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Faulty Towers: The Crisis in Higher Education | The Nation

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Shaky foundations

Members of the academic community will find more than a few home truths set forth in William Deresiewicz’s recent submission to the growing debate over the “crisis” of higher education in this country. Writing from a perspective of sympathy with the faculty and graduate students who do the substantive work of our colleges and universities, Deresiewicz relates a practical breakdown within the academy itself—graduate students with little hope of future employment, replacement of tenured faculty with a vast cohort of underpaid and exploited adjuncts, erosion of faculty governance within the institutions—to its cause in the administration of colleges and universities by means of the efficiency-centred business model that shapes the rest of the American economy. We need not adopt the stance of labor politics, as Deresiewicz does throughout his article, to recognize with painful clarity his portrait of a professionalized university administration. Their ends, which include the application of corporate analyses to academic life and the extension of non-academic departments (e.g., athletics and luxuriant student services), seem worlds apart from the goals of genuine learning. This crisis within the academy is coupled with broader public crises in higher education: ever-shrinking funding, cutbacks and the concomitant pressures on students from parents and politicians to serve practical, economic and scientific aims. Around these latter problems much of the current debate is swirling, and about them much has been written. It is with this state of affairs in mind that Deresiewicz concludes with the apparently radical proposal (even exhortation) to professors that the solution to this crisis must come from them, from within the academy itself.

But what is this response to be? What might tenured professors who, as Deresiewicz points out, enjoy the strongest speech protections in society, have to say for themselves? We suppose that perhaps more important than their plea for the fair treatment of academic “labor” (a plea that, after all, would not distinguish academic laborers from anyone else in the marketplace) will be the academy’s defense of what it does, its defense of education as such; and most particularly of the liberal education that, as Dereciewicz says, helps young people figure out “who they are and who they want to be.” A positive defense of liberal education is what seems most often to be lacking in the current debates. But isn’t such a defense the only truly solid foundation for higher education? So rarely does one hear any persuasive account of the liberal arts from our colleges and universities that one imagines that, for many readers, an attempt to give such an account might currently rank as genuine “news.” In any event, the embarrassing silence emboldens us to voice the following foundational argument for liberal education as the heart of learning and leadership in a free people.

Liberal education is about liberty. This means that, in some sense, the human soul and its powers of self-knowledge, self-criticism and self-bettering must be at the center of students’ studies. In liberal arts we help young people prepare imaginatively for the great events, private and public, yet to come in their lives; we help them correct for whatever is unprepared in them for their mature responsibilities and even their own happiness as adults. The presupposition of the liberal arts is that the human soul functions more effectively—more freely—when as it is released from the prejudices, the idols and the demons that beset all human beginnings. People think, feel, and act with fewer conflicts, they engage the world both more humbly and more confidently, if they have begun to gather their instincts and insights, together with the great themes of existence, into some kind of whole. Plato called these themes the “Ideas.” He taught that the soul flourishes when it is “led out” (painfully at first) into their light; that is, when it is “educated” (from Latin educare, to be brought up or out).

A simple sign of this flourishing is the young person’s developing a range of new distinctions and perceptions. These are not put into the soul, nor can they be. They flow from the discernment it learns to exercise by itself. A new faculty has been awakened: “reason” the ancients called it, in a broader sense of the term than that recognized by our utilitarian age. It is by the liberation of this reason that a soul acquires a rich world, a world that reflects both its free individual efforts and its informed participation in universal humanity. The educated soul will come to distinguish, for example, what is great from what is merely sensational; what is subtly artistic from what is formula or cliché; what constitutes a genuine insight and contribution from a predictable application of a creed.

Today many people complain that they find life meaningless, that their cities are alienating, that citizenship is usurped by oligarchy, that even their pleasures are unsatisfying. We live in an epidemic of psychiatric dysfunctions, requiring continual applications of therapy, self-help or pharmaceuticals. Materialism, hedonism, loveless sex, i.e. sheer unhappiness, are evident and even proclaimed as a way of life (read some of David Foster Wallace’s brilliant but disturbing essays for proof of that assertion). Pascal called our diversions in bad faith “divertissements.” They are symptoms of people who have lost joyful contact with the objects that are truly worth pursuing, people who have lost touch with the real, the source from which healthy souls draw positive energy in endless supply.

Not that mere contact with great art or genius automatically makes people better human beings, although even that does make them feel temporarily purified. But the great secret of the soul (known to countless writers from Plato and Aristotle to Austen and Melville) is the power of “capitalizing” on our first, superficial contacts with genius. In the play of opposite values that characterizes all human existence—good/evil; beautiful/ugly; knowledge/opinion; activity/passivity—the positive pole of the spectrum comes to exert, with sufficient guidance and time, a preponderant attractive power upon our whole being, by a sort of second nature in us. This is a universal fact. All human life is in need of elevation, some ordering of the chaos, even if it is an escape from reality into the most artificially induced illusions. Human existence is oriented toward the beautiful. This fact about the human soul—its love of higher “illusions” (which are often symbols of yet unrealized possibilities)—is itself no illusion and is therefore of the greatest significance. Liberal education builds on this fact, by supplying the soul with the strongest, the longest tested, and the most inspiring spiritual trellises for its upward growth. This is why liberal education originally took as its task, not to submerge young people in the specialized interests of scholars or to dazzle them with novel techniques, but to introduce them first-hand to classical and contemporary wisdom about the good life: the examined life, the habits of which will support them whatever their future brings.

All this is to try to identify the inner substance of Deresiewicz’s remarks when he says that liberal education creates citizens who “think broadly and critically about themselves and the world,” and—closer to the nerve—when he says that it helps young people discover “who they are and who they want to be” (see Salvatore Scibona’s recent testimony about how his self-discovery was indebted to learning to read “book-books,” i.e. the truly original ones). For liberal arts are the path of self-knowledge, in the universal human sense, in the problematic cultural sense, and in the individual psychological sense of the term. But self-knowledge is not like knowledge of objects. It does not follow infallible procedures and yield quantifiable results; it is not a product on an industrial assembly line. It is the art of cultivating the soul’s essential powers, helping it recognize what is objectively best in it, what is worthy there of choice and respect. If liberal education of the soul ceases to exist, then we shall find ourselves re-inventing it. Or rather, trying to re-invent it; that is, badly and when it is too late.

William Deresiewicz’s allusion to the British sitcom Fawlty Towers to describe the current crisis in American higher education is unfortunately too apt. What made that B&B so dysfunctional, more than the working conditions, was the lack of true vocation and vision in the personnel from the top down.

We are tutors at St. John’s College.