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The Triumph of the Market and the Decline of Liberal Education: Implications for Civic Life

by Grace Roosevelt - 2006

The purpose of this article is to argue that the growing commercialization of education and the simultaneous decline of what has traditionally been called "liberal education" will limit the range of political discourse and thus have negative effects on civic life. In a context driven mainly by the profit motive, not-for-profit educational institutions have until recently provided one of the few protected spaces (besides the church) in which the profit motive itself may be openly questioned. But with today's new emphasis on marketable products, measurable outcomes, and business skills, many institutions of higher education are unlikely to expose students to visions of justice and equality that challenge the ethics of the market system. Debates over the extent to which profit making should be regulated in the public interest are crucial to the vitality of any political community. Without the political imagination and broad-based critical thinking that liberal learning has traditionally fostered, there is little hope that liberal politics can continue to survive. The article includes (1) some salient facts about the commercialization of education in the United States today, (2) a brief overview of the history of the idea of liberal education, and (3) concluding reflections about the link between liberal education and liberal politics.

The citizens of a state should always be educated to suit the consti­tution of their state. The type of character appropriate to a constitu­tion is the power which continues to sustain it . . . The democratic type of character creates and sustains democracy; the oligarchical type creates and sustains oligarchy.

Aristotle’s Politics, Book VIII1

The bourgeoisie, wherever it has gotten the upper hand . . . has left no other bond between man and man than naked self-interest, than cal­lous “cash payment” . . . and in place of the numberless indefeasible chartered freedoms has set up that single, unconscionable freedom—Free Trade.” Karl Marx and Fredrick Engels, “Manifesto of the Com­munist Party”2

Generally speaking, all freshmen are either now or soon to be voters. Does not the University owe them a duty as such? “Reorganization of Undergraduate Instruction,” Stanford University, 19203


One of the most striking phenomena in American higher education today is the proliferation of for-profit colleges and universities. Structured as large corporate entities, many of the new for-profit colleges and universities op­erate like commercial businesses, issue shares of stock that are traded on the stock exchange, and respond to the same competitive market forces that affect other private companies. And they have been highly successful. The new for-profit colleges, such as the University of Phoenix, ITT, and DeVry, now attract well over 300,000 students on 750 campuses nationwide. In­deed, a recent study has estimated that in the United States, for-profit colleges and universities “constitute the only sector of the higher-education industry that is growing.”4

The growth of the for-profit colleges and universities can largely be ex­plained by their emphasis on what the chairman of DeVry, one of the largest for-profits, refers to as “career launching.”5 The explicit aim of such in­stitutions is to train their students for the job market. “We literally contact employers and ask them what level of knowledge and what type of skill sets they would expect a college graduate to have to qualify for professional technology employment,” explains Rene Champagne, the president and CEO of ITT.6 The college then proceeds to hire the faculty, develop the curriculum, and teach the material that will satisfy the market’s demand. “Come to us for an education, graduate into a job” is the compelling message that the for-profits are preaching across the United States today.7

The purpose of this article is to argue that the growing commercialization of higher education and the corresponding decline of liberal education will limit the range of political discourse and thus have negative effects on civic life. In what follows, I first describe some disturbing aspects of the recent commercialization of education in the United States and then briefly review the history of the idea of liberal education. In the final section, I explore the link between liberal education and liberal politics, focusing in particular on how the liberal arts curriculum has served an important political function by providing a context within which market values can be questioned. Such questioning, I suggest, is essential to the vitality of civic discourse. Much of the support for liberal education in the present and in the past has come from the political right;8 to offer an alter­native view, I argue that broad-based liberal arts curricula are essential to the survival of the political left, especially in the context of the consumerist culture prevalent today.9 Although the focus is on the American experience, the analysis may also be applied to some aspects of European education.

As Adam Smith pointed out over two centuries ago, profits are made by “buying cheap and selling dear.”10 Generally, the new for-profit colleges and universities charge tuition at a level slightly below the tuition charged by private nonprofit colleges and universities and then cut costs by doing away with such expensive “accoutrements” of academic life as tenure for professors, libraries, spacious campuses, faculty-designed curricula, and sports teams.11 Costs are also cut by hiring part-time faculty on a course-by-course basis, by making curricula uniform across various campuses of the same institution,12 and by offering courses online. As of spring 2005, the University of Phoenix, for example, had over 63,000 students taking courses online.13

Motivated by the drive to produce graduates with immediately market­able skills, the new for-profit colleges and universities offer courses of study that are primarily technical and utilitarian. DeVry offers accredited degree programs in electronics engineering technology, computer information systems, telecommunications management, and accounting.14 Others, such as the University of Phoenix, train students for service sector jobs in nursing, education, social work, and criminal justice administration, in addition to offering courses in business and information technologies.15 Although some of the for-profit colleges pay lip service to “general education” and the desire to strengthen students’ “appreciation of the larger social, political, scientific, and aesthetic culture” (as the University of Phoenix course catalog puts it), the courses offered to fulfill the general education requirements are extremely limited in scope and breadth. The course description for the sole offering in “Philosoph­ical Thinkers of Western Civilization” at the University of Phoenix, for example, states that “Through listening to tapes and reading a few outside sources which summarize the life and most important writings of each philosopher, students will gain an appreciation for the significant contributions of each of these great thinkers of western civilization.”16 Clearly what the for-profit colleges and universities are interested in delivering is for-profit knowledge. In such a setting, to actually read the works of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Locke, Rousseau, Kant, and Nietzsche17 would be a waste of time and might even provoke students to question the whole idea of for-profit education. I return to this theme in Part III.

As many commentators have recently noted, the for-profit schools are not the only institutions of higher education that have recently been caught in the grip of market forces. The more traditional, not-for-profit institutions have also felt the squeeze. In an Atlantic Monthly cover article entitled “The Kept University,” Eyal Press and Jennifer Washburn document the extent to which corporations exert increasing control both over large research institutions such as Berkeley, Brown, Stanford, and Michigan, and over smaller colleges like Pomona and Harvey Mudd. In multimillion-dollar deals that the public is often unaware of, corporations finance research projects in return for exclusive access to the results of the research and create industry-endowed chairs that serve the industry’s corporate interests. As a consequence, the authors argue, the universities, “once wary benefi­ciaries of corporate largess, have become eager co-capitalists, embracing market values as never before.”18

In an article in the American Association of University Professors journal Academe, Sheila Slaughter extends a similar analysis to other aspects of ac­ademic life. Seduced by the allure of the market, she argues, college pres­idents now take on the role of CEOs mainly concerned with their institution’s bottom line, faculty members become “academic capitalists” who see themselves as free agents rather than as colleagues, and students are referred to as “consumers” whom the universities need to attract by means of glossy advertising brochures. “In the postmodern twenty-first century,” Slaughter concludes, “the professional values that once marked the boundary between the corporate world and universities seem quaint, impossibly naive.”19 Her commentary echoes the work of David Noble, who has long been a critic of the infiltration of the academy by market forces.20 In his book, Digital Diploma Mills, Noble focuses on the threats that distance learning and online education pose to academic freedom, civic values, and the pursuit of truth. “Distance education” he asserts, “has always been not so much technology-driven as profit-driven . . . the pursuit of profit in the guise and name of higher education.”21

Perhaps the clearest signs of the intrusion of market values into the not-for-profit colleges and universities are recent changes in curricular prior­ities, even at the more traditional schools. Everywhere there has been a marked shift of students and resources away from liberal arts fields and toward business courses. Such changes are increasingly motivated by stu­dents’ (and parents’) demands for marketable skills that will enable them to survive economically in an increasingly competitive work environment. Louis Menand reports in a recent New York Review of Books article that in 1970, English majors took 7.6% of all bachelor’s degrees, but by 1997, the figure had dropped to 4.2%. Today, the biggest undergraduate major in the United States is business, with 20% of all BAs awarded in that field.22 A recent move at George Mason University is typical: when the president decided to add degree programs in information technology and computer science and to give added funding to biosciences, bioinformatics, and bio­technology, older degree programs in classics, German, Russian, and sev­eral other humanities departments were eliminated.23 A study by James Engell (Harvard) and Anthony Dangerfield (Dartmouth) found that be­tween 1970 and 1994, the number of bachelor’s degrees conferred in Eng­lish, foreign languages, philosophy, and religion all declined, while there was a five-to-ten-fold increase in degrees in computer and information sci­ences. These changes, the authors argue, are the result of what they call the new “Market-Model University,” in which subjects that “make money, study money, or attract money are given priority.”24


With the ubiquitous spread of market values into academic institutions in the United States today, we are clearly very far from traditional conceptions of higher education, particularly higher education that claimed to be “lib­eral.” Indeed, liberal education traditionally defined itself in opposition to pecuniary pursuits. Most people trace the origin of the idea of liberal ed­ucation in the West back to Aristotle’s statement in Book VIII of his Politics that “there is a kind of education in which parents should have their sons trained not because it is necessary, or because it is useful, but because it is liberal and something good in itself.” He continues, “To aim at utility eve­rywhere is utterly unbecoming to high-minded and liberal spirits.”26 These words appear after Aristotle’s distinction between occupations that are “fit for freemen and those which are unfit for them,” the latter of which he terms “mechanical” (banausos) pursuits. The amount of “useful” knowledge imparted to young people, he goes on to explain, should “never be large enough to make them mechanically minded.”27 Both of these statements are situated in the one work that Aristotle devoted to politics, a “good” that he considered the highest good,28 and in a section that begins with the exhortation quoted in the epigraphs above, that “the citizens of a state should always be educated to suit the constitution of their state.”

Thus, at its theoretical origins,29 liberal education was defined in oppo­sition to what has come to be called, in DeVry’s term, “career launching,” or more simply, “vocational” education.30 Liberal education was conceived of as having an ethos that contrasted with and in some ways counteracted the ethos of the marketplace. Also at its origins, liberal education was related to Athenian conceptions of freedom and to the overall functioning of political life. Then and now, it was seen as that form of education most worthy of a free being.

As the context makes clear, Aristotle envisioned an educational system that would create free-minded men whose lives were not limited to pro­fessional pursuits and who in their leisure time would be inclined to devote themselves to politics. The assumption was that the polity required forms of knowledge and habits of mind that were different from the forms of knowledge and habits of mind required by the economy. While liberal ed­ucation’s identification with the life of leisure has not withstood the test of time, its essential role in preparing young people for civic life remains one of its central, though contested, features today.31

In the millennium following Aristotle’s death, the political rationale for liberal education flourished briefly during the Roman Empire, particularly in the writings of Cicero, but then gradually disappeared from view and was replaced by the religious aims of medieval scholasticism. In History of the Idea of Liberal Education, Bruce Kimball traces the development of the artes liberales of the high middle ages back to classical debates about the best way to transmit a society’s culture, or logos—a term, he explains, that can refer to both speech and reason. In ancient Greece, accomplished orators like Isoc-rates emphasized the new disciplines of grammar and rhetoric and stressed the arts of persuasion (i.e., the speech side of logos) as the most important skills for future citizens to master, whereas philosophers like Plato empha­sized mathematics and logic (i.e., the reason side of logos) and encouraged his students to engage wholeheartedly in the search for truth. Kimball demonstrates how these competing ideals continued on in the distinction between the “oratorical” disciplines of the trivium (grammar, logic, and rhetoric) and the mathematical, or “philosophical,” disciplines of the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, astronomy)32 during the medieval pe­riod. The implication of his analysis is that even the universities of the past were not immune to the tensions between the humanities and the sciences that divide secular institutions today.33 And yet as preindustrial, essentially religious, institutions, medieval universities were very different from their modern counterparts. From the vantage point of the 21st century, what is significant about the medieval phase of the history of liberal education is its centuries-long cultivation in settings that were relatively sheltered from the vicissitudes of the marketplace.34

The importance of liberal education’s role in nurturing the life of the mind in relative isolation from political and economic pressures was rec­ognized in the late 18th century by Immanuel Kant in a little-known work entitled The Conflict of the Faculties. By the mid-18th century in Prussia, graduate education consisted of a “lower,” or philosophical, faculty on the one hand, and the three “higher” faculties of theology, law, and medicine on the other. Initially written in reaction to the imposition of strict censor­ship laws after the death of Frederick the Great (who had been fairly lenient regarding censorship), Kant’s three-part critique argues that since philosophy is concerned with truth and reason, it is philosophy that should provide the standards with which to judge the “higher” professional schools.35 (In Kantian terms, only the faculty of philosophy is equipped to examine the a priori principles that inform the empirical knowledge and action of the other disciplines.36) Anachronistically but prophetically, Kant at one point refers to the higher faculty members as “businessmen” and includes a broad attack on the seductive power of professionalism:

[T]he businessmen of the three higher faculties will always be such miracle-workers, unless the philosophy faculty is allowed to counteract them publicly—not in order to overthrow their teachings but only to deny the magic power that the public superstitiously attributes to these teachings and the rites connected with them .. .37

In other words, philosophy is needed both to demystify and to judge the direction of the disciplines that are closest to the seats of power—in Kant’s world, church and state.

If we substitute corporate power for Kant’s monarchy and today’s liberal arts faculty for his faculty of philosophy, the main message of The Conflict of the Faculties is one that we would do well to attend to. The liberal arts are essential to civic life, for they alone can nurture the skills of critical thinking and objectivity necessary for judging the powerful commercial forces that affect our lives. Interestingly, Kant’s understanding of the political role of “philosophy” has recently been supported by the testimony of Bethany McLean, the first journalist to investigate Enron’s financial records and who later credited her liberal education at Williams College with giving her the skills to question the practices of the now bankrupt energy trading corpo­ration. “When you come out of a liberal arts background,” she said, “you want to know why something is the way it is.” In the study of accounting, on the other hand, “there is no reason why. There is no fundamental truth underlying it. It’s just based on rules.”38

With the onset of the industrial age, the battles over the purposes of a liberal arts curriculum became more heated, especially in the United States. A useful overview of these conflicts can be found in S. B. Carnochan’s The Battleground of the Curriculum: Liberal Education and American Experience. Al­though his focus is on the American context, Carnochan locates the begin­ning of the American curricular wars at Oxford in the early 19th century, when Oxford’s classical curriculum, with its emphasis on Greek and Latin texts, came under attack in a series of articles in the Edinburgh Review. Oxford’s defense was taken up by Edward Copleston who, in response to the Scottish critics, stressed the humanizing mission of the classics and the need even for professionals like surgeons and generals to have a cultivated sense of “the common feelings of human nature” that could be gained from reading the ancients. A “liberal intercourse” must be established, he argued, for if it is not, we will “be engrossed with petty views and interests, [will] under-rate the importance of all with which we are not concerned . . . [and will] act, in short, as so many unconnected units, displacing and repelling one another.” As Carnochan notes, what is most notable in Copleston’s defense “is his version of a liberal education in the classics as a poultice for the deep, twin wounds of commercialism and professionalization.39

Carnochan traces in detail the noisy curricular battles between ancients and moderns, humanists and specialists, purists and pragmatists for the next two centuries. A significant moment in this complex history was the debate between Charles Eliot of Harvard and James McCosh of Princeton in the 1880s. Eliot dropped a bombshell on late-19th-century higher educa­tion in the United States when he introduced the “free elective” system at Harvard. In place of the traditional requirements in Latin, Greek, math­ematics, French, ethics, and 20 chapters of Gibbons’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire,40 students were, for the first time, allowed to take any com­bination of courses they wanted, except for one requirement in freshman English and one foreign language. Eliot defended his changes in the name of self-reliance, diversity, and individual freedom; however, as Carnochan points out, behind the elective system were the economic ideas of Adam Smith and Herbert Spencer. “In the environment of free election, the fittest would survive best,” Carnochan comments. The university “should repli­cate conditions of the marketplace or of a natural world that itself resembles a competitive marketplace.”41

It was just this implicit analogy between the university and the market­place that aroused the ire of Princeton’s James McCosh. In Burkian terms, McCosh denounced Eliot’s revolutionary concept of freedom: “Freedom . . . is the catch-word of this new departure. It is a precious and an attractive word. But, O Liberty! what crimes and cruelties have been perpetrated in thy name!” In opposition to Eliot, McCosh supported a “Trinity of studies” at Princeton—that is, distribution requirements in the areas of (1) language and literature, (2) science, and (3) philosophy—and explicitly allied Princeton with the great classical learning centers of Europe.42

Meanwhile, however, European universities, notably the University of Berlin, were exerting exactly the kind of influence on the American aca­demic scene that McCosh was trying to fight against. The late 19th century witnessed the founding of many large private universities in the United States that were inspired by German models and devoted to the scientific method and specialized research. Cornell was founded in 1868, Johns Hopkins in 1876, Clark in 1889, Stanford in 1891, and Chicago in 1892.43 Eliot’s vision of the university as a microcosm of free-market forces seemed to have triumphed.

Yet by the early 20th century, Carnochan notes, the stress on speciali­zation and the free electives system increasingly came to be seen as creating “a political as well as an intellectual empty space.”44 Thorstein Veblen, in The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Business Men, pointed to the underlying “pecuniary” purposes of American universities and acerbically noted that such establishments were named universities only because “the name carries an air of scholarly repute, of a higher, more substantial kind than any naked avowal of material practicality would give.”45 The disinterested pursuit of truth rarely took place in such institutions. As for undergraduate education, Veblen remarks, the private colleges had become establishments in which “scholarship is advisedly made subordinate to genteel dissipation, to a grounding in those methods of conspicuous consumption that should engage the thought and energies of a well-to-do man of the world”—that is, a businessman.46

The sense of emptiness in higher education became palpable with the general disillusionment and lack of public purpose that followed World War I. The most far-reaching response to this sense of emptiness came from Columbia University, which in 1919 expanded the “War Issues” course it had tested the previous year into its now famous required year-long survey course, Contemporary Civilization, or “CC,” as it was called almost from the start.47 The mission of the course was (and still is) “to prepare students to become active and informed citizens.”48 Beginning as a collaboration among the economics, government, philosophy, and history faculties, the “CC” course was joined in 1937 by a required sequence in the humanities that focused on great literary works. The “CC” and “Lit Hum” sequences at Columbia continue to this day to represent one of the most successful and influential examples of a liberal arts required “core” curriculum in the United States.

On the West Coast, a similar innovation occurred at Stanford University in 1920. Named at first “Problems of Citizenship,” it became, by 1935, “The History of Western Civilization.” Like Columbia’s “CC” sequence, it was originally instituted to counter the ideological vacuum of the immediate postwar period. A third initiative, instituted at the undergraduate College of the University of Chicago in 1936 under the leadership of Robert M. Hut-chins, had a more philosophical and aesthetic aim, eventually focusing on a “great books” curriculum that stressed classic literary texts rather than the “problems of citizenship” that had been the focus at Columbia and Stan­ford. A spin-off of the University of Chicago program (and a more purist version of it) was St. John’s College, which is unique among colleges in the United States for offering only a “great books” curriculum with no majors, no departments, no grades, or even any sports teams.

Immediately following World War II, there was another revival of the idea of liberal education with the publication of the Harvard “Redbook,” a study entitled General Education in a Free Society, which was undertaken by a committee of intellectuals, administrators, and civic leaders in 1945 and sponsored by Harvard’s president James B. Conant. The committee pro­posed a set of courses required of all students that would introduce them to “Western Thought and Institutions,” “Great Texts of Literature,” and the methodologies and concepts basic to the physical and biological sciences. Proponents of Columbia’s core curriculum and outside observers have noted that Harvard’s painstaking study ended up with a curriculum that looked very much like what had been in place at Columbia for decades; they also point out that while the Harvard Redbook “quickly became the bible of general education, particularly in smaller colleges and state universities,” it never was adopted at Harvard itself.49 However, by the 1950s, Harvard had reinstituted some area requirements that counterbalanced the free-elective system instituted in the previous century by Charles Eliot.

The affirmation of the value of liberal education by America’s most prestigious university ushered in what is often referred to as the “golden age” of liberal education in the United States. Colleges were expanding, curricula were fairly stable, and the Cold War gave relevance to many of the ideological questions that “great books” are all about. Between 1955 and 1970, for the first (and last) time in the 20th century, the proportion of liberal arts degrees among all bachelor’s degrees awarded annually actually rose,50 and the idea of education for its own sake was not sneered at. The Encyclopedia Britannica published a series of Great Books of the Western World, with Robert Hutchins as editor in chief, and Columbia College pub­lished its own two-volume Introduction to Contemporary Civilization in the West: A Source Book. It seemed as though liberal education had found a perma­nent niche in the American academic scene.

As we now know, however, by the end of the century, market forces had significantly altered the liberal education landscape. Core curricula had been watered down or abandoned altogether; fewer and fewer students were majoring in philosophy, literature, or history; and, as it had at the end of the 19th century, higher education became more vocational and utili­tarian (see Part I).51

Yet the story is far from over. At present, we may be witnessing another turning point in the complex history of liberal education in America. Alarmed by the weakening of civic engagement and recognizing the role of higher education in fostering civic responsibility, a number of national or­ganizations have recently focused their resources on trying to restore to higher education its ancient aim of preparing young people for public life. Among the many prominent organizations in this effort are the American Association for Colleges and Universities (AAC&U) and the Carnegie Foun­dation for the Advancement of Teaching. In addition to affirming the need for the critical thinking and analytical skills that liberal education has prided itself on fostering ever since the Greek oratory tradition and the disciplines of the Trivium, the “re-invention of liberal education,” as AAC&U’s Carol Geary Schneider and others term it, includes a new focus on social respon­sibility and civic engagement, particularly in the form of diversity studies, global knowledge, and service learning. In a parallel move at the Carnegie Foundation, Thomas Erlich (in Civic Responsibility and Higher Education) and Anne Colby (in Educating Citizens) argue strongly for active community en­gagement on the part of college students and stress the need for institutions of higher learning to be more self-conscious about their moral aims.52

While the current restorative initiatives are heartening, what is often missing from contemporary arguments for liberal education is any refer­ence to the content of curricula. Here I would like to move back from the general discussion of liberal education and argue for the liberating function of a broad-based core curriculum. My hypothesis is that one of the unique roles of liberal education has been to confront students with texts that call into question familiar assumptions and values. For the sake of political vi­tality, I argue, a particularly useful confrontation involves those texts that call into question the profit motive. It is to this hypothesis that I now turn.


“I threw a tomato at Ronald Reagan once. I threw a tomato at Reagan while under the influence of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.”53 Thus begins chapter 20 of Great Books, film critic David Denby’s provocative, funny, and profound narrative about returning to Columbia to revisit the “CC” and “Lit Hum” courses he had taken as an undergraduate in the mid-1960s. Originally an experiment to find out whether the arguments against Eurocentrism and the hegemony of the Western canon have any validity, Denby’s compelling observations of academic life today and the exhilaration with which he rediscovers the pleasure of reading “Great Books” makes for a great book itself.

One of Denby’s conclusions is that reading classic texts such as Homer’s Iliad, Shakespeare’s King Lear, and Rousseau’s Discourse on the Origins of Inequality forces students to confront worlds and values that are completely alien to the late-20th-century consumerist culture that they live in, and that, far from having a limited or conservative influence, the texts can in fact have a liberating effect on student consciousness. “[T]he left-academic crit­ics of the canon and of core-curriculum courses have got things comically wrong,” Denby argues. They are eager to empower minority students and women; they want to make white male students recognize “the other”—the voices allegedly silenced by the traditional canon. But it is just such an experience as reading the canon that now forces students to confront the other.54

He goes on to make his argument more specific:

All students, not just white students, confront [the other] when they read of Homer’s pitiless warriors and of such women as Antigone or Dido who choose death as a matter of honor. They confront [the other] in Plato’s insistence on an education sanitized of representa­tions of evil or weakness, in Aristotle’s ideal of participation in gov­ernment as a duty of citizenship. . . . Rousseau’s loathing of society and Marx’s insistence that alienated labor is an unnatural state of being are both startling rebukes to our present arrangements.55

Denby’s last point—that certain classics represent “startling rebukes to our present arrangements”—merits more attention. Indeed, one can argue that most of the classic texts covered in liberal arts curricula compellingly challenge the marketplace values that dominate social life today. As Denby suggests, the works of Aristotle, Rousseau, and Marx are among those that come to mind first. Here are paragraphs, from each, that any freshman taking a liberal arts required core course would be confronted with Aristotle:

[A]n end in the realm of action which we desire for its own sake, an end which determines all our other desires . . . is the highest good. . . . This good, one should think, belongs to the most sovereign and most comprehensive master science, and politics clearly fits this descrip­tion.56

As for the money-maker, his life is led under some kind of constraint; clearly wealth is not the good which we are trying to find, for it is only useful, i.e., it is a means to something else.57


The first man who, having fenced off a plot of land, thought of saying, “This is mine” and found people simple enough to believe him was the real founder of civil society. How many crimes, wars, murders, how many miseries and horrors might the human race have been spared by the one who, upon pulling up the stakes or filling in the ditch, had shouted to his fellow men, “Beware of listening to this imposter; you are lost, if you forget that the fruits of the earth belong to all and that the earth belongs to no one.”58


We proceed from an actual economic fact. The worker becomes all the poorer the more wealth he produces, the more his production increases in power and range. The worker be­comes an ever cheaper commodity the more commodities he creates. With the increasing value of the world of things proceeds in direct proportion the devaluation of the world of men.59

Aristotle’s claims for the superiority of political over economic pursuits, Rousseau’s description of the poisonous consequences of social inequality, Marx’s analysis of the dehumanizing aspects of capitalism—these ideas, as anyone who has taught in a liberal arts setting knows, can unsettle and stimulate young people’s political awareness. And there are many more such examples. Plato’s allegory of the cave, Saint Augustine’s Confessions, Shakespeare’s King Lear, and DuBois’s Souls of Black Folk all take the reader beyond the limited consciousness of everyday material life and point to larger norms for human action than those fostered by narrow market needs. While differing on almost everything else, writers as distinct as Dan­te, Wollstonecraft, and Nietzsche hold in common a profound contempt for purely mercenary pursuits. In arguing for “The Value of the Canon,” the late Irving Howe included these and others in his list of “critical” texts and then asked rhetorically, “Is there a more penetrating historian of selfhood than Wordsworth? A more scathing critic of society than the late Dickens? A mind more devoted to ethical seriousness than George Eliot? A sharper critic of the corrupting effects of money than Balzac or Melville?”60 Almost everywhere in the canon—both in the Eurocentric canon of the past and in the expanded multicultural canons of today—one encounters a profound critique of the materialistic self-interest and raw competition that motivate modern commercial enterprise. Indeed it is hard to think of a “great book” that does celebrate market values.

Moreover, the critical consciousness aroused by such provocative texts can have political consequences. In their massive study, How College Affects Students: Findings and Insights from Twenty Years of Research, Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini state that “the research is virtually invariant in in­dicating that changes in students’ political attitudes and values are influ­enced by the type of institution they attend” and that “increases in liberalism appear to be greatest in prestigious and highly selective institu­tions,” particularly in four-year residential colleges.61 Given such findings, it may be no accident that the generation that was introduced to the “great books” after World War I was also the generation that voted for the New Deal, and that the young people who experienced liberal education during its golden age became the “sixties” generation. In 1968, many Columbia professors viewed the campus rebellions as a betrayal of the humanistic tradition that Columbia, with its courses in CC and Lit Hum, had so care­fully kept alive. In retrospect, however, those protests can alternatively be seen as an expression of the best values of that tradition. In their anger over bureaucratic expansionism and military contracts, their outrage over racial inequality and economic injustice, the student activists of the sixties in many cases may have been taking seriously the very principles that they had encountered in the more radical texts of the Columbia core curriculum. It may also be no accident that the political apathy characteristic of many young people in the recent past occurred during a period in which liberal education was on the wane. 62

The literature on liberal education is full of references to the civic pur­poses of higher education. Whether one reads reports by the AAC&U and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching or peruses the course catalogs of smaller liberal arts colleges today, the arguments that one finds for liberal education invariably refer to liberal education’s role in fostering public participation and civic responsibility. But even while stress­ing campus diversity, global awareness, and the communication skills that are cultivated by reading and writing about great works, the promoters of liberal education rarely specify how exactly liberal education serves a public purpose.

The aim of this article has been to suggest that one way that liberal education has served, and can still serve, a public purpose is through nur­turing a critical approach to market values. Debates about the balance be­tween liberty and equality, efficiency and fairness, free enterprise and government regulation—in short, debates about economic justice—are crucial to the vitality of any political community. Fostering critical thinking about such issues is therefore necessary to the maintenance of healthy civic life. As David Noble points out,

Universities in the United States have never been the autonomous, disinterested citadel of objective scholarship and social criticism that some lovers of learning imagine . . . Nevertheless, the universities have provided a living for moderate dissenters, a vantage point from which to observe critically what is going on outside (if not inside), and a platform from which to address with relative safety controversial social questions. This role of the university as sanctuary should not be ex­aggerated but neither should it be dismissed. Perhaps the greatest danger posed by the renewed industrial connection is the very real threat to this relative independence at a time when we need to rethink fundamentally the central economic and political questions of modern industry and democracy.63

Darwinian science teaches us that if the environment that supports an organism is threatened or depleted, the chances are that the organism itself will become extinct. Thanks to the radical humanism of the liberal arts curriculum, not-for-profit higher education has in the past provided one of the few protected spaces (besides the church) in which dissenting views about market values could be freely aired. If the current wave of commer­cialism succeeds in eroding the protected space within which political dis­sent has traditionally been able to thrive, we have cause for concern.

Without the political imagination and broad-based critical thinking that liberal education nurtures, there is little hope that liberal politics can sur­vive. And yet it is precisely now as we enter the 21st century, when market values have encroached on every area of social life, that we most need a robust politics to serve as a counterpoise to commercialization. Perhaps it is time for Edward Gibbons’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire to become required reading once again.


1 Aristotle, Politics, trans. Ernest Barker (New York: Oxford University Press, 1958), 332.

2 Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, The Communist Manifesto (New York: International Publishers, 1948), 11.

3 Cited in W. B. Carnochan, The Battleground of the Curriculum: Liberal Education and American Experience (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993), 68.

4 Richard S. Ruch, Higher Ed, Inc: The Rise of the For-Profit University (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2001), 4. A study cited in the “Education Life” section of the New York Times on April 25, 2004, states that “enrollment in for-profit institutions is growing at three times the rate of non-profit colleges and universities” (20).

5 Ruch, 6. DeVry places more than 91% of its graduates in jobs within six months of graduation. See Julie I. Nicklin, “They’re All Business,” Chronicle of Higher Education, April 14, 1995, A35.

6 Lisa Kartus, “Gaining by Degrees,” University Business, February 2000, 44.I am indebted to Stephen Greenwald, president of Metropolitan College of New York, for sharing this article with me.

7 Kartus, “Gaining by Degrees,” 42-43.

8 See, for example, Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (New York: Simon and Schus­ter, 1987); and Roger Kimball, Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education (Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, 1998).

9 See, for example, Irving Howe, “The Value of the Canon,” The New Republic, February 18, 1991; and Stanley Aronowitz, The Knowledge Factory: Dismantling the Corporate University and Creating True Learning (Boston: Beacon Press, 2001).

10 See Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations, Book IV, Chapter 2.

11 Alan Wolfe, “How a For-Profit University Can Be Invaluable to the Traditional Liberal Arts,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, December 4, 1998.

12 “At the for-profits, curriculum is centrally developed and standardized. What is offered in a Strayer classroom in Virginia must be essentially the same as what is offered in a Strayer classroom in Maryland. Faculty are welcome to contribute ideas, but only up to a point . . .” At 111, “Faculty members are encouraged to give their opinions on curriculum content to various working groups, but in our system faculty do not have the freedom to alter curriculum content once it has been agreed to. . . . [T]hey can’t add anything to the content without getting prior approval. This is because we’re so employment oriented, we want to make sure that employers are involved in the process rather than just faculty members” (Kartus, “Gaining by Degrees,” 58).

13 Jorge Klor de Alva, “Remaking the Academy: 21st-Century Challenges to Higher Ed­ucation in the Age of Information,” in Educause (March/April 2000): 40; also see “Going Higher Tech Degree by Degree,” New York Times, January 1, 2002. For the most recent figures of online enrollment at the University of Phoenix, see http://www.computer-schools.info/articles/computer-career-schools-at.html.

14 Kartus, “Gaining by Degrees,” 40.

15 See the University of Phoenix 2001-2002 course catalog.

16 University of Phoenix, 2001-2002 course descriptions, A-21.

17 Interestingly, Nietzsche’s name is misspelled in the course description. See University of Phoenix catalogue, A-21.

18 Eyal Press and Jennifer Washburn, “The Kept University,” The Atlantic Monthly, March 2000, 41. Companies reported on include Novartis, a Swiss pharmaceutical company and producer of genetically engineered crops; Kmart; Freeport McMoRan, a mining company; and the Gap.

19 Sheila Slaughter, “Professional Values and the Allure of the Market,” in Academe (Sep­tember-October 2001): 22-26. That the commercialization of education is not completely new in this country can be seen in Thorstein Veblen, The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum on the Conduct of Universities by Business Men (New York: Hill and Wang, 1957), first published in 1918. “The place in men’s esteem once filled by church and state is now held by pecuniary traffic, business enterprise. So that the graver issues of academic policy which now tax the discretion of the directive powers, reduce themselves in the main to a question between the claims of science and scholarship on the one hand and those of business principles and pe­cuniary gain on the other hand. In one shape or another this problem of adjustment, rec­onciliation or compromise between the needs of the higher learning and the demands of business enterprise is forever present in the deliberations of the university directorate” (35).

20 See, for example, David F. Noble, America by Design (New York: Oxford University Press, 1977).

21 David F. Noble, Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001), 1.

22 Louis Menand, “College: The End of the Golden Age,” The New York Review of Books, October 18, 2001, 44. Menand introduces these statistics by pointing out that only 5.8% of the total number of higher education institutions in the United States today are four-year liberal arts colleges that are not part of universities. Christina Elliott Sorum gives some slightly dif­ferent but equally depressing statistics for a different time frame: “In 1966, humanities degrees were 20.7 percent of the total degrees awarded nationally; by 1993 they were only 12.7 per­cent” (52). Christina Elliott Sorum, “‘Vortex, Clouds, and Tongue’: New Problems in the Humanities?” Daedalus 128, no. 1 (1999): 241-264.

An interesting perspective can be gained from a study that was done at Harvard in 1969. In that year, Donald H. Akenson and Lawrence F. Stevens did a survey of the career choices of Harvard undergraduates over the previous 10 years. “Year after year fewer students choose permanent careers in business,” the study’s preface noted. “More turn to the professions, to college teaching, and to social service.” In a statement that shows how far we are today from the peak of the golden age, the preface goes on to say, “Our nation’s abler students are increasingly concerned about problems of social welfare, and they are increasingly concerned about committing their lives and energies to socially constructive and challenging efforts. Our mod­ern-day graduate is not at all worried about his ability to earn a living; and he is far less interested in the promise of a high salary than he is in developing a constructive and interesting life style, or career pattern, for himself” (v-vii). The data correspondingly show that in 1966, 67.6% of Harvard graduates had chosen fields in teaching, educational administration, and the Peace Corps, while only 4.8% had gone into business. In 1958, only 8.8% had gone into education, and 21.9% had chosen business. Donald H. Akenson and Lawrence F. Stevens, The Changing Uses of the Liberal Arts College: An Essay in Recent Educational History (New York: Pageant Press [for Harvard College], 1969), 20.

23 Cited by Press and Washburn, “The Kept University,” 51.

24 Ibid., 52.

25 I am grateful to Professor Robert McClintock for introducing me to the history of the idea of liberal education in the winter of 1983.

26 Aristotle, Politics, 337

27 Aristotle, Politics, 334. Although Athenian citizens practiced a direct, participatory form of citizenship that is rarely found in modern democratic republics, as is well known the actual extent of citizenship in Aristotle’s time was more limited than it is today. The economy of fourth-century B.C. Athens was based largely on slave labor, women were excluded from civic life, and non-Greeks were referred to as “barbarians.” Despite such limitations, however, cit­izenship then, as now, conferred the right to engage in public deliberations about how to balance individual self-interest and society’s welfare. In such a context, verbal skills, open-mindedness, and political imagination were personal qualities that were seen to be better nurtured by a broad liberal education than by specialized training in “mechanical” pursuits.

28 See Aristotle, Nichomachian Ethics, Book I.

29 The terms liberal education or the liberal arts were not used in Aristotle’s own time and only came into use under the Romans. See Francis Oakley, Community of Learning: The American College and the Liberal Arts Tradition (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 49.

30 In an article entitled “Liberating the Liberal Arts: An Interpretation of Aristotle,” Wayne Willis argues that given the intellectual context of his writings, Aristotle can be seen as at­tempting to bridge the gap between liberal education and vocational training. “When Aristotle began to write, Athenian educational thought was already in the midst of a philosophical storm. His own teacher, Plato, espoused an otherworldly philosophy and theory of education built on goals like the pursuit of truth and the development of the mind. On the other side of this debate was the rhetorician, Isocrates, who espoused a kind of ancient pragmatic philosophy and an educational theory built on goals like social adjustment and success. The choice Plato and Isocrates gave to Athenian students was a choice between an otherworldly, rational, spec­ulative kind of education and a down-to-earth, utilitarian, and empirical kind of education. Aristotle’s theory of education can be seen as an attempt to resolve the philosophical and pedagogical differences between Plato and Isocrates. . . . [He] attempted to develop a philos­ophy of education that took seriously the claims of both teachers” (199). The Journal of General Education 39, No. 4 (1988): 193-207.

31 For a provocative examination of why liberal education should not be political, see Richard E. Flathman, “Liberal versus Civic, Republican, Democratic, and Other Vocational Educations: Liberalism and Institutionalized Education” Political Theory 24, no. 1 (1996): 4-32; and Alan Ryan, “No Consensus in Sight,” in The Condition of American Liberal Education: Prag­matism and a Changing Tradition, ed. Robert Orrill (New York: College Entrance Examination Board, 1995), 244.

32 Bruce A. Kimball, Orators and Philosophers: A History of the Idea of Liberal Education (New York: College Entrance Examination Board, 1995), 272. See summaries of Kimball in Oakley, Community of Learning, 48-51, and also in Eric W. Stockden, “Pluralism, Corporatism, and Educating Citizens,” special issue, Canadian Ethnic Studies 32, No. 1 (2000): 269-275, and especially the summary by Kimball himself in his “Afterward.”

33 Kimball has done the world of higher education a huge favor by tracing so thoroughly the shifting balances between “orators” and “philosophers” over the past two and a half millennia. His work cuts a luminous path through the dense thickets of scholarly discourse of the past and shines a clear light on the tangled underbrush that surrounds us in the present. One is tempted to accept unequivocally his analysis of liberal education’s complex trajectory, but for me, there is something missing from his argument—namely the anticommercialism that Aristotle hinted at. It is liberal education’s essential opposition to mar­ket values that I wish to stress in this article, and that Kimball, for one, leaves out of his history altogether.

34 For a different perspective on this history, see Peter Burke, “The Uses of Literacy in Early Modern Italy” in The Social History of Language, ed. Peter Burke and Roy Porter (Cam­bridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1987), 24-26. This essay stresses the prominence of commercially oriented education in Renaissance Florence. (I am grateful to Robert McClintock for referring me to this essay.)

35 Immanuel Kant, The Conflict of the Faculties/Der Streit der Fakultaten, trans. Mary J. Gregor (New York: Abaris Books, 1979); see 27-29.

36 Kant, The Conflict of the Faculties, xxvii.

37 Ibid., 51. In strictly historical terms, Kant’s reference to the higher faculties as “busi­nessmen” is a gross anachronism. Eighteenth-century Prussia was still a semifeudal society, and it was the united church and state, not “business,” that was threatening the autonomy of the university. But because the 18th century marks both the beginning of the industrial age else­where and the onset of debates about the aims of liberal education particularly, in England and the United States, Kant provides a useful transition between the premodern period and our own.

38 Felicity Barringer, “Enron’s Many Strands: Early Scrutiny,” New York Times, January 28, 2002.

39 W. B. Carnochan, The Battleground of the Curriculum: Liberal Education and American Experience (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1993), 25-30.

40 Ibid., 9.

41 Ibid., 14.

42 Ibid., 19-21. Much of the conflict between Eliot and McCosh can be seen as stemming from their different religious backgrounds. As Carnochan and others have pointed out, McCosh’s passionate desire for curricular coherence may have been rooted in his staunch Presbyterianism, while Eliot’s more pragmatic stance may reflect his Unitarian background. I am indebted to a Teachers College Record reader for making me aware of this dimension of the debate. See Carnochan, The Battleground of the Curriculum, 16.

43 Kimball, Orators and Philosophers, 274.

44 Carnochan, Battleground of the Curriculum, 55.

45 Thorstein Veblen, The Higher Learning in America: A Memorandum on the Conduct of Uni­versities by Business Men (New York: Hill and Wang, 1957), 31-32.

46 Ibid., 88.

47 Timothy P. Cross, An Oasis of Order: The Core Curriculum at Columbia College (Columbia University, 1995), 1. Although Carnochan himself is affiliated with Stanford, he states that Columbia’s “CC” is “probably the most famous course ever in the American curriculum” (71).

48 See present online course description at www.college.columbia.edu/students/academics/core.cc.php, retrieved 5/6/04.

49 Cross, An Oasis of Order, 60-61; Daniel Bell, The Reforming of General Education: The Columbia College Experience in Its National Setting (New York: Columbia University Press, 1966), 38-47.

50 Louis Menand, “College: The End of the Golden Age,” The New York Review of Books, October 18, 2001,46.

51 Both internal and external forces have been identified as reasons for the end of the golden age in liberal education. Perhaps the most profound analysis of the internal forces at work is American Academic Culture in Transformation: Fifty Years Four Disciplines (1998), edited by Thomas Bender and Carl E. Schorske, in which scholars from the disciplines of economics, English, philosophy, and political science reflect on the changes in their fields since the 1950s. This analysis in part helps to explain why in recent years it has been increasingly difficult to find faculty willing to teach in interdisciplinary core curricula. For an understanding of the external forces at work, including demographics, the economy, and technological changes that began to affect university life beginning in the late 1970s, the shorter and more topical work of Louis Menand is very helpful. See Louis Menand, “College: The End of the Golden Age,” The New York Review of Books, October 18, 2001. See also “Re-imagining Liberal Education” in Education and Democracy: Re-imagining Liberal Learning in America, ed. Robert Orrill (New York: College Entrance Examination Board, 1997), 1-19.

52 See Carol Geary Schneider, “Practicing Liberal Education: Formative Themes in the Re­invention of Liberal Learning,” http://www.aacu.org/; Anne Colby et al., Educating Citizens: Preparing America’s Undergraduates for Lives of Moral and Civic Responsibility (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2003), 7; and Thomas Erlich, ed., Civic Responsibility and Higher Education (Phoenix, AZ: The American Council on Education and Onyx Press, 2000).

53 David Denby, Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 278.

54 Ibid., 460.

55 Ibid., 460. John Searle makes a similar point: “There is a certain irony in [the current criticisms of the “canon”] in that earlier student generations, my own for example, found the critical tradition that runs from Socrates through the Federalist Papers, through the writings of Mill and Marx, down to the twentieth century, to be liberating from the stuffy conventions of traditional American politics and pieties. Precisely by inculcating a critical at­titude, the ‘canon’ served to demythologize the conventional pieties of the American bour­geoisie and provided the student with a perspective from which to critically analyze American culture and institutions. Ironically, the same tradition is now regarded as oppressive. The texts once served an unmasking function; now we are told that it is the texts which must be un­masked.” John Searle, “The Storm Over the University,” The New York Review of Books, De­cember 6, 1990.

56 Aristotle, Politics, 4.

57 Ibid., 8-9.

58 Rousseau, Discourse on the Origin of Inequality Among Men, in Rousseau’s Political Writings, ed. Alan Ritter and Julia Conaway Bondanella (New York: Norton, 1988), 34.

59 Karl Marx, “Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844,” in The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: Norton, 1972), 57.

60 Irving Howe, “The Value of the Canon,” New Republic, February 18, 1991. Reprinted in Debating P.C.: The Controversy over Political Correctness on College Campuses, ed. Paul Berman (New York: Laurel, 1992), 161.

61 Ernest T Pascarella and Patrick T Terenzini, How College Affects Students: Findings and Insights from Twenty Years of Research (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991), 301.

62 In Educating Citizens, Anne Colby points out that in the 2000 presidential elections, voting among young people was at a record low (7). In the presidential election of 2004, however, the percentage of college-aged people who voted was somewhat higher. See U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2006, 125th ed. (Washington, DC: U.S. Census Bureau, 2005), 263, Table 405.

63 Noble, Digital Diploma Mills, 107-08.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 108 Number 7, 2006, p. 1404-1423
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12561, Date Accessed: 5/26/2022 10:44:22 AM

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About the Author
  • Grace Roosevelt
    Metropolitan College of New York
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    GRACE ROOSEVELT is associate professor of educational thought at Metropolitan College of New York. Her research interests bridge the fields of educational philosophy and political theory and have focused mainly on the educational and political thought of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. She is the author of Reading Rousseau in the Nuclear Age (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990) and is the translator and editor of the online edition of Rousseauís Emile that is posted on the Teachers College Institute for Learning Technologies Web site.
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