What are the public responsibilities of private education?

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about education for the public good and what that must mean. It’s a sign of an impoverished civic imagination that the most we can come up with is that the purposes of an education is to get a better job so you can raise American competitiveness in the global marketplace. I’ve been using Andrew Delbanco as a part time foil in these reflections. In a new interview over at Inside Higher Ed, Delbanco takes on this general issue yet again.

Interview with author of new book on the past and future of higher education | Inside Higher Ed


If a college functions well, it should break down, or at least diminish, the distinction between private and public good. Genuinely educated persons recognize how much they owe to the society that has furnished them with opportunities, and they feel an obligation to give back. This doesn’t mean that a college should teach its students to be ascetics or try to turn them into saints. Personal ambition will always be part of what a successful education requires and rewards. But a good college fosters an atmosphere of public-spiritedness. It teaches its students that individuals depend for fulfillment on community, and that a true community is constituted by responsible individuals.

(via Instapaper)

I like so much of this, but I think Delbanco is only addressing half the question. That is, it seems to me we have a generally compromised sense of public-spiritedness as such in the United States. Our national purposes reduced drastically to a kind of civic consumerism. Students, we, imagine that we are being public spirited by pursuing what it takes to get a job, no longer conceiving of “the public” in a rich complex fashion that can be activated outside the context of warfare and external threats to abstractly defined freedoms. I agree with Delanco, but I wonder whether he is invoking an older notion of public spiritedness that has itself become impoverished. Education as a private good is reflecting a culture that can only image the public through private metaphors and private actions

[Side note: I met Delbanco in the bathroom at the Rethinking Success conference. He seemed stunned that someone had actually read his book. As opposed, I guess, to just reading the excerpts in the chronicle review]

Can a liberal arts ethos and a professionalized research faculty co-exist?

I’ve been reading Geoffrey Galt Harpham’s recent book, Humanities and the Dream of America, whiling away the hours on my exercise bike.  Ok, half hours.  I’ve been struck by the similarities in analysis between Harpham and Andrew Delbanco’s analysis of the college as a distinctly American achievement, having just finished Delbanco’s meditation on the nature of the college a week or so ago.

For both, the fundamental antagonist to the ideals of the liberal arts has not been professional programs per se–though undergraduate programs in things like businesss, nursing, and engineering (and a host of others) are favorite bete noirs of our current humanistic discourse about the purposes of education.  Rather, for both the real threat lies in the research university and the ethos of specialization that it entails.  This emphasis of specialized knowledge is itself inherently narrowing, and is opposed to the generous expansiveness of spirit that, at least in theory, characterizes the highest ideals of a liberal arts education.

Like Delbanco, Harpham draws on Newman as a first resource for the fully articulated ideal of the idea that education should enrich our human experience, fitting us primarily for a life well lived, rather than for the specifics of a living.  I’m intrigued, though, that Harpham brings out this ethos not only as characterizing the curricular choices and the spiritual, ethical and cultural teloi of the undergraduate [side note, we no longer would use a word like teloi; we would invoke learning objectives];  more than that, this ethos characterizes the faculty and their understanding of their role in the life of the mind.

Moreover, the institution devoted to producing Newman’s protege bears little resemblance to today’s institutions of higher learning. Newman’s idea of a university had no room for either specialized or comprehensive knowledge, and the professors who taught there should, he fervently believed-it is the very first statement in the book-have nothing to do with research, an obsessive activity best conducted by those whose minds were too sadly contracted to engage in full life. …

Newman intuitively understood that the real threat to liberal education in his own time was not the shade of Locke but the spirit of research then crescent in Germany. By the end of the nineteenth century, the United States had begun to Germanize its academy, with some university faculties organizing themselves into departments that granted degrees that came to constitute credentials. With credentialing came professionalism, and with professionalism growth. President Lawrence Lowell of Harvard (1909-33) laid the foundation for Harvard’s eminence as a research powerhouse by encouraging his faculty to think of themselves as professionals.4 This meant adopting impersonal criteria of scholarly competence within each discipline, cultivating a spirit of empirical and methodological rigor, and coming to agreement about what would count as standards of achievement in a small, self-certifying group of mandarins

The new professionalism functioned as a way of insulating the university from extra-academic pressures by creating a separate world of academe that could be judged only by its own standards. But professionalism was accompanied by its dark familiars, partition and competition. A professionalized faculty was a faculty divided into units, each claiming considerable autonomy in matters of hiring and promotion, and competing with other units for salaries, students, office space, and prestige. Such competition naturally placed some stress on amity, and so while undergraduates were expected to enjoy four stress-free years in the groves of academe, the faculty in the same institutions were facing the prospect of going at it hammer and tong, competing with each other virtually face to face, for the rest of their lives.

Geoffrey Galt Harpham. The Humanities and the Dream of America (pp. 127-128). Kindle Edition.

This seems about right to me, and it might pass without comment, but it raises a troubling contradiction.  In most of the strong defenses of the liberal arts that I hear, the notion that faculty should abandon research or that the fullness of the liberal arts spirit is best embodied by a faculty full of generalists is never among them.  Indeed, quite the opposite.  We want an institution to display its commitment to the liberal arts precisely by giving more support to faculty research so that faculty can become more and more specialized, more fully recognized in their professional disciplines, more disconnected from the immediacy of their liberal arts institutions, and less able to exemplify the generalist qualities that we say we value as fully humanizing.

What this argument for the liberal arts wants (I’m not saying there aren’t other arguments), is a research university, or at least a research college, with a commitment to research in the liberal arts and all the prestige that entails.  What we definitely do not want to do is give up the right to writing books that no one wants to read so that we can demonstrate our particularly specialized knowledge.

The faculty, as Harpham recognizes, is fully professionalized, and in many respects in the liberal arts we have created specialized professional programs, imagining that our students are professors in embryo.  The college major is now, in many respects, a professional program ,and it is worth noting that the idea of a college major is coextensive with the advent of the research university.  Indeed, I have heard the argument that we should have much larger majors in the humanities than we do have because the size of the major is a measure of its prestige in the college, competing then as it would with the gargantuan programs in engineering, nursing, and many of the hard sciences, programs that students can barely finish in four years, if they can.  So much for our sentimental sop about the value of breadth of mind and spirit.

Can a research faculty that shows no real interest in giving up the ideals of research exemplify and support a genuine liberal arts ethos in an American college today (leaving aside the question of whether liberal arts colleges will survive at all)? I am not sure what the route out of this conundrum actually is.  I stopped in the middle of Harpham’s chapter where he actually has just noted that faculty in the liberal arts are essentially professionals and conceive of themselves as professionals in ways quite similar to their brethren in professional programs.  I am not sure where he is going with that insight, but I look forward to finding out.