Is Our Liberal Education Failing Us?

A couple weeks ago, political scientist Peter Berkowitz published an op-ed on RealClearPolitics called “10 Ways Liberal Education Fails Students—and Society”. In the piece, he argues that in order to have a healthy and well-functioning liberal democracy, it is essential that liberal arts colleges do their job properly: “to transmit knowledge and teach students to think for themselves,” and in the process foster a deep intellectual integrity “which involves respecting facts, honoring evidence, vigorously exploring arguments, and cherishing the inevitable and illuminating diversity of opinion in a free society.” According to Berkowitz, this is not happening, and society is suffering as a consequence.

I don’t want to do a summary of the article, but I would like to comment on some of the main points. For those who are interested, I suggest going through it (it’s short), and asking whether any or all of the charges against the current liberal arts model are true. While I can only speak as a student of Lewis and Clark College, I think that it is still possible to acquire the liberal education that Berkowitz laments the loss of, and I think that (at least in some departments at our school), the professors do an admirable job of providing just that.

The most troubling accusation that Berkowitz makes is that liberal arts schools produce students with uniform opinions who unquestioningly embrace the left-leaning dogmas of the day. This is not an uncommon criticism from people who lean right politically. It is common knowledge that most students and professors tend to fall down left of center. But Berkowitz argues that this should be a concern for liberals in particular—for tolerance and diversity are liberal values, and arguably many liberal colleges do not have them.

Democracy requires a diversity of viewpoints in order to function properly. In science, if scientists fail to explore (and test) competing hypotheses, they fall short of aquiring accurate knowledge. In capitalist economic systems, if there is no competition, we will typically get market failure. In short, it seems that many of our institutions mirror and reinforce one another… that science, capitalism, and democracy, perhaps all depend on similar norms for their proper functioning. And yet, if we want to foster this kind of diversity in our social institutions, it seems perhaps most important to have it in our educational institutions: diversity of ideas.

How do we get this diversity? Arguably, one of the best ways of getting it is by reading from what is called the “Western Canon”: the Greeks, Shakespeare, Dante, Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, Burke, Marx, Newton, etc. We have inherited much of what we currently believe today from these texts, and often forget that they disagreed–sometimes extremely–with one another, and provided plausible alternatives to questions that are still being asked (or at least should be). The idea is that by taking seriously the ideas of the past, one might come to question the prevailing ideologies of the present. Through this questioning, one might find that one disagrees with much of what one originally took for granted upon entering college. Or contrarily, one might find one’s original beliefs confirmed, but have better reasons for holding them. In more recent years, there has ironically been a “liberal” backlash against these books that have contributed so fruitfully to the development and maintenance of liberalism. They have been criticized as being dated, irrelevant, written by “dead white men” rather than racial minorities or women. These criticisms miss the point, for it is the ideas themselves that are important, not the identities of the authors who wrote them, nor the trivial fact that people today may disagree. Ideas are not wrong merely because people no longer believe them. And in that sense, I think that Berkowitz may be right. Affirmative action policies can create the illusion of diversity on a campus that in fact has none, at least if what we are talking about is “intellectual” diversity, which should be the most important kind of diversity in an environment that is supposed to care most about freeing the individual mind.

I mentioned that we have departments at Lewis and Clark that definitely deliver what I see to be the proper kind of “liberal” education. In my experience, our political science and philosophy departments have both been very good, and I’m sure that they are not the only ones. Lest there be any confusion, I just want to make clear: when I say “liberal” I do not mean “right-wing”. I am not saying that the political science or philosophy departments provide a conservative counterpoint to our comfortable leftist presumptions. Rather, the liberal education that one finds in our philosophy or political science departments can be described as fostering a kind of intellectual humility, the notions that common sense is frequently wrong, that ideas need to be carefully scrutinized before one accepts them, that presumptions are a kind of laziness, that feelings are not a foundation for knowledge and that unreflective partisanship weakens rather than strengthens democracy.

In sum, for students who want it and seek it out, the traditional liberal arts education is not dead. Because there exist professors who themselves possess the intellectual integrity that a liberal education cultivates, the liberal arts continue (at least in some places) to flourish.