Crisis of Higher Education’s Old Order

In the musical “Les Miserables” the cast sings a stunning anthem announcing a crisis in the old order in mid-19th century France: “Do you hear the people sing/singing the song of angry men.” American higher education faces a crisis in its old order today. As in “Les Mis,” the often-angry voices proclaiming the crisis come from students, but also employers and parents. All question the value of what our identity-enthralled, grade-inflated, price-prohibitive institutions offer. If we in higher education ignore these customers and clients, “when tomorrow comes” it will come without us.

Employers are a particularly critical group at this moment of upheaval. A recent poll of employers for the Association of American Colleges and Universities found that “liberal arts-related skills and civic and community mindedness are becoming more important to employers” not less. This arrives at a moment when many schools are deemphasizing the traditional liberal arts and critical thinking,

Instead, what’s needed are classes that focus on key classical texts and address the most fundamental human questions of goodness, beauty, freedom, and justice. To develop the intellectual skills that employers want and need, students must plumb the depths of ancient classics such as Gilgamesh, Plato, Confucius, Cicero, and the Bible. And they must also consider modern classics by authors like Kant, Darwin, Frederick Douglass, Virginia Woolf, W. E. B. Dubois, and Marilynne Robinson. Through such studies, students encounter the ideas that have built civilization, advanced knowledge, and inspired great minds for millennia. Those studies also build the intellectual skills that employers most need and admire. Yet too often schools are delivering political correctness and other trendy ideological obsessions. 

Naturally, students express frustration that sounds different from that of employers; but, in fact, it is identical. One 2021 poll of recent college graduates found that 81 percent “wish they were taught more life skills before graduation.” Throughout the English-speaking world, it used to be that colleges and universities excelled at cultivating one of the skills most essential for life in a free republic and competitive economy: the ability to clearly state and cogently argue a point of view. But those are exactly the life skills the academic “cancel culture,” so in fashion today, is canceling. 

This trend toward blinded intolerance has been building on campuses for years. In 2017, the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) and YouGov polled college students’ attitudes toward free expression and vigorous debate on their campuses. Students were asked about their personal experiences with self-expression and censorship, peer pressure to express or not express one’s ideas and opinions, guest speakers, and perceptions of what is and is not hate speech. 

Alarmingly, a majority reported self-censoring in class, accepted the disinviting of guest speakers, and had only a vague idea of the constitutional protections for speech. Many acknowledged fear to speak openly in class, as their schools discouraged intellectual clashing and debate. It should go without saying that it is the role of higher education to push students to ask questions, engage in meaningful debate, and to make mistakes they can learn from. But students are right to believe that education in these essential life skills has been downgraded on far too many campuses. 

Like employers and students, parents see that higher education has lost its way. Last year a Gallup-Carnegie Corporation poll found that 46 percent of American parents “hoped their child would do something other than attend a four-year college after high school.”

To many observers, this finding translates into a call for more and better trade schools and online offerings—and to some extent it is. But too often, innovation in higher education has focused almost exclusively on online universities, graduate programs, and continuing education. Left out of the equation is innovation for the traditional, liberal arts undergraduate.

The public distrust of big, impersonal universities also reflects the understanding by many parents that their college-aged children harbor a restlessness—typical of young Americans throughout our history—to strike out on their own. In the mid-19th century, New York newspaper publisher Horace Greeley captured this passion in his advice, “Go West, young man. Go West. And grow up with the country.” Today the frontier spirit has become the entrepreneurial spirit; and 40 percent of young people say they want to start a new company.

A few colleges have focused their programs on entrepreneurship. But there is an enormous desire not for “either-or,” as in “either” the liberal arts “or” entrepreneurship, but for both together. Parents and talented young people want, and should be able to find, a great liberal arts education and an education in entrepreneurship and leadership, mastering practical issues regarding business creation and building, as well as literature, history, sciences and the arts. 

Shortly before his death in 2020, British philosopher Sir Roger Scruton addressed the crisis in higher education’s old order in America and Britain. He suggested that existing schools were beyond reform, with new institutions needed. The new barricades? “Do you hear the people sing?”

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About Matthew Smith

Dr. Smith is Founding President of Hildegard College, a classical Christian liberal arts college in Costa Mesa, California, which opened its doors this week. All students at Hildegard will graduate with a great-texts-based B.A. in Liberal Arts and an Interdisciplinary Business minor.

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