What goes on here? Was the historian Richard Hofstadter wrong in his classic Anti-Intellectualism in American Life to detect an irresistible current in our society of "resentment and suspicion of the life of the mind and of those who are considered to represent it"? Has that current weakened or been sufficiently dammed up to explain the election of a president who is reflective about history and ideas as well as about policy and practice?
Those questions were in the air last month in Seattle at the annual meeting of the Association of American Colleges and Universities. The association is devoted to promoting liberal education — which it defines as one that develops in students "a strong sense of value, ethics, and civil engagement" — at all levels, from community colleges to research universities. Without discounting the importance of marketable skills, such an education should include the study of literary and historical texts, philosophical questions and scientific concepts, as well as engagement with foreign cultures.
Many people who attended the meeting felt that the spirit of anti-intellectualism emanating from Washington in recent years has hampered, or even stymied, the pursuit of those aims. The inquisitorial tone of former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings's National Commission on the Future of Higher Education, with its focus on benchmarks and standardized testing, was frequently cited. But now beleaguered deans and presidents were hoping for better days ahead. What are the chances they are right?
Delbanco goes on to argue that the issue isn't necessarily the presence of ivy league-educated presidential advisors; George W. Bush had those too. The problem is nurturing a culture that shares the values promoted by a liberal arts education, which include both an ethical stance and critical thinking skills.
The public is right to ask whether a college education is really worth the up-front and opportunity costs. At $10,000 or much more per year for four years or more, shouldn't we be teaching marketable skills, instead of providing forums for radical humanities professors to indoctrinate our children? That is the perception that's out there, even if this view is not exactly accurate. Delbanco suggests that the recent "overwhelmingly ironic and iconoclastic" temper coming out of the academic humanities shares some of the blame for turning people off to the value of a liberal arts education.
Academics, in both the humanities and the sciences, need to do a better of job of demonstrating the very practical worth of this kind of education, to rebut the charge that studying great books or physics or evolution is a waste of most students' time, time that could be spent learning something a future employer is looking for.
The best rebuttal of this charge is that nearly all employers value a strong set of critical thinking skills, which are fundamental for learning the detailed, job-specific skills of almost any profession. We're much, much too focused in this country on learning facts and so-called practical skills. Jay Leno makes fun of college graduates who don't know how many moons orbit the Earth, and school boards are concerned about ensuring that my 4th-grader learns to use Power Point. But our problem with education isn't that someone missed that day in class where the teacher discussed the how many moons Earth has or how to set the font size on your PowerPoint slides - the problem is kids with no desire (and no skills) to hone their minds, kids who have no clue that clear thinking is both the best job skill they can have and extremely rewarding on a personal level.
This past week I was a judge at a middle school/high school science fair, and the problem of focusing on a fact-based (as opposed to thinking-based) education was clear, even at a good school. Many of the kids had good general ideas for a science project, but when it came to formulating a clear, measurable question, designing experiments to test the question, and then interpreting their results, the kids were lost. This is unfortunate, because the main reason for doing a science project is to learn how to think scientifically, and not really to learn some new fact. The school science curricula (and history and English and social studies...) need to have the fact content of their courses trimmed significantly, and focus primarily on thinking skills - kids should learn facts only in service to the greater goal of learning to think. (I'm not suggesting that teachers don't know this; individual teachers are constrained by institutional and state requirements.)
We should nurture the culture of critical thinking that a liberal arts education is designed to foster, argues Delbanco, and not spend time worrying about the cycles of anti-intellectualism among the public. To do this means refocusing our schools on this educational core, and making this education available to everyone, regardless of their ability to pay for a fancy education.