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A Conservative Critique of the Liberal Arts: A Response to Matthew McManus

In a recent Areo article, Matt McManus provides a sketch of the history of conservative critiques of liberal arts education. My response to him is not as historically ambitious as his article, but it provides a more complete argument about the current state of post-secondary education. McManus’s ideas about instrumental reason appear to be the result of a category confusion between the Enlightenment, reason and the liberal arts. And I am unsure what the relationship between Ben Shapiro’s views on transgenderism and education have to do with each other. McManus also conflates academics like Jordan Peterson, Roger Scruton and Allan Bloom with popularizers like Dinesh D’Souza and Ben Shapiro. Both have their place, but the subject matter expertise of academics gives special weight to their arguments that generalists typically do not enjoy. Audience matters for the level of sophistication, as does the method of communication.

The conservative case against modern liberal arts programs is fairly simple: they are irredeemably biased. As Cass R. Sunstein writes in the Chicago Tribune, a study conducted by Mitchell Langbert of Brooklyn College of faculty at 51 of the top 66 liberal arts colleges in the US has shown that Democrats outnumber Republicans in every field. The ratios include music: 33:1; biology: 21:1 and history, philosophy and psychology: 17:1. The field with most parity is engineering at 1.6:1. Even that bastion of conservatism, religion, has a 70:1 ratio. Even West Point faculty are 1.3:1 in favor of Democrats. While political party affiliation is an imperfect barometer of political ideology, it can be used as a proxy here. The academy is overwhelmingly liberal, and trends suggest that this bias is intensifying. The political and cultural polarization of the US over the last few decades has probably contributed to the conservative movement’s hostility to the academy.

There are two further crucial issues that McManus fails to address. First, how does this affect the university as a business and the associated student debt? Second, how does our increasing reliance on technology affect conservative attitudes and why have they focused on STEM programs to the detriment of the humanities?

Education as Big Business

Education produces big money: some schools have endowments in the hundreds of millions. As the recent Varsity Blues scandal shows, people will pay large sums of money to guarantee spots for their children, even when said children are unsuitable for college studies. The social prestige of attending particular schools is hardly new. But there appears to have been a significant shift in college administration priorities, which has led to strange outcomes. Within human memory, many colleges took their role in loco parentis seriously, placing significant restrictions on students’ alcohol consumption, dating practices, night life, etc. This has been transformed into behavior like policing Halloween costumes that are deemed culturally insensitive or acting as a judicial organ for sexual harassment and assault complaints.

The concerns of conservatives have significant overlap with those of college administrations—but their concerns are treated very differently. There are many costumes that would be offensive to a Catholic, but it is unlikely for a student to have face any repercussions for offending Catholic sensibilities. The broad acceptance of alcohol abuse leads to many risky behaviors and poor decisions. Alcohol is often an aggravating factor in violence. But education’s previous focus on the moral development of character and/or citizenship has been abandoned in favor of college as surety for a career—naturally, since colleges need to justify annual tuition fees of $40,000 (or more), which have made crippling student debts the norm. It’s hard to justify running up a six-figure debt for a sociology or history degree. But if students can graduate in engineering or finance within four years, the financial burden may be justified.

Instrumental Reason as Scientism

McManus argues that conservatives offer a multifaceted argument against instrumental reason as the sole determinant of human life. That is true. Yet, Shapiro’s views on transgenderism might be more accurately described as an argument against scientism. McManus writes, “that the only thing that matters is that a purely scientific approach … supports the position of transgender individuals (as it should).” This puts the cart before the horse. McManus is vague as to what the “position of transgender” is and it remains unclear how science or biology ought to inform morality or ethics.

McManus should have complained instead about the politicization of sex research (Dr Debra Soh has written about this). Much science behind sex research creates the conditions of doubt and cynicism that post-modern conservatives take advantage of. Shapiro offers an instrumental reason against the trans movement—but that does not necessarily mean that that is the only possible argument against it. However, accusing a religious Jew like Shapiro of arguing against instrumentalism seems odd. McManus’s contention that “the facts about the world simply exist to be manipulated through scientific reason” and that Shapiro’s approach will only “entrench the belief that almost everything is a matter of opinion, bias and perspective” suggest a materialistic and relativistic worldview, rather than a Judaic one. This is exactly what many conservatives object to. They perceive that liberal arts programs are infected with subjectivism and progressivism and have become ideological training grounds for social activism instead of sites of the dissemination of knowledge. In addition, the will to power through technology supports a social structure that has been a leading cause of a conservative shift towards STEM as a replacement for the liberal arts.

American Technology as Empire

Two prominent thinkers have drawn attention to the technological nature of our society: Canadian philosopher George Grant and American Neil Postman.

George Grant was critical of capitalism, but especially of how the US uses and spreads its power. For him, the US ethos is the epitome of Anglo-Saxon liberalism, which is primarily driven by technology and its relentless thirst for efficiency. In the US, technology is ruthlessly utilitarian, bent on progress and mastery. This naïve faith in progress arguably culminated in Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, which describes a world in which the US has won the ideological battle. While the War on Terror has shaken American resolve to act internationally, vast swathes of the population still act as if Fukuyama’s contention were true.

Grant argues that concrete communities embody specific social goods that cannot be replicated. In his most popular book, Lament for a Nation, he argues that when Canada allowed American nuclear weapons to be stationed on her territory in the 1960s, she essentially lost her sovereignty. Canada became an American colony and would be subsumed as such. The loss of a distinctive Canadian identity was a loss to humanity. The economic and cultural dominance of the US is creating a dangerous homogeneous state throughout North America that feels like an inevitability.

We can see this American chauvinism at work within various left-wing American identitarian movements, with their faith in the democratization of all levels of civic life. This is leading to the politicization of human relationships. While Fukuyama is not of the Left, he is representative of an American zeitgeist which favors liberal moral universalism. The precise content of this ideology differs, but there is an intimate relationship forming between American educational, business and government institutions. The technology and financial sectors are driving this collusion. Their vast financial resources and monocultural backgrounds (urban, university educated, professional) have led to an ideological conformity that should be of concern to people who believe in authentic pluralism.

Technology in Education

In Amusing Ourselves to Death and Technopoly, Neil Postman focuses on how technology—especially communication technology—determines how we think. In Amusing, he focuses on television, while Technopoly deals with computers and the Information Revolution (these books were published in 1985 and 1992 respectively). While the books are dated in places, his argument that television—and, by extension, online video platforms like YouTube—conflates facts with understanding is still relevant. TV and YouTube bombard us with isolated facts, fragmenting our society. They focus on ratings, views and clicks, as if they mattered more than anything else. Sensual stimulation is the goal. We really do not know how the extensive use of digital devices and screen time is affecting us as individuals. Nonetheless, it does seem to undermine our ability to concentrate and process long-form arguments. Which is precisely what the liberal arts require.

Education as an Elite Institution

Conservative criticism of problems with accessibility to post-secondary schools has contributed to the hostility between left and right. Students are being excessively coddled and—at the same time—colleges are becoming more inclusive and providing greater support for individuals from historically marginalized communities, to extend their educational options. A conservative would argue that the systemic nature of the concern with accessibility weakens a core component of post-secondary education: that it is for the intellectual elite. It requires a minimum level of intelligence and academic ability possessed by only a fraction of society. We lack a satisfactory policy to remedy this fundamental problem. The drastically different college completion rates among students from different ethnic, class and geographic regions remains an intractable problem.

The combination of these technological, ideological and economic factors severely undercuts the value of a formal liberal arts education. However, there might be alternatives to the current college structure that could revitalize the liberal arts. Focusing on Great Books programs and curricula that concentrate on the foundations of western civilization may help. These are not perfect solutions. There are a good many books, writers, thinkers and artist outside of the classic Great Books program that are worth engaging with. Yet, the liberal arts need to be renewed and that requires a solid foundation. We have to start somewhere.

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4 comments

  1. “We can see this American chauvinism at work within various left-wing American identitarian movements, with their faith in the democratization of all levels of civic life…While Fukuyama is not of the Left, he is representative of an American zeitgeist which favors liberal moral universalism”

    Hold on, one of the most common criticisms I’ve heard of the identitarian left was that they embrace moral relativism, and thus abandon universalism. So which is it; are the American left-wing identitarians really chauvinists, who seek to impose their specific brand of morality on the entire world, or are they relativists, who deliberately avoid imposing their morals of people of different cultures?

    1. It’s both?

      I do think that there is an unspoken moral absolutism in “wokeness” and an inflexibility of category understanding for many on the Left. However, in that specific passage, I see something like American exceptionalism that is distinctly an American phenomenon. I used Fukayama because he seemed to encapsulate the American spirit of the time: An America triumphant and secure in her victory of Communism. I think that the surety of many people who espouse liberal moral universialism with little apparent reflection outside of their intellectual tradition is a part of the American Left.

    2. My first reply seems to have been eaten by the internet fairies…

      It’s both.

      The focus should be on American and liberal moral universalism. The inflexibility of many Left Identitarian intellectual categories combines with American exceptionalism to create a chimera of relativism buttressed by “wokeness”. Fukuyama, while much more subtle on this, embodied American triumphalism and cultural arrogance. This lead to the pursuit of the War on Terror and the (arguably) nearly two decades of active American imperialism in the Middle East.

      1. There is a bit of a time gap between when a comment is posted, and when it actually goes up. I’ve accidentally posted a few duplicate comments before for that exact reason.
        I’m not entirely sure I understand you. I’ll try to paraphrase your argument here; correct me if I’m wrong: There are several identity groups recognized by the “woke” left, and those groups are judged according to their relative positions in various intersectional matrices of oppression (which would be relativism). However, those groups are actually quite inflexible, and are based specifically on the American context (i.e. the history of slavery of black people), so they may not work when applied to different contexts (which would be absolutism).
        If that is your argument, fair enough, you may be right (although frankly, at this point, I’m starting to get sick of claims/speculation about what people of a certain political ideology *really* believe). However, I don’t really see the connection to Fukuyama, or the War on Terror.

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