Whither the Liberal Arts College? Or, Why Bloom’s Critique Doesn’t Matter


One sees signs of dètente in the academic wars that were highlighted by Allan Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind. At a more reflective level this can be seen in books such as Stanley Fish’s Save the World on Your Own Time, a screed against the politicization of the curriculum and a request for professors to limit their goals to teaching a discipline and developing basic skills. Gil Meilander wrote a piece in First Things essentially offering a deal to his colleagues: since I don’t trust you and you don’t trust me, let’s agree not to make an experiment of one another’s children. For that reason let’s set aside all talk about forming or shaping the youth and simply stick to an objective presentation of the subject-matter.

In a certain sense these writers have captured an essential aspect of academic life, and that is that most professors aren’t busily engaged in battles for the soul of the college or university. The predominant model of the contemporary academic is not one of advocacy but rather one of free agency. We agree not to pass judgment on what any of our colleagues do or say so long as they agree not to pass judgment on what we do or say. In this sense we have embodied an individualist ethos, one that we believes renders our commitments and ideas invulnerable.

We often cloak this diffident impulse in language of academic freedom, personal autonomy, or authenticity, but mostly it’s a retreat from the forms of criticism and judgment that would force reevaluation or accountability. At its apogee such retreat can also take the form of competing group identities, the expression of which forms a commitment to “diversity” which operates as a unifying ideology. The commitment to diversity will then manifest itself in a variegated and incoherent curriculum designed to indulge the interests of particular faculty members. The best way to describe such a faculty is comfortable.

This isolated self-determining person is fragile, however, and often seeks to minimize exposure to anomie or ennui through uncritical adaptation to large-scale cultural trends centering on technology and its expansion. The overall purpose of the classroom is seen to be the making of citizens – not just any citizens, but global citizens – while the means employed are the mastery and application of technologies which undergird the sense that we have entered a global era (that is, devices of mass communication). And the colleges adapt themselves to these ideas and technologies with a rapidity that bespeaks a lack of reflection.

Such rapidity seems contrary to the life of reason, which would require deliberation and careful thought to how adaptation to changing cultural trends takes place. But in an age of specialization, increased competition for students, and capitulation to marketing models, it should hardly surprise that reason won’t rule the day. Really, what colleges are designed to do is serve themselves as corporate, even if non-profit, entities within the context of modern politics and economics.

This was a central part of Alasdair MacIntyre’s argument in God, Philosophy, Universities where he expressed his concern that in abandoning its project of cultivating the life of reason the universities had ceased to serve the common good in any meaningful way. What is most missing in the contemporary academy is any sort of integrative discipline, the sort that may have at one time been accomplished by philosophy or theology. “And so the very notion of the nature and order of things, of a single universe, different aspects of which are objects of enquiry for the various disciplines, but in such a way that each aspect needs to be related to every other, this notion no longer informs the enterprise of the contemporary American university.”

American higher education lacks the sense, MacIntyre argues, of a common enterprise. Rather it is dominated by an opportunism wherein universities seek to enrich themselves and fight the prestige battle, and students are motivated by careerism. The hallmarks of these places are professionalization and specialization, and in the process they lose sight of the one (truly liberal) question that would help make an education coherent: the question of what it is to be a human being. To ask this question would raise issues of the limits of scientific knowing, of the nature and quality of a moral life, of understanding the depths of self-deception, inquiring into the social dimensions of human activity, and so forth, and in a systematic rather than haphazard way. (There may be individual faculty who raise such questions, but such questioning is not woven into the curriculum.)

We are not inclined to pursue such an approach to education. Most colleges and universities have been thoroughly corrupted in the sense that as they become more specialized and professionalized in their internal functioning, they encourage the development of a faculty who are invested in not raising the larger questions about the purpose of education, and a student- body who will increasingly mimic this professionalization and specialization in pursuit of a well- paying job. When embedded in a culture that sees upward mobility and deracination as primary goods, the labor market begins to unify the shaping of student preferences. In that sense, once the servile arts are introduced into the liberal arts context, they quickly overwhelm it and reduce the liberal arts into a mere “value added” good.

The central premise of college admissions is that we prepare students for the so-called real world. We fill their days with activity, and think we give them lots of work to do which, if studies be trusted, most of them don’t. We will make these expensive educations attractive by talking about leadership – setting aside the logical concerns of having better than 50% of the population being leaders or worries about whether leadership should even be considered a general human good – and fill students heads with cosmopolitan dreams as a way of drawing attention away from the pecuniary opportunism that most motivates students and faculty.

What we won’t do is provide them with answers to the question of what it means to be a human being that takes seriously issues of contemplation or leisure. Newman argued that a liberal arts education is one wherein modes of action have their ends in themselves: they are not primarily directed to extrinsic purposes such as satisfying a requirement or getting a good job. A human community requires for its perfection a class of persons dedicated to contemplation, who are literally use-less. Such contemplation would necessarily involve an opening up of the self to the transcendent, to learn to be in a receptive mode rather than an active one.

It is part of the genius of Joseph Pieper’s presentation in Lesiure: That Basis of Culture to see that active life dedicated to work not as the opposite of idleness but as possibly a species of it. Acedia is a lack of being-at-one with oneself, of not wanting to be what one is fully called to be. In the modern world we tend to see acedia as a lack of ambition, or lack of productivity or acquisitiveness in modern economic life. Rather, Pieper says, we should see acedia opposed not by “the industrious spirit of the daily effort to make a living” but instead by the “the cheerful affirmation by man of his own existence, of the world as a whole, and of God.” (One wonders why at least one college hasn’t adopted this as its mission statement.) A certain kind of inactivity, then, is a fulfillment of the command to keep the Sabbath while “industry” may violate the idea of resting in and with God.

Such rest, when connected to man’s eternal nature, frees us from mere idleness or mere labor, and places us, Pieper claims, into positions of worship and festive hope. In that sense, knowing born of leisure cannot be directed by anything other than its goal, and can serve no purpose other than itself – else it would be servile rather than liberal. To subsume liberal education to the needs of the state or the economy (which is much the same thing) is to destroy liberal education, for then it becomes merely a means rather than an end. A liberal education by the nature of the thing limits the power of the state and its coordinating administrative impulses.

So it is rest in God that unifies the liberal self. Without the unifying movement of activity into such rest (and the underlying conception of what it means to be human), we become diffused and dissipated. Not understanding leisure, neither can we understand work. And not understanding work, neither can we understand how to fill student’s hours, or our own, in any meaningful way. We vitiate the classroom of its noble purposes and we create an indulgent but not coherent education.

We have created a situation where students spend fewer and fewer hours on their studies – a deal most professors will gladly make because it saves them the trouble of having to grade – and schools compensate for this releasing of time by building larger recreation centers, greater opportunities for amusement, a budget-crushing student life organization, and, tellingly, placing a revolving door on their counseling center. The rise in students reporting mental health problems has been dramatic in the past decades and the percent of students who seek counseling services has these offices operating on a nearly 24 hour basis. A report in the NYTimes indicates that a current student has about a 50/50 chance of becoming clinically depressed while in college. An MMPI questionnaire demonstrated that students were five times more likely to experience anxiety and depression as were students during the Great Depression.

While there may be various explanations for this phenomenon, we shouldn’t discount Pieper’s claim that despair is the sister of restlessness. Isolated and separated from a community of homonoia, current students will seek some relief of their condition. For the contemporary college student, discouraged by the structure of the contemporary college to pursue any true understanding of what a person is and how that person lives in community with others, they will likely find their narcotic in a technology that promotes a sham mode of community.

I refer here to Sherry Turkle’s incisive presentation in Alone Together: Why We Expect More from Technology and Less From Each Other. Turkle’s argument hinges on the fact that we have bracketed the question of what it means to be fully human, and have instead thoroughly blurred the line between our machines and ourselves. Rather than rising to the glory of whom we are called to be, and living alongside others also so called, we use our technology to “be in relationships and protect ourselves from them at the same time.” We are more networked than ever, Turkle argues, but also more alone with a tendency to see others “as objects to be accessed” at our own whims.

One of the key insights for Turkle is the realization that multi-tasking and connectivity falsify understadning: the more connected individuals are, the less productive they are, but the more productive they feel themselves to be (she claims this is a result of neurochemicals released during multitasking activities). The spaces of life, the moments of repose that would allow for contemplation, are filled by instant communication.

Like Jean Twenge, Turkle argues one prominent effect of rapid interconnectivity has been an increase in narcissism: fragile selves in need of constant support, but also selves who “get on with others only by dealing with their self-made representations.” We are our avatars. In place of genuine community, we become stimulated only by a kind of connectivity that depletes us. (Turkle claims she interviewed students who send between six and eight thousand texts a month, and spend hours a day on facebook and are exhausted by the effort.) We become more connected but more alone, a loneliness Turkle refers to as “failed solitude.”

The situation is made worse by the intentional vacating of public spaces. Lectures are podcasted or placed online so students need not enter a public space where they risk ideas or embarrassment, but also experience the thrill that accompanies the discovery of shared ideas and purposes. Students don’t engage in the project of creating actual communities that require actual commitments. Their narcissism increases with their loneliness and can’t be alleviated by trying to get them to go global.

On the contrary, such abstract commitments will only serve to heighten their sense of powerlessness and ennui. I can tell you from experience it is more difficult now than it was twenty years ago to get students to form actual organizations, but infinitely easier to get them to want to save Africa from a distance. Ideally they could do it by clicking the like button on Africa’s Facebook page. Their associative life is thin to the point of non-existent and can’t be made thicker through forays into the hook-up culture. On the contrary.

These increasingly narcissistic selves will resonate well with a sales pitch that offers them leadership and advancement. Colleges, rather than offering an alternative view of life and the world, have adapted themselves to what the technology demands. They celebrate the virtues of wirelessness, of being cutting edge, of smart classrooms, of distance learning, of computer literacy, of electronic connectivity, without asking how such things fit into a well-formed community or a wholistic conception of the good life. Where commitment to technological savvy and economic advancements are the only shared conceptions, no genuinely human good can be advanced in these colleges who credential rather than educate. “To cut oneself off from shared activity in which one has initially to learn obediently as an apprentice learns, to isolate oneself from the communities which find their point and purpose in such activities, will be to debar oneself from finding any good outside oneself.” (MacIntyre After Virtue.)

Technologies have a way of shaping their own communities, and have an inner-dynamism toward the formation of larger but more abstract communities with fewer actual obligations. It is no accident that colleges began talking more and more about cultivating global citizens at the same time they uncritically adopted technologies of mass communication that attenuated face-to-face interaction. Martha Nussbaum argued deracination and the destruction of the peculiarities and prejudices of small communities to be the desideratum of academic life. Education comes to be seen increasingly not just as a way up but, as Wendell Berry says, as a way out. So whatever the fissures and fractures within the academy, they are overwhelmed by the unequivocal devotion to seeing itself as a handmaiden of society and a mechanism for upward mobility.

Whatever commitments we have as faculty, since they are not grounded in or related to any shared public purposes, must have the character of a boutique morality. Like students, who learn this only too well from us, we operate in isolation and give ourselves the appearance of busyness by organizing an endless progression of largely pointless meetings. (By my count Hope College has 33 standing committees and even more ad hoc committees.) We only rarely engage in genuine interaction with other colleagues. As the schools get larger we’ll retreat into like-minded enclaves at happy hour, having only brief dashes in and out of the public sphere

Any sensible conservative critique of the university must, I think, take seriously the problems concerning what technology wills for itself; how the impulse to universalization and abstraction destroys that which is particular and near; and how questions about who we are and what we are destined for are occluded. It must see the interrelatedness of these problems. It should see college life not as primarily directed toward the formation of skills and habits that prepare one for engagement in the modern economy, but as an interval in life where students are encouraged to the most useful of activities by pursuing useless ones

It is now more imperative than ever that liberal arts colleges rethink who they are and what they are doing. In an age of centralized state authority, crony capitalism, and military expansion, the call goes out once again for social institutions dedicated to alternate modes of community. Surely this is what MacIntyre was getting at when he noted that resistance to the Roman imperium coalesced when individuals “ceased to identify the continuation of civility and moral community with that imperium,” but rather began to form new communities where the moral life in its wholeness could be sustained amidst the coming barbarism. For that reason, the liberal arts college that serves the American imperium least serves it best. And that is what Bloom didn’t understand.

[A version of this essay was presented at the ISI-sponsored event “Reassessing the American University: New Challenges, Perennial Purposes.” My thanks to Mark Henrie and Joel Boersma for organizing the event.]

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