On the Developmental Logic of Liberalism and the Collapse of American Undergraduate Education

by Elliot Milco

The curricula at liberal arts colleges in America fall along a spectrum between Thomas Aquinas College (TAC) and Amherst College. Students at TAC follow a strict program of intellectual formation, rooted in the Catholic tradition and committed to a specific philosophical outlook. Ideas are freely debated on campus, but the curriculum is fixed, and the intellectual profile of the successful graduate is clear from the outset. Amherst, on the other hand, prides itself on the openness of its curriculum. At Amherst, there are no common requirements, no universal prerequisites for graduation. Students are allowed to form themselves and to choose their coursework based on personal interests. Thus the graduate of Amherst is not directly formed by any supervisory program outside of his or her chosen major.

These two schools represent two ways of understanding the function of a college education. On the model employed at TAC, college education is a process of cultivating a particular set of intellectual abilities, in order to lead young people toward a certain kind of wisdom. Among alumni of the school, Marcus Berquist, a founder who long taught Aristotelian logic and metaphysics there, is held up as true sage—a master of philosophy who achieved wisdom by diligent study of the authorities (primarily St. Thomas and Aristotle). This wisdom is not the stuff of gnomic truisms or mystical paradoxes, but an active intellectual grasp of the nature and order of existence and the place of humanity within it. Students at the college aspire to that wisdom, and their coursework is explicitly directed toward its attainment.

The Amherst model of college education shares some common ground with the TAC model. Amherst, too, wants to form good intellectual habits in students and make them capable of higher academic pursuits, but Amherst suspends judgment about the nature of wisdom, the truth about humanity, and the requirements for sound judgment. Where TAC functions as a four-year apprenticeship in the guild of wisdom, Amherst is a free market of ideas, and the institutional structure is based on the hope that the forces of free discourse and curiosity will create an intellectual environment in which good ideas are discovered and shared—whatever “good” may mean.

The Amherst model of education has many problems. Like any structurally indifferent “marketplace of ideas”, Amherst’s success in forming students depends on the stability of an underlying intellectual consensus. That consensus determines the parameters of discussion, accepted standards of rationality, and a range of commonly held goals and metaphysical commitments (to truth, to moral goodness, to God, to the political order, etc.). Free discourse without any common foundation quickly degenerates into a war of all against all, concealed behind social niceties.

Today, the cultural and intellectual consensus that has sustained liberal institutions like Amherst for the past three centuries is dissolving. European Christianity, regardless of whether and how it was individually practiced, supplied the moral, legal, and metaphysical “common sense” in America which set the parameters of public discourse and gave us a range of universally held goals and metaphysical commitments. The dissolution of this consensus can be attributed to many causes, but one of the primary culprits is the widespread preference for liberal institutional structures, in which basic metaphysical commitments are not allowed to direct the course of discussion or set absolute priorities in the formation of students.

Liberal institutions are parasitic on metaphysically robust, non-liberal traditions, but the very survival and proliferation of liberal institutions tends to erode the non-liberal cultures and traditions that allow them to survive. This is because liberalism operates on a “least common denominator” model of public discourse, where the “neutral middle ground” favored by institutional structures consists of what the vast majority of people engaging in public discourse agree on. As time goes on, liberalism tends to dissolve divergent traditions into an ideological community defined by their least common denominator, and gradually (with the help of intellectual fads and the glorification of transgression, inevitable in any system of free discourse) the consensus erodes to nothing.

What is left at the end of this process is an empty ideology committed to nothing more than the procedural principles of liberalism itself: free discourse, mutual toleration, and the struggle for liberation. This final level of consensus within a liberal regime accelerates the destruction of the system by encouraging its members to fight to defend it. Like an autoimmune disorder, the ideologization of liberal procedural principles leads liberals to attack the vital non-liberal traditions within liberal society, attempting to exclude from public discourse all metaphysical commitments, all normative parameters for discussion, and all objective standards of rationality. And this development within liberalism (which seems to me to be structurally inevitable) transforms institutions designed to protect debate over important ideas into communities of guarded intellectual silence, in which everyone is an interested tourist, and no one is willing to make hard claims or defend a substantial cause.

The implications of this collapse within educational institutions are felt across the spectrum from TAC to Amherst. Today at the University of Chicago, the origin of the model on which TAC is based, students are still required to complete the famous “Common Core” curriculum, which was conceived by Robert Maynard Hutchins in the 1930s as a way of renewing public commitment to the European philosophical tradition (Hutchins himself, like his friend Mortimer Adler, was inclined toward Thomism) and directing undergraduate education toward the formation of good human beings and citizens. Hutchins’s goal was noble, but the intellectual dissoluteness of the ambient culture gradually overwhelmed the commitments he wanted promoted in the program. By the time of his retirement in the 1950s the core curriculum was already being reduced, and today it remains more as a token of the University’s commitment to broad philosophical formation than an actual guarantee of it.

At Yale College, the Directed Studies program was founded in the 1940s with the goal of establishing a common intellectual background against which undergraduates could discuss ideas in their upper-level coursework. The goal, again much like the goal of Thomas Aquinas College, was to cultivate a specific sort of wisdom, and to develop in students certain intellectual habits and habits of discourse which would promote rigorous thinking in the humanities, without being confined to the hyper-specialization of disciplinary guilds. Students were organized into small cohorts, each of which followed a set reading schedule filled with philosophical and literary classics.

When I passed through Directed Studies in 2007-08, the program still had some echoes of these goals. It still functioned as a common reference point for a significant minority of students, and gave its graduates a wide range of philosophical tools with which to approach problems and ideas in their later studies. But Directed Studies has departed fundamentally from its original conception. In the 1970s and 80s, as Yale fell under the sway of post-structuralism, the program ceased to be seen as an apprenticeship in interdisciplinary wisdom and the formation of an integral intellectual culture, and became yet another example of intellectual tourism. Directed Studies gave up the project of student formation, and now functions primarily as a collection of highly intensive survey courses in intellectual history. Students tend to finish the program, not grounded in a robust, critical philosophical vision, but disoriented and inclined toward relativism, having been subjected in a short period, without adequate guidance, to dozens of contradictory texts spanning thousands of years.

The University of Chicago and Yale College are just two examples of how the liberal dissolution of an intellectual common culture has affected the understanding of undergraduate education. Both cases originally tended toward to the “Thomas Aquinas College” end of the pedagogical spectrum, but were overwhelmed in time by the advancement of liberal principles. I suspect that the vast majority of American undergraduate programs tend toward Amherst, and even more aggressively. In large public universities it is very difficult to promote a common formation program, and most students are divided up into insular intellectual communities defined by discipline.

Within individual disciplines, the same phenomenon is repeating itself. Students who study literary theory are no longer presented with a comprehensive understanding of the nature of literary objects, but are given an array of contradictory perspectives, and trained to employ and discard each in turn, without preference. Faculty tend to be divided up into micro-specializations, leading to fragmented pedagogy and departmental curricula which are not founded on “classic texts” or formative reference points, but tend to produce more micro-specialists who lack an overarching grasp even of their own disciplines.

Fragmentation and cultural dissolution are pushing the system of higher education in America toward a crisis. The lack of institutional clarity about the meaning or purpose of undergraduate study (the sense, even, that the system no longer believes itself to have a genuine purpose) has transformed the bachelor’s degree into an extremely expensive social ornament with rapidly diminishing value. It is only a matter of time before the education bubble bursts and the masses of aspirants to middle class prosperity currently being swindled by it realize that the existing system is based on a collection of bad promises, social myths, and echoes of an educational culture that no longer exists.

Meanwhile, within the system, the advancement of liberal ideology is taking its course. Hysterical outbursts over such absurd notions as “cultural appropriation” and “micro-aggression” are symptoms of institutional morbidity. More telling than student protests over these things is the extent to which institutions themselves consistently join in the hysteria and embrace it. Administrators see liberal ideology as the sole governing criterion for the intellectual formation they are trying to give students, so that it makes sense for them to congratulate aggrieved students who have found new ways to fight for “liberation” and “tolerance”. Thomas Jefferson held that “a little rebellion now and then is a good thing”. Intellectual liberals, once they have exhausted the existing cultural supply of virtues and traditions against which to rebel, have to invent new oppressions to keep the spirit of liberty alive.

So far I have talked a good deal about the dangers and faults of Amherst-like schools. But Thomas Aquinas College’s model of education is not without its dangers. The goal of educating for wisdom is lofty, and a good deal of institutional courage is necessary even to attempt it. The possibility of error looms large over such an undertaking. But the greater risk for programs like Thomas Aquinas is that, by training students in a specific tradition, with narrow goals, they leave graduates without adequate conversance in the alternative ideologies they will encounter in society at large. Lacking familiarity with other ways of thinking, alumni can end up intellectually isolated and incapable of understanding the opinions of others, or negotiating intellectual common ground when the need arises.

There is something good about the “free market of ideas”, and the liberal practice of training students to think in multiple contradictory intellectual frameworks. I am very glad that in the course of my own intellectual formation I passed through several different systems of thought before ending up a Thomist. But liberalism has developed to a point at which it no longer makes sense for us to hearken back to the olden days, when the Christian consensus still undergirded public discourse and educational institutions could safely be run on liberal principles. The consensus is gone. Today, in order to defeat the menace of liberal anti-intellectualism that is taking over our universities and our society, we need to admit that liberal principles only functioned because they were bolstered by the non-liberal Christian moral and metaphysical commitments we still hold dear.

This post originally appeared at The Paraphasic.