Robert L. Paquette’s report from the battlefield of liberal arts colleges should alarm those concerned about the future of higher education in this country. The erosion or outright overturning of the traditional liberal arts curriculum; rampant grade inflation that strips undergraduate education of standards of excellence; egregious offenses against free expression and open exploration of controversial ideas; these and more are undermining the ability of liberal arts colleges to graduate thoughtful adults ready to assume positions of leadership in civil society, government, and business.
Those on the home front—the general public, students and their parents, employers—already sense that all is not well on the campuses. A Strada-Gallup poll of currently-enrolled college students released last month found that only 40 percent of liberal arts undergraduates were confident that their field of study would lead to a good job, and merely 28 percent were confident that they would graduate with the knowledge and skills to be successful in the job market. Current students are right be concerned about finding a good job given a Gallup finding that just 33 percent of business leaders agreed that “higher education institutions in this country are graduating students with the skills and competencies that my business needs.” And a 2017 Pew poll found that 58 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning independents believe that colleges and universities have a negative effect “on the way things are going in the county.”
Extrapolating from Professor Paquette’s Liberty Forum essay, there are yet other challenges on the field of battle. The collapse of rigorous standards in the classes students do take worsens the displacement of the traditional liberal arts curriculum. I suspect that Law and Liberty’s readers will recall, from their own collegiate days, long study sessions in their school’s library and feverishly writing several 20-page essays at the end of each semester.
No more. Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa’s major study from 2011, which included selective universities and liberal arts colleges, examined how much work was required of students in a typical semester. They found that half of undergraduates did not take a single course in which they wrote more than 20 pages over the entire semester, and 32 percent did not take any course that required more than 40 pages of reading per week. Forty pages of reading per week over a semester would not take one through any of Charles Dickens’ major novels, nor would it take one through Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations, or The Federalist Papers.
Critical reading and clear writing are learned skills that require long practice, and too many of today’s undergraduates simply are not acquiring those skills. With such lightweight course requirements, undergraduates can get away with treating “full-time” college like a part-time job. The American Time Use Survey put out by the Bureau of Labor Statistics (the gold-standard study for how Americans spend their hours) found that today’s full-time college students spend an average of merely 3 and a half hours in educational activities, including attending class, studying, and completing assignments. And that’s on a weekday!
No wonder so many employers find that recent grads lack the analytic skills they could have acquired by reading long and challenging texts; the writing skills they could have developed by composing long essays; and the basic “soft skills” they could have gained if they had been sufficiently challenged by their undergraduate studies—not to mention the grounding in the history of our country, the scientific method, and the classics of the Western tradition that let them contextualize current events and tackle workplace assignments.
Just as academic standards have fallen, the freedom of expression has been curtailed. Professor Paquette alludes to some of the worst incidents, like the assaults on Charles Murray and Allison Stanger at Middlebury College, the disruption of a speech by the Manhattan Institute’s Heather Mac Donald at Claremont McKenna College (she also encountered protesters in a UCLA classroom but persisted in her dialogue with students anyway), and the demonstrations against and resignation of Evergreen State College Professor Bret Weinstein over his objection to a “Day of Presence/Day of Absence” that would differentiate students and faculty based on race. Even more serious than these spectacular incidents on a few campuses is the self-censorship that Professor Paquette mentions, which does not get press coverage. It fundamentally undercuts free expression in liberal arts colleges and other institutions across the county.
In fact, a national survey of undergraduate students found that 50 percent reported feeling intimidated about sharing beliefs that differed from their classmates—and 63 percent agreed that political correctness is a problem at their school. Students are right to feel intimidated about sharing views that fall outside the majority opinion, or perceived majority opinion, on campus, for in that same survey a disturbing 72 of respondents said they favored disciplinary action for “any student or faculty member on campus who uses language that is considered racist, sexist, homophobic or otherwise offensive.” Another survey of current college students found widespread reluctance, especially among conservative students, to discuss politics, race, or gender in class for fear of being labeled “intolerant.” Social media fuels concerns about stating a position that others might find objectionable when anyone’s statements can be put online.
What Would Victory Look Like?
However, as grim as these reports may seem, I believe that all is not lost, and that even Professor Paquette’s invocation of the imagery of World War II should leave us hopeful. The Allies’ prospects appeared hopeless, did they not? (For a vivid demonstration of this, see the hit movie The Darkest Hour.) We should “never surrender” and we should look to a resilient citizenry, while cultivating wise leaders who can devise an astute strategy to combat these trends. To assess our situation fully we must ask: What would victory look like? What would constitute excellence in the academic enterprise on today’s liberal arts college campuses?
As Paquette emphasizes, the lost core is the traditional liberal arts curriculum that encompassed literature and the humanities, mathematics and the natural sciences, and our country’s history and governing institutions. A robust undergraduate education would consist of a liberal arts core accompanied by undergraduate training in a discipline, such as history, philosophy, or mathematics. These disciplinary fields are not just content to be mastered (although they are that, too); they are also, as the great 20th century philosopher and educator Michael Oakeshott described them, “distinctive inquiries” or “modes of understanding.”
Each discipline has a rigorous mode of posing questions and discerning whether or not a proposed answer to that question satisfies the discipline’s criteria for a compelling, plausible answer. We can say someone “thinks like a historian” or “thinks like a physicist” because the questions he or she poses and the answers he or she offers exemplify a distinctive mode of understanding the world. These are rightly called “disciplines” because their practice channels inquiry in certain directions and imposes standards on what counts as a valid answer. Undergraduates learn a disciplinary mode of understanding by modeling themselves on their professors and other scholars whose books and articles they read, and so learning to engage in that mode of understanding themselves—all the while practicing that mode of questioning-and-answering on content that has disciplinary relevance.
So, for example, an undergraduate majoring in history learns the historian’s mode of understanding by studying documents and texts from, for example, the Roman Empire, American Founding, or World War II—and if his college has a serious liberal arts core, this history major will also gain an acquaintance with the philosopher’s mode of thinking in his required philosophy class, the scientist’s mode of thinking in his required natural science core, and so on.
As far as content is concerned, a restored liberal arts curriculum might well encompass some subject matter that would have been extremely rare a half-century ago. For example, my own field of political philosophy has been greatly enriched by the attention to the place of women and families in civic society that was pioneered by leading scholars such as Arlene W. Saxonhouse and the late Jean Bethke Elshtain and Susan Moller Okin. These scholars disagreed on much, but they each brought a philosophic mode of inquiry to questions about women and family that had been neglected and proved to be a boon to political philosophy in so doing. In this way, the restored liberal arts curriculum might differ from that offered in Professor Paquette’s “old city”—and be the better for it.
While he is correct that traditional liberal arts curricula and academic disciplines are neglected at too many liberal arts colleges, a few top public universities are actively creating major programs that will emphasize classics of the Western canon and welcome viewpoints that might otherwise be infrequently heard on campus.
For example, last year, Arizona State University launched a School of Civil and Economic Thought and Leadership under the direction of Paul Carrese. The keynote speaker at the launch event was conservative commentator George Will, signaling that conservative perspectives would be prominent at this new school. Carrese has recruited a distinguished faculty. The institution currently serves undergraduates but a graduate program is projected in the next five years.
On the other side of the county, the University of North Carolina Board of Governors is actively seeking the input of leading conservative scholar Robert P. George, director of the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University, as it considers how to create a center that would cultivate diversity in viewpoints and civil debate.
Essential also to the restoration of excellence in the academic enterprise would be safeguarding free speech on campus. Here, too, one sees a few promising signs. The 2012 announcement of the University of Chicago Statement on Principles of Free Expression inaugurated a reconsideration of free speech policies at many schools, and now 34 have adopted the “Chicago Principles” or another formal policy protecting free expression on campus. This list of schools includes a range of institutions across the country, from public universities such as Louisiana State University and the University of Wisconsin System, to elite private schools such as Princeton University and Claremont McKenna College (the same school where protestors interfered with Heather Mac Donald’s lecture in April; in fact the school suspended five students). And the faculty senate of the City University of New York system, which educates more than a quarter-million undergraduate and graduate students in solidly blue New York, passed a resolution expressing CUNY’s commitment to the principles of the Chicago Statement.
So we see some glimmers of a response to the erosion of curricula and undermining of people’s fundamental rights. To be sure, the changes needed will not come from a few campus leaders. Just as the triumph of the Allies depended in part on the Resistance, and on ordinary civilians’ standing for the deepest values of their civil societies, the changes that are needed on college campuses will be brought about by pressures exerted by the families who are considering their choice of college, alumni donors, and the general public.
Consider that there are parents out there who do not want to send their sons and daughters to schools where where there have been particularly outrageous violations of academic freedom. Evergreen State College experienced a sharp drop in enrollments after the controversial protests of spring 2017. The University of Missouri also experienced steep declines in undergraduate enrollment after a professor famously called for “muscle” to prevent a student photojournalist from documenting a protest (even though the school’s governing board subsequently fired the professor). These are the kinds of market signals that schools cannot afford to ignore.
Meanwhile, alumni donors are withdrawing their support for schools where protections for free expression are weak or some views are ruled out. The University of Missouri experienced a sharp drop in alumni donations after the controversies there. The New York Times reported on the decline in undergraduate alumni giving—both in terms of dollars given and the percentage of undergraduate alumni who gave—at Princeton University after controversies about the use of Woodrow Wilson’s name on campus buildings and programs, and at Amherst University after dropping Lord Jeff (based on Jeffery Amherst, the colonial-era British military leader) as the campus mascot.
As someone who works closely with donors in their college giving, I have met with alumni who are disheartened by the trends Professor Paquette lays out—and I work with them to identify faculty, at their alma maters and elsewhere, who direct programs offering rigorous education in traditional liberal arts subjects. The good news is that there are indeed many such faculty, such as Professor Paquette.
Indeed there are many ways in which the top American liberal arts colleges are failing us. The challenges are serious, and there is no guarantee these challenges can be met, just as there was grave uncertainty about whether the Allies would defeat the Axis powers. But there are also reasons, as I have suggested, to think that we have the opportunity to confront these challenges and prevail.
 Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (University of Chicago Press, 2011), pp. 71–2 and Methodological Appendix, Table 3.3.
 Michael Oakeshott, “A Place of Learning” in The Voice of Liberal Learning, Edited by Timothy Fuller (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2001), p. 22.
In response to: What Worlds Have They to Conquer?: A Higher Ed Dystopia
The issue is no longer the preservation of liberal arts curricula at elite liberal arts colleges. By now, these institutions have made their choices.
Whether Americans will lose their faith in a college education is far from certain. Even if they did, a Reformation isn’t necessarily in the offing.