Liberalism and the Failed Promise of Higher Education

Christopher Kendall

Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed argues that liberalism’s inherent flaws have ushered in its final days. In providing levels of individual freedom and prosperity that could never before have been imagined, it has sown the seeds of its own undoing. By making individual autonomy the highest priority, liberalism destroys the institutions that made it possible. Cultivating virtue and responsible citizenship are subordinated to mere consumerism. Inherited institutions—family, church, community—pass on a tradition of virtuous self-government, and with this the traits that serve as a necessary precondition for citizens to possess and sustain democratic self-rule. But with the ascendance of radical autonomy, liberalism is experiencing a deep crisis of purpose as it struggles to pursue ever more elusive goals.

Deneen spends several chapters discussing the erosion of liberalism in the individual’s relationship to the state, to technology, and to culture. But Deneen’s most arresting critique focuses on higher education. In his portrayal, the university furthers liberalism’s ideals, while losing touch with its own purpose. The chapter on education (“Liberalism Against Liberal Arts”) provides the centerpiece of Deneen’s argument.

Liberalism, as Deneen writes,

Undermines education by replacing a definition of liberty as an education in self-government with liberty as autonomy and the absence of constraint. Ultimately it destroys liberal education, since it begins with the assumption that we are born free, rather than that we must learn to become free.

Universities purport to offer students freedom, but this freedom is illusory, focusing on liberation from constraint rather than the habituation of virtues conducive to self-discipline. As higher education becomes more obsessed with a flawed modern conception of liberty, students are not taught the virtues necessary for self-mastery, nor are they taught that such a thing is to be valued at all. As a result, citizens are not brought up to be active and responsible citizens of the republic, but rather compliant workers. This criticism has been made by many others on both sides of the political spectrum, perhaps the most recent example of which is Brian Caplan’s, The Case Against Education (Princeton, 2018). Such a criticism reinforces that the freedom offered by liberalism proves to limit, rather than encourage, choice.

When did this change arise? Education once sought to inculcate the virtues and character that encouraged the exercise of free and responsible citizenship. According to Deneen, drastic revisions of the liberal arts are to blame.

Under liberalism, the liberal arts are instruments of personal liberation, an end that is consistently pursued in the humanities, in the scientific and mathematical disciplines (STEM), and in economics and business . . . The classical understanding of liberal arts as aimed at educating the free human being is displaced by emphasis upon the arts of the private person. An education fitting for a res publica is replaced with an education suited for a res idiotica—in the Greek, a “private” and isolated person.

Humanities instructors, desperate to combat perceived irrelevance in a world that prioritizes technical proficiency, no longer teach students the history or traditions that inform our shared political life. Instead, they preach the virtues of the liberal arts as preparing students with practical skills in communication, critical thinking, problem solving, writing proficiency, and analytical judgment. Liberal education once served as “the main means of educating free persons by means of deep engagement with the fruits of a long cultural inheritance, particularly the great texts of antiquity and the long Christian tradition.” Now, if you can’t eat it, what’s the point?

This has had a profound effect on the way students are taught. As Deneen writes,

The emphasis on the great texts—which were great not only or even because they were old but because they contained hard-won lessons on how humans learn to be free . . . has been jettisoned in favor of what was once considered “servile education,” an education concerned exclusively with money making and a life of work, and hence reserved for those who did not enjoy the title of “citizen.”

Such “servile education” reflects one of the most serious contradictions of liberalism—that while it pretends to stand for the common man, it actually disenfranchises him and further excludes him from any true exercise of civic authority. This process begins in the education system. Students are taught and trained to become, not citizens, but employees—workers in service of their self-interest, increasingly isolated from one another. In “proclaiming everyone free, we have almost exclusively adopted the educational form that was reserved for those who were deprived of freedom.” The humanities still exist, but they no longer champion the premodern view of liberty as self-rule, in part because the basic assumption of liberalism is that men are born free, so there is no need to teach students how to be free.

This failure of the liberal arts is not an accident of liberalism’s rule. As Deneen notes,

The collapse of the liberal arts in this nation follows closely upon the redefinition of liberty, away from its ancient and Christian understanding of self-rule and disciplined self-command, in favor of an understanding of liberty as the absence of restraints upon one’s desires.

Rather than a necessary precondition, liberal education is increasingly seen as an obstruction in the quest for contemporary liberty. No longer encouraging students to seek the good, true, and beautiful, universities increasingly “stress innovation and the creation of ‘new knowledge.’” This dramatic departure from liberal education as it was originally conceived fosters the growth of studies more suited to liberalism’s ends. Notably, this includes recent attempts to redefine the value of the humanities in terms of economic utility. Those familiar with logic and rhetoric are not valued for this knowledge, but rather for the useful skills such knowledge is supposed to impart.

But this departure has deeper implications. By emphasizing the primacy of the individual and removing the training on how to be free and connected to generations past, we lose a key aspect of civic freedom—the freedom found in our connection to place. Deneen describes elite universities engaging in “the educational equivalent of strip mining,” pulling students, professors, and any other potentially valuable commodity away from their communities. They are then trained to be members of a global elite living a culturally vacuous and placeless existence as “citizens of the world.” All sense of community obligation or responsibility is erased as those trained to be the future elite are increasingly removed from connection with the lives of those whom their actions will most greatly affect. Education should not be a tool for weeding out the ancestral traditions of our forbearers or displacing us from the local aspects of our culture. Rather, it should use those as foundations upon which to build. According to Deneen, a key responsibility of education is the transmission, rather than the rejection or erasure, of culture. Liberalism not only fails at this, it delights in doing so, as erasure of community relationships strengthens its position still further.

Deneen’s proposed remedy, however, is lackluster. He offers three initial steps towards reform. First, liberalism’s achievements must be noted and any attempt to return to a preliberal age must be curtailed. Second, we must move past “the age of ideology,” of all encompassing theories like Liberalism, Marxism, or Conservatism, which seem now inadequate to the task posed by contemporary problems. Third, “from the cauldron of such experience and practice, a better theory of politics and society might ultimately emerge.” These vague prescriptions do not reinforce his main argument, nor do they offer a path to a solution.

In addition to these three steps, Deneen offers a vision of a renaissance of the liberal arts, brought about by educational institutions formed in relationship to the communities in which they are based, sustained through close connection between local leaders and students, and knit together by a strong identification with place. Yet this vision lacks even a modicum of detail for action. In particular, one notes his treatment of the contemporary liberal arts, suitably chastised throughout earlier chapters, which are put away with barely a mention of how they could be reformed. One wonders if this is an inevitable consequence to Deneen’s approach. By framing liberalism’s failure as a certainty, there is little motivation to repair its defects. Much better to wait for whatever new system arises in its place. Deneen seems to forget that one of his most powerful critiques of liberalism is its subtle determinism. So it is striking that his solution offers much the same.

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