Saving the Soul of Higher Education

by Myron A. Marty

Dr. Marty is dean of Arts and Sciences at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.

This article appeared in the Christian Century, July 29-August 5, 1987, p. 659. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


A review article analyzing new books on the problems confronting American higher education: While higher education is obliged to resist the pernicious forces of the larger society, to expect it to be immune to their pervasive effects is unrealistic.

The eclipse of liberal education, as Allan Bloom recounts it in The Closing of the American Mind (Simon & Schuster, 392 pp., $18.95) , occurred at Cornell University in 1969. Bloom witnessed it as a professor there, and his vivid recollections provide a recurring theme in this book. Although viewing the eclipse with unshielded eyes seared his retinas, leaving images of the dark days at Cornell on all that he has observed since, his sense of the condition of colleges and universities is often right and his judgments command attention.

Appearing also at this time are several other books on related topics, whose authors’ judgments are also worthy of attention. Ernest Boyer, drawing upon the reports of observers who visited 29 campuses across the country, as well as upon a survey of the attitudes and opinions of 5,000 faculty and 4,500 undergraduates in a representative sample of institutions, writes more analytically and less passionately than Bloom. His College: The Undergraduate Experience in America (Harper & Row, 328 pp., $19.95), a report sponsored by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, describes the dusky condition of liberal education in recent years, but he writes with the hope of a sunrise in mind.

Derek Bok’s Higher Learning (Harvard University Press, 206 pp., $15.00) also offers some hopeful judgments. From his vantage point as president of Harvard, Bok analyzes the dilemmas of liberal education, showing how its coexistence with the demands of professional schools in times of change and uncertainty requires its advocates to set it on a sound course. Just what that course should be is less certain.

The conclusions drawn by Bruce A. Kimball in Orators and Philosophers: A History of the Idea of Liberal Education (Teachers College Press, 292 pp., $19.95) are of a different kind. Liberal education is in trouble today, he contends, because its proponents do not know its past and do not understand the historical tensions that could be exploited to give it new life. By demonstrating how accommodations have been reached between contrasting traditions in liberal education, Kimball compels his readers to rethink their understandings.

It is a pleasure to wrestle with the ideas advanced by Bloom, Boyer, Bok and Kimball, today’s college professors will tell you, but if teaching is a process of building on what students already know, how can they be expected to teach students who don’t know anything -- the culturally illiterate? E. D. Hirsch argues in Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know (Houghton Muffin, 251 pp., $16.95) that schools are obliged to help students accumulate shared symbols and the knowledge they represent -- that is to say, to teach students cultural literacy, so that they can learn to communicate in our national community.

Bloom’s book (subtitled How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students) is an attention-grabber, mainly because the author, who now teaches philosophy and political science at the University of Chicago, is a polemicist with an obvious scorn for understatement. At the heart of his polemic is his frustration with students’ belief that truth is relative and that the highest moral virtue is openness. This belief, Bloom claims, is a consequence of the failure of colleges and universities to cultivate among their students a sense of shared goals and a common vision of the public good. With the prevailing attitude being that anything goes -- that one opinion is as good as another -- the social contract by which we live may not long endure.

Not by chance have we come to this pass. Intellectual movements of various descriptions have long pointed us in this direction. One of these is historicism, "the view that all thought is essentially related to and cannot transcend its own time" (p. 40) Another is pragmatism, fostered by John Dewey and others, which permits analysis of the present without regard to the past. Marxist debunking of claims of superiority for American principles or heroes (with Charles Beard cited as a representative debunker) is a third. Southern writers whose assessments of the Civil War defamed the North and idealized the South, share in the blame, as do radicals in the civil rights movement who promoted the notion that American principles are racist.

Contemporary conditions make the situation worse. Bloom frets eloquently about the disappearance of religion’s influence and the decline of the family in American life. It is not the unhappy family or the broken home that he finds most disturbing; rather, it is the family devoid of spiritual and intellectual coherence and interaction. "People sup together, play together, travel together," he says, "but they do not think together" (p. 58).

The influence of classic texts has diminished too -- partly because they have been attacked by feminist thinkers (throughout the book, incidentally, Bloom’s language seems calculated to offend those who are sensitive to the usefulness of modifying gender references in ways that draw women into the story of civilization and culture). And classical music has been driven out by rock music, whose explicit sexual themes lead to rebellion against parental authority and to ruin of the youthful imagination, making "it very difficult for them to have a passionate relationship to the art and thought that are the substance of liberal education" (p. 79).

The result? The young are self-centered, their concerns for egalitarianism are misguided, their understandings of racial problems are wrong, their sexual experiences are passionless and their lives are without love.

If things were different in the past, what explains the change? For Bloom, the answer lies in the perversion by German philosophers, principally Nietzsche, of the human quest for values rooted in the Greek tradition. This development is reflected in the popular reverence for the inner-directedness described by David Riesman in The Lonely Crowd; such inner-directedness, in which self-understanding is what matters most, is shaped without benefit of the knowledge of classical traditions.

The creativity we currently foster, Bloom suggests, is misdirected. Culture,

with its many meanings, is misunderstood. "‘Life-style’ justifies any way of life, as does ‘value’ any opinion" (p. 235) Attempts by Freud and Marx and their followers to reshape our understandings are not only wrong, Bloom claims, but boring.

In these circumstances, the first task of the university is "always to maintain the permanent questions front and center" (p. 252) The tiny band of academics who participate fully in the way of life "Plato saw in Parmenides, Aristotle in Plato, Bacon in Aristotle, Descartes in Bacon, Locke in Descartes and Newton," are the soul of the university (p. 271) But that is the soul darkened by the eclipse at Cornell (and elsewhere) in 1969. Although Bloom’s Cornell experiences are not recounted in detail until a diatribe in the penultimate chapter, bitterness over them, and resentments toward colleagues who failed to sustain his ideals, are apparent throughout the book.

Bloom’s view of what the college years can be is admirable, if romantic: "These are the charmed years when [the student can, if he chooses, become anything he wishes and when he has the opportunity to survey his alternatives, not merely those current in his time or provided by careers, but those available to him as a human being. . . . They are civilization’s only chance to get him" (p. 336).

Whether the Great Books curriculum Bloom advocates is the answer to students’ needs, however, is another matter. Another matter, too, is Bloom’s analysis of the condition of the disciplines. On most campuses, the natural sciences are neither so self-sufticient nor so isolated as he claims, nor are the humanities and the social sciences everywhere in so hopeless a condition as he describes.

For all the brilliance of Bloom’s polemic, it completely misses the point in several critical respects. Most strikingly, it faults colleges and universities for the kinds of students they enroll, shaped as they have been by the forces of the larger cultures from which they come, while paying no attention to the kinds they graduate. While higher education is obliged to resist the corrosive forces of the larger society, to expect it to be immune to their pervasive effects is unrealistic.

Bloom also ignores the failure of higher education’s potential allies in government and industry, particularly its communications and entertainment segments, to advance the cause or spirit in which he believes. Why, one wonders, should higher education be alone in the quest for the good? Finally, The Closing of the American Mind says nothing about how colleges and universities should get from where they are to where its author thinks they should be. Men and women in the campus trenches may find delight and provocation in the work (currently number 1 on the New York Times nonfiction best-seller list) , but there isn’t much in it to help them in practicable ways.

Acknowledging that the American system of advanced learning, with its openness, diversity, freedom from suffocating ideology and unmatched vitality, is the envy of the world, Boyer, through extensive research, nevertheless confirms what every informed observer already knows: "the undergraduate college, the very heart of higher learning, is a troubled institution" (p. 2) One’s first thought is, Here comes ammunition for the next barrage by William Bennett! Those who merely read about College, without studying the careful manner in which that judgment is supported, may indeed fear that it provides a foundation for the blustery attacks on higher education by the secretary of education. But while Bennett and Boyer share concerns about the troubled condition of higher education, in this book and in his record as chancellor of the State University of New York, as commissioner of education in the 1970s and as president of the Carnegie Foundation, Boyer is sensitive to the circumstances that create the deplorable conditions as well as to those conditions themselves.

Boyer and his research associates specify the problems they see. There is discontinuity between earlier education and colleges and a mismatch between faculty expectations and the academic preparation of entering students. Undergraduate colleges lack a clear sense of mission, being caught between careerism and the liberal arts. Faculty members are torn by divided loyalties and competing career concerns. Classrooms are beset by the tension between conformity and creativity. There is a great gulf, if not a total separation, between academic life and campus social life. Governance issues gnaw at institutional vitality. How the academic gains of college students should be assessed remains an open question. Finally, there is "a disturbing gap between the college and the larger world . . . a parochialism . . . an intellectual and social isolation that reduces the effectiveness of the college and limits the vision of the student" (p. 6).

Some of Boyer’s responses to these problems seem obvious. For example, in addressing the issue of creativity in the classroom he tells us, "Good teaching is at the heart of the undergraduate experience. All members of the faculty should work continually to improve the content of their courses and their methods of instruction" (p. 159). But there are many campuses where this principle is not a given. Some of his other admonitions are similarly needed: that the freshman year should offer experiences that entice students to appreciate minds at work; that the faculty should be engaged in activities beyond the classroom that demonstrate their work as scholars; that academic majors should broaden rather than restrict the perspective of students, and so on. The checklist in the concluding chapter, with more than a dozen points describing a good college, will help every institution identify matters requiring attention.

Although Bok shares the widespread skepticism of "competency-based learning" as it is practiced in some institutions, he credits the apparent success of this approach to the clarity of the objectives its practitioners have established. A logical first step in improving the quality and quantity of learning in any institution, he concludes, would be to define a set of shared goals around which to orient teaching and learning throughout the four undergraduate years. Other specific steps would follow, focusing on communicating to students the ways and means of achieving the set of defined goals. While many of Bok’s prescriptions in this area, too, seem obvious, engaging faculties in efforts along these lines, given their divided loyalties and diverse commitments, is not always easy to accomplish.

Kimball’s Orators and Philosophers traces two distinct traditions in liberal education. In the tradition of the philosophers, the pursuit of knowledge is the highest good. This is the line, Joseph Featherstone notes in the foreword, "from Socrates and Plato and Aristotle to Boethius, the brilliant schoolmen of medieval Paris, the philosophies of the Enlightenment, T. H. Huxley, modern science, and the great research universities of the present. Its glory is the freedom of the intellect; its puzzle, as an educational philosophy, is what else to teach besides this freedom" (ix).

The tradition of the orators, on the other hand,

emphasizes the public expression of what is known, the crucial importance of language, texts, and tradition -- linking to and building up a community of learning and knowledge. This is the line of Isocrates, Cicero, Isidore, the artes liberales of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance humanists, the vision of Matthew Arnold, of some teachers of the liberal arts today, especially humanities teachers and, of course, many religious colleges. The glory of the orators’ line is its links with the texts of the past and its focus on recreating learning communities as the central business of education; its problem, as an educational philosophy, is its dogmatic and anti-intellectual idolatry of the past and its frequent assumption that virtue resides in the texts, not in what we the living make of them (x).

It is a strange fact, Featherstone observes, that most of today’s neoconservatives defending great books and tradition -- the curriculum of the orators -- are really closet philosophers. "Instead of defending the texts on the old complex grounds of the oratorical tradition, they are for the most part preaching the classics today in the name of the Socratic or scientific ideal of the free-swinging intellect" (xi)

Kimball, whose research seems to have taken him into every debate on liberal education through more than two millennia, draws his vast findings together in two contrasting models. In one are seven artes liberales characteristics of the orators’ tradition: "(1) Training citizen-orators to lead society (2) requires identifying true virtues, (3) the commitment to which (4) will elevate the student and (5) the source for which is great texts, whose authority lies in (6) the dogmatic premise that they relate the true virtues, (7) which are embraced for their own sake." It is built on the foundation of classical texts and letters.

In the other model are seven "liberal-free" characteristics in the philosophers’ tradition, which Kimball summarizes thus: " (1) Epistemological skepticism underlies (2) the free and (3) intellectual search for truth, which is forever elusive, and so all possible views must be (4) tolerated and given (5) equal hearing (6) with the final decision left to each individual, (7) who pursues truth for its own sake. Its appeal is to mathematics, sciences, and ‘modern’ subjects" (p. 228).

Through the years, the traditions have reached accommodations with one another. Where the tilt is toward the artes liberales tradition, neohumanism prevails, whereas the tilt toward the liberal-free tradition results in meritocratic research specialization. Read and ponder this book. It is a far-reaching, complicated, provocative study. Were Kimball’s analysis to inform every discussion of the goals and strategies of liberal education, the ideas and goals advanced by Boyer and Bok, and possibly even those by Bloom, would more readily be fulfilled.

Provided, of course, that colleges and universities enroll students who are ready and able to deal with what they have to offer. Here’s where Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy is most relevant. His generally persuasive case is built on the indisputable claims that the more one knows, the easier it is to know still more, and that precise knowledge is not always required for cultural literacy. What matters, he says, is the ability "to grasp the general shape of what we are reading and tie it to what we already know."

Drawing on research revealing that in learning to read, children actively bring "past schemata" to bear on what they are reading, and that it is such culturally shared schemata that make communication possible, Hirsch lays the groundwork for his larger contention. That contention is that literacy is a function of a national culture -- a point he seeks to demonstrate by citing relationships between foreign languages and the cultures they serve.

For a national culture to exist, Hirsch argues, schools are obliged to promote it intentionally, for only within the educational system can it be learned. Unfortunately, he claims, schools fail to do this, for they try to teach developmental skills apart from the context of the culture in which the children live. And this situation is a departure from the days when schools made children shareholders in a common culture.

By resting much of his case on the unproven assumption that schools in the past played the role he wishes they would play today, Hirsch detracts from his generally plausible argument that more could be done today to help children know and understand their culture. Sensing, perhaps, that his arguments align him too closely with neoconservatives like Secretary of Education Bennett (and Allan Bloom, for that matter) , for whom attacks on the schools and calls for a return to a commonly held culture are recurring themes, he retreats a bit. And to win the support of educators who do not share the neoconservative commitment to educational reform rooted largely, if not exclusively, in Western traditions, he argues that in pluralistic America, if schools do their job there can indeed be one cultural vocabulary. Moreover, he asserts, that vocabulary need not be either elitist or exclusive. What schools need is a two-part curriculum: an "extensive" part devoted to studies common to all children, and an "intensive" part ensuring that an arbitrary core curriculum will not be imposed.

Hirsch may be right in claiming that literate culture is far less exclusive than ethnic culture or pop culture or youth culture, but these do not require the mastery of such comprehensive vocabularies as does the national culture he seeks to promote. In any case, even if we acknowledge that the nation’s cultural vocabulary does not have to be elitist and that schools could do a better job of drawing more children into a literate national culture, it is fair to ask who should determine that national cultural vocabulary.

Hirsch, an authority on writing and a professor of English at the University of Virginia, assumes that responsibility himself, aided by his Virginia colleagues historian Joseph Kett and physicist James Trefil. Their listing of "What Literate Americans Know" includes more than 4,500 terms and runs to 64 pages. It is tempting to scrutinize the list for ideological tendencies and biases, to point to curious inclusions and omissions, and to have some fun with it by testing one’s own cultural literacy.

Whatever one’s quibbles with the list, few would disagree that teaching students who would be at home with the vocabulary would be an unlikely pleasure in today’s world. Bloom, Boyer, Bok, and maybe even Kimball, would have much cheerier things to write about if the cultural literacy Hirsch advocates were to become a reality.