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10 Ways Liberal Education Fails Students -- and Society

10 Ways Liberal Education Fails Students -- and Society

By Peter Berkowitz - February 2, 2013

In his second inaugural address, President Obama called on Americans to act “as one nation and one people” and bring to the “debates of our time” a “common effort and common purpose.” The president might have jump-started the process himself by proposing a remedy to the strident tone of our civic discourse.

This situation has been much lamented, especially by professors, particularly in law and politics. They deplore our politicians’ incapacity to see things from the other side’s point of view, speak civilly, and achieve compromise for the sake of the public interest. What they fail to recognize is their own role in shaping the landscape they condemn.

Officially, our colleges and universities remain committed to providing students a liberal education. Liberal here is used not in the narrow partisan sense -- the left wing of the Democratic Party -- but in the broad classical sense. A liberal education involves open and far-ranging instruction in the humanities, social sciences, and sciences in order to prepare students for life in a free society.

Accordingly, the primary task of liberal education is to transmit knowledge and cultivate students’ ability to think for themselves. Indirectly, however, educators cannot help but shape character. When faculty perform their jobs properly, liberal education fosters above all the virtue of intellectual integrity, which involves respecting facts, honoring evidence, vigorously exploring arguments, and cherishing the inevitable and illuminating diversity of opinion in a free society.

But when faculty abuse liberal education -- either by lazy neglect of basic pedagogical and scholarly responsibilities or by using the classroom to advance narrow professional interests or partisan opinions -- they corrupt their students’ character. And the nation suffers as colleges and universities send forth into the political world young citizens less capable of accurately weighing evidence, patiently considering alternative perspectives, and presenting arguments and counterarguments cogently.

In the United States today, the abuse of liberal education by our colleges and universities is rampant. Here are 10 example of how such abuse corrupts character -- and not only that of students -- and erodes the qualities they will need to play a constructive role in public debate about the principles and policies that should guide the nation.

1. Our colleges and universities have hollowed liberal education’s core. Most impose a few general distribution requirements in broad categories of inquiry. They thereby send the message to students that there are no basic principles, ideas, and events, and no classic works of literature, politics, economics, philosophy, and religion with which all educated men and women should be familiar. This approach encourages students to equate education with the random accumulation of information and the clever recapitulation of assumptions and convictions.

2. The curriculum in higher education has been politicized. Although not always overt, this is accomplished through the readings professors choose, the ideas and events they present, the questions they ask and those they glide over or suppress, and the interpretations they treat as beyond reproach and those they treat as beneath contempt.

This attitude flows naturally from the professoriate’s own ideology -- it’s not an organized conspiracy -- but the upshot is that in class after class, students are exposed to debate that is largely restricted to progressive alternatives. Meanwhile, conservative opinions are either blithely ignored or contemptuously dismissed. This fosters arrogance among progressive students, resentment among conservatives, and dismay among those -- progressive, conservative, or nonaligned -- who come to college seeking intelligent exploration of the conflicting perspectives that constitute the life of a liberal democracy.

3. Grade inflation is widespread. Faculty, particularly at elite institutions, have made A’s and A-minuses routine, B-plus a gentle reproach, B a harsh reproach, and anything less unthinkable. By conferring unearned approbation, professors inflate students’ self-esteem and undercut their self-respect.

Students detect the scam. They know that distinguishing among levels of performance on their papers would require time and energy from their professors, or from the graduate students who often do the grading in large classes. By slapping high grades and a few vague comments on papers rather than patiently explaining to students where their work is weak and how it can be improved, professors instill in students disdain for the academic process and an extravagant sense of entitlement.

4. Speech codes, written and unwritten, have become commonplace. Some codes prohibit hate speech and some merely prohibit offensive speech. The aim is to outlaw speech that causes hurt, which is typically defined subjectively.

To enforce the rules, higher education turns faculty and administrators into thought police and students into informers. This chills the speech of those -- students and professors -- trying out new ideas or defending unpopular causes. It transforms the university from a forum for the robust exchange of ideas to a training ground for the repackaging and regurgitation of dogma.

5. Prevalent disciplinary procedures upend fundamental features of due process. The accused in sexual misconduct cases is routinely deprived of adequate representation and the opportunity to confront and cross-examine his accuser.

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 Peter Berkowitz is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University.  His writings are posted at www.PeterBerkowitz.com and you can follow him on Twitter @BerkowitzPeter.

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