being "flown," at the end of its tether, and observes something like "no tether, no flight."

Certainly, we cannot have total autonomy, for freedom to do anything under the sun is really no freedom at all. But the beauty of a discipline is that it (ideally) promotes individual- and discipline-level growth by offering its own brand of "tether" whether the restrictions take the form of methodology, content, or a particular set of conventions and norms.

The beauty of a liberal arts education is that it (ideally) offers the student an informed vantage point from which to appreciate and choose among those disciplines.

So, to my way of thinking, "true" autonomy is not "total," but rather it constitutes a choice characterized by the best information, and a real consonance between one’s authentic self and the particular qualities of one’s chosen discipline(s).

Fung, very nice post, very wise words. I particularly liked the kite image. Book recommendations via the internet usually go nowhere, but a book that nicely distinguishes and develops two senses of "autonomy" (the false, totally free sort) and the one you nicely limn is by Philippe Beneton (a Frenchman! I add for the Francophobists); it’s entitled Equality by Default, and it’s published in a fine translation by Ralph Hancock by ISI Books. Highly recommended. BTW: our Supreme Court in Casey (1993) and Lawrence (2003) has implanted the false version in our jurisprudence.

Paul, thank you for the recommendation. I will hunt it down, since my references tend to be selected from a too-shallow pool.

Fung, a few quotes from Equality by Default to whet your appetite.

Speaking of "modern-style autonomy" in the Prologue (which looks at today’s college students): "the feeling of autonomy anchored in the prevailing relativism of the day relaxes the desire to know and closes the mind."

"autonomy is no longer a lofty goal but a given."

In contrast one needs to recall "the university’s ... original calling as the ideal place for the autonomous work of reason, the disinterested search for truth, and the transmission of a heritage."

In general "Western education was founded on the guiding idea that culture is a treasure of powerful thoughts and deep experiences; the analysis and discussion of great texts will serve to broaden the mind and lead it toward greater autonomy."


(In the for-what-it’s worth-department, I reviewed the book a few years ago in the great journal, SOCIETY (May/June 2005).


So far, our library doesn’t have it, and so I’ll go a-hunting.

Thanks Paul.

I’m amazed this thread is still threading. I like Beneton, Paul’s review and SOCIETY. "Autonomy" has to not only de-relativized but de-Kantianized for me to start to use it. But PB’s use is fine by me, as is Fung’s nuanced definition...

Peter, you’re right about the need to get rid of Kant’s questionable, ie., false, views of human nature, human Reason (in contrast to understanding), his view of the will, and his ’moralistic’ view of human goodness and human life.

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