A Conservative Argument in Support of a Traditional Liberal Arts Education.

“A well-educated populace, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and read books, shall not be infringed.”

Forgive my paraphrasing of the second amendment (of which I am also a strong supporter) but I hope that it is effective in getting my point across.

There has been a lot of hand-wringing of late over the state of higher education in the United States. Most of it done for good reason. We have runaway costs spiraling ever more out of control.[i] We have graduates saddled with enormous student load debt who can’t find jobs. And we have an inbred academic culture that is so tilted left that it is out of touch both with reality and with the larger society for whom they are supposedly educating the children.

The events of the past week both at Yale and Missouri highlight the deficiencies of our institutions of higher learning.[ii] In these two situations, among the demands made by the students was for them to have “safe spaces.” They want their universities to be a “home” for them. And in the process of their protests for their “rights” they trampled on the rights of others without even acknowledging what they were doing, or the implications of their actions. You can’t stand there (or at Mizzou… push there) and demand respect for your “rights” if you don’t respect the legally protected rights of others. There actually is a constitutionally protected freedom of the press, which the bullying Assistant Professor of Media at the University of Missouri should both know about and teach. However, there is no constitutionally protected right to be free from being photographed in a public place while engaged in a public protest. There is no right to be free from insults, or offensive remarks, or tasteless jokes.[iii]

On the one hand, these students want to be coddled and protected like children, but on the other, they want us to respect their opinions, voices and choices like adults. Sorry kiddos…. but you can’t have it both ways. Or haven’t you taken logic yet?

From my perspective, as a member of academia for most of my adult life, one of the primary causes of this dysfunction is the failure of our universities and colleges to educate our children with the knowledge, skills and values[iv] that are actually necessary for the functioning of a democratic republic. The traditional liberal arts education which helped foment the seeds of the Glorious Revolution in England, the American Revolution, and the Civil Rights movement[v] has given way to academic navel-gazing and programs and “studies” that no one outside of academia gives two cents about. And most of those “studies” programs are leftist-leaning at best, Marxist at least, and certainly not compatible with, nor conducive to, the furthering and support of a flourishing democratic republic.

And of course, since our institutions of higher education are training the teachers in our primary and secondary schools, it is no wonder that most of our little gems aren’t properly prepared by the time they get to college in the first place. I am thankful that my children got through public schools when there were still enough teachers around who had received a sound, foundational, traditional, liberal arts education. I fear for my grandchildren.

Because of that, many folks on my side of the political spectrum would argue that we should do away with liberal arts education, and just focus on job-specific education. We are wasting time and money on degrees that produce neither informed nor employable graduates. And I agree that many of the degree programs in major universities are superfluous and only exist to provide jobs for faculty who themselves don’t have a marketable skill outside of academia.[vi] But let’s not be too hasty here. I would argue that instead of tossing out the whole concept of a liberal arts education, it would be better to reform higher education and return to the goals of a traditional liberal arts education.

What do I mean by a traditional liberal arts education? It is a broad-based education that encompasses the areas of knowledge that learned people should have in order to understand life, along with the skills to implement that knowledge in order to be successful in life (understanding that success will mean many different things.) As the Director of General Education at my university (Wait a minute, how did a conservative get in that position? Well, that’s a topic for another time.), who just led the Gen Ed committee through a two year process of revising our core curriculum, I think I have some insight into this.

First and foremost, we need graduates/citizens who can think. If people can’t do logical and critical thinking, how do we expect them to make rational decisions for themselves and their country?[vii] In the past, this was often accomplished with a class in philosophy or logic. At our school, we chose to use a course in a natural or physical science and a course in ethics. The goal in the science course is for students to learn the scientific method (hypothesis, experiment, results) and in ethics, the process of logical reasoning. If people don’t understand the rudimentary elements of logic and argument, they will be forever intellectually handicapped, and our republic doomed.[viii]

(It was apparent watching events unfold at both Mizzou and Yale this past week, that the majority of the students and faculty involved in the protests had little, if any, understanding of logical reasoning. As the protests developed, they were little more than emotional tantrums and bullying, not rational arguments.)

Secondly, students need a broad base of fundamental areas of knowledge that are essential to understand life, people, and the world we live in.

  1. History: How can we understand where we are if we don’t know where we came from? I teach at an HBCU[ix], and am appalled at how many of my students have no idea when the Civil War was. Of course, they also don’t know the approximate dates of WWII or the American Revolution, or the Vietnam War. We can’t learn the lessons of history if we don’t know the basics of history.
  2. Religion/Philosophy: No, that doesn’t mean that we want to indoctrinate people into a particular faith, but we do need to understand about belief systems, the differences among them, and the implications of various belief systems. One of the problems with higher education today is due to the enlightenment fallacy that posited that one can think based on pure reason, without any foundational premises. Do you think you can understand our present world situation without understanding some foundational concepts about various world religions? A major obstacle for our political leaders today is that they have no comprehension into the history and teachings of Islam.
  3. Political Science: What’s the purpose of government? How do governments function? What are the benefits and drawbacks of various forms of government? Yes, I realize that students were supposed to learn a lot of this in some high school class, but……
  4. Humanities: Art… Music…Theater… Yes, even though such things don’t fall into the realm of employable skills, don’t we want people to know about the artistic accomplishments of our cultures? And don’t we want that knowledge to broaden their experience? For one thing, such knowledge will help them to understand other people across cultures and time.

Thirdly, we need students who possess some essential skills to make use of their knowledge.

  1. Communication: Students need to be able to write (English classes) and speak (Public Speaking). Naturally, this also involves the use of logic and reasoning. To put together a          coherent argument to support a thesis in either a written paper or an oral presentation            means that one must be able to understand the process of linking premises, inferences,           and conclusions.
  2. Quantitative Reasoning: Yes.. that means math. If people understood math better, maybe they wouldn’t saddle themselves with such huge student loans for a degree in    Gender Studies, and maybe they would understand why we can’t just keep printing   money and raising the debt ceiling.
  3. Technology: This would certainly not be a part of a classic liberal arts education, but if you want to function and communicate in today’s world, you had better grasp the basics. If nothing else, you had better understand how you can search for information online, and             how much others can find out about you. [x]

And of course all of these presuppose reading. Students need to be able to read and understand what authors are saying, what their premises are, and be able to critique their premises, arguments and conclusions. Unfortunately, that is also a skill that is sadly lacking in our education at all levels in the United States.

But, you may argue, don’t most schools have such requirements in their core curriculums? Many do, but the problem is that the requirements have been so watered down and infected with leftist ideologies, that students aren’t actually receiving the foundational knowledge which we need them to have. Instead of learning world or U.S. history, students may take one course on a narrow segmented aspect of history that may be beneficial as a special elective, but does little in preparing them to be a productive, informed citizen. And then the course content is slanted so far to one side that they end up being indoctrinated, not educated.

But as a constitutional conservative, I want a more educated populace, not a more ignorant one. We need a reformation in higher education.  We need educational institutions that benefit society, not ones that benefit only themselves. And as conservatives, we need to push for exactly that type of education.

Higher education institutions are already feeling the pressure of declining enrollments, tightening finances and turbulent times. We need to exert guiding pressure on our state institutions through our legislatures (we do pay the bills) and in public forums, and on private institutions with our donations and support. And of course, for those with college age children, you exert influence with your choice of schools to which you will pay that tuition bill.

And for employers, start looking for graduates from schools which actually produce educated, informed and equipped citizens. In your job interviews with students and in discussions with placement offices, ask about their core curriculum and what students are taught. Tell them what you are looking for in employees and why.

The time is ripe. I am not sure what higher education will look like in twenty years, but I am confident that it won’t be what it is today. In one way or another, if we want our republic to survive, we as constitutional conservatives need to get control of the education of our children. [xi]


[i]  I suggest you read The Higher Education Bubble by Glenn Reynolds for more detail on this.

[ii] http://www.nationalreview.com/yale-free-speech-protest-ironic?Z6UiEVuy3hLocBvg.01; http://www.nytimes.com/2015/11/10/us/university-missouri-protesters-block-journalists-press-freedom.html?_r=1; https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9IEFD_JVYd0


[iii] This does not mean that I condone racism. I think racists are illogical idiots. However, I think they have a right to be such idiots, as long as they don’t infringe upon the rights others have that are endowed by our creator.

[iv] Others caught in the web of academic assessment will recognize the Holy Trinity of competencies by which all programs are to be measured. So, if it’s good for the goose, let’s see how the gander likes it.

[v] And if you don’t believe that, go back and read the pamphlets, sermons and messages of the leaders and spokespersons of those historical events. They were all people educated in the basic, primary books and skills.

[vi] For example, we don’t need, especially in publicly supported institutions, all of these “specialty” programs that only produce graduates for other university “specialty” programs. (What do you do with a degree in Gender Studies except go on to graduate school to get a job teaching gender studies?)If private institutions want to house such programs, that is on their dime, and if alumni and students want to support those programs with their moneys, that is the free market at work. But state supported institutions are dependent on the taxpayers, and if put to the vote, I would bet my paycheck that those programs would be eliminated.

[vii] It was apparent watching events unfold at both Mizzou and Yale this past week, that the majority of the students and faculty involved in the protests had little, if any, understanding of logical reasoning. As the protests developed, they were little more than emotional tantrums and bullying, not rational arguments.

[viii] Of course, college is not necessary to acquire this skill. Experience happens to be a great teacher.

[ix] Historically Black College or University.

[x] In our university, we also added a foreign language requirement, but this was aimed more at our graduates’ employability in a global society, as well as an understanding of other cultures.

[xi] After finishing this essay, I found a friend of mine on Facebook who had posted an essay from the Washington Post on the state of education in the United States today. The author talked about taking control of the education of his children, and offered some suggestions for what we need to do. It’s worth reading. https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2015/11/03/a-venture-capitalist-searches-for-the-purpose-of-school-heres-what-he-found/?postshare=3171447188245311