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What Universities Should Be Doing

New York Times Magazine featured an interesting article this weekend, highlighting the ever-increasing cost of higher education, and asking the more basic question of what students, their parents, and the public (who in some measure subsidize both public and private institutions) are actually getting for that money. The answer, in large measure, is much less than they should be getting. Thus, the author suggests that professors are too-often interested in their own self-promotion, and institutions focus merely on teaching classes, rather than on producing educated citizens. On this count, the article notes that:
Derek Bok, the former Harvard president, made the shocking observation that "faculties currently display scant interest in preparing undergraduates to be democratic citizens, a task once regarded as the principal purpose of a liberal education and one urgently needed at this moment in the United States." Bok was right on both counts--the neglect and the urgency--but he relegated his statement to a footnote. It should have been a headline.
I couldn't agree more. There is an urgent need for serious, liberal arts education aimed at producing good citizens. That is what the Ashbrook Center does--through our Ashbrook Scholar program, which emphasizes great books and the Western canon; through our Masters in American History and Government, which provides a substantive advanced degree for teachers, so that they will have a well-founded understanding of the events that shaped this nation; and through our public events, which encourages discussion between scholars, practitioners, students, faculty, and members of the community.

Not long ago, I had a discussion with a friend who teaches at Harvard, and he asked me whether he should include Xenophon's Education of Cyrus in a 300-level class he was offering. It is a difficult book, he told me, and he wondered whether Harvard juniors could be expected to understand it. It is a difficult book, and I wondered aloud whether his students would be up to the task. But I replied that I assign the book to one of my classes--and assign them to read it cover-to-cover. He was astonished--"Your juniors can handle that?" No, I replied, this is what I assign for our freshmen. You see, it is still possible to get a good, liberal arts education.

Appropriate to my conversation with the Harvard professor, the NYT's article ends:

As our children go through the arduous process of choosing a college and trying to persuade that college to choose them, it will be a sign of improved social health if we can get to the point of asking not about the school's ranking but whether it's a place that helps students confront hard questions in an informed way. If and when the answer is yes, that's a college worthy of support, and all the alumni gifts and tax breaks can never be enough.
The goal of the Ashbrook Center is to produce informed citizens who can answer "yes" to that question. So why don't you take the good author's advice, and make a tax-deductible contribution today to help us educate citizens.
Categories > Ashbrook Center

Discussions - 26 Comments

A serious liberal arts education, it appears, is not the domain of our country's elite colleges.

And a good liberal arts education should always focus first and foremost on created educated human beings before "producing educated citizens". I worry the right-leaning higher education programs in this country might forget that (although I readily concede they are light-years ahead of more liberal-leaning programs when it comes to teaching the "great" books).

Moral and cultural relativism is a deadly solvent that eats away at the very foundations of republican governance. Democracy is predicated upon the demos discussing matters amongst themselves. Ideally, the demos doesn't act according to passion, but through a good faith discussion of the merits or demerits of a particular course of action. But that assumes that there is a right and a wrong, that truth can be distinguished from falsehood. That people can arrive at OBJECTIVE conclusions about matters and issues.

Relativism however states that ultimately all is a vast power struggle, and that discussion is fraudulent. The concept that there is no truth, except the absolute statement "there is no truth," is both intellectually sloppy and wildly dangerous.

Dan - what kind of crazy relativists do you read?!?!? You wrote that:

Relativism however states that ultimately all is a vast power struggle, and that discussion is fraudulent.

That is ridiculous and I would love to see you point out one significant, serious theorist or philosopher that has ever made that claim.

The relativism you talk about is usually more about accepting the fact that there can be no "OBJECTIVE" truth rather than saying there is no truth at all. Saying that no one can break free of their own subjective worldviews is a lot different than saying that there is no right or wrong (read some Rawls and Habermas if you're looking for this kind of argument in a legal/political context).

You might disagree with them, but don't make extremely formidable thinkers into infantilized relativists who sink into nihilism because they've lost all "objective" morality. I'm more afraid of people who base their morality on some magical "objective", platonic, metaphysical ideas rather than those who openly admit their own subjectivity and attempt to work out their morality and/or political structures accordingly.

Hell, I did Virgil, Homer, Plutarch, Shakespeare, Livy, Herodotus, & Co. with 7th graders at a classical school. Don't tell me college kids cannot deal with this kind of material. Well, considering the education most of them get, maybe it is true.

And, then, when they go to most colleges, they get . . . well, they get a degree.

The culmination of relativism is a society where everything is a power struggle, where people speak past one another. Look you are trying to PERSUADE me of the error latent in my comment. I'm defending that comment by saying you didn't quite understand me, {or I didn't make myself clear}. And by clarifying my comment, I'm hoping you'll understand. But in a society where relativism dominates, such a good faith exchange becomes increasingly rare, then it becomes extinct. Why would anyone try to persuade someone else if they were convinced prior to that their effort would be vain, for people can't "break free" of their particular "worldview." In a world where I have my view, and you have your view, and "never the twain shall meet," it's just a battle to see whose view will dominate. That's where it leads.

Take Edward Said for instance. He builds naturally upon that idea. He stated that merely studying the Orient, "the other," is evidence of racism and a host of other antisocial attitudes. Perhaps I should have been more clear by saying that relativism RESULTS in a society where everything is a power struggle. But it is a blog, so like a math problem, I skipped the step of precisely identifying relativism. Remember, it's not meant to be a comprehensive essay, where I'm graded at the end.

Relativism is all about vantage, viewpoint, perspective, cultural, moral, religious. Between societies it can lead to a live and let live attitude. BUT WITHIN states that is not the likely result. As a recent study on diversity by a Harvard researcher indicates.

The suggestion that humans can't "break free" to arrive at any objective truth is an attack upon the existence of that truth, as a practical matter, if not in the realm of theory. It's also an attack upon the mind of man. And societies have to deal with the practical consequences of such ideas.

I'm not trying to "infantilize" them. But I don't subscribe to their ideas; the more I see of life the more convinced I am of the Natural Law. Which transcends time and locale. Not to mention culture. Thus I can say confidently that Atta KNEW he was doing evil, utter evil.


I'm not expecting an essay from you, but I do expect you to see past school-boy relativism when it comes to some of the world's most prominent thinkers.

If you read Habermasian theory, the collective, subjective worldviews of any given populace are what make democracy such a powerful and beneficial governmental structure. This is a blog, so this is a crude recollection of his work, but he believes that through the collectivization of viewpoints, a better understanding of each other's viewpoints can be reached (and legal theory can be built). Obviously, there are truths in this theory (i.e. to alienate someone's subjectivity is the worst thing you can do in a democracy). Also, I've never heard of anyone seriously denying particular laws of rationality (like the law of non-contradiction, for example).

Attempting to claim you've got "objective" truth which "transcends time" and "culture" is nonsense to philosophers like Habermas. How can you speak with any "objective" authority of atemporal things when you exist in a particular spatial/temporal position? How can you speak with any "objective" authority on other cultures (or your own) when your knowledge on such things is limited, necessarily, by your own life experience?

The mind of man is limited in the subjective sense. Your views are contingent upon your life experience (which help leads you to truth . . . necessarily not "objective" truth). This does not lead to theories which end discussion, rather it promotes such discussion (it is actually the advocates of "objective" truth who destroy discussion with their claims of absolute ideas and atemporal truths).

I love you NLT bloggers. We get into the deep stuff . . . mmm . . .

Oh, and I wanted to quickly mention that I'm not sure there is any significant correlation between the sort of political thought Habermas advocates and the problems you mention with the Harvard study. There are plenty of other potential causes for those problems (not the least of which being some of the consequences of capitalism and technology . . . but I suppose that discussion can wait for another day).

Matt, the ashbin of history is filled with great thinkers who sank into the personal despair as they realized the nihilism of where their infantile relativism led them. Paul Johnson and Os Guiness are only a few of the authors who have pointed this out. So, while you are trying to dress up post-modern and deconstructionist thought, it really is the relativism Dan described, just with lots of jargon no one outside the academy can either understand or take very seriously or teach to their children.

I, for one, would much rather have people attempt to align themselves with the natural law and objective idea of truth rather than "work out their subjectivities" and steal my stuff, rape my wife, and kill my children and then claim, "Hey, don't judge my actions, they are right for me. I like totalitarianism and exercising power over the weak . . . " No one teaches their children, "do your own thing, my dear, there's no objective right or wrong, just what you feel is OK."

Dangerous ground you're treading on, Mingus.

Tony -

Did you read my posts? Is there any way you could possibly read anything that didn't advocate "objective reason" without thinking "Uh, oh. Now they're going to rape my wife because they have no metaphysical moral compass." No one is saying that anyone should be able to do whatever it is they feel like. I'm just trying to make the point that one does not need to rely on abstract truths to recognize things as "right" or "wrong", "ethical" or "unethical", or live peacefully (without raping, murdering, and stealing) in a political community. If you'd like someone to better explain this to you, please see Kant, Marx, Adorno, Rawls, Royce, Habermas and many more . . . all with different ideas of how this can be done.

Paul - I know, I know. I'm done now. I will go back into hiding . . .


There’s no reason for you to go and hide. I’m absolutely sure you believe what you say and have studied the great masters of philosophy. But I’m not sure what you mean when you say that “one does not need to rely on abstract truths to recognize things as "right" or "wrong", "ethical" or "unethical"

Because the previous century is filled wall to wall with counterexamples. All of the great tyrannies, wars and mass murders of the last century were done in the name of “right” and “ethical” ends.

Surely you have studied the basis of these regimes – Communist and National Socialist to name the two most outstanding examples. They were both formed from the highest ideals: the creation of a “new man” who would be a step beyond the mere mortals that preceded them. In the case of the Communist man, we have someone who shared all he had with his neighbors, gave each according to his needs and produced according to his abilities selflessly for his neighbors. A shepherd by day and a scholar by night. All that was needed was the elimination of the social, economic and structural obstacles to the achievement of this dream.

In the case of national Socialist Man we have the substitution of selfish, atomistic man with a united people working together for the common good of the superior Nordic race who would rule their inferiors with justice and wisdom. All that was needed was some Lebensraum and the elimination of subhumans who were poisoning the bloodlines of the Nordic supermen.

There is absolutely no need for abstract analysis of right and wrong, ethical an unethical in pursuing these goals, right? After all, the achievement of these goals is so important that the suggestion that abstract, universal theories of right or wrong are infantile and cannot be allowed to stand in the way of achieving these utopias.

You see, Matt, all great horrors are committed in the name of goodness. There has never been a real Richard III who soliloquized about his own evil. Oh, there have been petty criminals who may have known they were doing wrong – the Al Capones of this world – but to commit crimes that ring down the ages you have to be doing “good.”

Taking a slightly different approach to this question -- I wonder how much of the current problem is a result of a college education being viewed, increasingly, as merely a vocational means to employment? In other words, colleges have become a reflection of what the parents and students have asked for: a "punched ticket" to professional employment. The emphasis is on education viewed as directly applicable -- engineering, computer science, business management ... medicine, education and the like.

Thank goodness we still have traditional liberal arts colleges like Ashland University. I wish I'd had a broader view of things 30 years ago. Sadly, I went to college mostly to "get a job" and little more. Most everyone I knew then did the same. Perhaps it's changed since then, but somehow I suspect it has not.

Just a thought.

Take a look at commonalities that HAVE transcended time and culture. Which culture glorifies the murder of a mother? In what time was it appropriate to murder a sibling, or a father. The story of Oedipus obtains semper, et pro semper. Which society glorifies adultery? Which society values theft?

Natural Law isn't hard to understand. What's harder to explain are themes that cross time and culture, without an understanding of Natural Law. The men you mentioned don't invalidate Natural Law, in fact, their observations are somewhat mundane. Take a look at the Decalogue, now ask yourself which society glorified and sanctioned the opposite. What tribe approved the marriage of man with his mother. What tribe approves of cowardice in battle, ingratitude among children, and lack of piety amongst its members.

The answer is none. The virtues that are Cardinal are respected everywhere. Temperance, prudence, fortitude and judgement. The intemperate are not lionized, nor the coward. The reckless are not held up for emulation, nor those wanting in judgement.

Those themes, those commonalities, those are shadows of a Law existent in each man. They are the pale reflection of something within each. It doesn't mean that they are overwhelming and overpowering. It means they can be discerned, and men of good faith, can identify them.

Taking a slightly different approach to this question -- I wonder how much of the current problem is a result of a college education being viewed, increasingly, as merely a vocational means to employment? In other words, colleges have become a reflection of what the parents and students have asked for: a "punched ticket" to professional employment. The emphasis is on education viewed as directly applicable -- engineering, computer science, business management ... medicine, education and the like.

A great many are not suited to the role of intellectual hobbyist. A great many others could not afford such a role if they were otherwise suited.

Given the expense of tertiary education, a concern with the practical applicability of what is studied therein is quite unremarkable. Nor is it novel. I can rummage up a lecture by John Ruskin given over a century ago where he laments that so many are seeking education that their young might acquire a 'suitable position' in society.

Some 39% of our population of tertiary students major in the liberal or fine arts; a large fraction of a student's time and effort (30%?) has to be expended in the fulfillment of distribution requirements in the liberal arts; and prestige schools are investing considerable sums in liberal arts programs (e.g. in women's studies and other victimology exercises) in which student interest can be close to nil. The notion that the liberal arts are neglected by our tertiary institutions is eccentric.

Thank goodness we still have traditional liberal arts colleges like Ashland University.

Not if the current people in charge of Ashland University have anything to say about it. They are moving away from a focus on the "liberal arts" to the point that when the elected representatives of the student body, the Student Senate, make a plea to strengthen the liberal arts at Ashland University (primarily over expanding the foreign language department), the administration has the audacity to claim that Ashland University is not a liberal arts school. As they shift their focus from the liberal arts, they strengthen their business and science programs. Whereas foreign languages are getting cut, they are moving to open a forensic science major.

It is comforting, though, that the students of Ashland University want to maintain and strengthen the liberal arts traditions of Ashland, and I think this fact is causing the administration to, thankfully, take a second look at what they are doing. It is also programs like the Ashbrook Scholar program, which was at the forefront of the fight to bring the classical languages back to Ashland University, that give the liberal arts hope of not only surviving, but growing stronger.

If anyone cares, I’ll share an Ashland anecdote. Before I entered graduate school, one of my soon-to-be professors asked me to give him a detailed description of the courses I had taken and the books I had read while at Ashland and in the Ashbrook Scholar program. So I dutifully typed it up and sent it off to him--not sure what to expect in reply. He wrote me back to me with a few recommendations for supplementation in the summer, but was otherwise astonished. He declared that the preparation I had received at Ashland surpassed anything he might have dreamed of getting at Yale . . . in the 1930s! I don’t say that to toot my own horn. It’s one thing to be offered such a feast and another thing to fully digest it. I’m not saying that I did all I could have done as a student at Ashland (or in graduate school, or even that I do it now). But it was never for lack of opportunity. Any holes in my education are entirely my own fault. But I was lucky to run into some professors I could trust to give me good advice and point me in the right direction. That was a long while ago, of course, but from what I can see things have only gotten better at Ashland (if Concerned Student thinks there are problems now, he should have been there 20 years ago!). But I really think that if you can find one or two great professors worthy of your trust, you can still get an excellent education at most places. It’s just a shame that it has to be so difficult for students to find that sort of thing at most schools . . . or dependent upon luck. I was lucky, but I think students who enter AU now (certainly in history or political science) aren’t playing craps. They can be confident that they’re getting the opportunity for a very solid education.

Execellent post, Julie. I agree entirely.

Call me cynical, but all a degree denotes is that one is willing to stick to something and willing to conform enough to pass.

That is it, nothing more.

Sad? Yes, but I believe extremely true.

Dale you wouldn't happen to be a character on King of the Hill would you?

Seriously, what does a degree denote?

That you have have mastered a subject of interest?


How can one master a subject just by studying or partaking in labs/practicals?

Real life doesn't work that way.

College can give a basis, but it will never make you a master of anything ... not even basket weaving.

Come on.

College is overhyped for this unreasonable demand.

I am not saying that college education is bad. What I am saying is that just because one has a degree ... or several ... does not make one an effective person in work or life, for the matter.

And, yes, I do hold Bachelors degree.

Oh, and my wife has a masters and is in a national fraternity for making extremely good grades in getting her masters (4.0 on a 4.0 scale).

I also expect my children to attain college degrees.

What I do not expect is for them to be experts on anything they get their degree(s) in. That happens after college and, normally, long after college.

So, should colleges be pandering to the latest and greatest theory on how to better perform a certain job skill or should they be helping their students better prepare for the vast and varied life they will have after college, which if the stats are to believed, will not entail anything resembling their chosen degree?

I would be happy if most colleges lowered their claims for post-degree professional advancement. For me, if my kids find a school that will teach them how to ask the right questions out of life and will give them some training in the ways to go about finding the answers to those questions--and reaffirm that answers can be found and are worth finding--then I will be happy. Professional success is more dispositional than training driven. There is nothing wrong with training for a job . . . but for the most part, people over-pay for it when they get that training at a four-year college and, worse, they get it at the expense of something better and more worthwhile to them. Anyone who is honest knows that the best training for any job comes from holding the job itself.

He declared that the preparation I had received at Ashland surpassed anything he might have dreamed of getting at Yale . . . in the 1930s!

Spare me now, have people always been stupid. At least I lived in a hope that at one time people were more enlightened.

The problem of higher education (and education in general) is simple--government funding. Whenever the government starts subsidizing things, they become sloppy, inefficient, and poor quality. As noted in the original post, both public and private institutions rely on the government to their detriment.

Matt, the philosophers that you list are not all "subjective" or "relativists." Now I'm not searching for a long discussion on this junk, but the real problem of "relativism" is one of practice. Regardless of whether the great thinkers are nuanced and good, the common man taught that stuff will not understand it as deeply. It's just a fact that I'm not as smart as Plato, Locke, Kant, Rousseau, and thousands more. Therefore, it's a lot safer to give me an objective theory than a subjective one; unless you want chaos.

Ideally, the demos doesn't act according to passion, but through a good faith discussion of the merits or demerits of a particular course of action.

The goal is to get all people to act on passion. Passion is the objective standard the transends time and culture, uniting man in the good. Conversly "reason" changes culture to culture justifying wrong as it wills.

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