Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

Calling all Ashbrooks, and other interesting college students

Why not enter this contest? We old fogies will offer some commentary along the way. I’ll start soon.

Update: I rather liked Rick Perlstein’s essay, albeit more for his account of how the distance between "college" and "the real world" had diminished (to the detriment of the former) than for his romantic account of extra-curricular life in the "good old days."

In my view, "college" now isn’t "college" any more for three principal reasons. First, the hallmark of the 60s was a demand for "relevance," which college bureaucracies now give to students in spades. Many students take relevance in the currency of careerism; others, in the currency of social activism. For a few, there’s no distinction between the two.

Second, too many faculty--especially at elite institutions--have little or nothing to gain from trying to teach students anything other than their narrow specialties. Few want to teach "gen ed," what we old fogies would call traditional liberal education. So college curricula become a mishmosh of specialized classes, which engage a few and disengage many. There’s little or nothing in the classroom to hold the attention of students whose extracurricular lives are much more interesting than what they can glean from the "specialist without spirit" behind the podium. (For more on this, see my brief comment on Ross Douthat’s Privilege here.)

Third, parents and administrators have conspired increasingly to infantilize the collegiate experience, so that everything is presented to kids more or less pre-digested. There’s little room for adventure or risk-taking of a good sort, simply a number of well-trodden, well-lit paths down which to plod.

The solution, I hasten to add, is not to return to the 60s (described here, for example), but to seek out odd little schools that have succumbed less to what Perlstein, I fear, rightly describes as the marketization of higher education. (Cushy teaching and research jobs, massive bureaucracies, and all the comforts of an upper middle class gated swim-tennis community aren’t cheap, after all.)

Discussions - 5 Comments

I think a lot of it also has to do with how a college degree is required for more and more careers, sending students to college who are there for job training rather than a liberal arts education. Colleges have discovered that these career-track students are the ones who will make money in the future and donate back to their alma mater. Thus, nearly every college (dare I say, every single college) has fallen into the capital-driven slump of job-market catering rather than focusing on how solid their liberal arts curriculum is (because their liberal arts curriculum seems to be more of a nostalgic novelty instead of the core of what real college was, and still should be, all about).

I like your points, Dr. Knippenberg. But I think that your second point places too much responsibility on the faculty and not enough on the poor quality of students flowing into American colleges today (but I suppose as a faculty member you would tend to blame faculty, as I as a student tend to blame students . . .).

Your third point is my favorite. Parents play too large a role, by and large, in the life of a typical college student. That last line in Perlstein's essay (or maybe next-to-last line) is absolutely true. Colleges market themselves to parents rather than students.

Good comments, though. These kinds of posts (and thoughts) are what make the NLT blog so good.

All too often, there's an implicit bargain that goes something like this: in exchange for being allowed to be somewhat self-indulgent in their classes, faculty grade easily. We get to do pretty much what we want, so long as students can put together the "impressive" transcript.

And why, Matt, are you so convinced that the liberal arts are what college should be all about?

I'm personally convinced that liberal education has died a good death, and good riddance. I see no good reason to force students to learn the obsolete ideas of the Greco-Roman world. Even if there are "Eternal Truths" there is evidence that the ancient writers had any special insight into them.


First of all, I'm no friend to "eternal truth" (in any sort of "objective" or "absolute" sense).

I do think, however, that the death of the liberal arts education is nothing more than a win for the capitalist system in its plight to do nothing more than create "productive" and "efficient" workers to fit as nice little cogs in its perfectly systematized schema. Now, don't get me wrong. Obviously, any mass economic system would need such workers (be it radically socialist or radically free-market or any mix of the two). However, I'm convinced that by destroying the diversity of the "old" college education, we're just attempting to keep distractions from our nation's future employees.

Let's take your Greek and Roman example. What would you like colleges to teach about them? Nothing? Shouldn't every student know where and how the origins of written history and philosophy and politics and math and religion came about? Or is that just a waste of time when they could be studying stocks and investment portfolios? Who needs to be well-rounded? Who needs to know the origins of language or western culture? It seems to me that all you'd like students to know (and of course, I'm forced to read a bit into your post here and make a few assumptions) is what's in the "here and now" and what's "relevant" for students today. God forbid they learn different approaches to discovering what "happiness" for them is (be that through art, music, philosophy, business, whatever) or different routes to achieve a satisfactory life they can be proud to have lived.

I don't know why I'm writing this. I mean, I could point you to some incredible arguments written by some brilliant men and women in defense of the liberal arts education (several of whom typically blog here). But your post was addressing me, and few things make me more angry than people willing to throw art, music, literature, philosophy, linguistics and a plethora of other academic pursuits out the window in the name of "relevance".

At the end of the day, I suppose I'm convinced that liberal arts education should be part of college curriculums because they help to preserve our culture while also helping to build upon itself. It creates men and women who aren't just trained to do a job, but to also think critically, to appreciate beauty and the subjectivity of other human beings, to analyze the deeper questions (and answers) thrown at them throughout life. Take away the liberal arts, and you take away education (a word that, to me anyway, means a helluva lot more than just "training").

All that stuff about becoming a better person is fine, Matt, and I think colleges do a good job of it with their campus communities. I just don't see how we jump from "let's make our students better people" to "write a 2000 word essay on Chapter 7 of Homer's Iliad."

Liberal education just seems like a far better idea in theory than in practice. How should we actually improve our student's appreciation of beauty? By forcing them to read the Cliff's Notes to a Shakespeare play, having a classroom bull session and then writing another pointless essay on his narrative strategies? Even if there is value in Shakespeare I don't see how one gains value from writing about him, or how he's necessarily any better than any other writer.

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