THR Web Features   /   February 27, 2014

What Public Universities Owe the Public

Guest Blogger


A great deal has lately been made about the widening inequality in America and its various effects not only on the poor but on those struggling to remain in the middle class. Unlike aristocracies, modern liberal democracies are designed to avoid the rule of the few who have a monopoly on wealth and power. Yet modern democracies accept market economies that introduce disparities in wealth and power and the class differences that go with them. The challenge for such democracies is to allow for inequalities while constraining and mitigating their worst effects, at least to the extent that citizens from the various classes can see themselves as parties to a social contract underwriting the principle of a common good.

Our Constitution, our civil religion, and our republican traditions were all an attempt to articulate such a contract.  For all citizens, regardless of their class, to feel that they are in it together with citizens of other classes, there must be a reasonable belief in the possibility of social and economic mobility on the basis of effort, character, and ability. But this is not enough. In general, citizens of a stable modern democracy should be able to believe that their class position is a reasonable reflection of their efforts, character, and ability. It would be going too far to suggest, as did John Winthrop, the first governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, that God ordained inequality of wealth and power so “that every man might have need of others, and hence they might be all knit more nearly together in the bonds of brotherly affection.” But ideally most citizens of a democratic commonwealth should feel at least minimal ties of affection—including a sense of gratitude and mutual obligation—with fellow citizens of all classes.

This kind of bond is the forgotten element in the American dream, and unfortunately, it is as forgotten in public higher education as in the institutions of wealth accumulation. The undeniable fact is that “the academic class,” the graduates, the faculty, and the administrators of public universities, are a privileged class of citizens. That being the case, what should less-advantaged citizens feel toward the academic class? Should those who are educationally, economically, and politically less advantaged have reasons to be grateful for the advantaged status of graduates, faculty, and administrators of prestigious public universities? And if the academic class of prestigious public universities is obligated to those less-advantaged educationally, economically, and politically, what is it that they owe them?

Unfortunately, and for a variety of reasons, public universities, especially the more prestigious ones, have lost any real sense of what their functions are as democratic institutions. Ask a postal worker what the U.S. Postal Service is for, a soldier what the U.S. military is for, a firefighter what the fire department is for, or a nurse what a public hospital is for, and you will get fairly straightforward answers. Ask a graduate, a faculty member, an administrator, or a board member of a prestigious public university what a public university is for in a modern liberal democracy and you will too often get little more than a string of clichés. Public universities lack any substantial sense of what their functions are as democratic institutions.  When a carpenter forgets what his hammer is for, it is time either to help him remember or to fire him. The same is true for administrators, faculty, and students at universities.

One of the functions of public universities is to provide access to quality education in order to facilitate social mobility and to mitigate the effects of class disparities. Given this, one would think that academic leaders would be centrally guided by the question, what kind of education should graduates be required to have before they get their degrees and the economic and political advantages that go with them? What kind of core curriculum should be required of public universities to ensure that they fulfill their proper role in a modern liberal democracy and therefore merit public support and funding? That these questions are not being asked in regard to curricular issues is symptomatic of the rudderless nature of public higher education, especially in regard to liberal arts education.

Of course, one of the public interests served by public universities is to provide job training in the professions. In doing so, public universities also serve to provide economically accessible opportunities for citizens to advance their private interests through career advancement. In this way, public universities are part of an effort to garner the best talent for the professions and to serve class mobility in a competitive economy of a democratic society. To serve these functions, public higher education must be of high quality and economically accessible to qualified students, regardless of their class background.

Another private interest served by public universities is more directly related to liberal arts education: namely, to provide economically accessible opportunities for citizens to enrich their lives through the study of the arts and sciences. The kind of class mobility essential to a modern democracy is not simply a matter of economic mobility but also of educational mobility, that is, the accessible journey from a limited exposure to the varieties of human experience, creativity, and inquiry to a life enriched by an expansive exposure to all of these things. Even those already economically advantaged may still hunger for a different kind of advancement that only a well-conceived liberal arts education can provide.

Woodcut of the College of William & Mary (Credit: The American Cyclopædia / Wikimedia Commons)

But something is still missing if we think that providing “opportunities” for citizens is the central function of a public university: namely, education for the responsibilities of citizenship. If economically accessible opportunities for training in the professions and opportunities for liberal arts education for personal enrichment were the only interests served by pubic universities, the curriculum could be determined by pure market considerations: that is, by whatever job training is needed and desired in the economy, and by whatever students and professors choose to think is personally enriching. But these are not the only interests served by public universities in a modern democracy, and it is a fatal mistake to think that they are more basic than the interest in educating responsible citizens.

The idea of the social contract envisioned by the Framers included the idea that the advantages of privilege come with the responsibility of citizenship and the education required for it. This should be the guiding thought in the overall design of a public university, especially in regard to the curriculum.

So, then, what do graduates of a public university have an obligation to know (and faculty to teach) before they are granted a degree that opens the doors to the privileges they will enjoy and the positions they will occupy? Some maintain that the central task of liberal arts education should focus on “critical thinking skills and creativity” rather than “content knowledge and memorization.” This is the current trend or fad, but the distinction between critical thinking and content knowledge is a canard, a cover for squishy curricula designed for the convenience of students, faculty, and administrators.

How can graduates think critically and responsibly about the relevance of historical knowledge to current issues facing our society when the curricula of their universities allow them to avoid studying American history beyond the high-school level? And what about the ability of such advantaged graduates to think critically about how Americans can relate to other people in the world, when they are allowed to avoid studying the world’s major religions and humanistic traditions? More basically, what about the ability of these graduates to understand our own form of government, the rule of law in America and its effects on everyone, when they are allowed to avoid studying the U.S. Constitution and the historical debates over the major cases in Supreme Court history? What about the ability of privileged graduates to think critically about the economic future of our society and the relationship between the government and the economy when they are allowed by their universities to avoid studying economics and the major schools of economic theory?

And shouldn’t less advantaged citizens, in return for their gratitude and regard, expect the graduates of public universities to have the critical thinking skills necessary to evaluate whether the government is investing well in science or whether global warming is scientific fact or hoax, to address concerns about the relationships between science and religion, and to discriminate between the sound use of statistical reasoning in social science and its misuse in political propaganda detrimental to the general welfare? If so, how could the curriculum of a public university allow students to avoid studying any “hard” laboratory science, any biology and natural selection, or any rigorous social science and statistics?

In general, how can university graduates be ignorant of these and other things and reliably have the ability to think critically regarding the public good and the social contract? Of course, there are students who take a deep interest in these subjects, but the issue is not about what students might take an interest in but about what privileged students have an obligation to learn and what privileged faculty have a responsibility to teach.

None of these questions inform discussion on curricula at most public universities, especially the more prestigious ones. The College of William and Mary in Virginia, where I taught for my entire career, just passed a new curriculum under which a student can graduate without ever taking a course in American history, the world’s religions, economics, government, philosophy, and (possibly) natural science. Instead, students choose courses from vaguely designed “domains” that have only a nominal connection to the kind of substantive courses that once made up a rigorous liberal education. The fact is that neither the old nor the new curriculum at William and Mary was designed to require graduates to have any of the content knowledge mentioned in the questions above or the critical skills that go with such knowledge. This is not the kind of public university Madison and Jefferson rightly had in mind as essential to democracy, and there is no sense in which it can be called progressive. There is no whitewashing the fact that a curriculum like that of the College of William and Mary, “the Alma Mater of a Nation,” turns a public university into a club for privileged faculty, administrators, and students. This is a pernicious abuse of privilege and academic freedom that exacerbates the decline in the humanities and only weakens the social contract.

Unfortunately, public light seldom shines in the darker recesses of academia. When government abandons public universities to the political world of private fundraising and university politics, it commercializes the curriculum, creates a class of itinerate administrators on their way up, feigns oversight through ineffectual boards, and abandons the needs of democracy at the altar of what privileged faculty members want to sell and what privileged students want to buy. If we care about our public universities, our social contract with each other, and our democracy, we must insist that this status quo does not serve the public interest. We, the public, must demand excellence in what matters most in education.

George W. Harris is Chancellor Professor of Philosophy Emeritus at the College of William and Mary and the author of Reason’s Grief: An Essay on Tragedy and Value (Cambridge University Press, 2006 and 2012).