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Commentary: Liberal education under attack

Beau Breslin, The Fulcrum on

Published in Op Eds

Of all the institutions that have plummeted in the eyes of America’s polarized society, none has fallen further than colleges and universities. According to a recent Gallup poll, confidence in higher education is at an historic low, dropping 20 percent in the last eight years alone. Today, only one in three Americans believe in the benefits of a college education. The founding generation would be horrified. We should be too.

If we are to believe the mainstream media, liberal education is under serious attack. The consumerism and self-interest of our age has seemingly made it unfashionable to attend any institution — big or small, urban or rural, public or private — that values an education for democracy, an education that frees the mind and liberates the soul, an education that prepares an individual for the rigors of citizenship, self-determination, and the collective good. In fact, critics of liberal education abound, and their principal opposition is that, in a technologically advanced and market-driven society, a general education in the arts, the sciences, and the humanities is impractical, ineffective, and imprudent; some have even claimed that pursuing a liberal arts degree is downright irresponsible.

Such hyperbole is at best alarmist and at worst intellectually dishonest. Surely those who claim to announce the demise of liberal education were either not schooled in its grand tradition, or, if they were, they were not paying attention in their classes — at least not in their history classes. For it seems clear that history is our most powerful ammunition against the foes of liberal education.

The period surrounding the American founding in the late 18th century was an extraordinary time in human history. Coming at the back end of the Enlightenment, this period is rightly remembered for its lively and robust debates about the meaning of good government. But the period surrounding the American constitutional founding was also extraordinary for another reason: it represents the single greatest period for the founding of colleges and universities the world has ever seen.

Frederick Rudolph notes in his history of the American college and university that “the American people went into the American Revolution with nine colleges; they went into the Civil War with approximately 250.” By the mid-19th century, Rudolph continues, England, with a population of 23 million, “was managing nicely with four universities, while Ohio, with a population of 3 million boasted 37 institutions of higher learning.” Fully two-thirds of the 2024 U.S. News and World Report’s top 100 colleges and universities were founded in the 18th or early 19th centuries. The explosive birth of colleges and universities was unmistakable.

It was also a reflection of the priorities of the founding generation. The individuals responsible for framing and ratifying America’s constitutional charter were deeply committed to higher education. And not just any type of higher education — liberal higher education. James Madison, educated at Princeton (then the College of New Jersey), wrote to Thomas Jefferson that the university is “the temple through which alone lies the road to Liberty.” He further noted that the twin pillars of “Liberty and Learning” coexisted only in a mutually supportive way. True enlightenment, he said, was not possible without liberty; but neither was liberty possible without institutions of higher learning. Jefferson himself, who understood that the only practical education was one steeped in the liberal arts, remarked in a letter to his law professor at William and Mary that “the foundation for the preservation of freedom and happiness was constructed on the diffusion of knowledge among the people.”

These thinkers understood that the survival of the republic depended on the excellence of our colleges and universities. And they were willing to risk much to ensure that both were successful. History often reminds us of the courage demonstrated by members of the founding generation as they set out to create a new political world. But history often neglects their equally important role in the evolution of America’s institutions of higher education. Men like Benjamin Franklin sat in Philadelphia in the Constitutional Convention and debated the greatest political document the world has ever known. Few recognize that he also founded the University of Pennsylvania.

Figures as prominent as Jefferson influenced in profound ways the specifics of our state and federal systems. And yet how often do we celebrate the fact that he is the father of the University of Virginia? Men like Benjamin Rush sat in state ratifying conventions trying to decide the fate of America’s proposed constitutional framework. Yet he is also credited with founding Dickinson College. Gentlemen like George Clymer and Robert Morris were present at two of this country’s most important moments — the signing of the Declaration of Independence and the Convention. And yet many would argue that their greatest achievement was founding what would become Franklin and Marshall College.

 

These men were all taught in the grand tradition of liberal education. They were generalists with special talents. They studied science, art, politics, philosophy, economics, music and literature. They read Aristotle, Shakespeare, Hobbes, Milton and DeFoe. They listened to Mozart, Bach, Vivaldi and Haydn. They are principally known for their contributions to our understanding of politics, but they excelled at so much more. Jefferson, of course, was recognized throughout the land as a skilled architect and inventor. Franklin was intimately familiar with subjects ranging from publishing to meteorology. Rush was a medical doctor and later the treasurer of the United States. The point is that the members of the founding generation not only believed in the principle of liberal education, they embodied it in everything they did. They lived the life of a broadly educated person. And we are so much better for it.

It is, in fact, no coincidence that the people who developed this remarkable, wide-ranging and useful set of abilities were fervent believers in the value and virtue of liberal education. They saw the truth that some people now want to challenge: as surely as there is a need for people of narrowly specialized areas of competence, there is at least as much need for people of vision, imagination and breadth.

This world, today, can ill afford any more people who see only small snatches of the big picture, who cannot connect the grand currents of history, culture and science, who want to hide from change and cannot envision a future different from the past. The agenda for this moment is to sketch the contours of the global commons. To figure out how eight billion people can forge a future that is fair, equitable and sustainable. No small task and perhaps quite a bit more challenging than bringing together 13 colonies and defying a king.

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Breslin is the Joseph C. Palamountain Jr. Chair of Political Science at Skidmore College and author of “A Constitution for the Living: Imagining How Five Generations of Americans Would Rewrite the Nation’s Fundamental Law.”

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©2024 The Fulcrum. Visit at thefulcrum.us. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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