Liberal education is dead

By Harrison Searles

It is impossible to go through four years of undergraduate education without pondering what the ends of education are. It would be foolish to put down four years of one’s life without realizing the end one is striving after these years. There is certainly the goal of getting a job when the process is done with, but to say that such an end exhausts the uses of an education is to be blind to the great Western tradition of the liberal education.

Jeff Bernstein/Collegian
Jeff Bernstein/Collegian

For millennia, people have been educating themselves in hopes of being able to achieve a more excellent character through the process. The university as an institution thus has a bit of an identity crisis; it claims multiple purposes that may not be entirely synchronous. The pursuit of creating technocrats able to excel at their chosen professions and well-educated individuals capable of moral excellence are two different ends. This is made worse by technological change which has ensured that anyone can have access to a liberal education without being connected to the university system. It is thus imperative to ponder the question: “What is the purpose of the university in society and where does liberal education fit into it?”

It clearly cannot be to dignify intellectual dialogue and raise the debate about what truth is to a level it could not achieve in the rest of civic society. One day, though, the university may have been a necessary sacred place in which ideas were discussed for the simple fact that ideas could not be discussed openly outside of a campus. This is no longer the case. There are now venues of discourse that dignify intellectual discourse that have no ties to universities, and as this happens, the standards of the university fall.

This is easily seen when our Chancellor refused to speak out against the barbarous interruption of Andrew Bernstein’s lecture last December by members of the very organization he allowed to “camp-out” on public land. The First Amendment right for free speech was ensured by the campus police and that was good enough for him. So it seems that the demands of the university is no different from the public square, if not worse; ergo we cannot say that the university dignified discourse any more than it can be there.

Furthermore, the university does not provide any more education than a dutiful student could otherwise have access to. There was once a time when the costs of reproducing texts were so high that there was no hope of students ever being able to read directly from them. That was the environment out of which the university-style liberal education emerged. It was simply more cost-efficient to have students hear lectures on the texts than to actually read the texts themselves. Then the lectures themselves became not just a substitute for expensive books, but rather an integral part of the process of education as students learned valuable lessons from those who had spent portions of their lives studying those topics. However, modern advances in technology have now even made having to be in the classroom to hear a lecture obsolete, a notion most powerfully illustrated by iTunes U.

In many subjects, especially the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields, the demands of technology have made the university setting very relevant for research often requires millions of dollars of capital to become worthwhile, but this cannot be said for the vast majority of the humanities. Any person is fully able to provide for themselves a quality education from whose vantage point they can augment their understanding of the world. Books are cheap, lectures are even cheaper and in fields like economics some of the best contemporary minds can be accessed via the blogosphere. All of this can happen without having to set foot on a college campus. No one can say they cannot afford an education in this world; all they can say is that they never bothered to pursue one.

Nor can it be said that a college education can prepare its students for a life of virtue and human excellence, as was the goal of education for over two millennia. In his “Nicomachean Ethics,” Aristotle wrote about how education was needed for true human excellence, for it was only by education that we can come to know the beautiful and true. Thus it was only with education that we could seek the virtuous life. However, if we want to lose faith in the human race, to drink fully from the cup of Heraclitean misanthropy and see why optimistic humanism cannot stand on pillars built of this world, we only need look at far as our own campus at this institution of higher learning.

For one thing, UMass is no longer ZooMass. Frat Row has been torn down, and no longer must Health Services threaten mutiny if there is another Spring Concert. However, the pride that so many UMass students have over living in “the Zoo” is none other than disheartening, for it illustrates just how seriously people take their debauchery. The popular shirt often donned by the students of UMass proudly bragging “We pregame harder than you party” is a sad instance of it. They take their drinking so seriously that no more is it about that it, “washes away troubles, and stirs the mind from its very depths and heals its sorrow,” as Seneca the Younger once wrote. To all too many simply about the fact one is “hardcore” enough to become entirely oblivious to rational thought and the world around them. The recent incident at Puffer’s Pond – where over 1,000 students left their trash strewn across the beach for others to clean up – is yet another all too prevalent example.

Questions about virtue, vice and an excellent moral character, the very same questions that a liberal education of any value ought to be concerned with, are thrown to the way-side. Worse still is that so many college professors work to undermine the very concepts of virtue and an excellent moral character. College campuses are simply not places where the best of humanity is encouraged. Instead, they are places where the Dionysian rites of revelry and whim may proceed unabated without concern. Life is ruled, to no small thanks to college professors of decades past, by simply the rule of doing what feels right. At this point, one of the founding pillars of the liberal education, the idea that human beings often do not intrinsically know the good and beautiful, is simply forgotten.

So where does all of this leave the institution of the university? To this, we must answer that the college campus provides no greater an environment for intellectual dialogue as does the public square.

Rather than being uplifting, the culture of modern campuses tends to encourage the worst in human nature. In addition, with technological advancements there are now no longer any problems of access that prevents anyone from providing themselves a quality education. The model of a centralized university seems to be the proper approach for only the STEM fields in which millions of dollars must be invested for research of any value.

While liberal education may be an important part of self-improvement, as Aristotle argued 2,300 years ago, the university-system is no longer the method of gaining it. When modern technology ensures that each person can own a small library of their own, and when the internet has made so many other resources available, the university-style liberal education is simply obsolete.

The university liberal education is dead. Long live the autodidactic liberal education.

Harrison Searles was a Collegian columnist. He can be reached at [email protected]