Making Sense of Our Dysfunctional Colleges

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American Heresies and Higher Education. Peter Augustine Lawler. South Bend, IN: St. Augustine’s Press, 2016.


American higher education is in a crisis of long duration, and there is no end in sight. Liberal education is under assault by advocates of political correctness, with the aim of silencing rational discussion, particularly on topics related to approved victim groups. The college experience is also very expensive and yet, despite the enormous sums spent, many students learn very little. There is broad recognition that college education is very expensive, but no consensus on how to make it more affordable. And there is no consensus whatsoever on the pernicious effects of political correctness. These disagreements have their origin in a deeper disagreement concerning the purpose of higher education. In his latest book, Peter Lawler steps into the debate over how we should understand our universities. Lawler is the Dana Professor in Government at Berry College, where he teaches political philosophy and American government. Lawler makes four overarching arguments in his book. First, America is overly individualistic in ways that are comprehensively and deeply damaging to individual American lives and society as whole. Second, this individualism is at the root of many of our campus dysfunctions. Third, our universities are being further harmed by a technocratic approach to education. Finally, only a recovery of liberal education as it is more traditionally understood can help us both make proper sense of our world and live more satisfying lives.

Lawler grounds his analysis of education on the proposition that human beings are all “free and relational.” We have been diverted from knowing and living this truth about ourselves by modern philosophy, particularly that of Descartes and Locke. Both of these philosophers argue for a radical individualism that induces in modern men a desire for freedom understood as radical philosophic, social, and political autonomy. Lawler acknowledges that Locke is right to see men as free, but he believes this to be only a part of the truth and in tension with or completed by the truth that we are also relational. In Lawler’s view, it is the unfortunate tendency of modern men to seek one explanatory concept for what is in fact a multi-faceted and complex human nature.

Modern individualism has permeated both the modern soul and modern regimes. And yet, despite being born in the modern world, America is (or was) not wholly of it. It was founded on the principle that we are both free and relational, with the Declaration of Independence giving us both a Deist, individualistic God and a Puritan, relational God. Since the Founding, we have moved to a radical individualism and upset the careful (if, in Lawler’s view, inadvertent or accidental) balance achieved in the Declaration. Lawler again and again points us to Tocqueville as a way of understanding both what our democracy has become and how we might recover a greater civic health. We need a Tocquevillian spirit of religion to counterbalance individualism. Lawler proposes Christianity as a way of helping us to recover an understanding of both God and man as relational.

Lawler’s analysis of early-modern liberalism and the American founding differs from that of some other prominent conservatives. We might wonder whether Locke is as radically individualistic as Lawler makes him out to be. In chapter 3 of the Second Treatise, Locke tells us that “Men living together according to reason, without a common superior on earth, with authority to judge between them, is properly the state of nature” (emphasis added). Lockean natural rights open the door to a multitude of cooperative and voluntary human endeavors. We might also wonder whether the Declaration of Independence is the result of an accidental balance of two competing notions of God, rather than a more coherent and intentional expression of early-modern liberalism.

Lawler believes that higher education has taken on some of the worst aspects of the regime in which it is embedded. Liberal education is impeded today, in his view, by two modern phenomena: it has absorbed even as it magnifies the radical individualism of the modern world; and it has become too technocratic. With respect to individualism, today’s students, he argues, are an odd combination of “libertarian and securitarian”:

“Americans, especially the young, seem to want to be liberated from every vestige of religious moralism found in our public policy. But they also seem to be more obsessed with protection from danger than ever before. There’s an intensifying paranoid, puritanical, and prohibitionist impulse when it comes to health and safety risks, fueled by the experience of intensified personal contingency that comes with the atrophying of the various safety nets that institutional authority once provided.”

Students demand the right to assert their radical autonomy and then swing wildly to the demand that others dutifully protect them from the full consequences of their excessive individualism. Absent the steadying effect of a more relational understanding of the human person, campuses have degenerated into libertinism and oppression.

Lawler’s analysis of campus radicalism, depending as it does on his analysis of modern thought, is open to criticism. Lawler often uses the label “libertarian” to describe people with educational and political views radically different from more traditional libertarians such as Ayn Rand or Murray Rothbard. Unlike more traditional libertarians, campus radicals would severely restrict freedom of speech and freedom of the press, close off open questions to rational debate, sever us from past thinkers and artists, redistribute income from “makers” to “takers”, and subject society to a multitude of bureaucratic rules. And they would take these measures in order to bring about some poorly defined, tragedy-free utopia toward which social and ideological progress compels us to move. They more closely resemble sub-Hegelian tyrants than libertarians. Lawler believes that the decisive point connecting traditional libertarians and campus radicals is a shared commitment to autonomy. But one could argue that they are instead separated by a more decisive difference on the issue of human perfectability. For all that, Lawler is correct in arguing that the radicals have exaggerated notions of their own autonomy, and his analysis of the campus dysfunctions that they have perpetrated is often compelling despite the question of their intellectual provenance.

Lawler’s second fundamental complaint about the contemporary campus is that it has been invaded by technocracy in ways that have harmed liberal education. Universities overemphasize technical knowledge at the expense of knowledge gleaned from literary and philosophic sources. Too much is made of the benefits of technically-assisted delivery of education. And universities are subjected to technocratic ways of measuring their success. Lawler particularly faults the accreditation process, which distorts universities by inducing them to “measure” their educational “outcomes” with false scientific certainty.

In his proposals to repair the damage to higher education, Lawler gives us no single model for the university. Instead, he identifies seven partially overlapping and competing models, all worthy of consideration:

  1. An “Aristocratic Platonism” that proposes that “[l]eisurely contemplation is for the few and work is for the many.”
  2. “Aristotelianism or Stoicism . . . directed toward the cultivation of the souls of all rational men and woman, but especially future leaders.”
  3. “Middle Class or Techno-Vocational Education” in order to “prepar[e] free beings for work.”
  4. “Political Correctness” aimed at “eradicate[ing] racism, sexism, classism, and heterosexism.”
  5. “Literary Liberal Education . . . for those pursuing literary careers.”
  6. “Democratic Civic Education” aimed at “civic literacy.”
  7. “Christian Education” in line with St. Augustine’s view that “both work and contemplation are for all of us made in the image of God.”

Lawler argues for a “moral and intellectual diversity” that makes room for all seven models. This is not to say that he is indifferent to which model is chosen. Were he to start a university, he tells us that it would consist of “small, techno-lite classes based solely on great or at least good books and huge amounts of writing.” Lawler very much wants a reinvigoration or recovery of liberal education as traditionally understood.

Lawler makes his case for a return to liberal education in part by using insights gleaned from great books to enlarge our understanding of popular culture. Those who would push aside Plato and Aristotle in favor of a Hollywood film might well be surprised to learn that, for example, one can only properly understand the recent Superman film “Man of Steel” by looking to Plato’s Republic. Lawler also offers us a sensitive reading of the widely assigned Harper Lee novel To Kill a Mockingbird. He draws on stoic philosophy to help us better understand both democracy and the South. In general, Lawler believes that understanding America today requires understanding its popular culture, and understanding popular culture requires a liberal education. He entitles one chapter, “Why Republicans Should Watch More TV,” and he has praise for a number of TV programs that conservatives might rather ignore. He would change the attitude towards the medium that conservatives adapted from Robert E. Lee: It is well that television is so terrible, otherwise we should grow too fond of it.

Any book intended to help repair the faults of higher education must be measured against its prospects for success. Those prospects, in turn, are at least partly a function of the book’s accessibility to a broad audience of educated men and women. Lawyer’s book is very accessible, in part because it largely grows out of articles previously published in the popular conservative press. Lawler has avoided scholarly apparatus, yet that is a strength and not a weakness because the narrative is not slowed down by the author having to argue in detail for obvious points. And besides, anyone who needs a peer-reviewed academic journal article to be assured that, for example, college is very expensive today, is either utterly unknowledgeable about higher education or hopelessly in thrall to reductionistic social science. Lawler takes for granted a base of knowledge about higher education that all informed people should by this point have well in hand. The book’s accessibility is also helped by its informal tone. He avoids turgid prose without sacrificing argumentative rigor. Lawler’s book aims at and deserves a broad audience. Anyone interested in the sources of and solutions to the dysfunctions of higher education – including professors, administrators, politicians, and thoughtful parents – would benefit from Lawler’s sharp observations and penetrating analyses.

Luigi Bradizza

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Luigi Bradizza is an Associate Editor of VoegelinView and an Associate Professor of Political Science at Salve Regina University in Rhodes Island. He is the author of Richard T. Ely’s Critique of Capitalism (Palgrave, 2013). His most recent scholarly publication is “Democracy in Canada: What Tocqueville Can Teach Canadians” in David W. Livingstone's Liberal Education, Civic Education, and the Canadian Regime (McGill-Queen’s, 2015).