Betraying Liberal Education: A Response to President Paxson of Brown University

 
 

Today’s universities are allergic to making substantive claims about what it means to live well in a good society. But liberal education, rightly understood, is a long, arduous apprenticeship of self-mastery.

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In a recent essay, Peter Berkowitz argued that while colleges “should be bastions of self-knowledge and self-criticism,” many campuses “seem to have abandoned this tradition.” In particular, he noted the “meager course offerings on the topic of liberal education” available at top universities. Few schools “offer courses that explore the origins, structure, substance and aims of the education that they supposedly deliver.” In the end, he suggests, renewal of liberal education requires interventions from philanthropies, legislatures, and external organizations, since the university is mostly incapable of internal reform.

As one might expect, not everyone agrees. One such dissenter is Dr. Christina Paxson, president of Brown University. According to Paxson, Berkowitz relies on a “misinformed caricature of Ivy League and other leading institutions” and mistakenly assumes that “the only way an institution educates its students [about liberal education] is through specific courses on that topic.”

In itself, this is a fine response. It is certainly true that a course need not have “The Purpose of College” as its specific and stated aim in order to reflect on the purpose of an education. Still, my suspicions are aroused when Paxson continues by trumpeting Brown for providing “all new students with a ‘Guide to Liberal Learning’” while requiring them “to complete an online module that reinforces this material.” Like many, I’ve completed such “modules” to satisfy organizational requirements for coaching or volunteering or teaching. Like many, I’ve discovered the format tends to be used whenever serious matters are to be covered in unserious ways, generally to tick a box. For instance, while sexual harassment is serious, the online training about it tends to the infantile, to be charitable.

Liberal Learning at Brown

Recognizing that my experience with “online modules” may be unrepresentative, I consulted the “Guide to Liberal Learning.” If Paxson referenced it as evidence of Brown’s commitment to liberal education, I reasoned, it must be of some substance. Well, read it for yourself—it won’t take long. At thirty pages, it’s not quite the reflection provided by, say, Plato’s Republic, Xenophon’s Education of Cyrus, or Maimonides’ Guide for the Perplexed. Of course, Guide for the Perplexed, unlike Brown’s “Guide,” does not devote one-tenth of its length to offering advice about “Things to Do This Summer,” or one-sixth to course placement requirements and grading policies. The “Guide,” I’m sure, is quite helpful for freshmen and transfer students, but it’s no more than an academic calendar, hardly a primer on liberal education.

The “Guide” provides not quite three pages to the meaning of “Liberal Learning at Brown.” These helpfully remind us that “a liberal education implies breadth and depth,” noting that while many universities replaced the medieval vision of the liberal arts with a fixed core, Brown enjoys an “open curriculum” in which students may develop their own core as they see fit. The main thing is for students to “remain open” so as to “chart the broadest intellectual journey.”

In her letter, Paxson assures us that students are not cast adrift, however, for “even more important” than the “Guide” is the faculty adviser. I’m relieved to learn that something better than the “Guide” is on offer, and I know some advisers provide solid guidance. Very good, but to what end? What purpose will these adviser-suggested courses serve? What is liberal education at Brown?

Paxson has a ready answer: in her view, liberal education is the ability to “think critically, read closely and understand complex problems through the lenses of different disciplines.” This, like the “Guide,” reduces liberal education to a set of skills or learning outcomes such as writing well, developing facility with symbolic languages, expanding reading skills, or enhancing aesthetic sensibility.

Brown is hardly alone in taking the approach of “selling” skills to parents anxious about job prospects but less concerned for liberal education. As R.R. Reno once noted, critical thinking is the thing administrators can think of, but not because they have some venerable search for the truth in mind. It’s worth noting that the words “true,” “good,” and “beautiful” do not appear in the “Guide,” and neither do “wisdom,” “happiness,” “flourishing,” or “liberty.” The words “power” and “identity” do appear.

Bromides pervade. For instance: “leadership in an increasingly interconnected world,” “communicating across linguistic and cultural barriers,” “race, gender, ethnicity,” “the problematic nature of evidence,” “thinking critically,” “pluralistic society,” “enlarge perspectives,” and so on.

This all seems to confirm Berkowitz’s point: missing from most universities are “instructive pronouncements about what constitutes an educated person or on the virtues of mind or character that underlie reasoned inquiry, the advance of understanding, and the pursuit of truth.” That is, universities are allergic to making substantive claims about what it means to live well in a good society. On the other hand, Berkowitz notes, university statements “contain inflated language about diversity, inclusion and building a better world”—all smuggled forms “of progressive ideology” which “remains deeply entrenched in administrations and faculty.” The oddity, then, is that Brown provides no actual content as to the meaning of liberal education—I don’t count “openness” and “broadest possible intellectual journey”—while simultaneously critiquing any substantive notions of truth or purpose or freedom as just so many expressions of “power” and “identity.” At least as presented in the heralded “Guide,” liberal education at Brown is either utterly vacuous or chockfull of progressive content, exactly as Berkowitz claimed.

A Richer, More Challenging Vision

Paxson’s anemic vision is simply inferior to that offered by Matthew Rose in “Liberal Education for Freedom.” The old tradition of liberal education “saw the university as a place for civil conversation, self-examination, and the freedom found in self-governance,” Rose suggests, as opposed to the more recent experience in which “debate is to be shunned; identities are beyond criticism; and freedom is found in self-expression.”

The old vision “is committed to ideals that challenge and sometimes offend liberal notions of equality and inclusion. It calls human beings to a way of life that is open to all, but whose standards of achievement will be met by only a few.” The idea that human freedom had purpose and direction, that to be human was to have demands of responsibility and excellence placed on us—that one could live one’s life poorly—is in sharp opposition to Brown’s refusal to specify areas of knowledge an educated person should master. Instead, Brown promotes a deep cynicism about our institutions, “how histories themselves are written and who has the power to write them.” As Rose more sensibly acknowledges, refusing to promote “the highest human excellences and the achievements that testify to them” will corrupt our cultural life.

You wouldn’t know it from Brown’s “Guide,” but for millennia it has been understood, as Rose explains, that a liberal education “is education that befits a free person,” and it equips us in the “intellectual habits required to become self-governing.” While these habits are in principle available to every person, they are not actualized by the mere fact of being human; instead, they are “developed only through special effort and instruction” and require the long and difficult effort of maturation and cultivation. The greatest enemy of such freedom is not external systems or “isms” but, rather, our own self, our indolence and confusion, weakness and ignorance.

One cannot win the freedom of a self-governed, virtuous, responsible person through “online modules,” “Guides,” or even close reading and critical thinking, as potentially valuable as those might be. Instead, one becomes free only through a long, arduous apprenticeship of self-mastery, generally under the tutelage of those more in possession of the requisite excellences, and within a common living tradition.

Brown and its president (among many others) provide little evidence of understanding this; in fact, if the “Guide” is any indication, a student could receive a liberal education at Brown despite the university’s best attempts. Unfortunately, Berkowitz seems correct in claiming that genuine education might depend on philanthropic organizations and donors, student organizations, and para-university organizations to model and provide liberal education for our students.

Certainly, President Paxson gives little reason to think Brown can educate without some help. What a tragedy, what a way to squander a heritage. To misquote Robert Bolt’s Thomas More, “it profits us nothing to give our soul for the whole world … but for Brown, President Paxson?”

R.J. Snell directs the Center on the University and Intellectual Life at the Witherspoon Institute in Princeton, New Jersey, and is senior fellow of the Agora Institute for Civic Virtue and the Common Good. His books include The Perspective of Love: Natural Law in a New Mode, and Acedia and Its Discontents.

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