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‘Liberal education’ is falling short of its promises

College has historically been looked upon as the place one goes to expand one’s horizon and delve deep into the rich traditions of one’s culture and civilization. But is this noble goal being realized at universities today?

“American colleges and universities should be bastions of self-knowledge and self-criticism,” writes Peter Berkowitz at The Wall Street Journal, “simply because they exist to teach people how to think. But in recent years America’s campuses seem to have abandoned this tradition.

Berkowitz, a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, surveyed course listings for sixteen elite institutions of higher education across the country. “Few of the liberal arts and sciences faculty at these schools,” he discovered, “offer courses that explore the origins, structure, substance and aims of the education that they supposedly deliver.” Instead, they offer “a smattering of classes on hot-button topics,” such as “multiculturalism, inequality, gender and immigration.”

Berkowitz found that only “a tiny number of elective classes on the curriculum’s periphery” taught by adjuncts addresses the existential question of what constitutes a liberal arts education. At Stanford, for instance, a course titled “Thinking Matters” has students “examine the relation between the university’s pursuit of knowledge and its pursuit of justice.”

“Not one political science department at the 16 top schools I reviewed,” Berkowitz writes, “offers a course on liberal education.”

From the piece:

Overall, the pickings for courses on liberal education are slim. And they tend to reinforce the politicization that afflicts higher education by focusing on the extent to which education advances social justice.

Don’t expect to find much guidance on liberal education in the mission statements of leading American colleges and universities. They contain inflated language about diversity, inclusion and building a better world through social transformation. Missing are instructive pronouncements about what constitutes an educated person or on the virtues of mind and character that underlie reasoned inquiry, the advance of understanding, and the pursuit of truth. Instruction on the ideas, norms and procedures that constitute communities of free men and women devoted to research and study are also scarce to nonexistent.

Hope should not be pinned on colleges and universities to reform themselves. Perhaps a university president or provost who prioritizes recovering liberal education will emerge, but progressive ideology remains deeply entrenched in administrations and faculty. Tenured professors want to reproduce their sensibilities in their successors, and huge endowments insulate the best universities from market forces that could align their programs with the promise of liberal education.

Berkowitz suggests that a mix of legislative fixes, donor and foundation initiatives and student-led initiatives all have a roll to play in reorienting the university to its proper mission. “These small steps,” he write, can “move us closer to restoring liberal education and equipping members of the next generation with the ability to think for themselves.”

Read the whole piece here.

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