What should students be studying in college? No one seems to agree anymore. Slate has taken the occasion to ask an array of prominent academics to tackle the question at the heart of this debate. Click here to read more from our symposium on reinventing college, and here to read more from Slate’s “College Week.”
Before one can make decisions about the specific courses that comprise a liberal education, it is important to examine the foundations underlying it. Liberal education is an elitist enterprise. It is so on at least two fronts: Professors must be willing to teach, and the goal is not success in a job or profession, but rather obtaining critical distance from one’s preconceptions and enriching oneself intellectually and culturally through a wide array of courses across the curriculum. Those unfamiliar with the debates in higher education may see little that is controversial in these statements, yet they would be attacked from the left and (at least implicitly) the right.
The assault on liberal education from the left presumes that pedagogy must be “student-centered,” with professors no longer “teaching” but “facilitating” or serving as “architects of interaction” who “enable” students to teach one another. The assumptions underlying this methodology are democratic and, as such, inimical to a type of education that prizes the difficult or esoteric. For example, the “communicative approach” is the most popular one in foreign-language classes across the country. Beginning students interact with one another more than with the instructor. Instructors are further discouraged from correcting mistakes for fear of inhibiting self-expression. This model emphasizes oral communication (and students do speak with greater ease), but at the cost of precision, knowledge of grammar, and ability to read serious texts. No longer is the primary goal to teach students to examine their own lives and cultures through the lens of great literary texts, but rather to encourage them to become global tourists and consumers: Their language abilities enable them to order food and navigate a strange town. One could draw similar parallels to other courses, including English composition, where many instructors do not teach or correct grammar. As the National Council of Teachers of English would have it, students have the “right” to their own language. Paradoxically, this approach is more insidiously hierarchical than the old teacher-centered one: Teachers consciously withhold their knowledge and high-culture experiences, thereby limiting the students’ educational opportunities.
The assault on liberal education from the Republican right (from Reagan’s “A Nation at Risk” to Bush’s No Child Left Behind mission)stems from its desire to prepare students for the workforce (only) and to make schools and universities run more like businesses. The consequences are twofold. First, any nonpractical fields—those at the very core of liberal education—are denigrated because one cannot directly show their usefulness in the world of commerce. Government grants gravitate toward those endeavors that might eventually make money or solve medical problems. (The federal government funds approximately $34 billion for science and health research versus only $162 million for the humanities.) Second, newspapers are filled with controversies surrounding standardized testing in primary schools, yet universities are facing similar pressures. The Bush administration has been considering measures analogous to those of NCLB for higher education. Moreover, accrediting bodies, which ultimately answer to the Department of Education, are increasingly demanding “accountability,” i.e., data on the “success” of liberal education courses. Yet the very heart of these courses is to teach students things that a standardized test could never measure, including love of learning and the ability to question one’s beliefs and challenge those of others. As a consequence of these pressures, many administrators are more concerned with how a course can be assessed rather than what it is about.
The ultimate problem with the left and the right is that they encourage ever-narrowing educational possibilities. The irony, of course, is that, in the end, neither side gets what it wants: A lack of elitism impairs students from eventually becoming their own teachers in the broadest sense, and teaching students testable skills discourages the kind of creative thinking that is the necessary condition for success in the world.