Illiberal Arts: Does College Have a Future?

Occasionally — not often — a mainstream print magazine publishes a piece that actually does what long-form journalism is supposed to do: make you stop and reassess a personal belief.

One of mine is in the value of a liberal arts education like the one I received, which launched me on a largely happy and hugely lucky life, and which serves me to this day. But in the New Yorker last week appeared a “Letter from Oberlin: The Big Uneasy,” wherein the author, Nathan Heller, interviews a number of students and faculty members at small, elite Oberlin College in Ohio and describes the students’ utter dissatisfaction with their college experiences. And while it’s unlikely that the attitudes captured in the article are representative of today’s college students, much of it calls into question the very viability of the small, private liberal arts college.

Oberlin has always been a famously left-leaning place, and the students interviewed for the article are the sort who can spout lines like “…this institution functions on the premises of imperialism, white supremacy, capitalism, ableism, and cissexist heteropatriarchy,” which reads like satire of leftist vocabulary du jour. (I infer that “ableism” must be the prejudice that the able unavoidably bear toward the disabled, but I can’t be sure. Other neologisms mentioned in the article include “allyship” (as contrasted with “collaboration,” which is insufficiently deferential to the oppressed), “intersectionality” (alluding, I gather, to the grid of vectors of racial or sexual bias), and of course “cisgender” (almost mainstream now, meaning birth gender, to allow for the possibility that you may have discarded yours). My personal favorite, though, is “microaggressions,” which I visualize as a horde of nanobots scurrying about inflicting tiny injuries, like mosquitoes. My childhood, I now realize, was basically composed of microaggressions. But on college campuses today, they are the sinister background hum of societal injustice, to be called out and eradicated.

The semi-radicalized minority and/or economically underprivileged students interviewed in the article (who would probably find being so labelled a microaggression at the very least) are easy to dismiss as oversensitive, spoiled, ungrateful, and fatally naïve (not to mention hypocritical, as why would one remain for even one semester in the thrall of an imperialist heteropatriarchy that one is free to leave?). One of them complains that his being allowed to show his understanding of course material by simply chatting with his professor for a while, rather than taking a written exam like the rest of his classmates, isn’t “institutionalized.” “I have to find that professor,” he moans, as though the exception being made for him is cruelly insufficient. One wonders what becomes of such a person in the real working world, where the nuances of identity politics are reduced to “who is my boss?”

Of course, college has always been a hiatus from the real world, a place where young people are sent to extend their adolescence and act out its privileges of idealism and self-indulgence. I came of college age in the late Sixties, and attended another small liberal arts school in Ohio, Denison University. It was and is more conservative and less selective than Oberlin, but it was and is otherwise quite similar: a small, private, coed liberal arts college in the rural Midwest whose applicants were mostly white and well-off and drawn from suburban environments. When I was enrolled, there were perhaps a dozen black students, and a handful of Asians. The LGBT rights movement was not yet on the horizon. Denison today is, thankfully, a dramatically more diverse place.

Even as a white kid from the suburbs, my own college experience ran the gamut from difficult to trying. The nineteen-sixties were, if anything, even more culturally turbulent than today: the twin causes of civil rights (by which was meant equal rights for black people) and the opposition to the war in Vietnam (and to the military draft, which actually touched each of us, unlike the wars of today) thoroughly permeated our college experiences, permanently radicalizing some of us, making lifelong liberals of others, and hardening the conservatism of still others. My generation’s brand of activism was no less confrontational than that of today’s disaffected students: minority groups submitted “nonnegotiable demands” to college presidents, marches and sit-ins were common, classes were routinely suspended, administration buildings occupied and, famously, students shot dead in the midst of an anti-war protest at Kent State. Oberlin and Denison today seem rather mild by comparison. See:

Then as now, a basic liberal principle at work in the admissions policies of most private liberal arts colleges was that cultural/racial/economic/sexual diversity on a college campus benefits not only the minorities who are thus included, but the non-minority students (white, middle- or upper-class heterosexuals) who are thus allowed –or forced—to associate with those minorities. Diversity is, in this world view, inherently good. What could go wrong?

But Heller’s piece articulates a contradiction at the heart of this liberal notion:

“Today, [these minorities] are told that they belong [at an elite college], but they also must take on an extracurricular responsibility: doing the work of diversity. They move their lives to rural Ohio and perform their identities, whatever that might mean. They bear out the school’s vision. In exchange, they’re groomed for old-school entry into the liberal upper middle class. An irony surrounds the whole endeavor, and a lot of students seemed to see it.”

The transaction described here –come and give us your unique, individual traits (unspoken: “which are the product of some form of adversity or deprivation”) and we’ll give you the keys to a “better” life as generations of predominantly white, Western, middle-class heterosexuals have defined and lived it – is at minimum a deeply patronizing bargain, and it raises questions about what “affirmative action” is really all about: redressing old exclusionary wrongs, certainly, but also commodifying diversity, turning it into another aspect of a curriculum, another campus perk, to be consumed by the mostly white, well-off students whose parents are willing and able to pay for it.

None of this is evil, and some of it, thankfully, is compelled by law. But it does imply a conflict of interest on the part of institutions that seek to attract minority and underprivileged students, and raises the question whether those students are being well-served by the colleges they’ve been recruited to enhance. It seems entirely plausible that the benefits of diversity are, as often as not, a one-way street, and that the students who complain in the report from Oberlin about being conned and deeply wronged by their college should be taken at their word, and should have been encouraged to go elsewhere, not because they weren’t wanted or couldn’t succeed, but because to admit them was in some ways exploitative.

And that raises another question: from these students’ perspective, what is the purpose of a liberal arts education in the first place? What would the college they wish they were enrolled in look like, if not like elitist, privileged Oberlin?

As a crudely practical matter, a liberal arts education is about becoming certified as having completed it. It is an extended tribal membership ritual, and the tribe being auditioned for is, by definition, the society of people who have been similarly educated.  If that’s not for you, either because you have better things to do with your time or your goal is membership in an entirely different tribe, then better to just say no to it.

Like most forms of education, the secularly ecumenical higher education offered by the typical liberal arts college is both programmatic (a prescribed body of knowledge is taught) and standards-based (you’ll be judged by how well you’ve learned it). There are many other premises essential to higher education, but without these two, you have something other than a college, and something short of a reason to go there, no matter how many trigger warnings you receive or how many safe spaces you are promised.

Yet it’s clear that these are exactly the aspects of their college experience that the Oberlin students interviewed most dislike: they are made to follow a curriculum devised by people unlike (meaning, among other things, better educated than) themselves, and they are judged by their proficiency in mastering that curriculum. They also don’t like the fact that the resulting job of education conflicts with the job of activism (a difficult balancing of two desirable goals reminiscent of, say, being a working mother), and that, in being exposed to an intellectual environment, they are sometimes challenged in ways they find disturbing to their sense of emotional safety, justice, or right-thinking.  In response, they systematically suppress, marginalize, or run from ideas and voices that don’t correspond to their own. Guest speakers of undeniable worldly stature are shouted down or dis-invited because they represent insufficiently enlightened views; conservative professors must keep their opinions in the closet.  As one professor put it, “my leftist students are doing the right wing’s job for it.” By which she means: the standards of liberal education –of which the free exchange of ideas is perhaps the most sacred — are being trampled by liberals.

If there can be no agreement about standards – both that they are necessary and what they should measure — there is really no space for education to happen. This is as true of purely “vocational” training (and what education isn’t that?) as it is of the more ethereal subjects on offer at a liberal arts college. The rub is that standards are inherently hierarchical, judgmental, and meritocratic, and we should frankly acknowledge that not everyone belongs in a social system (like a college, or a corporation, or a law firm, hospital, or military corps) that operates on those principles.

The Oberlin piece made me once again wonder about the future of the private liberal arts college. If the experience and attitudes of the Oberlin students interviewed are not unusual, their college and mine are living on borrowed time, merely postponing a well-deserved obsolescence, their academic and admissions standards not only compromised and culturally conflicted but, more importantly, ill-suited to prepare their post-millennial graduates for the tectonic shifts in labor markets and cultural norms that will define their adult lives.

Small liberal arts colleges are in many ways sized for failure: not big enough to attract and accommodate diversity in a natural, organic way or to benefit from economies of scale, but too big to change course quickly or avoid being hamstrung by their clashing constituencies. The better models, particularly for minorities, but ultimately for most students, may be either much larger places – the great private and state universities, where true diversity is built in by sheer numbers and huge endowments – or much smaller and more individualized venues, like online curricula, or college-level versions of charter schools, where localized interests can be directly addressed and idiosyncratic sensitivities can be genuinely accommodated without tossing standards overboard.

Ironically, liberal arts colleges risk becoming the walking dead of higher education not because they have failed to live up to the liberal ideal of diversity, but because they have become so beholden to it that their first principles are compromised. An institution that can even contemplate acceding to student demands for emotional safety and social comfort at the expense of free speech and intellectual rigor has outlived its usefulness as a place of higher learning and should perhaps consider becoming, more openly, a theme park.

If only for demographic reasons, the days are rapidly waning when a liberal arts college can survive by subsidizing diversity with the tuition and alumni contributions of a shrinking white, straight majority, while accommodating illiberal behavior and lax standards in the name of that diversity. The marketplace will ultimately render a harsh judgment of such places and their graduates. A new paradigm, just as inclusive but more engaged with the world, more truly liberal –and therefore much less sheltered and sheltering — needs to emerge with intra-generational speed.

2 thoughts on “Illiberal Arts: Does College Have a Future?

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