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Challenges for the liberal conception of education

In response to Stanley Fish’s article on the decline of the elite model for law schools.

I think the core problem is exactly what Professor Fish identified: differentiation. And this extends far beyond law schools — it’s as true a problem for college education and PhD programs in the sciences and humanities. From my perspective, the deeper basis for this rupture in the education system has to do with the end of the Cold War era, and all that it did to shape our society. Part of the Cold War’s effects was to drive scientific and technological achievement in the US to a pinnacle never before achieved in history — billions of dollars and untold government power went toward structuring the academy to support this pinnacle. Aiming all of our education at this kind of goal made a certain degree of sense in the context of the constant fight against Soviet science and culture (the missile “gap,” the “war on whatever,” etc.). What was true for science became true for the humanities and professional schools as they sought to gain influence and money by imitating science’s new institutional model.

Take away this unifying force of the communist enemy, however, and it becomes clear that centralizing all the nation’s efforts and resources on a few elite schools was not serving all goals equally. It’s already quite clear how little the Ivy League model of college education helps us in solving what to do with community and state colleges. At this educational level, the same question that Fish raised for law schools turns up as the crisis in the liberal arts. We face the apparently absurd question of putting a dollar value on a liberal arts degree — that’s a standard brought from a different part of our society than a liberal arts degree was ever actually intended to address.

The challenge of going down the path of differentiation, though, is that it might ultimately undermine the universality of liberal ideas. (That is, liberal in the sense of liberal arts or universal human rights.) We face a tough choice: if we no longer claim that the liberal conception of education is best for everyone, then we risk losing a foundational tradition for explaining and justifying the importance of our highest achievements in thought, culture, and knowledge. Alternatively, if we maintain that the liberal conception is best, then we have to explicitly acknowledge how the vast majority of America is receiving a lower-class education. We would face recognizing an multi-tiered system that would look uncomfortably like a European class system in education. These seem like the practical challenges that set the terms for rethinking liberal education in the coming years, but I’ve yet to see anything like the outlines for an answer.

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