Higher education in America has many challenges, and in many ways has become a rather strange place. The satirical novel, such as Richard Russo’s Straight Man or James Hyne’s The Lecturer’s Tale, could hardly be written any more, for the simple reason that reality has outpaced the imagination. We’ve actually gotten a little crazier than the satire.
As indicated, America’s 500+ liberal arts colleges, as well as its sprawling state education system, face enormous pressures in a competitive environment. They are beset by assessment pressures and the obsession with metrics and outcomes; they face declining demographics; their core purpose has been undermined by careerist impulses; many have lost their sense of mission; they’ve become deadeningly uniform in their approach to education. The list goes on.
Many observers have concluded that the current model of higher education is unsustainable. Online learning, for-profit colleges, rising tuition costs, an alarmingly large student loan bubble, government and institutional indebtedness, and declining birth-rates have all conspired to make it likely that an increasing number of schools will have to close their doors. According to a Bloomberg report, “The number of private four-year colleges that have closed or were acquired doubled from about five a year before 2008 to about 10 in the four years through 2011, according to a study last year by researchers at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, citing federal data. Plus, among all colleges, 37 merged in the three years through 2013, more than triple the number from 2006 to 2009, according to Higher Education Publications Inc., a Reston, Virginia-based directory publisher.”
Stein’s Law: If something can’t go on forever, it won’t. In our judgment, many administrators and Boards of Trustees have either misread the tea leaves, or have drawn the wrong conclusions. In an environment increasingly competitive for students, the tendency to make student-centered learning, experiential learning, and collaborative learning prevails while branding, marketing, and careerism take over the historic sense of a liberal arts mission.
Our panelists today weigh in on these issues by looking at them from a slightly different angle. They are well-known members of the Porch, and all teachers at liberal arts colleges. John Cuddeback is Professor of Philosophy at Christendom College, and raiser and slaughterer of pigs. Jason Peters teaches Literature at Augustana College, and has made his attempt to create a family homestead a running gag on this site. Lastly, yours truly will weigh in from his perch at Hope College.
1. Is the model of higher education in American sustainable? What are the factors that would make it unsustainable?
John Cuddeback: There are many problems with our model of higher education under the rubric of sustainability. Perhaps the central problem is the trend away from what is truly liberal: what is ‘free’ in the sense of worthy in itself. As Josef Pieper pointed out some decades ago, when you remove what is worthy in itself you remove the ground, the very reason for the desirability of everything else. This ongoing foray into making everything meaning-less, because end-less, is not sustainable.
Jason Peters: We might rather ask whether we want it to be sustained at all. I’m not sure we do. A lot of expensive liberal arts colleges are discounting tuition at the unsustainable rates of fifty and sixty percent. Some have closed their doors, and others will follow. Of course many of them are too expensive to begin with. But that’s because to compete they have to have have resort-like facilities: rock-climbing walls, scarf-out dining centers, e-mail kiosks between urinals. This extravagance can’t go on for ever. The bonanza is over.
Jeff Polet: Likely not. Declining demographics certainly play a role, but the colleges have commenced the poisoned chalice to their own lips by over-emphasizing the value of a college degree in the labor market. The market will sort this out, at which point a four-year degree will decline in value and prospective students will simply not take on the debt. It’s already happening, as students realize they’ve made a bad deal taking on nearly six figures of debt only to be underemployed. The wackier or less traditional a college’s curriculum is, the less appeal it will have to the remaining students (and their parents) who are actually interested in an education. Any rational parent footing the bill should actually think twice before spending $50,000 a year on an education whose main “outcome” is to relocate their children to large urban centers.
2. How ought liberal arts colleges think about themselves and their constituencies in this economy and culture?
John Cuddeback: Liberal arts colleges will have the growing problem of finding a constituency that is well-educated enough to appreciate the liberal arts; i.e., to be their constituency. These colleges will need both to have, practice, and project a clear conception of the nature and worth of liberal education. Trying to be just like the ‘other’ colleges is not tenable.
Jason Peters: I’m tempted to say with “self-loathing and contempt, respectively.” Liberal arts colleges ought to think of themselves as liberal arts colleges, the economy and culture be damned. But instead they’re puckering at the hind end of both the economy and culture. More than ever the culture needs an infusion of people educated in the liberal arts, maybe even a kind of clerisy. But the colleges don’t seem to have the guts to say this. I once heard a college president say that what colleges do is prepare students “to go out and participate in the economy.” That’s a sign of the apocalypse.
Jeff Polet: By returning to their roots. Rather than thinking of themselves as producing leaders who will serve the world, and this on the basis of having been thoroughly schooled in sentimentalism, schools ought to see themselves in service of particular traditions, and enmesh students in the learning valued by that tradition. As I learned attending my daughter’s graduation from college: when a school disconnects itself from tradition, it soon gets swept into trendy multiculturalism, self-important upward advancement, and a fascination with “distinctives” so minor they aren’t worth attending to at all.
3. Is there still such a thing as the “liberal arts” in this culture? What has become of them?
John Cuddeback: Good question. Surely there are remnants. It can be discouraging to compare what we have and do today with what Western civilization had and did earlier. But at the end of the day, the philosophical habit of mind still exists, and can be cultivated and passed on.
Jason Peters: I sometimes fantasize about telling a room full of administrators that I’ll buy them all a drink if, together, they can name the seven liberal arts. (That there are seven of them would be news to many of these administrators.) But then I’m obliged to admit that there are many faculty members in liberal arts colleges who couldn’t name them either. Anything in the curriculum is now a liberal art, apparently. Graphic design is a liberal art. Advertising is a liberal art (though what it really is is the art of lying). And when that’s the case, you may be sure that the term “liberal arts” means nothing. What’s become of them is that, wherever there’s an actual trace of them left, they’ve dissolved into mere distribution requirements. Otherwise they’ve disappeared. Take the trivium. Learning languages, learning how they work, learning how to use them, learning how to write: gone.
Jeff Polet: They are museum pieces. We operate with a vague sense that’s there is a older type of learning that is important, so we require students to walk past them in the same way they’d pass an exhibit in a museum. When torn from their cultural context, such pieces become mere curiosities and adornments, but are no longer part of life in any substantive sense. The fact is that it’s silly to think that 50% of the population has the requisite skills and, more importantly, the requisite interest in the traditional liberal arts. So we’ve lumped the 10-15% who do with the 35-40% who don’t, give them the same curriculum, and expect that such dabblers can now be considered “liberal” selves. What they all become, in fact, are functionaries in either market-based or government-based abstract systems. Hardly “liberal.”
4. If you were president of a liberal arts college, what’s the first thing you would do (assuming you could operate with impunity)?
John Cuddeback: Now you’re tempting me. I actually should give credit to my own institution and at least a few others that are insisting on maintaining a real focus on liberal formation—including the moral aspect of it.
Jason Peters: I’d either raise a lot of money or get myself fired. That’s all presidents do. Well, that’s not exactly true. They satisfy their constituents–usually corporate types who wouldn’t know a liberal art if one swam up and bit them in the ass–by writing “strategic plans.” This shows they’re “forward-looking.” Most of these plans are inimical to real education. The good a president can do is very limited–unlike the harm a president can do.
Jeff Polet: I’d insist that the school operate within a tradition, and seek to form students accordingly. That means I’d change the hiring requirements, I’d revise the admissions process, I’d get rid of the marketing staff. I’d address the Entertainment-Industrial complex by firing at least half the deans and mid-level administrators, and get rid of all superfluous support staff who have nothing to do with the liberal arts per se. When schools have more administrators than they do faculty, you know you have a problem. I’d implement plans to make college affordable by getting rid of everything not intrinsic to liberal formation.
5. Colleges talk a lot about developing “skills and habits.” Are we teaching the right ones? Which ones ought we be teaching?
John Cuddeback: I am blessed to be at an institution where there is a shared understanding that the main habits we are trying to form in our students are the intellectual virtues as understood by Aristotle. There is also a shared conviction that moral formation is a necessary corollary. The extent to which we succeed in doing what we set out to do is another matter.
I’ve always liked McIntyre’s point that he judges a college education by what the students will be reading in their middle age. Are our students capable, and will they want to pick up the Nicomachean Ethics later in life? If so, something has gone right. Further, are they able to analyze and respond to the profound challenges we face in our culture in light of fundamental first principles?
Jason Peters: Much as I would like to see all this talk of skills, habits, and dispositions go away, I think we might have arrived at a point where we’ve actually got to teach some. We’ve supposed for so long now that education is an easy elevator ride up and out of the drudgery of taking care of ourselves that colleges might soon have to teach people how to dig for potatoes. (That potatoes must be dug for will be news to a lot of people.) One skill we could usefully teach is paying our debt to the soil. Another is saying “No” to things that are for sale. I’d prefer this to the consciousness-raising that goes under the prevaricating banner of “critical thinking.”
Jeff Polet: We are teaching “skills and habits” that are either preparation for abstraction or outside of our competency. Honestly, I have no idea what it means to provide a skill or habit, and certainly not what it means to do so in such a way that students will be leaders in a global society. It’s all so abstract. Unfortunately, much of our job these days is remedial. Reading and writing skills are almost non-existent. Philosophy has yielded to philodoxy. Intellectual curiosity has waned significantly. Faculty are more concerned about shilling for “social justice” than they are teaching their discipline. (Needless to say such faculty typically have little appreciation for the nuances of politics and markets and so forth.) It seems unlikely that we can teach the right things in these contexts. The only way to revive a liberal arts education is to make these schools smaller (that’s another thing I’d do as President: cut everything by two-thirds, including the size of the faculty and student body) and select students for whom college is continuous with their prior education.
In the meantime, if we are serious about preparing them for the world after graduation, we would do well to give them productive experiences and worthwhile practical skills, like knowing how to garden, how to change a tire, how to patch a roof, or how to sweat copper.
6. What are the appropriate skills and habits for the professorate?
John Cuddeback: Regarding habits, I think especially of cultivating what Aquinas calls studiositas, a virtue by which we assiduously apply our minds to growing in knowledge of the truth. It is interesting that Aquinas is concerned that in all our studies we keep the ultimate end in view. One of the hardest challenges for me is bearing in mind that I should judge the success of my academic endeavors most fundamentally by whether they bear fruit in my students’ growth in wisdom.
Jason Peters: Professors must unspecialize. They must learn how the little thing they know fits into the larger thing called human knowledge–and how that fits into the larger thing called ignorance. And they must quit being suckers for classroom technology. The book is a pretty good classroom technology. Beyond that we might benefit from the habit of circumspection. I would also like to hear just one professor cultivate those much-vaunted critical thinking skills and ask whether anyone is going to bother to assess the assessment movement.
Jeff Polet: In one word: love. They must love their tradition. They must love their subject matter. They must love the truth. They must love to learn. They must love to work. They must love their students. It’s shocking how many have not love, and as a result are nothing but resounding gongs and clanging cymbals.