Mission Lost

by Bruce S. Thornton

City Journal

“We offer unlimited opportunities to help students achieve their goals,”declares the California State University system on its homepage. “We prepare graduates who go on to make a difference in the workforce. We engage in research and creative activities leading to scientific, technical, artistic and social advances. And we play a vital role in the growth and development of California’s communities and economy.” With 23 campuses, 412,000 students, and a $7 billion budget, the CSU system is the nation’s largest, so the implications of its educational approach are important to understand. As this utilitarian language suggests, the system dedicates itself to everything except what public higher education was once supposed to accomplish: providing for the masses the liberal education that traditionally was a preserve of the privileged.

The university’s abandonment of its traditional mission has made it harder for Cal State students to reap liberal education’s greatest benefit: a “properly trained mind,” as Cardinal Newman identified it, one characterized by “good sense, sobriety of thought, reasonableness, candor, self-command, and steadiness of view.” Liberal education also cultivated the “force, the steadiness, the comprehensiveness and the versatility of intellect.” These qualities, Newman felt, enabled those who possessed them to enter “with comparative ease into any subject of thought” and take up “with aptitude any science or profession.” And in Matthew Arnold’s words, liberal education offered its beneficiaries “a stream of fresh and free thought upon our stock notions and habits.” Those fortunate enough to obtain this sort of training were likely to be less susceptible to received wisdom, and hence more intellectually autonomous and capable of political freedom.

By contrast, today’s CSU disseminates the very “stock notions and habits” that liberal education once challenged. Its focus is on a relentless economic utilitarianism: making a “difference in the workforce,” playing a “vital role in the growth and development of California’s communities and economy,” and engaging in “research and creative activities leading to scientific, technical, artistic and social advances.” Even when the creative arts get a brief nod, the university views them through the lens of “advances,” as though the arts, like technology, must always make progress and improve. Where once the university was a brief haven from the pressures of economic competition, it now puts itself in service to those imperatives. Job training is what we do now — only we do it less efficiently, and more expensively, than vocational schools like National UniversityDeVry, and the University of Phoenix.

Another force that has remade CSU is the therapeutic sensibility, which has transformed the system into a social-welfare agency and an instrument of “social justice” — the notion that lurks behind the talk of “making a difference” and aiding the “development of California’s communities.” In practice, that means university programs like “service learning” — a form of forced volunteerism imposed on students regardless of whether they’re “concerned with social issues,” as the service-learning program on my campus, Fresno State, puts it. Given the faculty’s leftward slant, one can imagine which social issues are deemed worthy of benefiting from unpaid workers. Or consider the federally funded College Assistance Migrant Program (CAMP), which thrives at CSU and across the country. CAMP describes itself as “a supportive service program that provides recruitment, academic, personal, career, cultural, leadership and retention services.” Only potential university students whose parents have worked in agriculture for at least 75 days over two years are eligible. Why are these kids more worthy of solicitude than, say, children of factory workers? Because farm workers are mostly Mexican, of course. Programs like CAMP ensure that the university will increase its population of Hispanic students, thus providing statistical proof that the system is serving “social justice” by welcoming the historically excluded. This obsession with ethnic and racial diversity perverts the traditional idea of a liberal education. Aggressively pursuing a superficial diversity of skin tones or surnames means lowering admission and evaluation standards in order to achieve the desired ethnic and racial mix. Hence the CAMP program offers its clients “academic” and “retention” services, which shepherd the underprepared through their courses to graduation.

Needless to say, this diversity quest isn’t the only factor driving the admission of students unqualified for university-level work. Colleges and universities have skillfully promoted the seductive notion that everybody should go to college — indeed, that all have a right to go to college. For decades, the number of students taking remedial courses has been rising; in the CSU system, it is now more than half the entire student body. These courses were once prerequisites for attending a university.

Shortsighted utilitarianism has always been a threat to liberal education. Starting in the 1920s, many universities, following the lead of the University of Chicago, created the General Education core curriculum to offset the narrow specialization that increasingly characterized higher education. The GE requirements, which included courses in art, history, and philosophy, would give students a simulacrum of a broader liberal education and complement their more utilitarian degrees. But the plan failed miserably. Academic departments, particularly those with few students, see the GE courses as cash cows and try to get as many of their courses as possible into the GE curriculum. These courses tend to be narrowly focused within their disciplines. At CSU, for example, students can satisfy their GE requirement in Arts and Humanities by taking Introduction to Hmong or American Sign Language. Another GE area — Social, Political, and Economic Institutions and Behavior — includes courses like Africana Cultures and Images and Introduction to Asian Americans. Any unified, coherent experience of the humanities winds up lost in the disjointed variety of the material.

The courses themselves are frequently ideologically biased. Traditional courses teaching the Western tradition still exist, but they’re now just one among many choices. For example, students at my university can fulfill one of their Arts and Humanities course requirements by taking a survey of ancient and medieval art. In such a course, there’s at least a chance they will be exposed to the great classics of Western art. But another option for the Arts and Humanities requirement, Chicano Artistic Expression, is necessarily an ideological course — since “Chicano” designates a certain political viewpoint based on identity. In fact, identity politics has an area requirement all to itself, “Multicultural/International,” with such course options as Cultural Diversity and Oppression and Women of Color in the United States. Most egregiously, the GE Critical Thinking options, which are supposed to include courses in basic writing, speaking, math, and thinking skills, also include Critical Thinking: Gender Issues and Critical Thinking in Chicano and Latin American Studies. I doubt that much truly critical thinking about the questionable assumptions of identity politics goes on in those courses.

The disappearance of liberal education helps explain why today, despite their Latin mottos and medieval graduation gowns, most state universities look less like traditional colleges and more like other state-funded bureaucracies, run not by scholars but by managers and functionaries. No longer do they provide students with a grounding in the “best that has been said and thought,” as Arnold put it. What they do provide is a poor substitute: vocational training and unexamined left-wing orthodoxy.

©2011 Bruce S. Thornton

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