I am about to say something scandalously heretical. If anybody reads it, I may be ostracized from polite society, or branded on the forehead with the letter C, for crank. Here goes: Education is a private act between consenting adults. It is nobody’s business except that of the student and the teacher involved.
Let’s begin at the end: “adults.” I am not saying that the teaching of reading, writing, arithmetic, and table manners ought to be available only to those aged 18 or over. On the contrary, these subjects, as well as at least one foreign language, ought to be taught to children as soon as the latter are neurologically capable of learning. They may never again be so capable. But that is not education, it is pedagogy. Regardless of who does the teaching and who pays the bill, it is a public activity, because it is the way we make children into citizens and rulers of a democracy. I do not endorse the way it is done now, but I do endorse doing it as a public enterprise, accountable to the children themselves, their parents, and all the other citizens of the community within which these children will ultimately function as co-citizens.
That enterprise is entirely different, and should be entirely separate, from what we now call “liberal education” or “college education.” The point of that enterprise is to turn citizens into thinkers. Not everyone wants or needs to be thus transformed. Not everyone is capable of it.
Citizens who have undergone that transformation are not thereby rendered any more useful to church, state, family, profession, or employer. On the contrary, they may become totally subversive of all of those institutions in their current condition. We have some abstract faith that such people may be useful in the long term to our culture as a whole or one of its basic institutions. So far, by and large, over the very long term, that faith has been borne out.
But that usefulness must not be confused with what an employer wants in a prospective employee. Usually, that boils down to (a) training in technical skills, and (b) the discipline to perform difficult and often boring work designed and assigned by someone else to fulfill someone else’s purpose. A good liberal arts education not only will not inculcate such skill and discipline, it may well deprive the student of any inclination or ability to acquire them.
At any rate, I am quite convinced that, except for the occasional child prodigy, no one should be admitted to college before age 21. This would, in the first place, dispose forever of the idea of a university being in loco parentis, and being required to police the sex lives and alcohol consumption of its students. Actual criminal behavior among college students should be dealt with like any other kind of crime. The university should be neither expected nor allowed to mediate with law enforcement authorities on behalf of its students. Rape is rape, drug-dealing is drug-dealing, theft is theft. Period. The other side of this coin, of course, is that matriculation at a university should not be conditioned on compliance with civil and criminal law, except to the extent that the university itself or individual students, faculty, or staff are victims of violation of that law.
In the second place, an adults-only admissions policy would almost certainly result in a student body whose members already had some experience of paid employment and some sense of a life and career path. They would have a context to plug their education into, would know what they want/need to learn and why. Which should go far toward deterring cheating. What, after all, is the point of fooling a teacher into thinking you have mastered the material, if you are still going to have to learn it anyway?
So much for “adults”–as for “consenting”, no one should be required to attend college to get a decently-paid job. If an employer wants employees with a certain kind of training and discipline, that goal is best achieved by apprenticeship and on-the-job training, both conducted by the employer. Over the last century, business and industry discovered that they could shift the burden of providing such training onto colleges and universities, and the burden of paying for it onto the individual student or the taxpayer. Only very recently have they discovered that this system often produces untrained or badly-trained employees, and that sooner or later the employer will still have to pay pretty much the same cost to train them. They are now experimenting with various “partnerships” with local public and private universities, and with tuition reimbursement for their employees. Clearly, none of this is liberal education, though all of it may be useful to employer, employee, and educational institutions. I would be comfortable with this arrangement, if the institutions participating in it did not call themselves colleges and universities. Why not “Institute of Vocational Education” or “Generic Apprenticeship”?
Which brings us to “private”: anything an institution–whether or not it calls itself a university or a college–does to prepare its students for employment outside academia, is not liberal education. Anything an institution does for which it has to account to the student’s employer is not liberal education. Any course that shows up on a transcript which is sent to any non-academic institution is not liberal education.
One of the more interesting corollaries of this rule is financial in nature. Virtually all of the inflation in the cost of “higher education,” and most of the money paid by students for tuition, are paid for things that are not liberal education. Liberal education, by itself, is pretty inexpensive. I found this out at first-hand some years ago, when I took up “auditing” university courses that interested me. I discovered that, in most universities, a student can attend all the classes and labs in a course, can even take the tests and write the papers, for a minuscule fee, or sometimes none at all, so long as s/he does not expect the university to verify that s/he has engaged in these activities. A little simple arithmetic will demonstrate by extension that an enterprising autodidact can acquire all the knowledge and thinking habits of a college graduate for slightly less than the cost of an elderly used car, so long as s/he does not demand any credential verifying for third parties that s/he has done so. It follows that most of what the student pays for in a college “education” isn’t the education, it’s the credential. Liberal education, without that credential, is probably one of the best–and best-hidden–bargains around.
It is this credentialing function that provides most of university’s funding and forges most of its ties with the Powers That Be. Jacques Barzun has stated that the student uprisings in the ’60s against the draft and the Vietnam War were misdirected, in that the evils they opposed had nothing to do with the university. But those universities were regularly providing the Selective Service System with information about the enrollment and progress of all of their male students, in order to verify their eligibility for student deferments from the draft. A real “institution of higher learning” would never have considered that information to be anyone else’s business. They might have agreed–on the specific request of an individual student–to forward such information. They would never have made a universal and regular practice of doing so without even asking the student. Today, of course, there is no student deferment, and no active draft. But male students must still register for the draft to be eligible for financial aid from the federal government, and, often, even from a university’s “private” resources. Of course, most of the need for that financial aid is generated by the university’s credentialing function anyway. But no real “institution of higher learning” would condition its scholarships (an admittedly anachronistic locution) on compliance with a federal regulation totally unrelated to the purposes of education.
Similarly, academicians who like to think of themselves as old-fashioned ivy-covered curmudgeons decry organized student opposition to military and CIA recruitment on campus, as “politicizing academia.” But no real “institution of higher learning” would allow such recruiters–or any other would-be employers of its graduates–onto its campus in the first place. That is the real politicizing–and commercializing–of academia.
Other aspects of a university’s existence are necessarily political and economic, just like parallel elements of the existence of any organization, group, or individual. Those elements may be larger than they would be without the uinversity’s credentialing function, but even the purest liberal arts institution would still have to own or rent property, invest its funds, and deal with local government like any other resident. All of those decisions have political implications–it is no less political to invest funds in a bank which invests in South Africa than to pull one’s funds out of such a bank. Probably a properly-sized liberal arts institution wouldn’t have enough money to be worth investing on a larger scale than in a local savings and loan or credit union. But that too is a political decision, as far as it goes.
Similarly, it is the university’s credentialing function which has made the grading system what it is today. If we assume that education is a private matter between consenting adults, the student certainly has a right to feedback from the teacher on how well s/he has mastered the material. But no one else has a right to that information unless the student chooses to communicate it. This, of course, eliminates all incentives to cheating on the student’s part and grade inflation on the teacher’s, other than aberrant individual psychodynamics.
The person who has completed a real liberal arts course of study has a right to certification of this achievement by the teachers who have facilitated it. This certification should be mostly for the student’s benefit, and partly for the benefit of similar institutions which may wish to retain him/her as a teacher. Aside from that, such certification should be totally useless, and possibly even counterproductive, in the “real world” (depending on the current state of the “real world.”) The liberal arts graduate might even feel obliged to conceal his/her achievement like a secret vice. (To a certain extent, this already happens. Our college “business departments,” like our law offices, are full of closet poets and novelists who take business and law degrees for protective coloration.)
Obviously, a system of real liberal arts education could not promise lucrative employment or opulent working conditions to its teachers or its graduates. It would, in fact, be a throwback to its monastic origins, vow of poverty and all. The current system at least allows a few students and teachers to sneak some of “the best that has been thought and said” into their generic apprenticeship, while still making a living wage. On the other hand, the business of training employees for business and industry, freed of any pretense to academic detachment, would turn into a commercial West Point, as devoted to indoctrination as to information. (Yes, I know that’s not fair to West Point, whose liberal arts faculty is pretty good by even the strictest standards, whch is saying a lot for what started out as an engineering school.) Probably the pressure-cooker business schools of the Far East have already laid out that path.
The point of a liberal education, really, is to figure out whether there is any reason for doing anything, other than the pursuit of money or power. If there isn’t, then West Point and business school make perfectly good sense. For some reason, we aren’t quite comfortable with that. Maybe what we really need to do is figure out how much we need to leaven vocational training and business indoctrination with more traditional learning, and why we would consider that a good idea. Why do we feel obliged to pretend to be transmitting a liberal education to people who mostly don’t want it, and whose employers actively oppose it? Hypocrisy is the homage that vice pays to virtue, according to LaRochefoucauld; the pretense of liberal education is the homage that vocational training pays to the Life of the Mind. The Life of the Mind, in turn, enables us to figure out why vocational training is not enough.